Counterfactual History – slavery

by Jon Mandle on September 13, 2006

Although the U.S. Constitution of 1787 does not include the word “slavery”, there are five more-or-less direct references to it, and other more indirect references. Article IV, Section 2, is the fugitive slave clause – any person “held in service or labor in one state, under the laws thereunto, escaping into another … shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”

Article I, Sections 2 and 9 contain the 3/5 rules – non-free, non-Indians are to count as 3/5 of a person for purposes of Congressional representation and taxation. These compromises were so important that Article V, which spells out the amendment process, specifically singles them out for protection from amendment until 1808.

Article I, Section 9 prohibits the banning of the slave trade before 1808. Madison objected: “Twenty years will produce all the mischief that can be apprehended from the liberty to import slaves; so long a term will be more dishonorable to the American character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution.” Congress did, in fact, ban the importation of slaves on January 1, 1808. The British had banned the slave trade the year before. And Britain passed the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833 – it freed all slaves under the age of six immediately and all others in four years (during which time they were to receive some compensation for their work).

It’s no surprise that during the Constitutional Convention, there was significant objection to the idea of counting slaves at all for the purpose of Congressional representation. Delegates from Northern states were worried about the balance of power in Congress. But there was another concern voiced by Gouverneur Morris (himself an opponent of slavery): “the people of [Pennsylvania] would revolt at the idea of being put on a footing with slaves.” (quoted in a recent article by Jon Elster in The Egalitarian Conscience, Christine Sypnowich, ed.).

Within the United States, the debate over slavery didn’t start with the Constitution, of course. But I never knew that in Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, arguably the strongest grievance that he pressed against the King (compare this to: “He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good”) concerned slavery:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s [sic] most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidels powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. He has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Obviously, this was eliminated before adoption in order to bring the Southern states on-board. Jefferson wrote that it was “struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary wished to continue it. Our Northern brethern also I believe felt a little tender under those censures, for tho’ their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”

Assume that the calculation at the time was correct: the Revolution would not have been successful without the Southern colonies. Imagine that if the Revolution had failed, the colonies would have followed a path roughly like that of Canada over the next half-century. Would Britain have been willing and able to impose the abolition of slavery on the Southern colonies in 1833? My retrospective support for the Revolution may hang in the balance.



dearieme 09.13.06 at 2:47 pm

And to think that I had supposed that that part of Jefferson’s draft had died from sheer embarrassment at its own dishonesty! As for getting rid of slavery: surely a key part of the British success was grasping the nettle of paying compensation to the slave owners? So much cheaper than war!


John Quiggin 09.13.06 at 3:08 pm

I’ve come to a negative conclusion about Jefferson on the basis of his attitudes to slavery (including his failure, unlike Washington, to free his own slaves), and that extends, in large measure, to the Revolution.


Dael 09.13.06 at 3:09 pm

What about the paragraph fourth from the end in the finished document (not TJ’s draft):

“He has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes, and Conditions”

Ignoring for a moment the hypocrisy of the bit on native american warfare, might not “domestic Insurrections” be a reference to slave rebellions? In that case, both participation in and resistance to slavery were on the table as grievances against the British Crown. That’s eating your cake and rebelling against it, too.


sfguy 09.13.06 at 3:16 pm

The British attempt to incite a slave rebellion in the southern colonies was the key factor in bringing them on board for the revolution.


JR 09.13.06 at 3:18 pm

If you have an interest in the 3/5ths clause – how it came about and how it determined the course of American history – you should read “Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power,” by Garry Wills.

Also, you say: “Imagine that if the Revolution had failed, the colonies would have followed a path roughly like that of Canada over the next half-century.”

But that would not have happened. The Canadian colonies were given more self-rule after the Revolution precisely because Britain had learned a lesson from its loss. If Britain had won, central control over all the colonies would have tightened.

And if North American Britons had owned slave plantations in 1833, who is to say that Britain itself would have abolished slavery? Perhaps Britain needed to rid itself of the American South in order for abolitionism to take root.


franck 09.13.06 at 3:19 pm

This isn’t a reasonable counterfactual on its face, because the subsequent development of Canada was hugely affected by the successful American revolution. Everything from the relative British tolerance for Quebecois culture and language (I emphasize here relative tolerance) to the much less heavy handed governing of Canada was designed to prevent a Canadian revolution to go along with the American one.

I submit that an American revolution that failed would have ment a very different Canada (no flood of loyalists), a completely different policy toward the Amerinds, and a likely more repressive Canada without the example of America as an alternative political unit.


franck 09.13.06 at 3:20 pm

Sorry, I see jr at least types faster than me.


mpowell 09.13.06 at 3:48 pm

I’m not sure you could have abolished slavery by paying slaveholders for their slaves in 1833. The value of those slaves was in a market where new slaves could be purchased with the revenue. Abolishing slavery would have driven up the value of those slaves. Paying owners the pre-abolition market value for their slaves surely helps, but opposition would have still been very strong.


mpowell 09.13.06 at 3:51 pm

I should add- the southern economy was perceived to depend on slavery. Also, the culture (including racism) also depended on it. I’m not sure if this was true in other parts of the English empire when slavery was banned. I imagine that if the South had remained a part of the Empire, some other arrangment may have been reached- as #1 points out (I can’t read your name in the gray font, what is it?).


a 09.13.06 at 3:56 pm

“I’ve come to a negative conclusion about Jefferson…” Well la di dah. I can’t even imagine being a tenth of the little finger of Thomas Jefferson. If I were a more honorable man, I would get down on my knees every morning and thank God for letting such a man walk the Earth.


C.J.Colucci 09.13.06 at 4:23 pm

Slaves were still big business in the sugar colonies when Britain freed them. The sugar industry suffered mightily for some time because the slaves (quite sensibly, though to the surprise of some) would not work the cane fields as they had before, even with payment. I’m not sure whether this proves that Britain would have abolished slavery in the American south and consequences be damned, or whether it proves that the combined influence of the cotton and sugar industries would have been too much to overcome, and nobody would have been freed.


Hogan 09.13.06 at 4:27 pm

Jefferson not freeing his slaves had less to do with his having a different attitude from Washington’s than with his having much less ability to manage his money. Washington died debt-free, so he could afford manumission.

And different attitudes toward the slave trade had even more to do with economics: people who already owned lots of slaves wanted the overall supply to remain scarce, so that the value of their holdings remained high; those who wanted to buy slaves wanted unrestricted importation, because that would drive down the price.

Jefferson’s rant was struck from the Declaration partly because it was so transparently self-contradictory: if forcing the slave trade on the colonies was immoral, how is it that freeing slaves would be even more immoral?


abb1 09.13.06 at 4:29 pm

I can’t even imagine being a tenth of the little finger of Thomas Jefferson.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, man.


dearieme 09.13.06 at 5:04 pm

franck, I suspect you’re wrong. Don’t I remember that part of the Founding Fathers’ complaints involved British liberal treatment of Quebec? Isn’t that what this is:-
“For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies”? It’s a complaint about letting the (catholic) Quebecois keep their own law code, isn’t it?


Matt 09.13.06 at 5:13 pm

I wonder if, without the US revolution we get a French revolution. Without that, I wonder if we don’t have a much more conservative Europe and Brittan, one in which Canada doesn’t turn out as well, either.


blah 09.13.06 at 5:36 pm

Imagine that if the Revolution had failed, the colonies would have followed a path roughly like that of Canada over the next half-century.

Is that realistic to assume? If the revolutionaries had failed, would the colonies have simply fallen in line as obedient servants of the empire. Or would the struggle have gone underground and grievances continued to have boiled below the surface, erupting at regular intervals?


roger 09.13.06 at 6:33 pm

There are so many possibilities. Cornwallis went to India after the American colonies were lost, reformed the army and established the civil service. It was the reformed army that was able to master Tipu Sultan, who was Britain’s most formidable Indian foe up to that point. Perhaps Cornwallis would have lost, then. India would be in play, the British would have troops tied down in America, and the whole Imperial scheme might have altered.


John Quiggin 09.13.06 at 6:33 pm

“I wonder if, without the US revolution we get a French revolution. Without that, I wonder if we don’t have a much more conservative Europe and Brittan, one in which Canada doesn’t turn out as well, either.”

The French revolution promoted conservative reaction in Britain. Its role in British politics was that of an awful example of what not to do, rather than a model or spur.


Tom T. 09.13.06 at 7:40 pm

Britain had no qualms about buying Southern slave-produced cotton (indeed, its textile industry was heavily dependent upon it, I believe) and was prepared to recognize the South if the War had taken a turn in favor of the Confederacy. Absolutely no way would it have abolished slavery if the Revolution had failed.


Matt 09.13.06 at 8:03 pm

John- of course the aristocrats and the like were moved to the right by the French revolution, but wasn’t the long-term cause of the aristocracy hurt? It seems to me that the idea of absolutism was pretty much a dead letter after the French revolution, even if it didn’t die everywhere for quite a while. But without it, I would not have been surprised to see it take for granted for much longer that Kings should rule.


franck 09.13.06 at 8:33 pm

I’ll just quote from wikipedia here, which seems to summarize it nicely:

“In 1774, fearful that the French-speaking population of Quebec (as the colony was now called) would side with the rebels of the Thirteen Colonies to the south, the British Parliament passed the Quebec Act giving recognition to French law, Catholic religion and French language in the colony; before that Catholics had been excluded from public office and recruitment of priests and brothers forbidden, effectively shutting down Quebec’s schools and colleges. The first British policy of assimilation (1763-1774) was deemed a failure. Both the petitions and demands of the Canadiens’ élites, and Governor Guy Carleton, played an important part in convincing London of dropping the assimilation scheme, but the looming American revolt was certainly a factor. By the Quebec Act, the Quebec people obtained their first Charter of rights. That paved the way to later official recognition of the French language and French culture. The Act allowed Canadiens to maintain French civil law and sanctioned the freedom of religious choice, allowing the Roman Catholic Church to remain. It also restored the Ohio Valley to Quebec, reserving the territory for the fur trade.”

So I can see your point, but I definitely think that Britain placated the Quebecois French more than they otherwise would have precisely because of the rebellious colonies and later the United States.


arthur 09.13.06 at 8:58 pm

The top post is insufficiently cynical. Madison’s opposition to slave importation, often joined by Jefferson and the other Virginians, was simple protectionism: Virginia plantations were net exporters of slaves to the farther South colonies in this period, and the imports from Africa hurt their profit margins.


JR 09.13.06 at 11:12 pm

Arthur, I’m not sure you’re right. Massive plantation agriculture in the deep south didn’t expand until after the invention of the cotton gin made short-staple cotton a viable export crop – that was in 1793, after the Revolution. Before that, cotton was confined to very wet areas, where long-staple cotton would grow; short staple needs less rain, and so the gin expanded the range of plantation slavery fifty-fold. It was the expansion of cotton that drove up slave prices and made Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina into slave-producing areas for the deep South. In the Revolutionary period, the cash crop was tobacco, which grows well in Maryland, Virginia, and N. Carolina, so those states would have kept their slaves in that period.


John Quiggin 09.14.06 at 1:21 am

Matt, you’re probably right that the French revolution contributed to the death of European absolutism (although it was a long time dying), but that wasn’t an issue in the UK.

The revolution and the subsequent wars kept the Tories in office for decades and killed off most efforts for democratic or progressive (it wasn’t until about 1830 that the Whigs got back and pushed through a very limited Reform Act in 1832).


chris y 09.14.06 at 2:17 am

Those who advocate that the more enlightened government of Canada depended on the success of the American revolution forget that a large minority of the British political class opposed the government over its attitude to America, even after war broke out. (Cornwallis refused a commission in America for years on a point of principle, eventually accepting only as a personal favour to his brother.)

Pitt, in 1777: I would participate to them every enjoyment and freedom which the colonizing subjects of a free state can possess, or wish to possess; and I do not see why they should not enjoy every fundamental right in their property, and every original substantial liberty, which Devonshire, or Surrey, or the county I live in, or any other county in England, can claim; reserving always, as the sacred right of the mother country, the due constitutional dependency of the colonies.

An alternative counterfactual, in which George III came to his senses and installed a “Whig” government (which would have had the support of the country on this issue at least) sees the immediate issues that motivated the New Englanders resolved by negotiation and concession. British abolition laws would have applied to the intact empire and the slave states would then have had to decide whether to secede on that issue alone. I question whether they would have got away with it.


dearieme 09.14.06 at 2:20 am

Fair enough, Franck. Mind you, I do wonder how many Americans would care to defend the passage from the Declaration of Independence that I quoted. It’s a tricky business, holy writ.


ajay 09.14.06 at 9:33 am

jr: Perhaps Britain needed to rid itself of the American South in order for abolitionism to take root

tom t: Britain had no qualms about buying Southern slave-produced cotton (indeed, its textile industry was heavily dependent upon it, I believe) and was prepared to recognize the South if the War had taken a turn in favor of the Confederacy. Absolutely no way would it have abolished slavery if the Revolution had failed.

Unfortunately for your argument, Britain actually abolished slavery in 1772, four years before the Declaration of Independence. (R. v. Knowles ex parte Somerset).

(To be precise, slavery was abolished in England and Wales in 1772, and, as a result, in Scotland in 1776.)

(To be even more precise, slavery wasn’t abolished as such, but ruled never to have been legal in the first place; in fact, slavery in England had been illegal since 1102.)

The 1833 act simply extended this decision to the rest of the Empire.

An interesting reference is this New Yorker account ( of the last days of the American Revolution, when escaped slaves, many of whom had fought alongside the British Army to win their freedom, crammed into New York to evacuate ahead of Washington’s advancing troops, who would have returned them to slavery.

That December, George Washington, commanding the Continental Army in Cambridge, received a report that Dunmore’s proclamation had stirred the passions of his own slaves. “There is not a man of them but would leave us if they believed they could make their escape,” a cousin of Washington’s wrote from Mount Vernon, adding bitterly, “Liberty is sweet.”


jrp 09.14.06 at 10:41 am

Please note that the first protest against slavery was held in 1688 by Francis Daniel Pastorius in Germantown, PA. Pastorius led the original group of German settlers over from Germany, and set the stage for general German opposition to slavery in America.


a 09.14.06 at 1:37 pm

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, man.”

Perhaps you should. You might learn humility.


JR 09.14.06 at 3:20 pm

“The 1833 act simply extended this decision to the rest of the Empire.”

What a world can be encompassed in an artfully placed “simply.”


John Biles 09.15.06 at 12:42 am

A brief history of British Anti-Slavery:

The history of British anti-slavery agitation begins with Quakers, Methodists, and some Anglicans in the 1770s and 1780s. In the aftermath of the cross-oceanic revivals of the 1730s-60s, some among the English evanglical community (in both dissenter and Anglican congregations) came to find slavery to be morally repugnant and began calling for its abolition, or at least the abolition of the slave trade. The 1772 Somerset case, in theory, declared that slavery was illegal in England, but it was not actually enforced very much. But the main slavery was in England’s colonies, not England, anyway.

Defeat in the American Revolution helped further stimulate anti-slavery agitation as the evangelicals increasingly saw England’s defeat as a punishment for tolerance of slavery. In the 1780s, organized protests against slavery began with the creation of the London Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. It was decided to focus on abolishing the slave trade in hopes that would force slave owners to reform.

Between 1787 and 1807 when the Slave Trade was banned, the committee and its allies made abolishment popular, but property interests still dominated the English government, so it was only the pressures of the Napoleonic Wars which made its abolition in 1807 possible. (The full story of this would take too long to explain here).

Similarly, the control of the English government by the gentry, with their focus on property rights uber alles, ensured that it would take another 26 years to abolish slavery itself.

By the 1820s, it became clear that slavery remained a moral blight on the nation, despite it continuing to be vastly profitable. Englishmen at every level of society began to turn on it, finding it morally repugnant and a violation of the rights of Englishmen. It is to be noted that the political economists of the day allied themselves with the evangelicals, calling for free wage labor to replace inefficient and immoral slavery. It was this advocacy of freedom for the slaves which led Carlyle to dub economics ‘the dismal science’.

But abolition was only possible when political reform broke the power of the gentry, who were innately inclined to defend the property rights of slave-owners, who were, after all, fellow land-owners. In the late 1820s, first dissenters, then catholics gained the right to vote, and the 1832 Reform act lowered the level of property needed to vote and broke up the rotten bouroughs.

By this time, the English public had worked itself into a complete lather over slavery. While the pro-slavery forces fought to the last ditch, the overwhelming sentiment of the public had to be taken into account. Petitions flooded in by the thousands, calling for an end to slavery.

And so a compensated emancipation took place, even though slavery remained vastly profitable.

Having devoted a lot of time to this subject, I can say that the English public was extremely hot for an end to slavery in 1833, and if the Southern states had still been in the Empire, it would not have surprised me for them to ram it down the South’s throat by force.

Post 1833, the English public gradually became disenchanted with the freeing of the slaves as the Caribbean sank into poverty and the slaves failed to instantly turn into Europeans, but in 1833, the strength of English anti-slavery sentiment could not have been denied by the South except by force.


dearieme 09.15.06 at 7:58 am

“and, as a result, in Scotland”: shurely shome mishtake? You’re not suggesting that a parochial England-and-Wales legal judgement had sway within the jurisdiction of the Scottish courts, are you, ajay?


paul 09.15.06 at 11:12 am

Who needed slavery in England when you had tenancy, indenture and debtor’s prison?

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