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Libertarian Thought and Abolitionism in the Genesis of the American Republic

Libertad, Freedom

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The biased historical view that slavery continues to be the original sin of the United States finds a solid intellectual refutation in Thomas Sowell.

Sowell, opposed to using the history of slavery as an object of fraudulent misrepresentation, makes the following clear: “Neither Africans, Asians, Polynesians, nor the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere saw anything wrong with slavery, even after incipient segments of British and American societies began to condemn slavery in the eighteenth century as morally wrong.”

Sowell’s analysis of the legal and political nature of 18th and 19th century colonialism would suffice to refute the thesis of a sector of leftist intellectual thought obsessed with opportunistically obscuring the historical truth that Americans were among the few peoples who began to question the morality of holding human beings in slavery. This is a debate that ended in civil war and that solved -we believe forever- the ambivalence between the civil liberty of the citizenry and the political upheaval of the colonial nations.

Thomas Sowell. (Image: Cato Institute)

Hence, it has become commonplace among so-called “Progressive” historians to point out that the Founding Fathers contradicted themselves in defending the ideas of equality and liberty during the American Revolution, while at the same time reinforcing the institution of slavery. His thesis on this supposed contradiction is based on the assertion that the survival of slavery was due more to economic and political reasons that demanded the maintenance of the slave consortium in the South, than to the emergence of a revolutionary discourse in favor of a new republican and liberal order.

But we believe that this narrow historical perspective betrays a surprising ignorance of history, or rather a total disregard for the truth.

The crisis of the slave production model from the economic point of view, added to the libertarian aspirations of a part of the North American intellectual elite whose independence code of ethics despised the tyranny of the slave trade, brings to the controversy to put an end to slavery a humanitarian, social and political connotation.

Bearing in mind that for a good part of eighteenth-century American liberalism, the defense of the end of the institution of slavery was inescapably based on the doctrinal models of iusnaturalist rationalism, conceptually supported by Thomas Hobbes (the authoritarian State) and John Locke (the liberal State), when dealing with issues so important to national identity -such as independence and the end of slavery-, the core of white patricians who led the American Revolution in questioning the desirability of the institution of slavery, never invoked the concept of utility but that of justice on the basis of the implementation of the doctrine of the natural rights of man, aimed at suppressing the rights and privileges of the ancien régime.

Instead of preferring a readjustment of status with the British throne, the American patriots adopted as a principle the basic concepts of natural law by subscribing that “all men are created equal”, which grants the citizen “inherent and inalienable rights such as the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

The emergence of conservative liberal thought with figures such as Pain, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison himself, defenders of American specificity against a hegemonic colonial power in decline and the interests of the Southern economic elite, made it possible to place at the center of public debate such important issues as property, equality, freedom and the rights of the citizen, incorporated since the last decade of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth century in the foundational texts of the legal thought of the new American nation.

The debate, prior to the maelstrom of the American Revolution itself, already previewed the conceptual precision of natural rights, liberty and property, analyzed in perspective, to guarantee individual independence and civil liberty, as opposed to the technically argued political liberty.

Advocates of the end of trafficking – such as Thomas Pain, who was the founder of the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes [sic] Unlawfully Held in Bondage – condemned that “so monstrous is it to make and keep them slaves… and the many evils attendant upon the practice, [such] as selling husbands away from wives, children from parents and each other, in violation of sacred and natural bonds; and opening the way to adulteries, incest and many frightful consequences, for all of which the guilty masters must answer to the final judge …”.

From that moment on, the issue of slavery became part of the political culture of the patriciate, not without controversy and opposing views, with a direct reflection in the legal-constitutionalist discourse under the influence of the Massachusetts Constitution.

All too often the left-wing press articulates a wholesale generalist moral discursiveness to identify the white heroes of the American Revolution as endorsers of slavery. This historiographical label usually resorts to ambivalence: the American noble elite would have been supporters of freedom and equality only for their class ambitions, but not out of solidarity with the rest of the citizens.

A re-reading of the classic founding texts of American constitutionalism would be enough to overthrow those “progressive” clichés that identify love of country and civic virtues as exclusive powers reserved only for enlightened whites, interested exclusively, according to their premise, in preserving slavery.

The positions outlined by John Adams in the Massachusetts Constitution allow us to glimpse into the foreshadowing of his ideas in the abolitionist tradition of this historic community, which highlighted the incongruity of some colonists who wanted to defend at the same time the natural rights of man and the slavery of the black population. The legal emancipation of the slave Elizabeth Freeman from her former owner, Colonel John Ashley, confirms the loyalty of the grand jury to the spirit of the founding document drafted by Adams.

In the civic model of plantation owners, planters and slave traders – positions especially prevalent in the Southern colonists – the right to property [of slaves] undermined the right to freedom, just as the political freedom of whites and even the independence of the new nation, curtailed the civil liberty of the black comunity.

Both in the non-acceptance of the Enlightenment cliché of the cultural or moral inferiority of the slave population and in the firmness of his conception of sovereign rights, Adams distanced himself from the ambiguous currents of moralistic abolitionism to insinuate in his legal articulation that all types of property – including slave property – ceased to be a natural right and became a civil right in favor of the aggrieved.

Enemy of prejudices and stereotypes, Adams renounces the condition of articulating constitutionalism with slavery. The linkage of the civil right to property with the natural rights of liberty and equality, guaranteed the democratic essence of American republicanism.

Between the mid-1800s and 1863, with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, one of the main challenges for American liberals was to extend the doctrine of the natural rights of man to all citizens of the United States from a constitutional and legal point of view. In that complex task, enlightened patricians such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were also previously involved, who -with their lights and shadows- ended up conditioning the prerogative of civil liberty for the slaves on the political liberty of the nation. But that will be the subject of another article.

Juan Carlos Sánchez, journalist and writer. His columns are published in different newspapers in Spain and the United States. He is the author of several books and is preparing the essay "Nación y libertad en el pensamiento económico del Conde Pozos Dulces" // Juan Carlos es periodista y escritor. Sus columnas se publican en diferentes diarios de España y EE.UU. Autor de varios libros, tiene en preparación la obra de ensayo “Nación y libertad en el pensamiento económico del Conde Pozos Dulces”

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