History 389: Slavery and the American Founding

This timeline is being created as a group project in an upper-level undergraduate history class at George Mason University.


Locke's Second Treatise on Government


Emphasizes universal natural rights, idea that people voluntarily enter into social contract in order to protect these rights.

Life, liberty, property

Leaves room for slavery by saying perpetrators of unjust wars could be justly enslaved (which does not actually fit the facts of the slave trade).

PA Assembly tries to pass duty on slave imports


Disallowed by British government despite repeated attempts

Mainland slave population begins growing by natural increase


This year marked the first time that the natural growth of slave population numbers contributed more than new slave imports. This is astonishing when one considers nowhere else enjoyed a higher birth than death rate among slaves. This is important because it proved the slave trade itself was being beaten by natural reproduction, eliminating its usefulness. [This is partially true, but there was still such a large demand for slaves that slave imports reached record highs in the 1730s, even as the rate of natural increase grew ... the two were not mutually exclusive.]

John Woolman's activism

1743 - 1772

Quaker John Woolman pushed for the liberation of slaves. With the idea that owning slaves was against their religion's Golden Rule and that it hurt not only those oppressed but the oppressors as well. This was the first time such radical ideas came up as the Quakers were the first to question the ethics of slavery to such a degree.

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting epistle


Questions morality of slaveholding and slave trading

James Otis publishes The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved


In his critique of British policies and actions, Otis calls the slave trade "the most shocking violation of the law of nature."

Virginia's ban on slave importation rejected


The House of Burgess petitioned the Crown for authority to stop the importation of slaves from Africa, but is denied. This becomes part of the list of grievances against the British [even if for self-serving reasons -- this was less an abolitionist stance and more an economic one for Virginians: they were anxious about their growing debt to British merchants and the effects of overproduction on tobacco prices; ending slave imports was a strategy to lessen their debt and to curtail production so that they could prop up tobacco prices.]

First reading of Amazing Grace


First Continental Congress forms Association


Bans importation of slaves, along with other goods.

Benefits slaveowners (especially popular in Virginia) by increasing value of slaves already in the colonies.

Security concerns -- too large a slave population would pose increased risk of uprisings, especially if encouraged by British.

Massachusetts Slaves' Petition


Echoes natural rights theories

Williamsburg Powder Magazine confrontation

04/21/1775 - 04/22/1775

VA Gov. Lord Dunmore orders the removal of arms and ammunition from the powder magazine in Williamsburg to keep it out of rebel hands. Patriots are outraged, claiming that Dunmore's actions left them vulnerable to slave uprisings.

Dunmore fires back at the patriots when they protest, asserting that if British interests were threatened, he was prepared "to declare freedom to the slaves and reduce the City of Wmsburg to ashes" (quoted in Kornblith, 17).

In November, Dunmore would follow through on this strategy (see Dunmore's Proclamation).

Washington Bans Blacks from Continental Army


Later changed to allow free blacks to serve; state militias had varying policies.

Dunmore's Proclamation


Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, calls on slaves of rebels to join British and fight against rebels.

Turns many Virginia elites against British.

Quakers Disown Slaveowners


Quakers were the first organization/denomination to take such a stance.

Virginia Declaration of Rights

05/15/1776 - 06/12/1776

Language about "enter[ing] into a state of society" added to prevent an antislavery interpretation of natural rights.

Congress debates how to count slave population for revenue purposes

July 1776

As the Articles of Confederation were being drafted, members of Congress agreed to raise revenue from the states proportionally to their population (as a proxy for overall wealth) ... but they disagreed over whether to count the enslaved population as people or as property.

Ultimately, slaves were counted as part of the population for this purpose, but in the debate, Benjamin Harrison raised the possibility of counting 1/2 of the slave population (two slaves equal one freeman) as a compromise, based on assumptions about the lesser productivity of slave labor. This idea was not adopted, but the same concept resurfaced in the Constitution in the 3/5 Compromise.

Declaration of Independence

07/02/1776 - 07/04/1776

Drafted by Thomas Jefferson after the Second Continental Congress's adoption of the resolution for independence on July 2, the Declaration not only proclaimed independence, but also asserted that "all men are created equal," and "endowed with certain inalienable rights," including "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." These broad, philosophical claims helped elevate natural rights and equality as key values of the Revolution and the new United States.

The main body of the Declaration was a more specific list of grievances against and abuses of power by King George III. This list served to explain why his rule had become illegitimate and why the colonists were justified in declaring themselves independent.

Jefferson's first draft contained a denunciation of the slave trade as "cruel war against human nature itself." He blamed George III and Britain more broadly for the trade and for preventing its abolition, and he accused the king of encouraging slave rebellion in the colonies (see entries for Williamsburg Powder Magazine and Dunmore's Proclamation).

Jefferson blamed opposition from South Carolina and from northern delegates whose colonies had been engaged in the slave trade for the deletion of the passage. Scholars debate the significance of the passage, but tend to highlight Jefferson's own hypocrisy here: the passage placed all blame on George III, and was silent on the colonies' own eager participation in and substantial (and continuing) profits from slavery and the slave trade; moreover, it treated slavery purely instrumentally, containing no real acknowledgement of or interest in slaves' own humanity (see Kornblith, pp. 19-20).

Many northern states lift ban on black enlistment


In response to new troop quotas, "states from Massachusetts to Maryland subsequently relaxed or eliminated restrictions on black enrollment" (Kornblith, 21).

Rhode Island offers incentives for black enlistment

February 1778

In order to fill troop quotas, Rhode Island creates a regiment for soldiers of color -- the law offers freedom to slaves willing to enlist and provides monetary compensation to their masters. It was a successful recruitment tool ... even though the law was repealed after four months, 225 to 250 Rhode Island men of color served during the war (see Kornblith, pp. 21-22).

Henry Laurens plan to recruit blacks in south

March 1779

(See Kornblith, pg. 22). Laurens proposes plan to free slaves who enlist in Continental Army and to form black battalions led by white officers. Desperate for troops and in hope of preventing the British from capitalizing on slave unrest, Washington, Congress, and SC Gov. John Rutland all agree, but the plan is rejected by the SC and GA legislatures.

Philipsburg Proclamation


British General Henry Clinton expands on actions taken by Dunmore and others by making a general proclamation offerimg freedom and protection to all slaves of rebel masters in the colonies. This triggered a huge rush of runaways, and further alienated many loyalists in the colonies.

Cornwallis Expells Runaways at Yorktown


British General Lord Cornwallis expels runaways from British camp at Yorktown -- low on supplies and ravaged by disease, he felt that they had become a liability. Emphasizes the extent to which British support of black freedom was primarily a strategic decision limited by strategic concerns rather than a moral or humanitarian commitment. (Although compare this with Sir Guy Carleton's actions in getting around article seven of the Treaty of Paris.)

Virginia's Era of Private Manumission

Events from 1782-1806, from Wolf

Virginia Bans Slave Importation


VA Private Manumission Law passed

June 10, 1782

1785 Methodist Antislavery Campaign


Inspired in part by Quaker antislavery ideas (Golden Rule, e.g.) Methodist leaders like Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury work against slavery.

In 1785 they submit a petition to the General Assembly calling for emancipation (gradual). Provokes reaction from defenders of slavery. Does not get very far, despite some rhetorical support from prominent Virginians.

Thomas Coke backs down in Halifax


Black Creek Baptist Church Condemns Slavery as "Unrighteous"


Debate at Richmond Academy


emphasizes fear of race mixture as vulnerability of antislavery position

Baptist General Committee passes resolution encouraging emancipation


Baptists say slavery is a legislative rather than religious issue


St. George Tucker Gradual Emancipation Proposal


Draws on TJ's Notes on the State of Virginia, both in gradual emancipation idea and notion that blacks and whites could not live together in a free society.

Does not require colonization, but limits black civil rights in hope of encouraging them to move elsewhere.

Gabriel's Conspiracy