How liberals made the British Empire

A great article from UnHerd. I see parallels not only with America’s Forever Wars and Foreign Interventions, but also in the desire of the young to remake Western societies into Social Justice Nirvana’s without an thought at all the the manifold things we take for granted- like food, electricity or innovation- which might collapse as a result.

Shame the writer is an editor @claire , otherwise I would say go ahead and poach him…


I think the only barb Aris Roussinos missed was that it was Charles II himself who chartered the Royal African Company to exploit the African slave trade and gave the company, along with New York, to his brother, James, Duke of York (later James II) who chose to trade mark his slaves by branding them with “DOY.” Charles II also granted a charter to Rhode Island in 1663 and Rhode Island immediately became the largest slave trader in New England.

An amusing side note, Richard Nixon was raised as a Quaker. Is there anything more annoying and dangerous than Quaker self-righteousness? Of course, back in the day, about 1650, Quakers were just another variety of Ranters.


We have a few Quakers a way back on my mothers side- but I think the family probably converted because they were poor and the Quakers helped them. Don’t worry, I don’t have any form of sentimental attachment to Quakering :smiley:

I thought the Quakers were opposed to slavery from the getgo. No?

By and large, all of the Independent sects of 1640s and 50s were against slavery. Roger William’s Rhode Island colony banned it altogether in the 1640s and the other New England colonies limited it to lawful captives in a just (defensive) war and those who voluntarily sold themselves into slavery. This followed what had been the practice in England from time out of mind through at least the Monmouth Rebellion.

But it is also true that after the Restoration bond slavery became the rule in England’s American colonies and dissenters and non-conformists eagerly participated in the very profitable trade after Charles II made it legal in 1663. Fun fact: John Locke was paid to draft a constitution for Charles II’s Eight Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas in 1663 that created a feudal colony with an aristocracy, a class of freeholders, a larger class of serfs and a still larger class of slaves. The Restoration Stuarts were all-in with slavery.

In the US, Quakers, Northern Baptists, Unitarians and Congregationalists began rejecting slavery again after 1745. The Vermont republic banned it in 1777 before it joined the Union and Massachusetts ended it by judicial decision in 1780 immediately after its first constitution was ratified. The anti-slavery mood in the North was strong enough that slavery was banned in the old Northwest Territory in 1787.

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Thanks very much, that was most informative. Never simple is it?

That was an outstanding essay.

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The legal mechanism that transformed English common law slavery into American bond slavery is interesting. In England, the term “slave,” like villein, freeman, gentleman and noble, described a civil status that was inherited at birth from the father. One of the chief disabilities associated with the civil status of slave was that neither the slave nor a descendant of a slave could own or convey property and they were obliged to do their owners bidding come what may. But they did retain certain civil rights and they could petition the manor court for redress of some grievances. Slaves, prisoners, indentured servants and pressed men were all under very similar legal circumstances. The chief difference being “slave” was an inherent civil status.

In England and its American colonies before 1663 if the father of a child born to a slave mother was unknown the child was usually presumed to have been born free but it was a question of fact for a jury. In Virginia before 1663 one or two slaves actually won their freedom by arguing this point before a jury.

Common law slavery was not bond slavery. Under the common law a slave was still a person but a bond slave was not a person at all. Chief Justice Taney made that distinction very clear in Scott v. Sanford (1857).

A provision in all of the colonial charters was that the colonial government could not make any laws contrary to the laws of England. Bond slavery came to the Anglosphere when Charles II allowed first the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas and then other colonies to change the colonial laws by providing that in the case of slaves, the child inherited the civil status of the mother (whose civil status was always known), stripping slaves of any civil rights and making it clear that slaves, like other livestock, were the personal property of their owner. The colonies with plantation economies adopted such laws and other colonies tended not to do so.

In 1700, being a slave in Massachusetts was quite different from being a slave in South Carolina. In Massachusetts a slave could petition the town meeting or the colony’s General Court for redress of grievances and the magistrates could free or order compensation to an abused slave. That was not the case in South Carolina. Of course, the New England economy did not depend on slave labor while economy of South Carolina did. In Massachusetts a slave was seen as a very un-republican status symbol that was associated in the public mind with prosperous merchants and titled minions of the crown.


John, you’d be the guy to answer a question I’ve had since I was a kid: One heard of slaves ‘buying their freedom’. How can a piece of livestock accumulate money and buy anything, let alone themselves? The legal structure of bond slavery would seem to preclude it. Common law slavery, as you describe it, would seem to make it just possibly possible but even then one is trying to change one’s position in a caste system. In the case of indentured or debt slavery of course it’s a no-brainer that one can pay off the debt but even then, the idea of a slave accumulating private money seems strange since one’s whole productivity is supposed to belong to the master. Help me out on this, I never could get an answer.

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You’er absolutely right. As described by Sir Edward Coke in Coke on Littleton neither a slave nor a slave’s descendants could own or convey property. One of Coke’s biographers has speculated that Coke himself might have had a slave in his family tree and that his obsession with property law along with the number of collusive actions to try title in the 16th Century might be attributable to the desire of English peasants who were moving up into the yeoman class to judicially extinguish any hint of hint of slavery in the grantor or grantee’s background.

But back to the US in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Not all slaves were field hands who never saw a penny. A respectable number were skilled tradesmen such as blacksmiths, cart- and wheelwrights, carpenters, bricklayers, tailors and mechanics of one kind or another whose services were rented out. In the course of such employment they did manage, under the table, to take on other jobs for third parties and thereby acquire their own funds that were not disclosed to their owner.

How exactly they did this and what conduits they used is not something I’ve investigated. But the reality for the slave owner was that their slaves were usually mortgaged to the hilt and it was sometimes the case that any source of hard money was welcome and few questions would be asked. It also appears to be true it was something of the custom in the antebellum South to allow skilled and favored slaves to buy their freedom. It was also a not uncommon practice, an act of christian charity, for owners to free some or all of their slaves in their wills.

Keep in mind that for all slavery’s problems in the US, the slave population in the US was the only Anglo-British slave population in the New World that was naturally growing after 1807 without the importation of new slaves from Africa. The implication is that conditions were better for slaves in the US than say Jamaica or Barbados. Most American slave owners were not cruel and heartless although a good number doubtless were.

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But there again any money that was ever put forward by a slave must surely, automatically, belong to the master? Thus any contract of sale would be null and void, no?

Especially when juxtaposed against the conditions a white navy might face which some have claimed were often worse. I’ve often thought that the Reparations people should consider that a slave received food, clothing and logging at least enough to keep him alive which is about exactly what a free laborer received so it would be interesting if the compensatory reparations turned out to be, on balance, in the negative. Especially if one considers the fate of African slaves not exported to America who I doubt did any better than those exported. All Victimhoods are relative to the prevailing conditions at the time.

Perhaps even slaves got time off during which they could moonlight.

I see your technical objection but nevertheless that is what happened. Call it local custom varying the common law if you want but remember, I’ve never made a point of studying the various black codes of 200 years ago. In the antebellum South slavery was called their peculiar institution. Perhaps we are trying to puzzle out just one of its many peculiarities .

But do consider we are talking about skilled craftsmen whose services made him valuable to the entire community. If sub rosa clients “ratted” him out or cheated him of the deal that had been struck he would soon stop providing his services and everyone would lose. The White Southerners were simply not universally cruel, devious or dishonorable towards Blacks.

Indeed not. My point is a mere legal curiosity but an interesting one and not yet really answered. We do have the ‘fact on the ground’ of slaves buying their freedom but it is difficult to understand the legal formalities of the thing. A bill of sale is a legal instrument so must be legally defensible and thus all the i’s must be dotted. So it can’t be simply a matter of under the table payments. If I buy my freedom and my master fails to deliver me to myself I would presumably sue him (Dred Scott), giving me legal standing, and the right to own money and sue a white man and win – at least in theory. Tricky stuff. It just goes to show you how ‘impossible’ slavery is in anything like a democracy. I wonder if there are any historical statutes that might clear this up.