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How the American Revolution Shed Light on the Moral Problem of Slavery

June 8, 2018

Slaves Working on a Plantation

When Great Britain’s policies became more intrusive in the American colonies and as the American Revolution unfolded in the mid-1700s, patriot Americans sought to protect their rights and freedoms as Englishmen.  As it became clear to the colonists that they would not be afforded their rights, they ultimately sought independence from British rule.  One argument of the colonists in support of freedom and independence from Britain was the assertion that God, in creating mankind, made all men equal in value and dignity and bestowed on them the natural rights of life and liberty.  Just prior to the revolution, the Great Awakening, a Christian evangelical revival, had strengthened these beliefs.  The American Founders thus acknowledged in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 that “all men are created equal.”  As it were, slavery had also become a fairly common practice in colonial America by this time, just as it existed in other parts of the world.  Some colonists in America depended on slaves, largely African-American, for crop labor.  With the onset of revolution, the issue of slavery became a more frequent topic in American political writings, particularly in New England and the middle colonies.  As calls by colonists for freedom from British oppression increased, so did calls by many colonists to end the slave trade.  In this way, the American Revolution began to draw more attention to the moral problem of slavery in colonial and early America.

During the Revolutionary War, an increasing number of early 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.  Many clergymen and Christian or moral-minded colonists increasingly protested the practice of slavery.  For example, …  

Slave Auction, 1861.

Growing numbers of colonial and early Americans also spoke out against slavery in response to the American revolutionary cause for 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.”[5]  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 Great Awakening theologian 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.[6]

While the slave trade did not end at this time, revolutionary and religious influences helped to encourage voices and efforts to abolish the institution in America 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.’”[7]

Slavery was not abolished prior to or during the American Revolution likely due to the growing use of slaves for crops and the war which occupied the attention of Americans.[8]  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.[9]  Yet the Revolutionary War helped to shed increasing light on the issue of slavery and the need to uphold for every citizen the principle in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”

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[1]  Samuel Cooke, A Sermon Preached at Cambridge, 30 May 1770 (Boston, 1770), 41-42, quoted in Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, enlarged ed. (Cambridge, MA:  Belknap/Harvard U Press, 1967, 1992), 239.

[2]  Benjamin Rush, “On Slave Keeping,” 1773, in The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush (New York, 1947), 17, quoted in Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, enlarged ed. (Cambridge, MA:  Belknap/Harvard U Press, 1967, 1992), 239.

[3]  John Allen, An Oration on the Beauties of Liberty, or The Essential Rights of the Americans, 1772, quoted in Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, enlarged ed. (Cambridge, MA:  Belknap/Harvard U Press, 1967, 1992), 240-241.  In Isaiah 58:6, God instructs the Israelites through the prophet Isaiah, “‘Is this not the fast that I have chosen:  To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke?’”

[4]  Levi Hart, Liberty Described and Recommended (Hartford, CT:  1775), v, 9 ff., 15, 16, 20-23, quoted in Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, enlarged ed. (Cambridge, MA:  Belknap/Harvard U Press, 1967, 1992), 243.  In John 8:34-36, Jesus tells the Jews, “‘Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.  And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever.  Therefore if the Son [of God] makes you free, you shall be free indeed [brackets mine].’”

[5]  Richard Wells, A Few Political Reflections (Philadelphia, PA:  1774), 79-83, quoted in Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, enlarged ed. (Cambridge, MA:  Belknap/Harvard U Press, 1967, 1992), 239-241.

[6]  Samuel Hopkins, Slavery of the Africans, in The Works of Samuel Hopkins, vol. 2, ed. Sewall Harding (Boston, MA:  Doctrinal Tract and Book Society, 1852), 571.

[7]  Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, enlarged ed. (Cambridge, MA:  Belknap/Harvard U Press, 1967, 1992), 246.

[8]  H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Middleton, CT:  Wesleyan U Press, 1988), 121.

[9]  For an overview of the biblical verses and arguments used to both denounce and support slavery prior to the American Civil War in the 1800s, see Bruce Feiler, America’s Prophet:  Moses and the American Story (New York:  William Morrow, 2009), 153-157.

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Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This essay is available as a printable PDF handout in the member resources section on americanheritage.org.  Simply sign up and login as a member (no cost), go to the resources page, and look under Miracle of America articles.

Source for more information:
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 2020.  Third Edition (2020) is now available!

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
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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