The Fourth of July, Juneteenth, and the True Legacy of Liberty

The American Revolution is inextricably bound to the abolition of slavery

This year’s Fourth of July celebrations have been somewhat muted by the soul-searching about our nation’s past. NPR accompanied its usual reading of the Declaration of Independence by an article on its “flaws and deeply ingrained hypocrisies” (slavery, the lack of equality for women, etc.) The journalist and former MSNBC contributor Touré was much harsher, denouncing the holiday as a monument to slavery, not freedom:

Not surprisingly, Touré’s version of history is based on Nikole Hannah-Jones’s lead essay in The New York Times’s 1619 Project. Also not surprisingly, he never mentions that this particular claim—that the Revolution happened mainly because Britain was moving toward the abolition of slavery and the colonials wanted to preserve it—has been vigorously challenged as having no basis in fact. It’s not just conservatives who have disputed it; it’s liberal scholars such as Sean Wilentz, Gordon Wood, and Paul Finkelman, as well as Northwestern University professor Leslie Harris, a black historian who focuses on the history of slavery. Eventually, this passage in the essay was soft-pedaled in a “clarification” stating that only some of the rebels wanted independence from Britain primarily because “they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” But that modified claim is still sufficient for Touré to build his thesis. (It is a somewhat muddled thesis, since Touré also notes that Thomas Jefferson initially wrote an anti-slavery clause for the Declaration of Independence blaming the practice of slavery on King George. This passage was arguably hypocritical, as Touré argues—especially in view of Jefferson’s own slave-owning—but it hardly squares with the notion of a pro-slavery Revolution.)

That the revolution which began by declaring that “all men are created equal” and that liberty is an inalienable right ended in a republic whose constitution implicitly sanctioned slavery is unquestionably a great stain on America’s history. It is equally self-evident that America had to travel a long and hard road toward truly becoming the “land of the free”—and that black Americans played a key role in that journey. In that sense, a tandem of the Fourth of July and Juneteenth—suggested by Vanessa Williams’s performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the “Black National Anthem,” at the televised Capitol Fourth festivities—is a brilliant, perfect idea. Juneteenth, the holiday that marks the liberation of the enslaved, completes what the Fourth of July began. (Not that the journey was complete, of course.)

In a very real sense, the road toward the abolition of slavery—and not just in the United States but in British and French colonies at the very least—began with the Revolution.

Of course, anti-slavery ideas had been percolating for some time. But the American Revolution gave them a massive boost with its cry of liberty. Even CUNY historian David Waldstreicher, whose work was one of the 1619 Project sources cited by New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein—and who does speculate, in his 2009 book, Slavery’s Constitution, that many colonials embraced the Revolution because they perceived a threat to slavery from England—still concedes that in the early 1770s, leading colonial patriots like Jefferson and Franklin sought to “link slavery and the oppression of the colonies, and begin the end of both.”

True, Waldstreicher argues, without evidence, that these attitudes changed after the 1772 Somerset v. Stewart case, in which Britain’s Chief Justice Mansfield held that a master’s power over a slave on English soil (in that specific case, the power to remove a slave from England and sell him to Jamaica) was not sanctioned by British common law and had no force unless it was explicitly legalized by Parliament.* Waldstreicher claims that from that point, Jefferson and Franklin privately regarded British coercion in the matter of slavery as more abhorrent than slavery itself; but since neither man made any private comment to that effect, this can only be retroactive mind-reading. In fact, Waldstreicher acknowledges that both men still “argued in print that the refusal to let the colonies free themselves from slavery was yet another proof of the administration’s tendency to enslave the colonists.”

In her essay for the 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones excoriates the “duplicity” of American colonial slaveholders who claimed, as one of their “favorite rhetorical devices,” that they were being enslaved by the British crown. Yet the irony is that such rhetoric ultimately helped turn many white Americans against the actual enslavement of blacks. Yale historian Edward Rugemer writes in his prize-winning 2018 book, Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World:

When radical Whig pamphleteers invoked the inhumanity of enslavement to dramatize their own protests against imperial taxation, the deeper indignity of racial slavery emerged as a political question in its own right. Black people seized on this moment when the terms of liberty appeared uncertain, and they found white allies, men and women shaped by the rise of antislavery beliefs.

In 1774, during the build-up to the Revolutionary War, the delegates of the First Continental Congress essentially banned the 13 colonies and their residents from participating in the slave trade—not only with Great Britain but with any other country. Independent historian Christian McBurney notes in The Journal of the American Revolution that the primary motive for this ban was not moral outrage at slavery but the trade wars against England; however, anti-slavery sentiment definitely played a part as well—some of it, again, directly linked to revolutionary rhetoric. In December 1774, a Danbury, Connecticut town meeting passed a resolution applauding the ban, stating in part that it was “palpably absurd to loudly complain of attempts to enslave us, while we are actually enslaving others.”

The ban proved short-lived; it was rolled back when Georgia and South Carolina became more influential in Congress, and then lifted altogether when the war ended. But according to McBurney it was fairly strictly enforced for its duration, and it set an important precedent:

For a short time, Congress did have in place a total ban that a decade earlier no one thought was possible. And its prohibition on imports of African captives lasted throughout the war. These were steps, albeit relatively small ones, towards the formal end of the African slave trade and abolition of slavery in the North. 

Meanwhile, in 1780, Pennsylvania became the first state to legislate the “gradual abolition of slavery.” It was a fairly conservative form of emancipation which freed only “Negro and Mulatto” children born after that date, and even then not at once: they were to be held in servitude (but not slavery) until age 28 and then be free for life. Nonetheless, it was a revolutionary law not only in its intent to dismantle slavery, but in invoking the principle of human equality as justification. The preamble of the law also explicitly placed the abolition of slavery in the context of opposing British tyranny—both because British policies had blocked some colonies’ attempts to curb slavery and because the colonials saw their own resistance to “thraldom” (i.e. slavery) as a source of sympathy for the enslaved.

When we contemplate our abhorrence of that condition to which the arms and tyranny of Great Britain were exerted to reduce us; when we look back on the variety of dangers to which we have been exposed, and how miraculously our wants in many instances have been supplied, and our deliverances wrought … we are unavoidably led to a serious and grateful sense of the manifold blessings which we have undeservedly received from the hand of that Being from whom every good and perfect gift cometh. Impressed with these ideas, we conceive that it is our duty, and we rejoice that it is in our power to extend a portion of that freedom to others, which hath been extended to us; and a release from that state of thraldom to which we ourselves were tyrannically doomed, and from which we have now every prospect of being delivered. It is not for us to enquire why, in the creation of mankind, the inhabitants of the several parts of the earth were distinguished by a difference in feature or complexion. It is sufficient to know that all are the work of an Almighty Hand … from whence we may reasonably, as well as religiously, infer, that He who placed them in their various situations, hath extended equally his care and protection to all, and that it becometh not us to counteract his mercies. We esteem it a peculiar blessing granted to us, that we are enabled this day to add one more step to universal civilization, by removing as much as possible the sorrows of those who have lived in undeserved bondage, and from which, by the assumed authority of the kings of Great Britain, no effectual, legal relief could be obtained. Weaned by a long course of experience from those narrower prejudices and partialities we had imbibed, we find our hearts enlarged with kindness and benevolence towards men of all conditions and nations…

Two years later came the historic ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in the Quock Walker cases, which abolished slavery in the state. In his ruling, Chief Justice William Cushing stressed that slavery was “a usage which took its origin from the practice of some of the European nations, & the
regulations of British Government respecting the then Colonies, for the benefit of trade & Wealth,” but could not be countenanced among “the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of Mankind, & to that natural innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to Colors, complexion or Shape of noses [or] features) has inspired all the human race.” Cushing also found that “the Idea of Slavery is inconsistent with our own
conduct & Constitution.”

By 1784, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire also passed laws to gradually phase out slavery.

Unfortunately, the Revolution’s anti-slavery impulse largely fizzled in the same decade, at least on the national level. In 1787, the United States adopted a Constitution that implicitly sanctioned the continuation of slavery (but also left some room, by not explicitly endorsing it, for dismantling it through a democratic process). The human rights of black Americans were effectively sacrificed to national unity—just as, a hundred years later, they would be effectively sacrificed to post-Civil War national reconciliation. The “kindness and benevolence” toward those of different “feature or complexion,” hailed in the preamble to the Pennsylvania act on the abolition of slavery, seemed sorely lacking.

In some ways, the early 19th century saw backsliding on racial issues, with more militant pro-slavery attitudes in the South—whose ideologues began to argue that slavery was not just an unavoidable evil but a positive good—and many free states moving to abridge the rights of free blacks. This regression is depressingly illustrated by the career of Thomas Jefferson, once an outspoken anti-slavery advocate (had he died in 1784, wrote historian David Brion Davis, he would have been remembered as one of the first abolitionist statesmen), later the enthusiastic head of a home-based business run by slave labor and a prudent politician who was still anti-slavery in theory but more anti-anti-slavery in practice.

And yet the growth of abolitionism in the 19th century was unquestionably a continuation of the spirit of 1776. Despite Jefferson’s personal failings, the Jeffersonian affirmation that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence was very much a part of the anti-slavery cause on both sides of the Atlantic. There’s a reason Southern pro-slavery polemicist George Fitzhugh branded Jefferson “the architect of ruin,” while Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens explicitly repudiated the Founders in his 1861 “Cornerstone Speech” as misguided believers in “the equality of races” and the immorality of slavery.

The American Revolution also likely sped up the decline of slavery outside the United States. It was part of the impetus for the anti-slavery movement in England, where only stirrings of abolitionist sentiment had existed earlier. In the fascinating 2012 book, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism, Columbia University historian Christopher Leslie Brown argues that debates over American independence brought slavery to the fore in British political discourse and gave anti-slavery arguments a new moral legitimacy, partly because of a desire to find a new moral grounding in the wake of the British defeat in America. In France, the American Revolution inspired opponents of slavery such as Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville (who founded continental Europe’s first anti-slavery society—Société des amis des Noirs, or “Society of Friends of Blacks”—in 1788 after attending the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia). It also directly inspired the idea of the Rights of Man during the French Revolution, ultimately leading to the abolition of slavery in the French colonies and the slave uprising in Haiti.

Yes, of course the American Founding was tainted by slavery and other entrenched inequities; but those things, at the time, were the universal norm. What was unique was the principle set forth in the Declaration of Independence:

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.

The nascent liberal order springs from these 55 words. So does abolitionism and the quest for racial equality. (And the movement for equality of the sexes, despite the words “men.”)

On this year’s Fourth of July, there were many references to Frederick Douglass’s historic 1852 speech, “What Is to the Slave the Fourth of July?”, a magnificently angry denunciation of America’s hypocrisy at the time on the subject of freedom:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

And that memorable passage appears in the context of a speech in which Douglass not only has words of high praise for the Founding but ultimately sees it as a promise of liberation for the enslaved. Another Fourth of July article in The Grio, by journalist David Love, asserts that Douglass “took the opportunity not to celebrate America, but to remind everyone that this nation is not a place where Black folks are free.” But, in fact, Douglass did both. And Love misreads a key passage in the speech when he writes that “Douglass condemned the Founding Fathers for making ‘the right to hold and to hunt slaves’ a part of the Constitution.” Douglass was saying that slavery apologists claim “that the right to hold and to hunt slaves is a part of [the] Constitution framed by the illustrious Fathers of this Republic.” He then forcefully disputed those claims:

But I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States. It is a slander upon their memory, at least, so I believe. 

He went on to assert that “interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT”—and concluded by declaring that he was hopeful about the future, “drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions.”

That promise of the Fourth of July was worth celebrating in 1852. It is certainly worth celebrating in 2021, when we have made strides toward liberty and justice for all that were unimaginable in Douglass’s time—even if the work is not finished.

Let us by all means confront the flaws and sins of the past. But let’s do it truthfully—and without ignoring the road to the present.

* Update: This article originally stated that Lord Mansfield’s ruling in Somerset invited the British Parliament to take up the issue of slavery’s legality in the colonies. I had misremembered the text of the ruling. Mansfield recognized the legality of slavery where sanctioned by “positive law,” as it was in the colonies. His reference to parliamentary action had to do with protecting the “property rights” of colonial slaveholders who traveled to England with their enslaved servants: “An application to Parliament, if the merchants think the question of great commercial concern, is the best, and perhaps the only method of settling the point for the future.” Mansfield was by no means anti-slavery; his ruling lamented the potentially deleterious consequences of creating an anti-slavery precedent, and he repeatedly urged Stewart to avoid such consequences by voluntarily freeing Somerset.