In Death or Liberty, Douglas R. Egerton offers a chronicle of African’s history in America stretching from Britain’s 1763 victory in the Seven Years’ War to the election of slave holder Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800.


There is an interesting myopia at work here and Egerton comes so close to a really valuable insight without ever quite getting there. The blacks in the north who achieved their freedom were able to do so because of the 10th amendment to the Constitution, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” , which is the ultimate recognition of the principle that ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL. In the instances cited Massachusetts and Delaware were free to allow or deny freedom to slaves just as Virginia was free to try and hang those guilty of insurrection.

Everyone wants to get all warm and fuzzy over the Preamble to the Constitution without realizing that what is being said is that in order to do these generally accepted good things we commit to do the following specific things. By the time the Bill of Rights had gotten drafted the elegant, if equivocal, prose had given way to no less eloquent, but a good deal less equivocal, prose when it’s preamble stated, “in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.”

Finally, what has to be realized is that there is a huge difference between liberty and equality. Liberty – being the condition of being free – may be granted by law. Equality – being a condition wherein both the civic and private virtues are attained and practiced – can never be legislated into existence.

Death or liberty : African Americans and revolutionary America       Douglas R. Egerton United States , History , Revolution,  1775-1783 , Africans Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2009 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. x, 342 p. : ill., maps, ports. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [283]-332) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text.  VG/VG

While American slavery is usually identified with the cotton plantations, Egerton shows that on the eve of the Revolution it encompassed everything from wading in the South Carolina rice fields to carting goods around Manhattan to serving the households of Boston’s elite. More important, he recaptures the drama of slaves, freed blacks, and white reformers fighting to make the young nation fulfill its republican slogans.

Although this struggle often unfolded in the corridors of power, Egerton pays special attention to what black Americans did for themselves in these decades, and his narrative brims with compelling portraits of forgotten figures such as Quok Walker, a Massachusetts runaway who took his master to court and thereby helped end slavery in that state; Absalom Jones, a Delaware house slave who bought his freedom and later formed the Free African Society; and Gabriel, a young Virginia artisan who was hanged for plotting to seize Richmond and hold James Monroe hostage.

Egerton argues that the Founders lacked the courage to move decisively against slavery despite the real possibility of peaceful, if gradual, emancipation. Battling huge odds, African American activists and rebels succeeded in finding liberty – if never equality -only in northern states.

Canvassing every colony and state, as well as incorporating the wider Atlantic world, Death or Liberty offers a lively and comprehensive account of black Americans and the Revolutionary era in America.

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