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How the American Revolution shed light on the Moral Problem of Slavery

June 8, 2018

Slaves Working on a Plantation

During the 1600s and 1700s in colonial America, slavery became a fairly common practice.  Many colonists depended on slaves, largely African-American, for crop labor.  However, the American Revolution in the mid-1700s drew attention to the moral problem of the institution of slavery.

Revolutionary-era colonists supported independence from Britain per the Bible-based argument that God desires freedom rather than bondage for His people.  Further, the American Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”  Just prior to this time, the Great Awakening of the 1740s, a Christian evangelical revival, had strengthened such beliefs in asserting that all men have dignity and are created free and equal before God.  Thus, as calls for freedom from British oppression increased, so did calls by many Americans to end the slave trade.  The issue of slavery thus became a more frequent topic in political writings in America, particularly in New England and the middle colonies.

An increasing number of Americans asserted that slavery violated God’s moral law and natural, human rights.  Slaves were often bought and sold as property and considered by others to have no rights or dignity.  Also, children and descendants of slaves were typically considered slaves as well.  Clergymen and Christian- or moral-minded colonists increasingly protested the practice of slavery.  For example, Rev. Samuel Cooke of Massachusetts preached in 1770 that God “is no respecter of persons” and that “we, the patrons of liberty, have dishonored the Christian name and degraded human nature nearly to a level with the beasts that perish.”  Declaration signer Benjamin Rush, alluding to the Puritans, called on Americans in his 1773 tract, On Slave Keeping, to oppose “a vice which degrades human nature….  Remember the eyes of all Europe are fixed upon you, to preserve an asylum for freedom in this country after the last pillars of it are fallen in every other quarter of the globe.”  Rev. John Allen of Boston asserted in his 1772 Oration on the Beauties of Liberty, or The Essential Rights of Americans that slavery violates the laws of God and Nature and the natural rights of mankind.  Citing Isaiah 58:6, he exhorts, “Loose the bands of wickedness, undo the heavy burdens, let the oppressed go free.”  In 1774, Rev. Levi Hart of Connecticut, citing John 8:36, besought colonists to “bid adieu to the kingdom of darkness, the cause of tyranny and oppression. Enlist under the captain of the Lord’s host.  Fight under his banner.  You may be sure of victory, and liberty shall be your lasting reward.  For whom the Son maketh free shall be free indeed.”

Slave Auction, 1861

Calls to end slavery arose in response to the revolutionary call for American freedom from British oppression.  Richard Wells of Philadelphia asked in 1774 how Americans could “reconcile the exercise of SLAVERY with our professions of freedom.  …  What arguments can we advance in slaves’ favor which will not militate against ourselves, whilst England remains superior by land and sea?”  If colonists disengaged in the practice of slavery, he said, it would “breathe such an independent spirit of liberty, and so corroborate our own claims, that I should dare to hope for an intervening arm of Providence to be extended in our favor.”  Levi Hart posed, “When, oh when shall the happy day come, that Americans shall be consistently engaged in the cause of liberty?”  To Rev. Samuel Hopkins of Rhode Island, a student of Jonathan Edwards, the causes of American liberty and of slavery were the same.  In 1776, he sent a pamphlet to the Continental Congress asking how Americans, so adverse to enslavement by British Parliament, could overlook the slavery of African-Americans “who have as good a claim to liberty as themselves.”  America’s struggle for liberty, he thought, could never be fully realized while slavery continued.  He warned of God’s judgment and called for repentance.

While the slave trade did not end at this time, such revolutionary and religious ideas promoted efforts to abolish the institution as early as 1767.  In 1771 and 1774, the Massachusetts legislature voted to abolish the slave trade (though the law was vetoed).  Rhode Island and Connecticut declared that imported slaves would be freed.  Delaware prohibited the importation of slaves.  Pennsylvania ended the slave trade by taxation.  In 1775, the Quakers formed the first anti-slavery society in the western world.  In 1776, the Continental Congress voted to prohibit the importation of slaves into the thirteen colonies.  Slavery was, says Bernard Bailyn in his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, “subjected to severe pressure as a result of the extension of revolutionary ideas, and it bore the marks ever after.  As long as the institution lasted, the burden of proof would lie with its advocates to show why the statement ‘all men are created equal’ did not mean precisely what it said:  all men, ‘white or black.’”

Slavery was not abolished prior to or during the American Revolution likely due to the growing use of slaves on crops and the war which occupied the attention of Americans.  This social, moral ill would see and take more time, attention, events, and history.  It would come to the forefront of the nation in the American Civil War of the mid-1800s.  Yet the Revolutionary War helped to draw more attention to the moral problem of slavery and the need to uphold for every citizen the principle in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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Sources:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
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2.  Great Awakening Emerges in Early America, Impacting Religion, Society, Politics
3.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Judeo-Christian Law of Love
4.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Dignity of the Human Being
5.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God
6.  Great Awakening Principle:  Happiness
7.  Great Awakening Effects:  Education, Missions, Women, & the Gospel
8.  Great Awakening Effects:  Unity, Democracy, Freedom, and Revolution 
9.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
10.  The Bible was the Most Cited Source of the American Founding Era
11.  The American Revolution was sometimes called the “Presbyterian Rebellion”
12.  American Revolution Debate:  Submission to Authority
13.  American Revolution Debate:  God Desires Freedom, Not Slavery, for His People
14.  How the American Revolution shed light on the Moral Problem of Slavery
15.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:  God’s Opposition to Absolute Rule
16.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
17.  American Revolution Debate:  The Principle of Civil Covenants
18.  American Revolution Debate:  Obedience to God Over Man
19.  American Revolution Debate:  Ancient Israel’s Resistance to Oppression & Divided Kingdom
20.  American Revolution Debate:  The Lawfulness of Defensive War
21.  Freedom:  The Most Important Characteristic of America

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 6, Part 2, Activity 3:  Bible-Based Justification for Revolution, p. 219, 359.  MS-HS.

Bible-Based Justification for Revolution… 

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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Published by: The Founding

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