Another Inconvenient Truth Gary Nashs Uncompromising Examination Of Slavery And Book Review Example

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In the years following the Revolution, anti-slavery sentiment created an opportunity to rid the nation of what even many slaveholders considered a negative and destructive influence. The generally accepted view of this period is that the Constitutional Convention was overwhelmed by wealthy southern planters, anxious to preserve their wealth and way of life. In Race and Revolution, Professor Gary B. Nash examines the role played by northern authorities in eroding the move toward abolition. Nash also criticizes historians both past and present for ignoring this more complex perspective, choosing instead to divide the issue along neatly assigned lines of North and South, good and bad.
Keywords: Revolution, anti-slavery, Constitutional Convention, Gary B. Nash, planters, abolition.
Another Inconvenient Truth: Gary Nash’s Uncompromising Examination of Slavery and Abolitionism in Revolutionary America
Nash would have us consider that many of the common perceptions about American slavery, and the factors that allowed it to thrive during the country’s early years, are superficial and peremptory. One common scenario, often repeated by historians, is that in which the southern colonies threatened to dissolve the nascent union if slavery was abolished, thus toppling the South’s economic system. In Race and Revolution, Nash adopts a characteristically expansive line of inquiry, seeking to paint a much larger picture, one which many other historians have failed to see. Nash contends that the opportunity to rid the country of slavery was squandered, and that the hypocrisy and cynicism of northern politicians had as much to do with the enfranchisement of slavery as did the political pressure levied by southern politicians. Nash (1990) states that he intends to show that “economic and cultural factors intertwined in
what was not a judicious decision by the leaders of the new American nation but their most tragic failure” (p. 6).
Nash supports the belief that slavery represented a fundamental betrayal of the Revolution’s promise, yet the founders whose high ideals fired the quest for independence failed to act vigorously and in good conscience when it was still in their power to effect change. As Nash points out, after the Constitutional Convention and by the time the new government was firmly in place, the compromises that had been made not only ensured that slavery would continue but that it would have the force of law. In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson went so far as to draft an emancipation bill that would have freed every slave in his state but equivocated, ultimately admitting he believed that “the public mind would not yet bear the proposition (of abolition)” (Nash, 1990, p. 12). Jefferson’s position has historically been conceded, but Nash looks past the safety of that assumption, finding that there was significant opposition in the Chesapeake region for the abolition of slavery. When the Marquis de Chastellux, a French officer who served in the Revolution, toured Virginia in 1782, he remarked that the people “grieved at having slaves, and are constantly talking about abolishing slavery and of seeking other means of exploiting their lands” (1990, p. 12).
Thus, Nash shows us that while slavery certainly was a “devil’s bargain,” it wasn’t necessarily a “done deal,” at least not until 1788. Between the war years and passage of the Constitution, there was a significant amount of soul searching and hand wringing among Americans who were willing to fight and die for liberty but could not resolve the idea of enslaving hundreds of millions of human beings. In the Pennsylvania assembly, an anti-slavery
group argued that there should at least be a gradual means of emancipation, which would earn the new nation the respect of “all Europe, who are astonished to see a people eager for Liberty
holding Negroes in Bondage” (Nash, 1990, p. 13). It is this colossal contradiction that informs Nash’s complex history.
As Nash illustrates in the book’s major theme, nowhere was this contradiction more evident, and consequential, than among the northern states. The South’s slave-owners were quick to identify hypocrisy and inconsistency in the way their northern brethren confronted the issue, which only encouraged southern intransigence. Nash (1990) points out that there were abundant examples of slavery critics in the North who exhibited an odd reluctance to free their own slaves (p. 31). As in the South, northerners were loath to offer up their slaves, first and foremost, for economic reasons. As noble and spotless as the revolutionary generation seems to us, Nash reminds us that greed was as prevalent in late-18th century America as at any other period. Jefferson, who never ceased to wrestle (both publicly and privately) with the dilemma of slavery, identified it as a distasteful moral disconnect, an “interesting spectacle of justice in conflict with avarice and oppression” (1990, p. 31).
Nash makes his point with a typical example of northern moral duplicity. In Pennsylvania, the colony founded as a haven of equality and toleration, lived one of the most influential clergyman in the middle colonies, the Reverend Francis Allison of the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. By 1768, Allison was certain that Americans would pay a heavy price for furthering the institution of slavery, warning that “the Common father of all men will severely plead a controversy against these colonies for Enslaving Negros” (Nash, 1990,
p. 31). Yet Reverend Allison maintained four slaves until his death in 1779, and even then refused to free them in his will.
Of even greater significance was the case of Benjamin Rush, a prominent doctor and academic, who was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence. In 1773, Rush published a virulent anti-slavery pamphlet entitled “An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping.” This anti-slavery broadside was widely circulated and identified Rush with the early abolitionist movement. However, when Rush joined the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society in 1784, many of the group’s members were shocked to find that the doctor still owned a slave by the name of William Grubber, whom Rush had purchased in 1776 (Sobel, 2002, p. 85). Rush’s attitude toward Grubber was patronizing and complex; the doctor wrote that it was his responsibility to “improve” his servant during the very years when Rush was establishing himself as an “antislavery idealogue” (2002, p. 85).
In the Chesapeake colonies, Nash observes that there were many signs that anti-slavery sentiment had gained substantial traction by the early 1780s. In particular, state laws concerning the manumission of slaves were liberalized during this period. The Virginia assembly repealed a law, which dated to 1723, prohibiting the private manumission of slaves (Nash, 1990, p. 17). As often happened during the first century of America’s existence, other states followed Virginia’s lead: Delaware and Maryland passed similar legislation, and by the early 1790s “manumission was a slaveholder’s prerogative throughout the South, except in North Carolina” (1990, p. 17). Again, economics motivated action: the planters of the Chesapeake Bay region were
gradually moving away from the exclusively tobacco-based economy that had typified the region
since its founding. A more diversified agricultural strategy was altering the economic landscape in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, accounting for the “decreasing viability of slave labor in areas of the upper South” (1990, p.17). Thus, manumission was rendered more economically palatable at a time when many southerners were inclined to follow their anti-slavery impulse.
Indeed, economics and the shift in the upper South’s agrarian base are important factors in Nash’s major thesis. “The decreasing profitability of slave labor in the Upper South influenced some planters shifting from tobacco to wheat cultivation to liberate their slaves” (Nash, 2006, p. 416). While this helps explain the book’s economic approach, Nash gives other interrelated factors their due. There were also more philosophical elements at work. Nash reminds us that many of those planters from the Revolutionary era who opted for manumission did so out of a genuine sense of moral responsibility. If this were not the case, there would have been nothing to prevent planters for whom slave labor was no longer profitable from simply selling their slaves to other planters.
Slavery was very much a matter of conscience for Americans from many walks of life, representing a variety of religious persuasions. Quakers, Presbyterians, Methodists and Anglicans voiced eloquent opinions on what all seemed to agree constituted a direct threat to the integrity of American Democracy. Luther Martin, attorney general of Maryland, warned that slavery was “inconsistent with the genius of republicanism,” and that it “lessens the sense of the equal rights of mankind, and habituates us to tyranny and oppression” (Nash, 1990, p. 19). Quaker leaders argued that the inherent rights of black Americans should not be considered as something new, a concept requiring consideration and debate. The notion that all men are
created equal had been addressed in the Declaration of Independence, they argued. David Cooper, a leading Quaker from New Jersey, urged that there was no need to seek meaning and rationale in “the libraries of Europe” because equality was “declared and recorded as the sense of America” (1990, p. 19).
But eloquence was not enough to convince Americans to act on their moral convictions, particularly not when it impacted them on a personal level. It seems that the “not-in-my- backyard” phenomenon was already at work in the 18th century. When southerners put forth plans for a gradually phasing in of abolitionism, northerners were reluctant to commit themselves to a course of action that might affect their financial positions. The Virginia planter Ferdinando Fairfax offered a graduated plan for freeing slaves that included a provision for forcing freed blacks out of Virginia. In this, Fairfax’s plan responded to the desire of his white, southern contemporaries not to live among freed African-Americans. As Nash (1990) explains, northerners appeared to feel the same way, no matter how virulently they spoke against the institution of slavery. “A general emancipation, northerners had reason to believe, would bring free blacks churning northward in search of economic opportunity and some measure of social justice” (p. 43).
There could be no excuse of surprise, of a northern population blindsided by a proposal that they hadn’t had time to consider. In fact, Fairfax’s plan had been widely disseminated in the North, through the medium of Mathew Carey’s American Museum, one of the most popular circulars of the post-Revolutionary period (Nash, 1990, 43). The truth of the matter was that, when it came to the idea of whites, including former slave-owners, living alongside freed blacks
regional differences apparently didn’t matter: the country’s white population simply was not
The anti-black backlash that exploded in northern cities during the 1790s and early 1800s anticipated the incendiary racial situation in Civil War-era New York City, where blacks were systematically oppressed and frequently attacked by whites. Nash (1990) writes that as early as 1805, whites in Philadelphia used violence to force black neighbors away from the city’s Fourth of July celebrations at Independence Square (p. 49). In a trend that must be familiar to most modern Americans, northern whites reacted negatively to free blacks moving into their cities and the economic competition they represented. Nash (1990) writes that this feeling hardened and intensified after the War of 1812, and that the possibility of northern support for a national abolitionist program was all but dead. “Instead, a belligerent white supremacism was manifesting itself throughout the North” (p. 49).
Clearly, there were ominous ramifications for blacks seeking to make a new life in the North. Low pay, difficult working conditions and harassment both at work and home became
commonplace. The northern states may have chosen to abolish slavery, but an ingrained
belief in the basic inferiority of blacks hampered their attempts to succeed economically and socially. As Nash points out early in Race and Revolution, it was an era when environmentalist thought ruled the day. Pseudo-scientific reasoning sought to explain, or rationalize, the belief in black inferiority by citing social conditioning as the cause of their “degraded condition” (Nash, 1990, p. 7). If one follows closely the reasoning put forth by the nation’s founders, that all men are created equal (and the innate condition which that statement imputes), then assuming a state of inferiority conferred by environment seems a base invention aimed at excusing willful inaction. And indeed, as Nash (1990) explains, this view, which was influenced by Enlightenment thinking, was already giving way to an older, more simplistic position. “The environmentalist belief of the Revolutionary periodwas weakening, with the old view that blacks were innately inferior making a (return)” (p. 48).
Nash’s theses do not necessarily conflict with other materials as much as they surpass them in terms of vision and depth. As mentioned previously, Nash is a master at identifying and exploring influential undercurrents of history, lines of inquiry that have been obscured by the rote parroting of traditional themes by other historians. In fact, Nash takes his colleagues to task for having failed to explore what they evidently considered to be a distasteful proposition, namely that northern political and religious leaders failed to act decisively during a crucial time in the nation’s formative years, a time when anti-slavery sentiment was at its peak. Nash appears
interest not to do so. This may not be a popular viewpoint but it is an historical one, arrived at objectively and not through the distorting presumption that the course of history unfolds along parallel lines, in reliable shades of black and white.
Nash’s main points are well supported by thorough and thought-provoking resources, comprised of papers and correspondence from the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary periods. The book’s organization offers a logical progression of ideas that add weight to Nash’s arguments. Nash has authored, co-authored and edited dozens of books and articles on this subject and, as such, it comes as no surprise that his writing should be authoritative and clear. Nevertheless, his academic style does, at times, intrude itself in the form of over-long sentences that can make for laborious reading (though it is conceded that neither his subject nor his position easily accommodate simple, declarative sentences). The fact that he has eschewed footnotes in favor of an extensive bibliography helps keep the reader “on point” and in the flow of his thematic presentation.
Nash has spent the better part of five decades exploring slavery and its complex legacy in North America. Many have considered this the central social, political and economic issue of American history, though remarkably few historians have given the subject its due weight, preferring rather to frame their view of American history through the prism of the traditional North-South divide. Nash warns that this historical bromide paints a deceptively simplistic picture, in which the denizens of the capitalistic, industrialized and economically vigorous North
contended with the agrarian, slave-owning South over abolition and emancipation. The great value of Race and Revolution, and of Professor Nash as an historian, is that his work reminds us
that history is fluid and mercurial. Rarely is it cut and dry.
For most Americans, the Revolutionary War and the great events that immediately followed it are sacrosanct, defining moments for a great Republic. It is a living legacy in that the meaning of Democracy, as framed by the founding fathers, continues to be shaped by experiences that touch the lives of everyday Americans. Thus, we find ourselves in the flow of history, actors in an evolving drama with no apparent end. The men who challenged absolutism in 1776 understood the importance of not shaping history to support the position of a group, or nation. What they did was to fashion a society capable of reinventing itself so that it could survive the vagaries of history. This is what Professor Nash communicates in his work, a concept he argues in Race and Revolution, and which other historians have overlooked.
Thus, Race and Revolution serves to enlighten the reader as to how slavery was allowed to survive despite the stated concerns of men such as Jefferson and Madison and the new nation’s egalitarian foundations. But Nash accomplishes something much deeper by comingling his history with a kind of cautionary tale. Not only did 18th-century historians overlook important trans-regional truths about slavery’s enfranchisement, but 20th-century writers, armed with the perspective of 200 years of history, have behaved in like fashion, “saying so little about the revolutionary generation’s struggle over the issue of slavery as almost to excuse the institution” (Nash, 1990, p. 4). The danger is that if historians cannot separate themselves from an idealized, burnished image of America, then there is scant hope that important lessons can be
drawn from the past. One great lesson to be drawn from Race and Revolution is that history often fails to suit our conceits and that by forcing it to do so, we consign ourselves to a blinding and self-serving ignorance.
Nash, G.B. (1990). Race and Revolution. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 4, 6, 7, 12,
13, 17, 19, 31, 43, 48, 49.
Nash, G.B. (2006). The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the
Struggle to Create America. New York, NY: Penguin Books. p. 416.
Sobel, M. (2000). Teach Me Dreams: The Search for Self in the Revolutionary Era. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 85.

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