Simon Schama: Stirring Up American Historians on Founders' Freedom/Slavery Paradox

Historians in the News

Britain's leading public historian, flush with a record-setting $6-million advance from the BBC for his latest series of books and companion TV specials, has plucked a little-known episode from Canadian history to anchor an epic -- and controversial -- narrative about Loyalist slaves who fled north to escape the American Revolution.

Simon Schama's Rough Crossings, now on sale in Britain and to be published in North America next spring, aims to demolish the "myth" that the United States was founded on a bedrock of freedom and was instead founded on the "rhetoric of liberty and the reality of slavery."

He even suggests that fear of a slave rebellion, as much as anger over British taxation, can be found at the roots of the 13 colonies' revolt.

And the author, inviting what one critic predicts will be a "storm of abuse" from American historians, admits he was driven to write the book partly by his festering resentment "that freedom was thought to have been brought into the world the moment the Brits left" the newborn U.S.

His story of the escaped slaves who fought for the British against American independence -- and then settled as citizens in Nova Scotia to embrace their own new freedom -- showcases an unsung cast of Canadian characters, black and white, several of whom Mr. Schama claims should now be celebrated as heroes in the history of human rights.

Among them is Canada's postwar governor, Sir Guy Carleton -- best remembered in this country for his tolerant treatment of the conquered French, but praised by Mr. Schama for staring down George Washington to protect the rights of thousands of freed blacks and ensure their safe passage to Canada.
At the centre of the story is a freshly researched account of the remarkable back-to-Africa odyssey of about 1,200 Nova Scotia and New Brunswick blacks, led by Peters. Fed up with the hardships they endured in Birchtown, Preston, Africville and other black Loyalist settlements in the Maritimes, they sailed across the Atlantic in 1792 and founded the aptly named Freetown, a British-sponsored colony that today is the capital of Sierra Leone.

"However awkward for the orthodox history of the Founding Fathers and their revolution, the genesis of African-American liberty is, then, inseparable from the British connection during and after the war," Mr. Schama writes.

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Michael Lewis Goldberg - 10/26/2005

It's like Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom had never been written. Another case of ego over intelligence.