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Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution

by Simon Schama

Pub Date: May 2nd, 2006
ISBN: 0-06-053916-X
Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Was the England of King George less racist than the America of George Washington? Yes, for which reason thousands of Africans and African-Americans cast their lot with England when revolution came.

“All men are created equal”—but not in America. As Schama (A History of Britain, 2001, etc.) notes in this lucid history, though the Americans made pious noises about the indignity of slavery, they blamed the trade on the crown even as England was all but done with slavery. Indeed, a common scare tactic used during the Revolution was claiming that King George had ordered the slaves to rise up against their American masters, which set American hearts pounding and militia to mustering. Meanwhile, runaway slaves in England benefited from the largess of crown courts and the widespread (though by no means universal) view that “all subjects in the land, irrespective of rank, were equally subject to the king’s laws and equally entitled to his protection.” Word soon filtered back to America, and freedmen and slaves alike swarmed to join the British Army, where they were put “on the march against America and slavery” and performed heroically at places like Fort Murray and Charleston. After the Revolution, British reformers worked to establish colonies of black refugees, as in Sierra Leone, while social and political pressures finally forced Thomas Jefferson to sign a “bill outlawing the importation of slaves” in 1807—only to be trumped by Britain, which abolished slavery altogether.

An important contribution to the history of the Revolution, and of slavery in America.