Slavery and Politics in the Early American Republic

By Matthew Mason | Go to book overview
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Slavery and Politics to 1808

THE POLITICAL HISTORY of slavery in North America began in earnest with the American Revolution. The years of struggle against Great Britain took what had been weak and disparate strands of opposition to slavery and bound them into a powerful antislavery ideology and movement. The new concern with human bondage also transformed slavery into a potent weapon with a variety of political uses, both international and domestic. Americans, both slaveholders and nonslaveholders, felt compelled to respond to these developments. The contrast between the responses of the Northern and the Southern states opened up a sectional division over slavery for the first time, with consequences that could not have been more momentous. The era of the Revolution set these developments in motion, but their impact and implications were still unclear when this epoch closed with the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade to the United States in 1808.

Serious, sustained scrutiny of slavery in North America—indeed, in the Western world—arose for the first time in the 1760s in tandem with the political and military strife between Great Britain and her colonies. This is not to assert that slavery had never troubled Western man before then. Indeed, as David Brion Davis has written, “slavery had long been a source of latent tension in Western culture.”1 But before the late eighteenth century, Western intellectual traditions presented “a framework of thought that would exclude any attempt to abolish slavery as an institution.” There were exceptions to this rule, but they were aberrations in their respective times and places and cannot be called part of any antislavery tradition.2 Even in the late seventeenth century and first half of the eighteenth century, only occasional rhetorical flourishes and faint glimmerings

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