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The Revolution Within the American Revolution

Supported and largely led by slaveholders, the American Revolution was also, paradoxically, a profound antislavery event.

Entitled Taxation no Tyranny, Johnson’s pamphlet was widely regarded a failure, even by loyal British readers. Johnson’s chronicler James Boswell called it unworthy of its author. Johnson’s friend, the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, dismayed by his “trifling and insincere” effort, considered writing a response but finally didn’t bother. It might have been forgotten had Johnson not included a passing dig at Englishmen who feared that suppressing the American protests would threaten their own liberties: “If slavery be thus fatally contagious,” Johnson wrote, “how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

Johnson was an authentic and consistent as well as caustic critic of slavery and the slave trade, and he touched on a glaring incongruity: many of the leading proponents of American freedom enslaved black people. Yet given that he was defending the sovereign power of the world’s greatest slave-trading nation, which presided over a global empire of slavery that included the rebellious colonies, Johnson’s joke was also utterly disingenuous. And although he had a point about the “drivers of negroes,” Johnson also muffled how an unswerving abolitionist—James Otis Jr.—formulated and proclaimed the very ideas that he detested.

Johnson’s jibe had the effect of conflating slavery and the Revolution and besmirching liberals and abolitionists around the Atlantic world—not least the great British abolitionist Granville Sharp—who lamented the inconsistencies of American freedom and slavery yet supported the Revolution as a beacon of justice. Here lies another paradox: that the Revolution, although supported and to a large extent led by slaveholders, was also the most profound antislavery political event in history to its time. Between 1765 and 1783, the movement for American independence assembled, expanded, and politicized growing antislavery sentiments in the Atlantic world. In large portions of the rebellious colonies, Americans, black and white, concluded that the Revolution would be severely and perhaps fatally compromised unless it did away with the enslavement of Africans and their descendants.

This antislavery revolution within the Revolution came nowhere near destroying American slavery outright. But it challenged ancient assumptions about human bondage, created the first antislavery political campaigns and movements in modern history, and commenced the abolition of slavery throughout the Atlantic world. A pioneering black historian of the Revolution, Benjamin Quarles, once observed that confronting the history of slavery demands paying “careful attention to a concomitant development and influence—the crusade against it.” Following Quarles’s insight, let us examine the antislavery revolution inside the American Revolution.