Slavery in 18th-century America

It is both difficult and morally objectionable to ignore slavery in any history of eighteenth-century American Freemasonry. Slave labour underpinned or was integral to the economies of almost every province in America. Not just the South. It may have been more extreme in South and North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Maryland, but slavery took root virtually everywhere, North and South.

Bare statistics outline the steady rise in the number of slaves. In South Carolina, the figure increased from 20,000 in 1730 to 97,000 in 1780, with slaves comprising a majority of the population for the whole of the eighteenth century. In Georgia, the number of slaves rose from less than 1,000 in 1750, when slavery was legalized, to over 20,000 in 1780. And in North Carolina the slave population went from 6,000 in 1730 to 91,000 in 1780. Virginia had the largest number of slaves in absolute terms: 30,000 in 1730 and over 220,000 in 1780. The slave population in the province was so large that the slave workforce was virtually self-sustaining, with slaves born into slavery meeting the bulk of demand and reducing the need to import additional slaves from Africa and the Caribbean. In Maryland, with a fraction of the land area of Virginia, the comparable figures were approximately 17,000 slaves in 1730 and more than 80,000 in 1780.

Slavery was also common in the North. New York merchants had engaged in slave trading since at least 1711, with New York’s slave market located at the foot of Wall Street at the junction with Water Street, then on the East River. The slave population in New York rose from some 6,000 in 1730 to reach more than 21,000 in 1780, with hundreds if not thousands of households owning slaves. In New Jersey, the numbers grew from around 3,000 to more than 10,000; in Delaware, from 500 to almost 3,000; and in Pennsylvania, from 1,200 to around 8,000. Slavery was also present across New England. Massachusetts had over 2,000 slaves in 1730 and almost 5,000 in 1780; Rhode Island, 1,600 in 1730 and 2,600 in 1780; and Connecticut, 1,400 in 1730 and almost 6,000 in 1780. In total, around a fifth of America’s non-Native American population in 1780 comprised slaves, a horrifying figure.

Even freed slaves faced substantial discrimination and in many provinces were forbidden to own property. And slave laws in the North were almost as intensively oppressive as those in the South. In New York, for example, two justices of the peace could enforce any punishment except death or amputation upon any slave for an assault on a Christian or Jew, no matter how trivial; and any unauthorized gathering of three or more slaves was punishable by forty lashes.

In legal terms, slaves were subject to property law and comparable to moveable chattels or animals, albeit that animals were often treated less brutally. Given that perspective, it is hard to ignore the obvious irony in Henry Laurens (who owned hundreds of slaves), and other patriots making the case for Independence from Britain by comparing their legal status as settlers with that of slaves.

In the South, Georgia’s legal code made almost no distinction between blacks who were slaves and the small number that were free, some 300 or so in the 1770s, less than 1% of the black population. Examples of discrimination include the inadmissibility in Court of any testimony by a black person, whether a slave or free man, against that of a white; the requirement for free blacks to have a white guardian and the same legal domicile as that guardian; and if a black person could not prove that he or she was free, he or she would be deemed a slave.

Georgia and South Carolina’s slave code allowed unaccompanied blacks to be stopped and searched lawfully by any white person and in the event of refusal or resistance a defence of ‘lawful killing’ was permissible. Education for blacks – ‘taught to write or suffering them to be employed in writing’ – was illegal under Georgia law and punishable by a fine of £15 sterling. And in the labour markets, free blacks were prohibited from competing with white workers.

Most Southerners – and many in the North – insisted that slavery was part of the natural order. Thus, despite the wording of the new United States Constitution, either all men were not created equal or blacks could not be regarded as men. Moral relativism has sought to explain away slavery as a phenomenon of its time. But the physical and mental brutality that it evoked was considered contrary to principled behaviour even in the early eighteenth century. Moral relativism does not explain slavery. White financial and societal self-interest does.

The argument that slavery was a product of its time is only partly accurate. But even among its abolitionist opponents relatively few were prepared to practice what they preached. David Ramsay (1749-1815), a South Carolina physician and politician born in Pennsylvania and educated at Princeton, a man described as ‘schooled in revolutionary republicanism and reformist ideals’ and someone who ‘opposed slavery both as a moral evil and as inconsistent with and detrimental to a republican society’, took a stance that was far more nuanced and accommodative of his South Carolinian peers. Ramsay may have written that he hoped that ‘there will not be a slave in these states fifty years hence’ and suggested to Thomas Jefferson that ‘all mankind [is] originally the same and only diversified by accidental circumstances’, but his marriage to Henry Laurens’s eldest daughter made him personally one of South’s largest slave owners – and a hypocrite.

The thoughts expressed by Montesquieu, a member of the Horn Tavern Lodge in London, in Spirit of the Laws, may have resonated with progressive Americans. But few were willing to act on the principles he outlined:

Slavery, properly so called, is the establishment of a right which gives to one man such a power over another as renders him absolute master of his life and fortune. The state of slavery is in its own nature bad. It is neither useful to the master nor to the slave; not to the slave, because he can do nothing through a motive of virtue; nor to the master, because by having an unlimited authority over his slaves he insensibly accustoms himself to the want of all moral virtues and thence becomes fierce, hasty, severe, choleric, voluptuous and cruel. In despotic countries where they are already in a state of political servitude, civil slavery is more tolerable than in other governments. Everyone ought to be satisfied in those countries with necessaries and life. Hence the condition of a slave is hardly more burdensome than that of a subject. But in a monarchical government where it is of the utmost importance that human nature should not be debased or dispirited there ought to be no slavery. In democracies where they are all upon equality; and in aristocracies where the laws ought to use their utmost endeavors to procure as great an equality as the nature of the government will permit, slavery is contrary to the spirit of the constitution: it only contributes to give a power and luxury to the citizens which they ought not to have… But as all men are born equal, slavery must be accounted unnatural, though in some countries it be founded on natural reason and a wide difference ought to be made between such countries and those where every natural reason rejects it, as in Europe, where it has been so happily abolished.

John Locke’s views were also widely ignored: slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation, that it is hardly to be conceived that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for it.

Only in the 1780s following Independence did the Northern States begin to turn away from slavery. Conversely, Southern views on slavery became more entrenched and would remain so for many years to come.