I had a discussion with a Brit the other day and naturally the topic drifted to our historic break from the UK in 1776 and I boasted of our noble fight for liberation and freedom. The Brit was amused and said I was brought up believing "rubbish".

He said the real reason for the revolutionary war was not for freedom but on the contrary for preserving slavery. He said one of the first articles in the US Constitution was to protect slavery. This was in response to a landmark court decision "Somerset vs. Stewart" in England in 1772 where a slave was not required to be sent back to his master in Virginia since "slavery was antithetical to the British constitution and English common law".


This decision really rattled the bourgeoisie in the American colonies since their economy was heavily dependent on slavery, hence their motivation for financing the rebellion and declaring independence 4 years later.

The Brit also emphasized that the colonial common folk were worse off economically post revolutionary war. He cited even heavier taxation and more concentration of wealth at the top causing revolts of which the Shea rebellion in Massachusetts was an example. He said a dozen families owned most of New York state for example.

In reality, indeed we look back and can see the multitudes of colonial common folk having little to do with the taxes the British charged to property owning upper class, the colonial conventions held in Philadelphia where the decision for independence and republic shaping took place, or being concerned with slavery. The masses just did not have much accumulated money and were too busy just surviving day to day. Practically none of them could afford the luxury of going to Philadelphia for several months, owning slaves, or paying taxes. So what cause would the colonial common folk be willing to risk their lives for? Fighting for whose freedom and freedom to do what?

After pondering and doing some searching, I am afraid what the Brit said made an impression on me of the ugly truth to our history. Was the American rebellion primarily motivated to preserve slavery?

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    If you look up the American Revolution, you'll see actions began in 1765 concerning the opposition to the Stamp Act, invalidating any argument based on a decision in 1772. – justCal May 11 '17 at 4:31
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    There is very, very seldom one reason for anything, and looking for it is doing history a disservice. Things contributed. But yes, selfish motivations sound more reasonable than altruistic ones. That's mankind for you... – DevSolar May 11 '17 at 8:56
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    As a Brit, I would love to claim the UK's motives for keeping its American colonies were driven by purely altruistic motives of abolishing slavery, but sadly I can't. Even as late as the US Civil War, Britain was more minded to support the Confederacy, which supplied the cotton for Britain's booming textile industry - despite having abolished the slave trade some 50 years earlier! – TheHonRose May 11 '17 at 12:45
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    "The real cause" is the kind of revisionism and fallacious thinking that earns down votes. The Declaration of Independence nearly didn't get signed due to the disagreement between those who wanted slavery gone and those who did not. Likewise, about a decade later, the Constitution. – KorvinStarmast May 11 '17 at 15:52
  • @KorvinStarmast Have you ever noticed that alot of these "pluralistic" decisions are very close. You gave the example of the declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We have more recent examples ie Supreme court re Citizens United 5-4 vote brought us corporate person hood and campaign financing as free speech. Its always such a close vote but for some reason the oligarchy keeps winning. – 0tyranny 0poverty May 11 '17 at 19:19

He's not 100% wrong that the desire of slaveholders in the States to protect their "property" and the institution itself has been drastically underplayed by Americans in talking about their own history (and really, can you blame them?) For a good historical perspective on this, I highly recommend Slavery and the Founders, by Paul Finkelman.

However, as the reason for the revolution it really doesn't hold water. If that were the reason for the Revolution, you would expect to have seen revolutionary sentiment be strongest in the Deep South, and significantly weaker up north. In fact, the opposite was true. Fighting first broke out in New England (prior to any Declaration), and prewar agitation was always strongest there (eg: Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party). By contrast, the most Southern states always had the strongest Loyalist sentiment. For a while, the British actually tried to use this feature of American sentiment, by fighting in the South where Loyalist support (and their own naval logistics) was strongest, and working their way north. The problem was that the further north they got, the less Loyalists they found. By the time they got to North Carolina, they found there were no longer enough of them to make it work anymore.

On an individual note, lets take a look at Crispus Attucks, known as the first American to die in the Revolution. He was essentially the ringleader of the protest that set off the Boston Massacre, and died in the first volley (one might well imagine due to being specifically aimed for). He was a sailor, and also most likely a runaway slave. Now we don't necessarily know exactly what had Attucks so upset with the British, but I think its assured it wasn't that he wanted them to be better about returning runaway slaves.

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    The financiers of these rebellions are almost never actually physically involved in the actual rebellions. There is always a adequate supply of common folk being manipulated to fight and die for some ideological "just" cause. I could be wrong but I don't think slavery was yet abolished in any colony at that time. In fact many companies in the north were profiting from the slave trade and it was an integral and essential part of the economy of the northern colonies. The reparations movement is seeking compensation from these same companies still doing business today. – 0tyranny 0poverty May 11 '17 at 14:21
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    @lunarorlunacyexplorer - I actually once did a tour of Boston that included a lot of talk about a gentleman who was one of the chief financers of the American Revolution. He never actually got paid back and the experience financially ruined him. Still, as sacrifices for The Cause go, that probably beat being dead. – T.E.D. May 11 '17 at 14:26

I think that there were probably a great many factors that led to the American Revolution. Concerns about the growing anti-slavery movement in the UK were undoubtedly among them.

Although it is true that the case of Somerset v Stewart in 1772 was a landmark in the campaign against slavery, I suspect that an earlier case would probably have caused greater alarm to slave-owners in British colonies.

In the case of Shanley v Harvey (1763), the Lord Chancellor, Lord Henley stated " ... as soon as a man sets foot on English ground he is free". He further observed that, in his learned opinion, a negro could take his master to court for cruel treatment. Now, these comments were only obiter dictum, and so not binding on subsequent courts, but they would have caused huge concern to slave owners anywhere in the world who considered themselves to be British subjects.

56 delegates signed the Declaration of Independence. 41 of them owned slaves. It is also true that slavery was federally protected in Section 9 of the first article of the original constitution. However, the most that we can reasonably infer from this is that preserving the institution of slavery was extremely important to the authors of the original constitution, but not necessarily to those who signed it, and we certainly cannot draw any inferences about the motives of those who campaigned, and fought, for American Independence but did not attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787. In fact, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts who signed the Declaration of Independence (he did not own slaves), later refused to sign the constitution.

I think it would be naive to think that the desire to preserve slavery was not a significant factor among those that motivated the American Revolution, but I am not convinced that it was the primary one.

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    Slavery was federally protected in the first article of the original constitution. Since it was in the first article, it must have had primary importance to the authors. – 0tyranny 0poverty May 11 '17 at 18:20
  • @lunarorlunacyexplorer Or, it was the subject of an extended debate, much disagreement, and the final result a painful political compromise. If you bother to read the history of how the Constitution came about, and the extended efforts in Philadelphia and all of those arguments (see also the Federalist Papers) you'd not arrive at such a reductionist conclusion. – KorvinStarmast May 11 '17 at 20:17
  • @lunarorlunacyexplorer I've updated my answer to address that point. – sempaiscuba May 11 '17 at 20:29

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