Are you familiar with the court case Somerset v Stewart?
Don’t be embarrassed if you’re not. Odds are many lawyers are in the dark, as well. For good reason. The case goes way back to 1772. In England.
Yet some scholars trace the outcome of that legal battle to a unified American colonial stance against the British monarchy.
Some background: Northern colonies had reason to bridle under the mercantile laws that inhibited and at times prohibited manufacturing on American soil, production that would compete against industry based in the British Isles. The North wanted commercial independence.
Southern colonies, on the other hand, were enriched by shipping their agricultural products—mainly cotton, rice and tobacco—back to the mother country.
The South had little financial reason to disassociate from the king.
Until Somerset v Stewart threatened the region’s economic underpinning—slavery. Without going into the details of the case (you can do that by linking here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somerset_v_Stewart), the verdict began a process that in a few decades led to the abolition of slavery in Britain.
Southerners could see the writing on the wall. If the colonies remained part of Great Britain they feared control over the enslaved could be restricted. Abolition could become the law in America.
To be sure, all the original colonies at one time permitted slavery. But the combination of exhaustive heat and humidity, insect born illnesses such as malaria and yellow fever, and an agricultural economy that required a large amount of expendable manpower turned the South into a bedrock of slavery.
Virginian Patrick Henry’s famous plea for freedom from British rule—“Give me liberty or give me death”—might well be interpreted to mean, “Give me liberty to keep my slaves or my ruined economy will lead to my death.”
Keep in mind that after winning the Revolutionary War each state under the Articles of Confederation set its own rules on slavery. When the newly independent states reorganized in 1789 as a federal republic under a constitution, the legality of slavery remained a state by state choice, though Congress decreed the importation of more slaves was to be banned after January1, 1808.
The ban and other events—significantly, the expansion westward into Alabama, Mississippi and the territories of the Louisiana Purchase coupled with the invention of the cotton gin that greatly enhanced cultivation and processing of cotton—profoundly changed the economy and future of the United States.
Charleston, SC, for example, lost its position as the richest city in America, a spot achieved through its being the port of entry for some 40% of the enslaved. Commerce shifted further north in a two-pronged fashion. New York became a larger harbor for international trade and, after construction of the Erie Canal, for domestic commerce.
Virginia had relied on slaves to grow tobacco, but much of the land had been depleted of nutrients and was no longer profitably arable. So Virginia became a dominant player in a transformed slave market. With almost no new slaves arriving from foreign soil, slaves already here were bred for sale to territories and new states cultivating labor-intensive cotton.
The cash crop for Virginians became the human creation of more slaves. Slaves to be sold. Slaves to be sold not as family units but as individuals. Separating husbands from wives, children from parents, Virginia sent many of its enslaved to plantations in the Deep South.
Seven of the first 12 presidents of the United States were born in Virginia. Aside from being the first of the British colonies to welcome slaves, Virginia adapted English common law to make it easier to perpetuate slavery. Known by its dictum “partus sequitur ventrem,” a 1662 Virginia law decreed children would take the social status of the mother, not the father. Thus, even offspring of a female slave impregnated (commonly raped) by a white male would be considered a slave.
The seventh and last president to be born in Virginia was Woodrow Wilson. Often associated with New Jersey, where he was president of Princeton University and governor before winning the presidency of the United States in 1912, Wilson has long been held as a statesman for his leadership before, during and after World War I and for being in office when women won the right to vote, the federal income tax system was inaugurated, the Federal Reserve System was established, and laws pertaining to the Federal Trade Commission along with the Clayton Antitrust Act were passed.
Yet he had dyed in the wool Southern sympathies. He kept the military segregated and purged the federal government of many Black civil servants, an action that stifled development of a Black middle class in Washington, DC, and other cities. Under Wilson, the Treasury and Post Office installed separate workspaces, lunchrooms, and bathrooms for Blacks (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2015/11/20/9766896/woodrow-wilson-racist).
Much of our nation’s history flows through Virginia, much of it tinged by slaveholding and racist presidents, men who were “products of their times,” say apologists. Or they were leaders who chose not to practice equality but rather to enjoy during their lifetimes the benefits derived from enslaving other humans.
History is never a simple straight line. The myths surrounding our lionized leaders are fading under deeper scrutiny. Ben Franklin owned another human being. Wikipedia notes that of the first 12 president, only John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams never owned slaves. Eight of the remaining 10 owned slaves while president. Only Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison did not.
Lincoln is revered for emancipating the enslaved. But he embarked on the Civil War not to abolish slavery but rather to preserve the Union. He would have been agreeable to retaining the status quo in the South. Only after two years of battle did he redefine the objective.
The White House plus at least part of the Capitol building were built by slaves.
Today’s protests for political correctness are the culmination of years, decades, of retrospection. Taking down statues of traitors—for that’s what Confederate officers and soldiers were—seems long overdue. No one should be forced to have any ray of sunshine blotted out by figures that deprived men, women and children of their dignity, their humanity, their freedom, their families.
But what of our imperfect presidents? Are we to cover over the chiseled profiles of Washington, Jefferson Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt atop Mount Rushmore? Are bridges and tunnels to be renamed across the land? Cities and towns to be rechristened?
Perhaps we could find a way to honor the descendants of flawed slaveholding presidents. Name schools after George Washington’s children. Or for Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved consort.
I just don’t know. I just don’t know …
I just know that the pain of slavery, of Jim Crow, of racial discrimination haunts our society. And that far too many of our fellow Americans refuse to see it.