Exploring “Slavery in the Age of Revolutions”

Last Thursday, October 8, Professor of History at Columbia University Christopher L. Brown spoke to Lawrenceville students in a webinar entitled “Slavery in the Age of Revolutions.”

Last Thursday, October 8, Professor of History at Columbia University Christopher L. Brown spoke to Lawrenceville students in a webinar entitled “Slavery in the Age of Revolutions.” A distinguished scholar and writer, Brown has published several books including Arming Slaves: From the Classical Era to the Modern Age, and Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism, for which he was awarded the Frederick Douglass Book Prize.

Brown started with an introduction of the two revolutions that took place during the founding of the United States: “the successful rebellion against colonial rule, and a revolution in attitudes toward slavery and the Atlantic slave trade.”

According to Brown, a political spar between the U.S. and Great Britain laid the foundations of anti-abolitionist movements in both countries during the Revolutionary War. At the beginning of the war, British commentators criticized Americans on their hypocrisy, noting that the values Americans preached such as liberty and freedom did not apply to their slaves.

As American colonies began calling for their own independence, Brown explained how Britain criticized American ideals and their hypocritical attitudes towards slavery to try and retain control of her colonies. He believed that the British critics were more motivated by underlying political and imperialist motives than by a sudden sense to enforce moral justice.

The British believed Americans did not deserve independence; their exploitation of slave labor helped justify their subordination to British authority. “The British argued that moral inferiors should never be recognized as political equals,” said Brown.

During the war, Brown explained that the British took advantage of America’s stance on slavery to garner British support. By offering freedom to slaves that deserted plantations and households in support of the British, Britain rallied over 35,000 slaves to British lines during the war. Brown described that, in a way, two rebellions happened at the same time: “an African American one against the institution of slavery, in addition to the American rejection of British rule.”

Brown concluded his lecture by explaining how British criticism of the slavery carried a largely unrecognized message that prompted the development of anti-slavery movements in the U.S. during the war.

According to Brown, “The way in which individuals, communities, and even nations dealt with the problem of slavery could now provide a legitmate basis for evaluating their politics.”

As a result, out of concern of the emerging nation’s collective reputation, colonists began a stream of anti-slavery gestures across New England as they called on their representatives to introduce anti-slavery legislation, formed the nation’s first anti-slavery socities, and began rejecting the Atlantic slave trade.

“Everywhere in North America, patriots used their newfound opposition of the Atlantic slave trade to uplift their moral sense of self and show that they deserved independence...They began to describe the institution of slavery as forced upon them by British monarchs, rather than as a product of American choices,” said Brown.

Brown’s lecture was followed by a series of questions from students about topics ranging from the Somerset case of 1772 to the conflict between George Washington and Guy Carlton.

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