The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Five


Background Information: For Reference Only

The first American colonies were organized as joint-stock ventures.

  • When Sir Walter Raleigh's Virginia Company was organized in the early seventeenth century, it promised investors a return of 20 percent and incorporated a subsidiary company 'for Transporting 100 Maids to Virginia to be made wives' (3).
  • A few years later the settlement of New Amsterdam (New York) was undertaken by the Dutch East India Company, whose shares were the main object of speculation on the Amsterdam bourse at that time (4).
  • In the middle of the seventeenth century, the 'Wall' of Wall Street was built on the orders of Governor Stuyvesant of the Dutch West India Company (5).
  • George Washington started his own Mississippi Company to buy lands in the west. Benjamin Franklin was involved in an Illinois land speculation of sixty-three million acres. Patrick Henry was among the investors in the 'Yazoo Company,' which attempted to purchase ten million acres in Georgia (6).
  • Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were occasional 'land-jobbers' (7).
  • In the late eighteenth century millions of acres in large blocks were exchanged in Maine, Georgia, and New York State. Developing towns and cities were also objects of speculation. Washington D.C. was founded by land speculators. Forty years later Chicago was the new boom town (8).

Main Text. The Surprising Synergy Between Slavery and Democracy

Legal historian Paul Finkelman wrote an introductory essay for a book of legal essays, he edited, titled Slavery & The Law (1997). His essay is titled The Centrality of Slavery in American Legal Development.

The passage that holds particular interest for our purposes is this one:

"[B]y the eve of the Civil War some Southerners claimed that democracy in America was only possible because of slavery... Southerners of various social classes argued for the racial inferiority of blacks and relegated them to a permanently diminished status, thus simultaneously justifying slavery and allowing for greater democracy among whites. Because they were slaves, so the argument went, blacks could never participate in politics. Instead, they provided what Senator James Henry Hammond called a 'mudsill,' on top of which a democracy of white men could be built. Thus, the rights of life, liberty, and happiness proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence could be universally applied to white Americans precisely because they were not applied to blacks" (1).

There are many conclusions to draw from this passage. Indeed, the implications are manifold.

A. The South

  • Not least of which is the fact that legal historian Paul Finkelman believes that slavery was central to American legal development.
  • On the eve of the Civil War, Southerners were invoking a connection between black enslavement and white democracy.
  • That relationship, as these Southerners saw it, was an inverse one: the less freedom blacks in America had necessarily provided for more democracy for all whites. These Southerners imagine a symbiotic inverse relationship: less black freedom = more white democracy.
  • These Southerners had claimed that democracy in American had only been possible because of the enslavement of blacks.
  • Since these Southerners had invoked democracy itself, they were actually talking about the American Revolution of 1776-1783, if one takes that to be the decisive event that facilitated the creation of the democratic constitutional republic of the United States of America, the first manifestation of democratic self-rule in the world.
  • If that is what we are talking about, then the idea put forward by these Southerners appears to be a very strange one on the surface. This line of presentation posits democracy as a finite resource, of which there is only so much to go around, as it were.
  • At the very minimum these Southerners are saying the following: Okay, after we got rid of the British in the late-eighteenth century, we got to work putting together our democracy. But the only way we were able to do that, with blacks among us, was to enslave them.

Main Text

B. The North

  1. I know of no Northern philosophical, direct counter-argument to the Southern sentiment we just looked at, concerning the connection between black enslavement and white democracy.

a. That is to say, I know of no Northern counter-argument that directly challenges the premise of the Southern thesis about the connection between black enslavement and white democracy.

b. That is to say, I know of no Northern position that goes, "I disagree, sir. Slavery was most certainly NOT the "mudsill" upon which our American democracy was built..." and on and on.

2. The Northern Republican argument ideological argument against slavery was that the institution put free white labor at a severe economic disadvantage (2).

3. As you know, there had always be much fervent abolitionist sentiment that was just as fervently committed to the relocation of the black population outside of the United States of America. The notion was not ("Let's free the blacks from slavery and give them full rights alongside whites."). The notion was ("Let's free the blacks from slavery---mainly because the institution is poisoning our own souls---and get them the heck out of the United States of America.") (9).

4. As you also know, the so-called "Underground Railroad" phenomena was about helping slaves escape their circumstances, and thereby gain their freedom, largely by facilitating their removal from the United States of America, to Canada (10).

5. Perhaps not all abolitionist sentiment was not tied to black relocation. But, again, a whole lot of it was.

6. As you also know, President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) most notoriously instituted Jim Crow at the federal government level in Washington D.C. (11).

7. My point is that a disagreement over slavery masked a general agreement, between so-called North and South, Republican and Democrat on something else: that, perhaps there was not enough democracy to go around, both to give "white-skinned" Americans full liberation from the monarchical oppression of Great Britain and give civil rights to the black population living in the United States of America.

8. What I am really saying is that there was disagreement about the way to best hoard democracy in the hands of all those living in America that could be considered "white."

9. Apparently, Southerners, by and large, believed that the best way to "hoard" democracy for "white" Americans was by, more or less, going on with the institution of exclusive, black color-based slavery.

10. Apparently, many Northern, Republican, (abolitionists) believed that the best way to "hoard" democracy for "white" Americans, was to uproot the black population, en masse, out of the United States of America.

11. In order to understand what I am talking about---which will set us up for part six---and why it is I keep putting the word white in quotation marks, you have to understand that the term "white," as a way of identifying "race" or "ethnicity," such as something one might mark on a census: "white non-Hispanic,"------ is a rather historically recent and American invention.

That is to say that the idea of "white" as something with social, cultural, and political meaning only has its origin in the Thirteen Colonies, sometime around the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century (12).

We'll wrap it up here, but just know that in part six I will show how the conception and implementation of this device liberated untold millions of European immigrants from under caste status. When that happens you will see what the Southerners were talking about, when they plead that the enslavement of Africans and their descendants made democracy for white Americans possible.

Everything we are doing in this series is designed to bring us to 1776. When we get there, I trust we will have a relatively full, three-dimensional, complex, subtle, and nuanced understanding about the kind of people the settlers were when the moment of truth came, when the time for revolution comes. To try to make this happen I have been surveying the social history they had at their backs, from both sides of the Atlantic.

Thank you so much for reading.

End of part five.

Stay tuned for part six.

References and Notes

Main Text Citations

1. Finkelman, P. (1997). The Centrality of Slavery in American Legal Development. In P. Finkelman (Ed.), Slavery & The Law (p.4). New York, New York: Madison House.

2. Phillips, Kevin. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. Broadway Books, 2002. 32

Background Information Citations:

3. Chancellor, Edward. Devil Take The Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1999. 152

4. ibid

5. ibid

6. ibid, 155

7. ibid

8. ibid

Main Text Citations:

9. Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550 - 1812. University of North Carolina Press, 1968. [page number citation pending].

10. What I was saying there was a bit of exaggeration, but not by much, it seems, after 1850. Horton, James Oliver & Horton, Lois E. Slavery And The Making of America. Oxford University Press, 2005. 148-149.


"Conflict over kidnapping, fugitives, and slaveholder rights grew more heated with the passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The law was one of five separate measures that constituted the Compromise of 1850, laws designed to reassure slaveholders that their rights were protected and to cool sectional tensions. Congress admitted California as a free state, provided popular sovereignty on slavery in the western territory, assumed Texas's debt, abolished the slave trade, though not slavery, in the District of Columbia, and established a stronger new fugitive slave law."

pp. 148-149;

"With this fugitive slave law, recovering a fugitive became simply an administrative procedure in the hands of federal commissioners; much of the cost of recovery was borne by the federal government, and people accused as fugitives were denied the right to speak in their own defense."


"The enforcement provision that especially incensed northerners was the law's command to all citizens to actively assist in fugitive slave captures. People obstructing or failing to assist in such captures were subject to a fine of up to $1000 and a jail sentence of up to six months."

"The provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 essentially overrode the personal liberty laws in the New England states, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, increasing the power of the federal government over the rights of the states in the interests of slaveholders."

11. Franklin, John Hope & Moss, Jr., Alfred A. From Slavery To Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. Alfred A. Knopf, 1988 (sixth edition). 292:

"The first Congress of Wilson's administration received the greatest flood of bill proposing discriminatory legislation against blacks that had ever been introduced into Congress. At least twenty bills advocated the segregation of the races on public carriers in the District of Columbia, the exclusion of blacks from commissions in the army and navy, separate accommodations for black and white federal employees, and the exclusion of all immigrants of African descent. There were similar proposals in the next Congress. Although most of the legislation failed to pass, Wilson, by executive order, segregated Negro federal employees so far as eating and rest room facilities were concerned, and phased out most of them from civil service."

12. Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550 - 1812. University of North Carolina Press, 1968. 93-95

Here is something of the progression.


"... in the early years, the English settlers most frequently contrasted themselves with Negroes by the term Christian, though they also sometimes described themselves as English; here the explicit religious distinction would seem to have lain at the core of English reaction."


"Yet the concept embodied by the term Christian embraced so much more meaning than was contained in specific doctrinal affirmation, that it is scarcely possible to assume on the basis of this linguistic contrast that the colonists set Negroes apart because they were heathen."


"The historical experience of the English people in the sixteenth century had made for fusion of religion and nationality; the qualities of being English and Christian had become so inseparably blended that it seemed perfectly consistent to the Virginia Assembly in 1670 to declare that 'noe Negro or Indian though baptized and enjoyned their owne Freedome shall be capable of any such purchase of Christians, but yet not debarred from buying any of their owne nation.'"

1662 order of the Virginia Assembly

'METAPPIN a Powhatan Indian being sold for lifetime to one Elizabeth Short by the King of Wainoake Indians who had no power to sell him being of another nation, it is ordered that the said Indian be free, he speaking perfectly the English tongue and desiring baptism.'

"From the first, then, vis-à-vis the Negro the concept embedded in the term Christian seems to have conveyed much the idea and feeling of we against they: to be Christian was to be civilized rather than barbarous, English rather than African, white rather than black. The term Christian itself proved to have remarkable elasticity, for by the end of the seventeenth century it was being used to define a species of slavery which had altogether lost any connection with explicit religious difference."


"From the initially most common term Christian, at mid-century there was a marked drift toward English and free. After about 1680, taking the colonies as a whole, a new term appeared---white."

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