Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One "Twenty Negars":
Slavery Is Planted in the Colonies "All Negroes or other slaves shall serve durante vita.
-- Maryland Legislature, 1663
In 1772, Lord Mansfield, the chief justice of the King's Bench, adjudicated the case of James Somersett, an African slave who had been brought by his master from Virginia to England. Somersett had run away but had been recaptured, taken aboard ship, and held there against his will. Demanding his client's freedom, Somersett's lawyer petitioned Mansfield for a writ of habeas corpus, which the chief justice reluctantly issued, affirming that Somersett could not be held, because "as soon as any slave sets foot upon English territory, he becomes free." Mansfield's decision, which resulted in the uncompensated emancipation of as many as fourteen thousand blacks residing in Britain, not only made it clear that slaves automatically gained their freedom the instant they arrived on English soil, it also asserted an even more fundamental principle: that slavery could have no legal standing in a society unless "positive law" existed that provided it with an unequivocal legislative mandate. Slavery was so odious, Mansfield maintained, that its legality could not be based on mere custom or usage. Anything short of statutory action, which had the power to preserve slavery's mandate long after the "reasons, occasion, and time ... from which it was created ... were erased from memory," was insufficient to give it legitimacy.
Somersett v. Stewart represents a judicial landmark because it effectively ended slavery in Britain, where black servants had grown increasingly fashionable throughout the eighteenth century. It also raises importantquestions about the development of slavery in America. The basis for the Somersett decision -- that no statutory law existed in Britain pertaining to slavery -- meant that no English precedent had been established to justify slavery in Britain's colonies. Nevertheless, over the preceding 150 years, each of the colonies had built its own independent system of bondage and evolved an elaborate legal code that had come to represent the positive law sanctioning the institution. By the 1770s, the thirteen colonies had created a unique form of American slavery, unlike any the world had ever seen.
How did slavery become so firmly entrenched in the colonies, when it appears never to have received the approval of English law? The answer lies in a century and a half of organic development that allowed the colonists to formulate their own brand of bondage, responding as they went along to the constant changes that accompanied the introduction of slavery into new and relatively unstable societies.
From the beginning, the English Crown had granted the colonists an unusual degree of freedom to govern themselves. Unlike the Castilian monarchy, which maintained tight controls throughout Latin America, the English Crown wanted to avoid the expense of colonial development. Thus it granted substantial independence to private merchant-adventurers, who were willing to raise money and risk their lives for speculative enterprises on the American continent. Virginia's 1611 charter, for example, granted to that colony's leaders "full power to ordain and make such laws and ordinances ... as to them, from time to time, shall be thought requisite and meet: " Though the king retained control over internationalrelations and commerce, the colonies exercised the broadest powers in relation to their internal affairs.
In the New World, the English stand as relative latecomers both as colonists and as exploiters of blacks. In 1501, Spain officially sanctioned the introduction of slaves into its Caribbean and South American colonies, and by the end of the sixteenth century the Spanish had brought nearly a million Africans to Latin America. The English colonists arrived in the West Indies and Virginia only at the start of the seventeenth century and began importing blacks a few years later. The first recorded instance of blacks arriving on the American mainland came in 1619, when the planter John Rolfe noted that "a dutch man of warre" had called at Jamestown and sold the colonists "twenty Negars" In all likelihood, these first blacks were slaves who had been kidnapped from the Spanish West Indies by English or Dutch privateers, secretly financed by gentlemen from Virginia and Bermuda.
Whatever their background and status, this original group of blacks landed in a country that knew servitude quite well but in which slavery barely existed, if at all. The English Puritan theologian Paul Baynes delineated two types of servants: "either the more slavish; ' created "forcibly, as in captivity, or the "more free and liberall," who became servants voluntarily. But the terms of both sorts of servitude were temporary, and included apprentices and indentured laborers along with bound convicts and Irish and Scottish prisoners of war. They made up the colonies' primary source of labor throughout the seventeenth century.' Before 1700, roughly two-thirds of all the immigrants south of New England arrivedas bond servants. A steady stream of Britain's poor and dispossessed contracted for a period of voluntary servitude in order to escape their blighted prospects as subsistence laborers at home. These bondsmen agreed to serve their colonial masters for a period of four or five years and in return received passage, maintenance, and "freedom dues" -- which might include a sum of money and a piece of land -- when their term of service expired.' Generally, they bound themselves to farmers, who cultivated a small area carved out of the wilderness with no more than four or five indentured laborers. Conditions were harsh, and often master and servants lived in dose quarters in an environment that, at least in the early years, was exclusively male, with everyone crammed into the single habitable structure that typified the earliest colonial farm.
Alien in appearance, language, and culture, the first blacks fell into this system of servitude as if from the sky. In the English concept of indentured service, master and servant were both white; there was no provision for people as strange and forbidding as Africans. The colonists surely understood that slavery was thriving throughout Latin America -- and also in the East Indies, Greece, and the Middle East -- but anything resembling Baynes's "slavish" servitude, with the exception of convicts and prisoners of war, had ended in Britain during the Middle Ages ...
"Powerful." Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"A rational, well thought out examination of racism in white America" Denver Post
A work of American history that reveals how whites have excluded blacks from virtually every area of American life, denying them citizenship and humanity, from colonial times to the present day.
In a devastating narrative that spans more than three centuries, from colonial times to the present day, Alienable Rights
reveals how whites have excluded blacks from virtually every area of American life, denying them full citizenship and equality.
Brought to America early in the seventeenth century, the first slaves were treated in much the same way as indentured white servants who had come from England. After only a few years, however, whites ostracized blacks, who were viewed as an inferior race, and passed laws making their enslavement permanent, denying even free blacks the most basic rights enjoyed by whites. Though many slaves fought honorably in the Revolutionary War, earning their freedom, the Constitution (1787) sanctioned slavery, making it -- in the words of one of the signers -- the document's "most prominent feature." Three years later, Congress passed the nation's first naturalization act, limiting citizenship to "free white persons" only.
Throughout the country, a popular colonization movement developed, attracting whites who hoped to make the United States a purely white nation by transporting all blacks to Africa or the Caribbean. Though the Civil War ended slavery, the subsequent congressional attempt to remake southern society during Reconstruction failed because whites in both the North and the South were unwilling to accept blacks as equals, with the same rights to vote, to attend school, and to move freely throughout American society. Instead, the Supreme Court approved the subterfuge of "separate but equal," which allowed state governments to maintain racial segregation by providing blacks with inferior institutions of their own.
The "Jim Crow" system was overturned by the civil rights movement that followed World War II, but much of the progress of the 1960s and 1970s was blunted by an angry backlash in the 1980s.
The authors contend that the drive for African American equality has never had the support of the majority of white Americans. Racial progress has come in brief historical bursts when a committed militant minority -- abolitionists, radical Republicans, civil rights activists -- stirred the nation to action, pressuring it to change; but, invariably, advances have been followed by concerted efforts to restore white privilege.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -356) and index.
About the Author
Barry Sanders teaches at Pitzer College, The Claremont Colleges, in California. He lives in Southern California.