Browsing "Race and the South"

Slave Trading and Respected Merchants

Slaver Captain Nathaniel Gordon of Portland, Maine and his ship, the Erie, was captured at the mouth of the Congo River by the USS Mohican in 1860. Loaded with nearly 900 slaves, the Erie was built in Swansea, Massachusetts about 1850, and owned by a New York City business partnership.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Slave Trading and Respected Merchants

“Ironically, an opportunity for strict enforcement of the slave trade laws was available to the United States almost from the beginning, but it meant collaborating with the British. [In 1807] England, the world’s largest slaving nation, outlawed its own slave trade. Britain’s motives were not especially altruistic [and] in reality, the British were trying to protect the commerce of their colonies by denying slave labor to their competitors, chiefly Spain, France, Portugal, Brazil, and the United States.

Had the United States cooperated with Britain at any point, the slave trade would certainly have ended earlier. As it was, the trade flourished throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, as Yankee captains continued to fit out their ships in Providence; New York City; Portland, Maine; Rio; or any of a dozen other sympathetic ports, and sail to the west coast of Africa for slaves. The Brazilian and Cuban markets were strong, the risks low, and the potential for profits enormous.

Meanwhile, the record of convictions in the courts was as poor as that of seizures at sea. In New York City, where most of the prosecutions took place, only one-sixth of those indicted were convicted. The rest were either acquitted, forfeited bail, escaped from custody, or were released because of hung juries or the court’s unwillingness to prosecute.

From 1837 to 1861 (when Captain [Nathaniel] Gordon alone made at least four slaving voyages), around 125 accused slave traders – officers and crewmen – were prosecuted in New York City; only 20 were given prison sentences, averaging two years apiece. Of these men, 10 received presidential pardons, and 3 more – indicted for capital crimes under the piracy act of 1820 – were allowed to plead to lesser charges. One was briefly convicted of piracy, but the conviction was overturned on a technicality. Clearly, no one in power wanted to hang a man for trafficking in slaves.

[In 1846, the] USS Boxer seized the Malaga, a ship fitted out with all the obvious goods and accoutrements for slaving and chartered to a known Brazilian slave trader. A New England judge ruled that there was nothing illegal about selling goods to a slaver, the charges were dropped, and the Malaga immediately left port on another slaving voyage.

New York had been a slaving city from its inception as a small Dutch settlement. The West India Company delivered eleven Brazilian slaves to tiny New Amsterdam in 1626 . . . New York saw its first slave revolt in 1712, when an armed group of slaves murdered nine whites. Retribution was swift and savage: the gallows claimed thirteen, while three were burned at the stake, one was broken at the wheel, one was starved to death, and another was cooked over a slow fire for an entire day.

Whether in the Caribbean, West Africa, or Madagascar trade, there were always New York slave ships, financed by New York capital. The slave traders were well known to the city’s business community; some ranked among the city’s most prominent members of society, frequently meeting at such places as the Astor House hotel to plan their voyages. The money behind their expeditions was provided secretly by many of New York’s most respected merchants.’

(Hanging Captain Gordon, The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader, Ron Soodalter, Atria Books, 2006, excerpts, pp. 7-9; 43; 70-71)

An 1830 View of Slavery in the South

The following extract is from Robert Y. Hayne’s 1830 debate with Daniel Webster of the slave-trading State of Massachusetts, on the nature of the federal union. As is seen below, Hayne distinctly delineates the origin of African slavery in the Southern States, who profited from the nefarious trade, and those who did their Christian best with what they had inherited from the British colonial labor system.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

An 1830 View of Slavery in the South

“Sir, when arraigned before the bar of public opinion on this charge of slavery, we can stand up with conscious rectitude, plead not guilty, and put ourselves upon God and our country. We deal in no abstractions. We will not look back to inquire whether our fathers were guiltless in introducing slaves to this country.

If an inquiry should ever be instituted in these matters, however, it will be found that the profits of the slave trade were not confined to the South. Southern ships and Southern sailors were not the instruments of bringing slaves to the shores of America, nor did our merchants reap the profits of that “accursed traffic.” But, sir, we will pass over all this.

If slavery, as it now exists in this country be an evil, we of the present found it ready made to our hands. Finding our lot cast among a people, whom God had manifestly committed to our care, we did not sit down to speculate on abstract questions of theoretical liberty. We met it as a practical question of obligation and duty.

We resolved to make the best of the situation in which Providence had placed us, and to fulfill the high trust which had developed upon us as the owners of slaves, in the only way in which such a trust could be fulfilled without spreading misery and ruin throughout the land.

We could not send them back to the shores from whence their fathers had been taken; their numbers forbade the thought, even as we did not know that their condition here is infinitely preferable to what it possibly could be among the barren sands and savage tribes of Africa . . .

[With the false philanthropy of Northern abolitionists and the] shedding of tears over sufferings which had existence only in their own sickly imaginations, these “friends of humanity” set themselves systematically to work to seduce the slaves of the South from their masters.

By means of missionaries and political tracts, the scheme was in great measure successful. Thousands of these deluded victims of fanaticism were seduced into the enjoyment of freedom in our Northern cities. And what has been the consequence?

Go to these cities now, and ask the question. Visit the dark and narrow lanes, and obscure recesses, which have been assigned by common consent as the abodes of those outcasts of the world — free people of color. Sir, there does not exist, on the face of the whole earth, a population so poor, so wretched, so vile, so loathsome, so utterly destitute of all the comforts, conveniences and comforts of life as the unfortunate blacks of Philadelphia, and New York and Boston.

Sir, I have had some opportunities of making comparisons between the condition of the free Negroes of the North and the slaves of the South . . . Sir, I have seen in the neighborhood of one of the most moral, religious and refined cities of the North, a family of free blacks, driven to the caves of the rock, and there obtaining a precarious subsistence from charity and plunder.”

(Speech of Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina, January 25, 1830; The Webster-Hayne Debate on the Nature of the Union, Herman Belz, Editor, Liberty Fund, 2000, excerpts, pp. 44-46.)

 

 

Slaves and the South

Southern uneasiness regarding slavery agitation had its origins in the murderous Haitian and Santo Domingo slave revolts, and Northern abolitionist encouragement of slave insurrection in the South, culminating in Nat Turner’s 1831 terrorism and John Brown’s attack. In contrast to their strenuous efforts to incite violent slave uprisings, the abolitionists never advanced a peaceful and practical solution to the slavery they abhorred.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Slaves and the South

“Abolitionist assertions that the bondsmen were frequently inadequately clothed, underfed and driven to death are economically unreasonable. Masters wished to preserve the health and life of their slaves because a sick Negro was a liability and a dead Negro was worth nothing. A rude plenty prevailed on the average plantation.

“The best preventative of theft is plenty of pork,” was the advice of a Virginian. Kindliness and patience, frequently extended even to a tolerance of slackness in every concern not vital to routine, created a degree of contentment among the slaves to keep them docile. Although Jefferson had declared “the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions,” Harriet Martineau sympathized with the masters.

She wrote: “Nothing struck me more than the patience of the slave-owners . . . with their slaves.” Travelers often wondered who were the actual victims of the slave system.

Despite abolitionist allegations to the contrary, flights and revolts were infrequent. Fear that they should become general led the South to introduce ruthless laws for the apprehension of the absconders and federal legislation to protect their institution.

Actually, however, the thousands of slaves who ran away formed but a slight portion comprising the total slave population. During the several decades of its existence only some 75,000 Negroes used the underground railroad, which was organized to aid them in their attempt to reach Canada.

Flights were prompted by various causes. Some slaves undoubtedly ran away because they were talented or sensitive mulattoes who desired freedom. Others wished to escape from barbarous punishments peculiar to the slave system. Many fled . . . not to escape slavery but to return to their families and former homes. Some strayed for reasons not associated with slavery; they became tramps or vagabonds or fugitives from deserved punishments and crimes. Most slaves, unlike migratory free Negroes of a later generation, did not move from their original homes.”

(The South Old and New, A History, 1820-1947, Francis Butler Simkins, Alfred A. Knopf, 1947, pp. 46-47)

Postwar South Ruled by Genial, Patronizing Viceroys

Lincoln’s war not only destroyed the Southern economy and impoverished the region, but also became a vehicle for New England’s commercial colonization of the South. This status persisted through FDR’s first term as he recognized the South as America’s number one economic problem and used Democrat Party patronage and power to keep the region in bondage. The North continued tales of “Southern outrages” from Reconstruction days, and Presidential candidate George Wallace noted in 1968 that Northern editors would always refer to racial incidents in the South as “race riots,” while the same in the North were labeled “civil disturbances.”

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Postwar South Ruled by Genial, Patronizing Viceroys

“The manufacturers and distributors of the North and various adjunct agencies are bleeding the South white. The same may be said of a very large part of Southern industries, owned, as has been observed, in the North and operated by local overseers.

To a great extent the region is controlled by the absentee owners through their overseers and retainer agents. These agents are the symbols of success in the South and the paragons of social life. Their mansions stand on a thousand hills. It is good to wine and dine with these genial, if patronizing, viceroys. The absentee overlords retain the best legal talent to help them with their battles in the courts and the legislatures. Other types of influential persons, good public relations men and lobbyists, are also retained. Some of their retainers are always member of the legislatures. By selling some stock locally they raise up other friends and defenders.

Small wonder, then, that the corporations have exercised a large influence over law-making in the Southern States. Too often they have been able to defeat measures objectionable to them especially tax measures – and to promote those favorable to them. Too often they have not been willing to pay their fair part of the cost of public services or a fair wage to their employees.

Such industries are of questionable value to a community. The South has advertised its cheap labor, and industrialists from the North have tried to keep it so. There are other differentials against the South, already noted, that have also been a factor in the lower wage scales of Southern industry.

The absentee masters of Southern industry and the chain store magnates are interested in profits and not in the welfare of the South. This is natural, but it illustrates a fundamental weakness in an industrial system based on outside capital. It would seem that those who gather their wealth from the South might reasonably be expected to give some of their educational benefactions to higher education in the South.

But their gifts have generally gone to northern institutions that are already rich compared with those in the South. Their contributions to cultural development, whether in the form of gifts or taxes, go largely to the North.

The North has not only held the South in colonial bondage, but it has been very critical of the South, even for conditions that inhere in such an economic status. It is doubtful if the British ever had a more superior and intolerant attitude toward the American colonists.

The “Southern outrages” complex, fomented by Radical politicians in the old Reconstruction days, has persisted. Incidents that have escaped editorial eyes if they happened in the North have been denounced as outrages if they occurred in the South. A public lynching in a well-known western State a few years ago did not evoke nearly as much condemnation as does the lynching of a Negro by a clandestine mob in the South.

The people of the North are not denounced as being crude and barbarous because of the persistent activities of murderous bands of racketeers in large northern cities.”

(One Hundred Years of Reconstruction, Albert B. Moore, 1943, Southern Historical Society Addresses; Journal of Southern History, 9, 1943, excerpts, pp. 159-164)

The South’s Postwar Labor Problem

The antebellum North received the bulk of immigrants from Europe – and these immigrants avoided the South as black men were trained in various trades and dominated the labor force. The Republican Party of Lincoln was not anti-slavery – it wanted to confine blacks to the South and open the West to immigrant labor, and Republican votes. The aftermath of war saw the North’s notorious Union League organization mobilize black voters and turn them against their white neighbors for bare political purposes. Grant’s 1868 election over Horatio Seymour was due to a majority of 300,000 votes – and thanks to 500,000 recently-enfranchised Negroes.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

South’s Postwar Labor Problem

“Since the first settlement of this country the great need of the South has been men. We want settlers, honest, industrious, home-seeking immigrants, and I do not believe any country can offer inducements greater than those presented by the South. We expect hundreds of thousands in the next few years from less favored sections of the Union, but we want also high-class foreigners. The Negro in the South has been our chief reliance for hired labor, but they are yearly becoming more uncertain and unreliable and worthless.

Slavery was the greatest manual, moral and intellectual training school for a weak and depraved race that history has ever known. Before the war the Negro was the main agricultural laborer. There were four million slaves, probably half of them laborers. At the same time were engaged in agricultural labor 803,052 white laborers and 215,968 white laborers in the other occupations of the South.

The Negro in slavery was kindly treated. His great pecuniary value, rising from $1000 to $1,800 just before the war, was in itself a bond for the “best moral and material care” and he was devoted to his master. History presents no parallel to his fidelity during the Civil War, as it was necessary for the enemy actually to occupy our territory before the slaves could be persuaded to leave their masters.

Since the war the South has spent hundreds of millions upon asylums, hospitals and schools for them. The average young Negro is indisposed to labor, indolent, thievish and inclined to be insolent, and as the older heads of the race die out it seems that we must be forced to substitute other laborers for them.

The South is the Negro’s best friend. When he remains with us, observes the unwritten law of the land and is willing to labor for a living, we welcome him.”

(Annual Agricultural Resources and Opportunities of the South, J. Bryan Grimes, Farmers’ National Congress speech, 1901, pp. 15-16)

Let the South Withdraw

New York Governor Horatio Seymour noted that “very few [Northern] merchants had been backward about importing [slaves] and selling them South” — and that “Slavery, in fact, was upheld by the great business firm of “Weaver, Wearer and Planter” — only one of the three partners of which resided in the South — but for the looms of New England and Old England [slavery] could not live a day.”  Seymour was also aware that passage of the Crittenden compromise would have forestalled the secession movement in the South, but the Republican party was determined to defeat it. Historian James Ford Rhodes later wrote that ‘it seems to me likewise clear that, of all the influences tending to this result [the compromise defeat], the influence of Lincoln was the most potent.”

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Let the South Withdraw

“It was [Seymour’s] belief, he declared, that if people asked themselves why the United States had split asunder in civil war, they had only to read Washington’s Farewell Address for their answer and find out how completely they had neglected the warning of their first President.

Men who were loyal to nothing less than the whole Union both North and South would have to fight the spirit of both North and South alike, for people who made their prejudices and passions “higher” laws than the laws of the land were by no means confined to the eleven States which had arrogated to themselves the dangerous right to secede.

A majority of the American people, he reminded his hearers, had not preferred Lincoln for President, and a large part of the voters had deplored his election as a calamity, but Lincoln had been chosen constitutionally and deserved a “just and generous support” – as long as he kept himself within the limits of that very Constitution by which he was entitled to his office.

What would it profit the North to conquer the South if it destroyed the compact of government in the process? Alexander Stephens, though he disapproved of secession, had followed his Georgia out of the Union; Seymour, though he disapproved of abolition and did not vote for Lincoln, stayed in the Union with New York.

Yet the war was a fact, and because the decision of it would depend on might, the men of the North would be most unwise to call the victory they fought for “right.” “We are to triumph,” Seymour warned his hearers, “only by virtue of superior numbers, of greater resources, and a juster cause.” The arrangement of his words is significant.

Slavery, he insisted, was not the cause of the Civil War, for slavery had always existed in the land; it was present when the Union was formed, and the people had prospered before it became a matter of dispute. Causes and subjects were frequently distinct: the main cause of the war was the agitation and arguments over slavery. [Seymour stated] “If it is true that slavery must be abolished to save this Union then the people of the South should be allowed to withdraw themselves from that government which cannot give them the protection guaranteed by its terms.” [It was Seymour’s belief that] To grant immediate freedom to four million uneducated Africans would disorganize, even if it did not destroy, the Southern States.”

(Horatio Seymour of New York, Stewart Mitchell, Harvard University Press, 1938, pp. 238-239)

Ridding the South of the Incubus

In 1819, Rev. Moses Waddel “was induced to give up his academy business” and take the reins of the University of Georgia. Born in North Carolina, educated in the ministry in Virginia and a preacher in Georgia, he had taught young John C. Calhoun and became the first native-born Southerner to fill the University presidency. It was not unusual then to hear open and reasoned discussion on ending the New England slave trade and repatriating Africans to their homeland.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Ridding the South of the Incubus

“Athens [Georgia] and he Lower South at this time [1810] were in the midst of laying the foundations of that social order and culture, beautiful and polished yet seamy, captivating the elite Englishman and practical Yankee who touched it, the admiration of some, the curse of some . . .

In the excitement of the Federal Constitutional Convention, Georgia had stood for the foreign slave trade, but she no sooner won it than she freely flung it away. In 1819 at a banquet in Athens this toast was drunk: “The [Foreign] Slave Trade – The scourge of Africa; the disgrace of humanity. May it cease forever, and may the voice of peace, of Christianity and of Civilization, be heard on the savage shores.”

At this time the whole subject of slavery was discussed in the Georgia papers with reason and dispassion, and in 1824 the president of the University “heard the Senior Forensic Disputation all day on the policy of Congress abolishing Slavery – much fatigued but amused.” Apparently the students were doing some thinking also.

The trustees, were, likewise not opposed to a possible disposition of slavery, for [Rev. Robert] Finley, whom they had just elected president of the University, had been one of the organizers of the American Colonization Society. He was, indeed, present in Washington at its birth and had been made one of its vice-presidents; and so vital did his work appear to one friend that he later wrote,

“If this colony [Liberia] should ever be formed in Africa, great injustice will be done to Mr. Finley, if in the history of it, his name be not mentioned as the first mover, and if some town or district in the colony be not called Finley.” He, indeed, never lost interest in the project to his dying day – and then it “gave consolation to his last moments.”

The South was genuinely interested in ridding itself of this incubus, realizing, with Henry Clay, that Negroes freed and not removed were a greater menace than if they remained in slavery.”

(College Life in the Old South, E. Merton Coulter, UGA Press, 1983 (original 1928), pp. 27-28)

Southern Christianity and Slavery

That Lincoln and his abolitionist colleagues did not propose a peaceful and practical to the African slavery they seemed to object to, is a national tragedy. Had they followed compensated emancipation as the British had done earlier (the British were primarily responsible for populating their American colonies with Africans), or helped advance a reasonable solution to the need for large numbers of workers to support their agricultural economy, a million lives would have been spared as well as the death, destruction and tortured legacy of the war Lincoln was responsible for.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Southern Christianity and Slavery

“ . . . Southern [slavery] reformers cast much blame on the Northern Abolitionist movement. They constantly complained that it was difficult to persuade planters that they should be teaching their slaves to read when the Abolitionists were sparing no effort in smuggling into the Southern States inflammatory literature which urged the slaves to rise up and slit their masters’ throats, among other things.

The palpable hostility and antagonism displayed by the Abolitionists toward the white South, their calls for a bloody slave rebellion, and their unrealistic demands for immediate and unconditional emancipation made slavery reform more difficult by producing resentment, fear, and a siege mentality among the whites.

[Many] Northerners (including Sen. Daniel Webster, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, and Princeton theologian Charles Hodge) condemned the Abolitionists for actually worsening the plight of the slaves and for creating hostility and distrust between the Northern and Southern people.

[It] is at least possible that an independent South might have enacted the reforms urged by her Christian leaders and thus avoided falling into a state of economic backwardness and dependency.  After all, Southerners consistently valued such non-monetary goods as country living, personal independence and liberty, and an harmonious and rich social life at least as much as mere wealth and material accumulation; and independence [from the North] might have created a more favorable environment for Christian reform of their labor system.

Southerners might have introduced a smaller and more humanely scaled industrialization to provide some measure of industrial self-sufficiency, and black Southerners might eventually have achieved legal equality and propertied independence.  In other words, an independent South could well have found an alternate – and perhaps more Christian – path to modernity.  Thanks to Mr. Lincoln, we shall never know.”

(Christianity and Slavery in the Old South, excerpt, H. Arthur Scott Trask, Chronicles Magazine, July 1999, page 33)

 

 

 

The Good Life in the South

Author Donald Davidson wrote of the decline of Northern cities committed to progress and the past resistance of Southern cities like Charleston and Savannah to the relentless march of industrial capitalism. But, he observed the ruins all around us as “the ruins of societies no less than the ruins of cities. Over the ruins stream mobs led by creatures no longer really human – creatures who, whether they make shift to pass as educators, planners, editors, commissars, or presidents . . .” lead the way on the path to destruction.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

The Good Life in the South

“Continuity of family, of family life, and family position – irrespective of economic status – was in fact a great distinction of Charleston among old American cities; for elsewhere that continuity had been generally broken by one cause or another. With this continuity Charleston had a stability that expressed itself in the pattern of its streets and the conservatism of its architecture. The map of Charleston in 1948 was not substantially different from the map of Charleston two centuries before.

If John Stuart, whom George III in 1763 appointed superintendent of Indian affairs in the South, could have returned in 1948 to seek his home, he would have found it at 106 Tradd Street, just where he built it in 1772 – for a brief occupancy, as it happened, since the Revolution ejected him, as a Tory, rather speedily from his new house.

The secret of Charleston’s stability, if it was any secret, was only the old Southern principle that material considerations, however important, are means not ends, and should always be subdued to the ends they are supposed to serve, should never be allowed to dominate, never be mistaken for ends in themselves.

If they are mistaken for ends, they dominate everything, and then you get instability. You get the average modern city, you get New York and Detroit, you get industrial civilization, world wars, Marxist communism, the New Deal.

Historians, noting that the antebellum South was in a sense materialistic, in that it found ways of prospering from the sale of cotton and tobacco, and relied heavily upon slave labor, have had the problem of explaining why that same South developed a chivalrous, courteous, religious, conservative and stable society quite different from that which obtained in the also materialistic, but more industrialized, rational, idealistic, progressive North.

The planters’ “aristocratic” leadership was the result, not the cause, of a general diffusion of standards of judgment that all the South, even the Negro slaves, accepted a basic principle of life. Mr. Francis Butler Simkins, in his book The South Old and New, has taken securer than the average historian when he notes that the South at the outbreak of the Civil War was almost the only true religious society left in the Western world.

That old, religious South set the good life above any material means to life and consistently preferred the kind of material concerns that would least interfere with and best contribute to the good life. Its preferred occupations were agriculture, law, the church and politics – pursuits which develop the whole man rather than the specialist, the free-willed individual rather than the anonymous unit of the organized mass.

[With] reference to material means of existence, such as money, one could clinch the discourse by pointing out the traditional attitude of the Southern Negro toward work and wages. If you paid the Negro twice the normal wage for a day’s work, you did not get more work from him – that is to say, more devotion to work within a given period, with increased production as the result. Not at all.

The Negro simply and ingeniously worked only half as many days or hours as before – and spent the rest of the time in following his conception of the good life: in hunting, dancing, singing, social conversation, eating, religion, and love. This well-known habit of the Negro’s, disconcerting to employers and statisticians, was absolutely correct according to Southern principles.

The Negro, so far as he had not been corrupted into heresy by modern education, was the most traditional of Southerners, the mirror which faithfully and lovingly reflected the traits that Southerners once all but unanimously professed.

That had been the idea in Charleston too. It was what Mr. Simkins in his book, perhaps being misled by his historical predecessors, had called the “country gentleman” idea. But Charleston, which had always been urban, always a town or a city of counting-houses, warehouses, factors, bankers, financial agents, and the like, was not a city of country gentlemen, exactly.

It had agreed with the country gentleman and with others of every sort, including the Negro, on letting the relationship between work, wages and life be determined by the metaphysical judgment indicated above. That was what made Charleston Charleston and not “The Indigo City” or something of the kind.”

(Still Rebels, Still Yankees, and Other Essays, “Some Day in Old Charleston,” Donald Davidson, LSU Press, 1957, excerpt, pp. 221-224)

 

John Laurens, South Carolina Emancipator

Though John Laurens intention to emancipate and arm African slaves was intended to blunt the actions of Lord Dunmore’s Virginia emancipation proclamation of 1775 which fomented race war, which Lincoln later copied, South Carolina had earlier considered arming slaves for community defense. This shows too that using slaves as armed combatants with freedom as a reward predates the War Between the States, and an inevitable strategy, both offensive and defensive, given the great numbers of Africans brought to North America by British and New England slave ships.

Bernhard Thuersam www.Circa1865.com

 

John Laurens, South Carolina Emancipator

[Laurens] fought in the Battle of Brandywine, was wounded at Germantown, and spent the winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge on Washington’s staff. At Monmouth the following summer he escaped unscathed when his horse was shot from under him . . . during the late summer of 1778 he had served as liaison officer between the French and American commands during the joint attack on Rhode Island. His linguistic ability made him popular with the French officers and useful to Washington who spoke no French at all.

Nevertheless, Laurens was able to prevail upon his commander to send him back to South Carolina where he hoped to raise and lead a regiment of blacks against the British in the South. Early in 1778 John Laurens broached the matter to his father, who was then president of the Continental Congress. “I would solicit you to cede me a number of your able-bodied men slaves, instead of leaving me a fortune,” he wrote.

Formed into a unit and trained, they might render important service during the next campaign, he argued. What is amazing about his plan, though, is not merely that he was willing to surrender a large part of his inheritance in order to augment the Continental Army — practically everything he did during the Revolution testifies to his willingness to sacrifice his own private interest in favor of the general welfare. Nor is it even that he was willing to arm the slaves — South Carolinians had considered that step during earlier emergencies.

Rather, the astonishing aspects of his proposal are its candor, its boldness and its lager purpose. Service in the revolutionary army would be a stepping-stone to freedom — “a proper gradation between abject slavery and perfect liberty,” which would not only prepare a slave to take his place in free society but also establish his claim to it. In short, his was a clever and far-reaching plan for the gradual abolition of slavery.

A year later, after the fall of Savannah, however, the obvious need for additional manpower led Congress to urge the Southern States to enlist three thousand blacks, who would be freed at the end of the war.”

(The Last of American Freemen, Robert M. Weir, Mercer University Press, 1986, excerpts, pp. 90-94)