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Slavery and the Politics of Taxation in the Early United States

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 March 2001

Robin L. Einhorn
University of California, Berkeley


It is no longer newsworthy to say that the American Founding Fathers were implicated deeply in the institution of slavery as slaveowners, slave traders, or just silent collaborators.1. For modern historiography, the foundational text is Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: the Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 1975), which answers Dr. Samuel Johnson's famous question: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?” See also Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (New York: Norton, 1968). For forceful recent statements, Paul Finkelman, “Jefferson and Slavery: ÔTreason Against the Hopes of the World',” in Jeffersonian Legacies, ed. Peter S. Onuf (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 181–221; Conor Cruise O'Brien, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785–1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). For forceful older statements, Robert McColley, Slavery and Jeffersonian Virginia, 2d ed. (1964; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973); Richard R. Beeman, The Old Dominion and the New Nation, 1788–1801 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1972). Sympathy endures, especially for Jefferson, as in the dismissal of Finkelman's essay as “the prosecution's case” in Herbert E. Sloan, Principle and Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 259 n.74. The fact that this could have seemed to be news in the 1970s and 1980s is, of course, a testament to the power of racism in American society for three centuries. The fact that Thomas Jefferson's DNA test could have shock value in the late-1990s may be even worse.2. See, e.g., the cover story, Barbra Murray, et al., “Jefferson's Secret Life,” with accompanying articles including Lynn Rosellini, “Cutting the Great Man Down to Size,” U.S. News and World Report, Nov. 9, 1998. Now that the intellectual task of reducing the iconic status of slaveholding “fathers” has been largely accomplished, however, serious questions remain about the meaning of slavery at the founding. There is more to it than the hypocrisy of whites or even the oppression of blacks. Social historians have described both the sufferings and the heroic self-defense strategies of Africans and African Americans in this period, both slave and free, in detail.3. The historiography of slavery has moved back from the previously dominant antebellum era. For earlier works, esp. Peter H. Wood Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 to the Stono Rebellion (New York: Knopf, 1974); Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961); Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman, eds., Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983). More recently, Shane White, Somewhat More Independent: the End of Slavery in New York City, 1770–1810 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1991); Michael Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: the Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998). Scholars no longer can pretend that “Americans,” much less “plebeian” Americans, were all white at the outbreak of the Revolution, whether they were assembled in the Boston streets or South Carolina lowcountry.4. For a recent argument to this effect, Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998). Yet a substantive consideration of the meaning of these facts for the nation-state that was built in the Revolution is still missing. What was the impact of slavery on the political institutions whose creation was the triumph of the “fathers” of the founding generation? Aspects of the answer are well known: the removal of Jefferson's pathetic slavery clause (blaming Britain for American slavery) from the Declaration of Independence, the compromises that placed the three-fifths clause into the Constitution along with the fugitive slave and slave trade abolition clauses, the checkered career of the Northwest Ordinance as a ban on slavery in the territories, and the Haitian Revolution's reality-check on the libertarian enthusiasms of white Southerners.5. On these issues, in the order cited in the text, see Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Knopf, 1997); Jack N. Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Vintage, 1996); Paul Finkelman, “Slavery and the Northwest Ordinance: A Study in Ambiguity,” Journal of the Early Republic 6 (1986): 343–70, and Paul Finkelman, “Evading the Ordinance: the Persistence of Bondage in Indiana and Illinois,” Journal of the Early Republic 9 (1989): 21–51; Rachel N. Klein, Unification of a Slave State: The Rise of the Planter Class in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1760–1808 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), and Michael Zuckerman, “The Power of Blackness: Thomas Jefferson and the Revolution in St. Domingue,” in Almost Chosen People: Oblique Biographies in the American Grain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

Research Article
2000 Cambridge University Press

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