|Betty Wood explains the|
economic aspects of
slavery in the colonies.
Opposition to slavery in the last quarter of the 18th century was muted by a common need to oppose the Crown. This colonies were thereby unified long enough for the United States to be formed.
How did this evolve, and how were Oxford and Cambridge alumni involved?
Colonial Economics and Slavery
The Spanish and Portuguese colonies produced gold, silver and other valuable commodities like sugar for their colonial masters.
The same could not be said for the British colonies in the early years. The colonies were viewed as a place for emigrants from Britain to obtain the freedom that comes with land ownership. It was also a market for British goods, but this depended on the colonies generating their own export income, which took some time for them to do.
The mercantilist business model of the Spanish and Portuguese rulers depended heavily on slavery. The mines and single-crop agriculture (sugar and tropical fruits) depended on having a large work force of low-cost workers.
Initially, the British model was based on the idea that each emigrant would be given some land and Britain surplus population could be put to use on the free land in the New World. Oxonian James Oglethorpe conceived his new colony of Georgia as a place where slavery would be outlawed and the work force would be made up of convicts or the overlapping category of poor British people (in those days, poverty was an offense; one could go to prison for not paying back debt).
But initial British settlements did not last and others felt threatened by the harsh winters, by native Indians who resisted the arrival of the settlers, by settlers from other countries like Spain coming north from Florida, or from France coming south or east into New York.
Sugar plantations didn't fare so well in the new American colonies, but early on tobacco became a major cash crop. Then, Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin made possible the harvesting of short-staple cotton and made cotton farming very profitable.
As tobacco and cotton farming grew, the value of slaves in working on the farms became more evident, and the American colonies began importing slaves. The profitable farms also made the colonies themselves more profitable, and the market in the South grew for goods from New England, the mid-Atlantic colonies and from the Mother Country. William Pitt decided that the American colonies were worth fighting over, and he sent an army to chase the French and unfriendly Indians out of the colonies, but left behind debts for his successors to pay for, setting up the dynamics for the American Revolution.
Secular and Religious Movements against Slavery
The movement against slavery came early on from evangelical ministers and Quaker preachers and later from rational philosophers concerned with human rights.
Baptists in the early colonies were often opposed to slavery. Chad Brown (c. 1600-1650), a Baptist minister who co-founded Providence with Roger Williams (alumnus of Pembroke College, Cambridge) was one of the first prominent abolitionists in the colonies.
Rationalist thinkers of the Scottish and English Enlightenment in the mid- to- late 18th century (David Hume died in 1776) criticized slavery for violating basic human rights.
The First Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s in the colonies produced movements against slavery, which was seen as un-Christian.
Quakers in North America and Great Britain became well known for their involvement in abolition. During the colonial era in America, it was common for Friends in British America to own slaves. During the early to mid-1700s a disquiet about this practice arose, through the work of abolitionist Quakers in Philadelphia like Anthony Benezet and John Woolman. By the time of the American Revolution few Friends still owned slaves and Cambridge-educated abolitionists like William Wilberforce and William Pitt (the Younger) were opposing slavery in parliament.
Moses Brown was one of four Rhode Island brothers who, in 1764, organized and funded the tragic and fateful voyage of the slave ship named Sally. Moses Brown had a crisis of conscience and broke from his three brothers, becoming an abolitionist and a Christian Quaker. The brothers co-founded the college that became Brown University. The family, active mainly in the Baptist community of Providence, was descended from Chad Brown. Brown's brother-in-law and business partner, Jabez Bowen, was a Yale graduate and notable Rhode Island political figure. Three years before the American Revolution broke out, Moses Brown freed the last of his slaves.
James Edward Oglethorpe (1696-1785), a graduate of Eton and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, was among the first to articulate the secular Enlightenment case against slavery, banning it in the Province of Georgia on humanistic grounds (until his influence waned), arguing against it in Parliament, and eventually encouraging his friends Granville Sharp and Hannah More to pursue the cause after his death.
Granville Sharp was an attorney who helped defend the slave Somersett. The Somersett's Case in 1771 emancipated a slave who ran away from his master in England. It established the principle that a slave obtains freedom upon reaching Britain, which helped launch the British movement to abolish slavery that Wilberforce and others picked up after the Revolution.
Though anti-slavery sentiments were widespread and growing after the American Revolution, the new American states that used slave labor, including in the South of the United States, continued to do so.
Benjamin Franklin's Three Visits to England, 1724-1775
How did growing British opposition to slavery affect public opinion in the American colonies? One way was Benjamin Franklin, who made three pre-Revolutionary visits to England, lasting 18 years. He had increasing access to the political leadership. The following summary is based primarily on data from a Revolutionary War website:
On his first trip in 1724-26, Benjamin Franklin went to England when he was 18 to buy printing equipment that the Governor of the colony of Pennsylvania, Sir William Keith, promised to pay for. But Governor Keith did not send to London the needed letter of credit. Franklin therefore worked for the famed printing house of Samuel Palmer (and later with another famed printer, James Watts) to earn the fare to go back to Philadelphia. Franklin left London in 1726 with Thomas Denham, a Philadelphia shopkeeper who hired Franklin when they returned.
By the time of his second trip to England in 1757, Franklin had served in Pennsylvania as a city councilman, state assemblyman, and Deputy Postmaster General. Pennsylvania was formally owned by the Penn family, since a Royal Charter from Charles II was issued to William Penn in 1681, granting the land to him and his heirs. The colony had a democratic legislature but the Penn family could override it. Conflicts developed over the years between the state Assembly and the Penn family. In 1757, the Pennsylvania Assembly hired Ben Franklin to represent before George II their concerns about the Penn family's arbitrary authority and its exemption from taxes. Franklin was in England for five years but failed in his mission, leaving London in 1762.
Franklin's last and longest trip occurred at the behest of the Pennsylvania Assembly within two years after he returned. The legislature was outraged by George III's Sugar Act, his proposed Stamp Act and other laws initiated by George III's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend. Franklin sailed in 1764 to represent Pennsylvania's interests before the King. He was in England until 1775, later representing other colonies - Massachusetts, New Jersey and Georgia.
Benjamin Franklin used some ingenuity in making the colonies' case in England. For example, he argued that slavery in the colonies was different from slavery in the Caribbean islands and in Brazil, on the basis (among other differences) that slaves in the colonies were allowed to have families. Franklin saw in London the belligerence of the British lawmakers and came to the view that diplomacy was not going to solve the colonies' problem with the King. He left London in March 1775 and arrived in Philadelphia on May 5. The next day he was elected by the Pennsylvania Assembly as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress.
|Slave traders. Benjamin Franklin argued that slavery in |
the West Indies was immoral, but was not such a problem
in the American mainland colonies. Anti-slavery themes
were applied to the relations between the colonies and Britain.
Whatever the progress of ideas in opposition to slavery in the American colonies, the fact is that an estimated 12 million slaves were brought from Africa to the Americas during the most active decades of the slave trade.
During that entire period, a relatively small fraction, about 287,000 slaves were brought to the North American colonies - only 2.4 percent of all the slaves. Most of the 11.7 million other slaves were sold in the Caribbean Islands and Brazil, where they had a shorter life expectancy because they tended to be worked harder and they had no family life. The slaves in the Caribbean and Brazil were said to be in need, in the blind language of the time, of being "replenished".
Although conditions of slaves in the American colonies were terrible, the weather was not as brutal as in the Caribbean and slaves were at least in homes and on farms with a place to live, and often were allowed to have children. Consequently their life expectancy was reportedly higher than most other parts of the continent where slavery existed.
The importation of slaves into the colonies peaked in the decade before the American Revolution. In the 17th century, the colonies imported 21,000 slaves. In the 18th century up to 1760, 189,000 slaves were imported. In the 1760s, another 63,000. In the 1770s, another 15,000.
Benjamin Franklin's Changing Views on Slavery
Franklin himself was a runaway, from a despotic brother and father and the contract that they signed with him binding him to work for them. Yet Franklin relied on slave labor at home and in his business. His newspaper relied heavily on advertising from slave auctioneers and from slaveowners pursuing runaways. This is all in David Waldstreicher, Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery and the American Revolution (Hill and Wang, division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004).
After the Revolution, historians give great credit to the abolitionists who, in due course, stirred up emotions on both sides that precipitated the Civil War. Benjamin Franklin is counted among these abolitionists.
But before the Revolution, Franklin was much less activist on the subject of slavery within the United States. He was based in England for 16 of the 18 years before the Revolution! Antagonism toward slaveowners emerged on the secular side for reasons unrelated to Enlightenment views on human rights. The 1764 revenue tax on French and Dutch sugar benefited British plantation owners. They were able to raise their prices at the expense of people living in the mainland American colonies. At the time, the British Parliament considered the West Indies a far more profitable part of the world for them than the mainland colonies, and the objections of the mainlanders, represented in England by Franklin among others, did not get much of a hearing.
The reaction back home in the colonies was one of outrage at both Parliament and the "nabob" plantation owners in the West Indies. One form it took was opposition to slavery - opposition to slavery in the plantations and opposition to the slavery of the colonies to the mother country. But it did not mean questioning the existence of slavery in the colonies, where the concentration of power and money was not as great as in the West Indies and where the colonies agreed to disagree on issues like slavery because they wanted to be united against the Crown.
Franklin and other leaders in the colonies - Steven Hopkins, Governor of Rhode Island, and James Otis, Jr. - a Harvard-educated writer who pushed the anti-slavery arguments to the extreme - painted a picture of all residents of the colonies being slaves to the British crown and Parliament.
The Revolutionary spirit did not precede the antislavery argument, as has often been taught. Instead, the Revolution can be said to have emerged from taking antislavery arguments applied to the wealthy British West Indies slaveowners and applying them to the relations between the colonies and the mother country. (Waldstreicher, pp. 177-179.)
So the pre-Revolutionary colonies were antislavery relative to the West Indies, their leaders took the view that "slaves, or their labor, was unimportant in mainland America" (Waldstreicher, p. 180). Their sugar slavers were evil, whereas the colonies were slaveowners in some kind of moderation, and were okay.
Benjamin Franklin maintained a dialog on slavery issues in Britain with David Hume, William Pitt the Elder (Trinity, Oxford), Lord Mansfield (Christ Church, Oxford), Secretary of State for the Colonies Lord Hillsborough (who maintained a hard line against the colonies after the Townshend Acts), Scottish poet William Knox and Samuel Johnson (Pembroke, Oxford).
Franklin is described as being "downright crafty" in making the case for the innocence of the American colonies. In England, Franklin shifted his focus on the labor of the American colonies to the importance of the land in contributing to British welfare, while insisting that Americans "are not, never were, nor ever will be [Britain's] slaves."
Franklin was supported by Pitt the Elder, who in retirement opposed the taxes and echoed Franklin's argument that the American colonists were not slaves of the British. Pitt was a hero to Americans because when he was Prime Minister his soldiers had chased the French and their Indian allies from the colonies during the Seven Years ("French and Indian") War; Pittsburgh is named after him - it was formerly the French stronghold of Fort Duquesne.