In fact, the American Revolution may have served to assert the natural rights of some people, but those people were limited to a class of white males.
It is important to keep in mind that one of the ideological underpinnings of the Revolution was a challenge to imperialist ideals, and race-based oppression and slavery had long been major parts of the imperial system. Despite that, it is unfair to characterize Britain as pro-slavery, as the British began to embrace abolitionist sentiments prior to the Revolution. In fact, British Imperialists struggled with the concept of slavery, because of the fact that denying the right to own slaves was viewed as economic oppression by many white colonists, because, without slavery, the cash crops that made colonies profitable were difficult, if not impossible, to harvest (Brown, 1999). They began by attempting to limit the import of slaves into the colonies, something that they seemed to suggest was a strike against British Imperialism. This could have had a negative financial impact on some of the colonists. This dichotomy highlights the difficulty of reconciling competing versions of freedom. There was the question of literal freedom, which slavery undoubtedly compromised, but there was also the question of social and economic freedom. For many white colonists, economic oppression was the most significant way that Britain impaired their freedom.
In fact, one of the inherent difficulties with the idea of the American Revolution and the role of slavery in the Revolution has to do with a basic assumption underlying traditional discourse about the Revolution. It has been taken as axiomatic that men will resort to violent conflict in order to ensure their personal liberty and freedom (Appleby, 1976). Therefore, one must question why the slaves did not do so. Did this underlying knowledge that consistent denial of access to liberty will promote violence in men help contribute to the increasingly barbaric conditions of slavery in the American south? This certainly seems to be a plausible lesson learned from the Revolutionary War, though Nash does not spend a substantial period of time investigating antebellum slaveholding conditions and their relationship to Revolutionary attitudes about liberty and freedom to enable the reader to draw a conclusion about his opinion.
While Nash focuses explicitly on slavery and race relations, it is important to understand that blacks were not the only racial minority to be treated with apparent unfairness during the Revolutionary period. Black slaves were not the only ones to suffer from this apparent hypocrisy; for example, during the 1770s, Puritan captivity narratives regained popularity, highlighting the apparent savagery of Native Americans, even though they had lagged in popularity during the colonial times between Puritans arriving in American and the American Revolution (Sieminski, 1990). Therefore, it would be interesting to see if this swing back against the Native Americans in the captivity narratives was also accompanied by increased denial of rights for Native Americans, even though the topic was outside of the boundaries of Nash's investigation.
Nash's book offers an interesting piece of scholarship about attitudes towards slavery during the Revolutionary period. He begins by challenging the conventional wisdom that the Founding Fathers were unaware of the apparent hypocrisy between fighting for liberty and continuing slavery. Moreover, he challenges the conventional wisdom that the continued existence of slavery was the responsibility of southern racism and southern economic interests. Instead, he places much of that responsibility on northern interests, who feared the economic consequences of compensated emancipation and feared a biracial society. Nash offers contemporaneous documents to support his position. While Nash's review offers additional information and insight into racial attitudes during this time period, it seems as if it is a good text to consider alongside other perspectives, rather than a replacement for other perspectives.
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Brown, C.L. (1999). Empire without slaves: British concepts of Emancipation in the age of the American Revolution, the William and Mary Quarterly, 56(2), 273-306.
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