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More from Bernard Bailyn on the American Revolutionaries and Slavery

As a follow-up to this earlier post, I here add more material from the late Bernard Bailyn’s monumental 1967 study, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution – material that casts yet further doubt on the 1619 Project’s thesis that the, or at least a, chief purpose of the American revolution was to protect the institution of slavery from a feared British abolition. This passage is on page 237:

While Boston merchants in 1764 were still content to speak in a matter-of-fact way of the economics of the slave trade, James Otis, following out the idea that “by the law of nature” all men are “free born” concluded that by “all men” was meant all human beings “white or black,” and he launched forthwith a brief but characteristically fierce attack upon the whole institution of slavery.

Does it follow that ’tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Will short curled hair like wool – instead of Christian hair, as ’tis called by those whose hearts are as hard as the nether millstone – help the argument? Can any logical inference in favor of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or a short face? Nothing better can be said in favor of a trade that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant…

So corrupting is the evil, he concluded, that “those who every day barter away other men’s liberty will soon care little for their own”….

James Otis, of course, was a leading voice in Boston for American independence from Great Britain. And as Bailyn argues, Otis certainly does seem to have been staunchly opposed to slavery.


Here’s more from Bailyn; what follows is on page 241 (footnote deleted):

As the crisis deepened and Americans elaborated their love of liberty and their hatred of slavery, the problem posed by the bondage tolerated in their midst became more and more difficult to evade…. Some found at least a partial excuse in pointing out, with Jefferson, that repeated attempts by certain colonies to ban the slave trade or tax it out of existence had met resounding vetoes in England, so that the good of the colonies and the rights of human nature had been sacrificed to “the immediate advantages of a few African corsairs.”

And now to page 245 of Bailyn:

By July of 1776 much had already been done to extend the reign of liberty to the enslaved Negroes. In Massachusetts, efforts had been made as early as 1767 to abolish the slave trade, and in 1771 and 1774 the legislature voted conclusively to do so but was rebuffed by the governor’s veto. In the same year the Continental Congress pledged itself to discontinue the slave trade everywhere, while Rhode Island, acknowledging that “those who are desirous of enjoying all the advantages of liberty themselves should be willing to extend personal liberty to others,” ruled that slaves imported into the colony would thereafter automatically become free. Connecticut did the same; Delaware prohibited importation; and Pennsylvania taxed the trade out of existence.


It’s impossible to believe that the same British government that 1619 Project apologists insist was intent on ending slavery in North America would have obstructed efforts by American colonists to end or restrict the slave trade. This fact alone – the fact that officials of the British government obstructed efforts by some of the American colonists to end or diminish the slave trade – is alone practically sufficient to destroy the main thesis of the 1619 Project.


Because the slave trade isn’t identical to slavery, one can assert that the motivation to ban the slave trade reflected no opposition to slavery as such but, instead, reflected the venal protectionist motives of those who thought of themselves as slave ‘owners.’ If the importation of slaves is prohibited, the market value of enslaved people already imprisoned in America by their so-called “owners” increases.

It’s almost certainly the case that such protectionism motivated some slave ‘owners’ who had no wish to see an end to slavery nevertheless to support abolishing or restricting the slave trade. But because at least some (and likely nearly all) of the express arguments – such as those of James Otis quoted above – in opposition to the slave trade described slavery as a moral outrage, it’s difficult to believe that most vocal opponents of the slave trade wished to protect slavery. If you wish to protect and prolong slavery, using moral arguments to publicly condemn the slave trade is a dangerous tactic. It’s difficult to believe that many, if any, friends of slavery as an institution would have publicly expressed opposition to the slave trade in terms at all similar to those quoted above from James Otis.

At any rate, it’s plausible to suppose that sincere opponents of slavery as an institution understood in the 1760s and 1770s that ending the slave trade then stood more of a chance than ending slavery. With this reality in mind, opponents of slavery as an institution are likely to have begun their efforts to abolish that vile institution by first attacking the slave trade – and doing so, as Otis did, using language that unmistakably condemns not only the slave trade but slavery itself.