Open main menu

The Slave Struggle in America/Lecture 1



(George III. to Abraham Lincoln.)



This sketch of the slave struggle in America commences with the reign of George III., but it is necessary to glance over the history of our colonisation of North America to understand out of what diverse material the British-American colonies were built up. A few words on the condition of the colonies in regard to slavery prior to the War of Independence will also help us to the better comprehension of the subsequent struggle.

Our first permanent settlement was in the year 1606, in the reign of James I., under a charter granting to Sir Thomas Gates and others territory, then known as Virginia, territory which Sir Walter Raleigh had thrice attempted to colonise, and which had been called Virginia after the Virgin Queen Elizabeth. The colony was to be governed by a local council, appointed and removable at the will of the Crown. The local council was to be directed by another council sitting in England. Allegiance to the Crown was strictly insisted upon, and the royal authority made supreme. In 1619 there was much discontent in the colony, and the governor, Sir George Yeardley, called a general council, composed of representatives from the different plantations in the colony, and these exercised legislative functions. This is worth noting as the first representative legislature that ever sat in America. In 1624 the Crown demanded and obtained the surrender of the charters. The king then appointed a governor and twelve councillors, who had the entire direction of the affairs of the colony. From that moment until the War of Independence Virginia was a royal province. In 1671 Sir Wm. Berkeley, in answer to the Lords Commissioners, stated that the population was about 40,000. As to instruction, he said: "I thank God there are no free schools nor printing; and I hope we shall not have them these hundred years, for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world; and printing has divulged them and libels against the best government. God keep us from both."

Capt. John Smith, who was very prominent in the colonisation of Virginia, explored the coast to the north of it. He examined the shores from Penobscot Bay to Cape Cod, and gave such a glowing account of the land to Prince Charles (afterwards Charles I.) that he named it New England. Everyone has heard of those men who, driven from home by persecution, sailed from Southampton in the "Mayflower" and the "Speedwell;" how the captain of the "Speedwell"—a tiny vessel of sixty tons—became dismayed at the dangers before him; how the emigrants put back to Plymouth; and how, on the 6th September, 1620, the "Mayflower," a frail bark of 180 tons, scarce bigger than a little yacht, set out on her way alone across the broad Atlantic. These men—these Pilgrim Fathers—had intended to settle on Hudson's River, in New York, but stress of weather compelled them to land on the shores of Cape Cod. The place of landing was called Plymouth, and here was the first permanent settlement in New England. Before landing the Pilgrims made a voluntary compact, and a governor and other officers were chosen to enact laws. The settlements increasing and being some distance apart, a House of Representatives was established in 1639, the members whereof were chosen annually.

The colony of Massachusetts Bay extended three miles south of Charles river and three miles north of the Merrimack, and was settled in 1628 by Puritans, who—like those who just preceded them—were so persecuted and oppressed at home that they were obliged to seek a refuge on the other side of the ocean. The provisions of the charter presupposed the transaction of the business of the colony in England. It took but a few months to discover that the plantation could not succeed under such circumstances, and it was unanimously decided that the management of the affairs should be carried on by persons resident within it. Massachusetts rapidly grew in strength, gaining an ascendancy among New England colonies. She formed a House of Representatives, each town sending up two members. In 1691, the charter under William and Mary incorporated Massachusetts, New Plymouth, Maine, and Nova Scotia into one province, known as Massachusetts Bay in New England, and this continued until after the revolution.

New Hampshire, Maine, and Connecticut were settled about the same time, or shortly after Massachusetts.

Rhode Island was settled a little differently, by men flying from Massachusetts to escape religious persecution, and Roger Williams is still honored as the founder of the colony. Rhode Island was one of the earliest colonies in which liberty of conscience and freedom of worship were declared in its fundamental laws. Although during the two centuries, which have now rolled away, there have been more than one deviation from these principles, the State to-day continues to make the very charter granted by Charles II. the basis of its laws. It is the only State in the Union which has not formed a new constitution of government.

Thus all the New England colonies were settled by earnest men, who, rather than renounce their convictions, submitted to be driven from the land of their birth.

Maryland was granted by Charles I. to Lord Baltimore, and was named after the Queen Henrietta Maria. An emigration, under the auspices of Lord Baltimore, was made almost immediately by 200 gentlemen, chiefly Roman Catholics, of rank and fortune, with their adherents.

New York was originally settled by the Dutch, but England disputed the right of the Dutch to make any settlement in America; and Charles II., in 1684, granted a patent to his brother, the Duke of York, conveying to him, with powers of government, the region extending from the western bank of Connecticut to the eastern shore of the Delaware, together with Long Island. The Duke of York leased part of this, called New Jersey, to Lord Berkeley and Sir G. Carteret. In the same year a British armament surprised the Dutch colony, compelled its surrender, and proclaimed the government on behalf of the Duke of York, under the description of New York. Thus, the land claimed by the Dutch as the New Netherlands was broken up into the colonies of New Jersey and New York. The New Yorkers did not enjoy the privileges of other colonists, and were much discontented. At the Revolution of 1688 they immediately declared in favor of William of Orange, and the colony was henceforth governed by governors appointed by the Crown assisted by representatives of the people.

The province of New Jersey was divided into two parts, which were ultimately bought of the proprietors by William Penn and others. Dissensions arose between East New Jersey and West New Jersey, and between them and New York, which ended in the government being resumed by the Crown.

Pennsylvania was also originally settled by Dutch and Swedes, but it became the property of William Penn in 1681, whence its name. Penn at once invited emigration to the province, and Dr. Story says that "under his enlightened policy a foundation was early laid for the establishment of a government and laws which were justly celebrated for their moderation, wisdom, and just protection of the rights and liberties of the people." During the first twenty years three forms of government were established and abandoned, until, in 1701, one was established by which the province was governed until the War of Independence. The legislative authority was vested in an assembly of delegates, chosen annually, and a governor nominated by them. Penn also bought the three counties of Delaware, which were then inhabited chiefly by Dutch and Swedes.

Charles II. granted certain territories, between 36° and 31° N. lat., to Lord Clarendon and others, to be erected into a province named Carolina. A little later the boundaries were extended; settlements were made, and temporary Governments were established—one in the north at Albermarle, and one in the south at Cape Fear. This was unsatisfatory to the proprietaries, and they signed a constitution for the whole of the province. This constitution was drawn up by John Locke, and contained a clause providing that every freeman was to have "absolute power and authority over his negro slaves." In 1729 the charter was surrendered and the government revested in the Crown. For convenience the province was divided into North Carolina and South Carolina.

In 1732, George II. granted a charter to a company for the colonisation of the district lying between the rivers Savannah and Altamaha. The object of the company was to provide a refuge for the suffering poor of England, for the persecuted Protestants of Europe, and to attempt the conversion and civilisation of the natives. This territory was to be called Georgia. In 1751 the charter was surrendered, and henceforward Georgia became a royal province.

These few words give a rough idea of the manner of settlement of the North American colonies, and will enable you to judge the part that each state took in the struggle I am about to sketch, and to more easily comprehend the diversities of thought on this great slave problem. Virginia—the "Old Dominion"—settled by desperate adventurous spirits; New England, by Puritans flying from their oppressors; New York, the Jerseys, and Pennsylvania, by men of many nationalities, absorbed, but not annihilated, by their English conquerors; Maryland, by loyalist Catholic noblemen and their followers; Georgia, soon to become the great slave-state, by men claiming to civilise and convert.

Europeans had in Europe bought and sold their fellow-men long before their discovery of America, and when this vast continent was discovered they stole men from it and enslaved them—Columbus himself enslaved 500 and sent them to Spain to be sold. It was not the actual colonists who introduced slavery into America, nor did they find it there. The native Indians were free men, and never—like the Africans—aided the slave-merchant, but always resisted him. It is the Dutch who may claim the questionable honor of being the first to introduce negro slavery into the English colonies. In August, 1620, a Dutch man-of-war entered James River, and landed twenty negroes for sale. The first time the colonists took part in the slave trade was when a ship belonging to James Smith, a member of a Boston church, and another, sailed for Guinea to trade in negroes. Massachusetts cried out against these traders in human flesh as "malefactors and murderers," and the negroes were ordered to be restored at the public charge to their own country, with a letter expressing the "indignation of the general court at their wrongs." Later in the same year the penalty of death was enacted for "man-stealing." Connecticut and New Haven also made it a capital offence. Providence, in Rhode Island, and Warwick, in Virginia, early passed laws against the holding of slaves. Rhode Island, in 1652, enacted that no man, black or white, should be forced to serve more than ten years, or after the age of twenty-four. A system of indenture of white men had, indeed, existed from the first in Virginia, making the condition of the public mind there not altogether unfavorable to the idea of perpetual slavery. "The servant," Bancroft tells us, "stood to his master in the relation of a debtor, bound to discharge the costs of emigration by the entire employment of his powers for the benefit of his creditor." These men, transported at an expense of £8 or £10, were often sold for £40, £50, or even £60. This supply of white servants became a regular business, and gave rise to a class of men called "spirits," who deluded young people into going to America. Sometimes they were sold in England, and resold in Virginia to the highest bidder. At the end of the seventeenth century, a white man of whom five years' service was due, would fetch about £10, whilst a negro slave was worth about £20. Prisoners taken in war, men and women who were kidnapped, and paupers shipped by force, made the stock for this traffic. Nevertheless, Virginia had early discouraged negro slavery by a special tax upon female slaves, and the increase was at first so inconsiderable, that after seventy years the number of negro slaves in Virginia was proportionally much less than in the so-called free states at the War of Independence. Governor Bradstreet said, in 1680, that there were only about 120 African slaves in Massachusetts, and in 1720 they were said to number but 2000.

Out of the original thirteen colonies South Carolina was the only one which began as a slave State. The climate was more adapted to the negro than that of the more northern colonies. In South Carolina slaves were so rapidly imported that in a few years there were nearly twice as many blacks as whites. The Dutch planters of New York, while very desirous of holding slaves, found the climate unsuitable. In proportion to population New York imported as many Africans as Virginia; and European Amsterdam itself owned shares in a slave ship, advanced money for its outfit, and shared in its profit. Stuyvesant, governor of the New Netherlands, was instructed to use every exertion to promote the sale of negroes.

Nor was England behindhand in her patronage of this infamous traffic. Sir John Hawkins was the first to engage in it, under the protection of Queen Elizabeth. He transported large cargoes of slaves to Hispaniola, and Elizabeth shared the profits. When the New Netherlands were broken up into New Jersey and New York, the Duke of York was president of the African Company and patron of the slave trade. The proprietaries of New Jersey offered a bounty of seventy-five acres for the importation of each able slave. Germany does not seem to have shared in the slave trade, and the German and Swedish colonies rested on free labor. In the reign of William III. the British Parliament declared that the slave trade was "highly beneficial to England and her Colonies." The treaty of Utrecht, in 1713, gave to England the privilege of supplying Spanish America with 144,000 negroes, and as many more as she pleased in thirty years. As this horrible monopoly was expected to be very profitable, Philip V., of Spain, took a quarter of the stock, Queen Anne took another quarter, and the remainder was to be divided amongst her subjects. A tract written in 1745 calls the African slave trade "the great pillar and support of the British plantation trade in North America." In 1749 a law was passed laying open all African ports to English competition for "the slave trade is very advantageous to Great Britain." The right to trade in men England henceforth jealously kept for herself, as far as possible preventing foreigners from sharing in the profits of this honorable traffic. Queen Anne ordered the governors of New York and New Jersey to give "due encouragement to merchants, and in particular to the Royal African Company of England," and similar instructions seem to have been given to the other settlements. When Virginia, attempting to check the traffic, imposed a tax on the importation of negroes, the Royal African Company obtained from the English Home Government the annulment of the law. South Carolina even attempted to restrain the traffic, and was met by rebuke from England. Actually in the very year before the Declaration of Independence we find the Earl of Dartmouth, the Secretary of State, who had the management of American affairs, saying:—"We cannot allow the colonies to check or discourage in any degree a traffic so beneficial to the nation." When Georgia was settled under James Oglethorpe, as an asylum for the poor and persecuted, a rule was made prohibiting the introduction of slaves; and while Oglethorpe lived he steadily refused every petition for their introduction. But the laws were soon evaded, and slaves were hired, at first for short periods and afterwards for life. In 1761, Richard Henry Lee made his first speech, in the Virginian House of Burgesses, in support of a prohibitory duty on the importation of Africans into that colony. This law was carried through the Assembly by a narrow majority, and, like nearly all other good laws, negatived by the aristocratic government in England. Similar laws, passed in the Virginian Assembly, were again and again vetoed by England; and at last obstinate and pious George III. commanded the governor, "upon the pain of the highest displeasure, to assent to no law by which the importation of slaves would be in any respect prohibited or obstructed." The Assembly solemnly debated this order, for, they said, "the interest of the country manifestly requires the total expulsion of them." A petition was addressed to the king, beseeching him to remove his prohibition to "such laws as might check so very pernicious a commerce." In this petition Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania concurred. The king evaded a reply.

In a word, so long as England had any power in America she used that power to foster and protect the slave trade; surely the most diabolical, the most demoralising traffic in which civilised man ever engaged. Words can but faintly picture the horrors of the slave ships, the sufferings endured by the captives on those dreadful voyages, but the mere statement of the average mortality will assuredly make all thoughtful people shudder. The average loss of life amongst the Africans while on the voyage was about fifteen per cent.; and if the ships had to come into the West Indian harbors, about four more out of every hundred died. Sometimes, indeed, one-half, and even two-thirds, of the negro "cargo" was known to perish on a voyage.

In 1765, when George Grenville carried the Stamp Act through the British Parliament, Virginia was the first to protest. George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee occupied seats in the Virginia House of Burgesses. The opposition to this act was the first note of that cry for liberty which ended, not in the repeal of the act, but in the Independence of America. Then came Lord North's tax upon tea, answered at once by the recommendation, from Virginia, of a general congress, which, in the autumn of 1774, was held in Philadelphia. Then followed the infamous Boston Ports Bill, forcing the colonies into rebellion, and Washington's election as commander-in-chief over the "Continental" forces, as the newly raised levies of the revolted colonies were called.

Through all the weary marches, with an army often destitute of food and clothing, Washington was ever beloved by his men. Himself untiring, he was always thoughtful about subjecting his men to unnecessary fatigue. He was continually urging upon Congress the need of taking efficient means for providing the army with food and clothing. His care never to needlessly risk the lives of his men at first gave rise to unfounded accusations, overwhelmingly refuted by his personal courage. To the prisoners taken in war he was most humane, their treatment forming a marked contrast to that of the prisoners taken by the British troops. And yet this just and kindly man was a slaveholder, but a slaveholder by birth and not by inclination. He belonged to a class of men habituated to a system now properly regarded with horror and indignation. We are told that "he treated his negroes with kindness, attended to their comforts, was particularly careful of them in sickness, but never tolerated idleness, and exacted a faithful performance of all their allotted tasks." But although born and educated a slaveholder, as Washington advanced in years slavery became more and more distasteful to him, as we may see by his letters to Mr. John F. Mercer and later to his nephew, Lawrence Lewis. His will provided that all his slaves were to be liberated on the death of his wife.

Why did Washington hold slaves at all? Why did he not manumit them during his life-time? It was because he was born of slave-holding parents, educated as a slaveholder, and accustomed all his life to slaves. Before his marriage he was not sufficiently alive to the evils of slavery. After his marriage, as we see by the terms of his will, he thought the emancipation of his slaves during his wife's life-time would be attended with almost insurmountable difficulties. But so anxious was he about the manumission of his negroes that he made it the subject of the second clause of his will, the first providing for the welfare of his wife.


London: Printed by Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh,

28, Stonecutter Street, E.C.