Nonetheless, by imparting so absolute a value to liberty and defining freedom as a universal entitlement rather than a set of rights specific to a particular place or people, the Revolution inevitably raised questions about the status of slavery in the new nation. Before independence, there had been little public discussion of the institution, even though enlightened opinion in the Atlantic world had come to view slavery as morally wrong and economically inefficient, a relic of a barbarous past.

As early as 1688, a group of German Quakers issued a “protest” regarding the rights of blacks, declaring it as unjust “to have them slaves, as it is to have other white ones.” Samuel Sewall, a Boston merchant, published The Selling of Joseph in 1700, the first antislavery tract printed in America. All “the sons of Adam,” Sewall insisted, were entitled to “have equal right unto liberty.” Slavery, as noted in Chapter 4, had initially been banned in Georgia (although it later came to sustain the rice-based plantation economy in that colony). During the course of the eighteenth century, antislavery sentiments had spread among Pennsylvania’s Quakers, whose belief that all persons possessed the divine “inner light” made them particularly receptive.

A 1775 notice in The Massachusetts Spy reporting a resolution of the Committees of Correspondence of Worcester County that advocated the abolition of slavery.

But it was during the revolutionary era that slavery for the first time became a focus of public debate. The Pennsylvania patriot Benjamin Rush in 1773 called upon “advocates for American liberty” to “espouse the cause of... general liberty” and warned that slavery was one of those “national crimes” that one day would bring “national punishment.” Jefferson, as mentioned in the previous chapter, unsuccessfully tried to include criticism of slavery in the Declaration of Independence. Although a slaveholder himself, in private he condemned slavery as a system that every day imposed on its victims “more misery, than ages of that which [the colonists] rose in rebellion to oppose.”

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!