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On Juneteenth, Remember Americans Who Put Slavery on the Path to Extinction

Michael Barone on

This week, the Senate unanimously passed a bill declaring Juneteenth a national holiday, commemorating June 19, 1865, when a Union general informed the last enslaved people in Texas that, thanks to the 13th Amendment, they were free. This was the denouement of a long process, begun more than four score years before and cruelly delayed for many decades.

There was virtually no articulate opposition to slavery, except among Quakers, in the North American colonies that rebelled against British rule in the 1770s. But there was an obvious tension between slavery and American assertions of individual rights, encapsulated in Thomas Jefferson's phrase "all men are created equal." Revolutionaries were uncomfortably aware of the great English writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson's remark, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"

Americans in northern states responded. In 1781 and 1783, Massachusetts trial and appeals courts ruled that slavery violated the commonwealth's 1780 constitution, and later in the decade, New Hampshire courts agreed. These resembled Lord Chief Justice William Mansfield's 1772 decision in Somerset's case that slavery did not exist in England.

In 1780, the Pennsylvania legislature, declaring slavery "disgraceful to any people, and more especially to those who have been contending in the great cause of liberty themselves," passed a law gradually freeing slaves, similar to one passed by the independent republic of Vermont in 1777.

Similar laws, granting freedom to slaves aged 25 born after the law's enactment, were passed in Rhode Island and Connecticut in 1784; in New York at the behest of Gov. John Jay in 1799; and in New Jersey in 1804.

In July 1787, the Continental Congress, meeting in New York even as the Constitutional Convention was meeting in Philadelphia, passed the Northwest Ordinance outlawing slavery in the Northwest Territory -- the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

 

The historian Alan Taylor, in his books "American Revolutions" and "American Republics," takes pains to remind readers that emancipation was gradual, motivated "more from a distaste for slavery than from empathy for the enslaved" and sometimes ineffective in practice.

True enough, but as Gordon Wood argued in a mostly favorable review in the Wall Street Journal, this understates "the momentous blow that the American Revolution inflicted on the system of slavery in the New World" and the fact that "the United States became the first nation in the world to begin actively suppressing the despicable international slave trade."

Similarly, legal historian Robert Cottrol concluded in "The Long, Lingering Shadow," his survey of slavery and race in the Americas, that "If the progress of northern abolition was gradual and at times halting, it was nonetheless the first large-scale emancipation in the Western Hemisphere, a testament to the power of the ideals generated by the American Revolution."

It is easy to judge these early antislavery measures as insufficient by 21st-century standards. But they can be defended as the best that practical politicians could do to put the "peculiar institution" on the "path to extinction."

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