The July 4 editorial “What ‘America First’ should really mean” portrayed the United States as “a nation that long ago set itself against tyranny.” But this ignored the elephant in the room: The American Revolution was motivated in part to preserve slavery.
In 1772, four years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the English court decision Somerset v. Stewart was generally interpreted to mean that slavery had no legal basis in England. In contrast, the laws of the southern American colonies defined slaves not as people but as property. The contrast between these laws and the public’s view of the Somerset decision could not be starker. The southern colonies feared that Somerset would eventually apply to them and abolish their way of life. In their view, the only way to preserve slavery was to become independent of Britain. Their support for independence was essential to the Revolution’s success.
The moral impact of Somerset eventually led Britain to abolish slavery in nearly all of its colonies. It did that in 1833, 32 years before slavery was abolished in the United States by the 13th Amendment. Had Britain succeeded in suppressing the Revolution, slaves in the United States might have been freed a lot sooner.
John L Hodge, Jamaica Plain, Mass.