Edward Larson Speaks to the New History WarsHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, American Revolution, political history
Jon Meacham is the author, most recently, of And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle. He holds the Rogers Chair in the American Presidency at Vanderbilt University.
AMERICAN INHERITANCE: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765-1795, by Edward J. Larson
It was as bold an assertion as it was wrong. Last September, speaking in support of his state’s “Stop Woke” legislation, the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, gave a brief lecture on liberty and slavery. The American Revolution, he said, was what had “caused people to question slavery. … No one had questioned it before we decided as Americans that we are endowed by our creator with inalienable rights and that we are all created equal. Then that birthed abolition movements.”
Facts, as John Adams once remarked, are stubborn things, and the fact of the matter is that the evils of slavery were being questioned long before 1776. Antislavery sentiment and arguments in the Atlantic world are nearly coeval with the rise of race-based slavery itself. African slavery existed in Spanish holdings in the New World as early as 1502; it had come to English North America by 1619. By 1652, leaders in Rhode Island (temporarily) abolished human enslavement, and Pennsylvania Quakers called for an end to slavery in 1688. The Massachusetts jurist Samuel Sewall published an antislavery tract, “The Selling of Joseph,” in 1700.
As early as 1680, a contemporary noted, the “two words, Negro and Slave,” had “by Custom grown Homogenous and Convertible” in the New World. On a visit to British North America around 1730, the cleric and philosopher George Berkeley reported finding “an irrational contempt of the blacks, as creatures of another species.” Note his terminology: Irrationality was a cardinal sin in a supposed Age of Reason.
Our own age has been hard on both reason and history. Too often the past has been deployed to fight the ideological wars of the moment, a tendency that reduces history to ammunition. And so Edward J. Larson’s “American Inheritance” is a welcome addition to a public conversation, in the wake of The New York Times’s 1619 Project, that has largely produced more heat than light.
“The role of liberty and slavery in the American Revolution is a partisan minefield,” Larson writes. “Drawing on a popular narrative presenting the expansion of liberty as a driving force in American history, some on the right dismiss the role of slavery in the founding of the Republic. Appealing to a progressive narrative of economic self-interest, and racial and gender bias in American history, some on the left see the defense of state-sanctioned slavery as a cause of the Revolution and an effect of the Constitution.” Larson, a prolific historian whose “Summer for the Gods” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998, writes that this polarity “has opened the way for rigorous historical scholarship” in the tradition of Edmund Morgan and Benjamin Quarles.
“American Inheritance,” then, comes to us as an effort to step into the blood-strewn chaos of the present to calm the madness of a public stage where passion has trumped reason. As Larson argues, liberty, slavery and racism — an essential element of slavery — have always been entwined. “One way or another,” he writes, “the American Revolution resulted in the first great emancipation of enslaved Blacks in the New World.”
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