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Would Slavery Have Ended Sooner if the British Won the American Revolutionary War?

John Singleton Copley's The Death of Major Peirson painting depicts Black Loyalist soldiers fighting alongside British regulars

"I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America, if I could have  conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery."

-Marquis de Lafayette, French military leader who was instrumental in enlisting French support for the colonists  in the American War of Independence 

Historians and the American public have long grappled with the contradiction that the Revolutionary War was waged under the banner "all men are created equal" yet was largely led by slave owners. 

The July 4th, 1776 Declaration of Independence (DI) was in itself a revolutionary document. Never before in history had people asserted the right of revolution not just to overthrow a specific government that no longer met the needs of the people, but as a general principle for the relationship between the rulers and the ruled: 

"We hold  these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by  their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among  Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.--That whenever any Form  of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government..."   

And yes, "all men are created equal" excluded women, black people and the indigenous populations of the continent. Yes, it was written by slave-owner Thomas Jefferson with all his personal hypocrisies. Yes, once free of England, the U.S. grew over the next 89 years to be the largest slave-owning republic in  history. 

Americans are taught to see the birth of our country as a gift to the world, even when its original defects are acknowledged. The DI along with the Constitution are pillars of American exceptionalism--the belief that the U.S. is superior and unique from all others,  holding the promise of an "Asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious  liberty" in the words of Thomas Paine in Common Sense. 

Indeed, the powerful words of the Declaration of Independence have been used many times since the Revolutionary War to challenge racism and other forms of domination and inequality. Both the 1789 French Revolution and the 1804 Haitian revolution--the only successful slave revolt in  human history--drew inspiration from this clarion call. In 1829 black abolitionist David  Walker threw the words of the DI back in the face of the slave republic: "See your declarations Americans!!! Do you understand your own language?" The 1848 Seneca Falls women's rights convention issued a Declaration of Sentiments proclaiming that  "We hold these truths to be self evident that all men and women are created  equal." Vietnam used these very words in declaring independence from France in 1946. And as Martin Luther King, Jr. stated in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” Speech, the Declaration was "A promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  

Historian Gary Nash, among others, has strongly argued against the viewing history as inevitable. He argues this short circuits any consideration of the fact that every historical moment could have happened differently. For instance, in his book “The Forgotten Fifth,” Nash argues that if Washington and Jefferson had been faithful to their anti-slavery rhetoric and  chosen to lead a fight against slavery during the American Revolution,  there was a good  chance they could have succeeded.

Perhaps a different question might be asked: what if the British had won, had defeated the colonists' bid to break from the mother country? Is it possible that the cause of freedom  and the ideals of the DI would have been paradoxically better served by that outcome?  

England's Victory Over France Leads to the American War For Independence  

It was, ironically, England's victory over France for control of the North American continent in the seven years' war (1756-1763) that laid the basis for their North American colonies to revolt just 13 years later. As the war with France ended, the British 1763 Proclamation prohibited white settlement west of the Appalachian mountains in an attempt at detente with Native Americans -- bringing England into conflict with colonists wanting to expand westward. More serious still were the series of taxes England imposed on the colonies to pay off its large war debt: the 1765 Stamp Act, the 1767-1770 Townshend Acts, and the 1773 Tea Acts, among others. As colonial leaders mounted increasingly militant resistance to these measures, so too did British repression ramp  up.   

While "No taxation without representation" and opposition to British  tyranny are the two most commonly cited causes propelling the colonists' drive for independence, recent scholarship (Slave Nation by Ruth and Alfred Blumrosen, Gerald  Horne's The Counter-Revolution of 1776, and Alan Gilbert's Black Patriots and Loyalists in particular) has revealed a heretofore unacknowledged third major motivating force: the preservation and protection of slavery itself. In 1772, the highest British court ruled in the Somerset decision that slave owners had no legal claims to ownership of  other humans in England itself, declaring slavery to be "odious". Somerset  eliminated any possibility of a de jure defense of slavery in England, further reinforced  at the time by Parliament refusing a request by British slave owners to pass such a law. While Somerset did not apply to England's colonies, it was taken by southern colonists as  a potential threatto their ability to own slaves. Their fear was further reinforced by the 1766  Declaratory Act, which made explicit England's final say over any laws made in the  colonies, and the "Repugnancy" clause in each colony's charter. Somerset added fuel to the growing fires uniting the colonies against England in a fight for  independence.  

"Seeing the Revolutionary War through the eyes of enslaved blacks turns its meaning  upside down"  Simon Schama, Rough Crossings   

Among the list of grievances in the DI is ararely scrutinized statement: "He [referring to  the king] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us." This grievance was motivated by Virginia Royal Governor Lord Dunmore's November 1775 proclamation stating that any person held as a slave by a colonist in rebellion against England would become  free by joining the British forces in subduing the revolt. While 5000 black Americans, mostly free, from northern colonies joined with the colonists' fight for independence, few of our school books teach that tens of thousands more enslaved black people joined with the British, with an even greater number taking advantage of the war to escape the colonies  altogether by running to Canada or Florida. They saw they had a better shot at  "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" with the Britishthan with their  colonial slave masters. To further put these numbers in perspective, the total population of the 13 colonies at the time was 2.5 million, of whom 500,000 were slaves and indentured servants. While there is some debate about the exact numbers, Peter Kolchin in American Slavery points to  the "Sharp decline between 1770 and 1790 in the proportion of the population made up  of blacks (almost all of whom were slaves) from 60.5% to 43.8% in South Carolina and from 45.2% to 36.1% in Georgia" (73). Other commonly cited figures from historians estimate 25,000 slaves escaped from South Carolina, 30,000 from Virginia, and 5,000 from  Georgia. Gilbert in Black Patriots and Loyalists says "Estimates range between twenty thousand and one hundred thousand... if one adds in the thousands of not yet organized blacks who trailed... the major British forces... the number takes on  dimensions accurately called 'gigantic' (xii).  Among them were 30 of Thomas Jefferson's slaves, 20 of George Washington's, and good ole "Give me liberty or give me death" Patrick Henry also lost his slave Ralph Henry to the Brits. It was the first mass emancipation in American history. Evidently  "domestic insurrection" was legitimate when led by slave owners against England  but not when enslaved people rose up for their freedom--against the rebelling slave owners!  

Before There Was Harriet Tubman There was Colonel Tye  

Crispus Attucks is often hailed as the first martyr of the American revolution, a free  black man killed defying British authority in the 1770 Boston Massacre. But few have  heard of Titus, who just 5 years later was among those thousands of slaves who escaped to the British lines. He became known as Colonel Tye for his military prowess in leading black and white guerrilla fighters in numerous raids throughout Monmouth County, New Jersey, taking reprisals against slave owners, freeing their slaves, destroying their weaponry and creating an atmosphere of fear among the rebel colonists--and hope among  their slaves. Other black regiments under the British fought with ribbons emblazoned  across their chests saying "Liberty to Slaves".  One might compare Col. Tye to Attucks but if Attucks is a hero, what does that make Tye,  who freed hundreds of slaves? Perhaps a more apt comparison is with Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery in 1849 and returned to the south numerous times to also free hundreds of her brothers and sisters held in bondage.  

So what if the British had won?  

At no point, however, did the British declare the end of slavery as a goal of thewar; it was always just a military tactic. But if the Brits had won, as they came close to doing, it might have set off a series of events that went well beyond their control. Would England  have been able to restore slavery in the 13 colonies in the face of certain anti-slavery resistance by the tens of thousands of now free ex-slaves, joined by growing anti-slavery forces in the northern colonies? As Gilbert puts it, "Class and race forged ties of solidarity in opposition to both the slave holders and the colonial elites." (10) Another sure ally would have been the abolitionist movement in England, which had been further emboldened by the 1772 Somerset decision. And if England had to abolish slavery  in the 13 colonies, would that not have led to a wave of emancipations throughout the Caribbean and Latin America? And just what was the cost of the victorious independence struggle to the black population? To the indigenous populations who were described in that same DI grievance as  "The merciless Indian Savages"? Might it have been better for the cause of freedom if the colonists lost? And if the colonists had lost, wouldn't the ideals of the DI have carried just as much if not more weight?   

"The price of freedom from England was bondage for African slaves in America.  America would be a slave nation." Eleanor Holmes Norton, introduction to Slave Nation  

We do know, however, the cost of the colonists' victory: once independence was won, while the northern states gradually abolished slavery, slavery BOOMED in the south. The first federal census in 1790 counted 700,000 slaves. By 1810, 2 years after the end of the slave trade, there were 1.2 million enslaved people, a 70% increase. England ended slavery in all its colonies in 1833, when there were 2 million enslaved people in the U.S. Slavery in the U.S. continued for another 33 years, during which time the slave population doubled  to 4 million human beings. The U.S abolished slavery in 1865; only Cuba and Brazil ended slavery at a later date. The foregoing is not meant to romanticize and project England as some kind of abolitionist savior had they kept control of the colonies. Dunmore himself was a slave owner. England was the center of the international slave trade. Despite losing the 13  colonies, England maintained its position as the most powerful and rapacious empire in the world till the mid-20th century. As England did away with chattel slavery, it  replaced it with the capitalist wage slavery of the industrial revolution. It used food as a weapon to starve the Irish, conquered and colonized large swaths of Asia, Africa and the Pacific.   

Historian Gerald Horne wrote that  "Simply because Euro-American colonists prevailed in their establishing of the U.S., it should not be assumed that this result was inevitable. History points to other  possibilities...I do not view the creation of the republic as a great leap forward for  humanity" (Counter-Revolution of 1776, ix).  The American revolution was not just a war for independence from England. It was also a  battle for freedom against the very leaders of that rebellion by hundreds of thousands of enslaved black people, a class struggle of poor white tenant farmers in many cases also against that same white colonial elite, and a fight for survival of the indigenous  populations. But the colonists' unlikely victory lead to the creation of the largest slave nation in history, the near genocide of the indigenous populations, and a  continent-wide expansion gained by invading and taking over half of Mexico. The U.S. went on to become an empire unparalleled in history, its wealth origins rooted largely in slave labor. 

The struggles for equality and justice for all that the Declaration of Independence promised continues of course but ML King's promissory note remains unfulfilled.  The late Chinese Premier Chou en Lai was once asked his assessment as to whether the French revolution was a step forward in history. His response was, "It's too soon to  tell". Was the founding of the United States a step forward in history? Or is it still too soon to tell?