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October 19, 2014


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Wouldn't a British *North America (that is, the midatlantic colonies and New England) have delayed emancipation of slavery? The desire to free slaves in those regions was driven by the ideals of the Revolution, and quite a few abolitionists pointed out "hey, maybe we shouldn't treat people as property while we fight for freedom?"

Take the Massachussetts Supreme Court decision in 1783:

"But whatever sentiments have formerly prevailed in this particular or slid in upon us by the example of others, a different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses-features) has inspired all the human race. And upon this ground our Constitution of Government, by which the people of this Commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves, sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal -- and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property -- and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature, unless his liberty is forfeited by some criminal conduct or given up by personal consent or contract ..."

Okay, maybe the Massachussetts Supreme Court just relies on Somerset, the British decision that abolished slavery. But it seems suspect.

A lot depends on why Britain doesn't lose the colonies, I grant. If there's no revolution, but some sort of grand compromise, then the colonies also miss out on the costs of the Revolution and the decade of hardship that followed.

Hmm. You raise a good point. If the northern states allow slavery to continue for much longer, it is a godawful tragedy.

But would it have slowed economic growth for long, given that the southern cotton economy was pulling the slaves out of the north? (And that's begging the question of whether slavery was incompatible with rapid economic growth -- the horrifying evidence is that it wasn't.) I'm still not sure Wright is correct.

Your point about the post-revolutionary lost decade is spot-on. I wish I'd thought of it.

And as you say, there are a lot of ways that North America could have remained within the British Empire. How really matters; it doesn't make sense to talk about the costs of remaining in the empire when "remaining in the empire" covers so many different institutional possibilities.

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