Leaders of the founding of the United States who called for American liberty are scrutinized for enslaving Black people themselves: George Washington consistently refused to recognize the freedom of those who escaped his Mount Vernon plantation. And we have long needed a history of the founding that fully includes Black Americans in the Revolutionary protests, the war, and the debates over slavery and freedom that followed.
With slavery thriving in Britain’s Caribbean empire and practiced in all of the American colonies, the independence movement’s calls for liberty proved narrow, though some Black observers and others made their full implications clear. In the war, both sides employed strategies to draw needed support from free and enslaved Blacks, whose responses varied by local conditions.
By the time of the Constitutional Convention, a widening sectional divide shaped the fateful compromises over slavery that would prove disastrous in the coming decades.
The new book American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765-1795 (W. W. Norton & Company, 2023) by Edward J. Larson focuses on Black Americans in the Revolutionary protests, the war, and the debates over slavery and freedom that followed, and takes a look at the question: was the American Revolution waged to preserve slavery, and was the Constitution a pact with slavery or a landmark in the antislavery movement?
Larson’s narrative examines New York’s tumultuous welcome of Washington as liberator through the eyes of Daniel Payne, a Black man who had escaped enslavement at Mount Vernon two years before.
Edward J. Larson is the author of many acclaimed works in American history, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning history of the Scopes Trial, Summer for the Gods. He is University Professor of History and Hugh and Hazel Darling Chair in Law at Pepperdine University, and lives with his family near Los Angeles.
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