In 1862 Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation thereby putting an end to the legal status of slavery and initiating a new struggle toward legal equality for black people that took another century to accomplish. But the emancipation movement actually started a century prior. This fact has been erased from institutionalized U.S. history books because of how it exposes the fact that 13 of the British colonies were rebelling for the same reason the Confederacy did a century later, to protect slavery from the threat of emancipation.
In 1772 there was a highly publicized court case in England known as Somerset v Stewart. James Somerset, an enslaved African was purchased by Charles Stewart, a customs officer when he was in Boston. Stewart brought Somerset back to England with him but after getting to England Somerset escaped. He was recaptured and Stewart imprisoned him on a ship that was to leave for the colony of Jamaica. Somerset was to be sold to a plantation.
But some abolitionists interceded and brought the matter to court arguing that according to Common Law, no man in England can be forcibly removed from the country to be sold into slavery. The case drew a lot of attention in the press, both in Britain AND its colonies.
In the end, the presiding judge, Lord Mansfield, decided in Somerset’s favor and even though it was decided mostly on technicalities, his decision became a precedent in British politics which stirred alarm among the slave owners in colonies like Virginia, who read the writing on the wall. If they remain under British law for much longer they would be forced to free their slaves.
Indeed, the case provided a boon to the abolitionist movement in Britain and in 1807 British Parliament outlawed the slave trade and in 1833 they outlawed slavery all together. So for those 29 years leading up to the American Civil War, the only reason why Africans were still in chains was because of the American Revolution, the war that we celebrate today, ironically as a struggle for freedom.
When I saw the play Hamilton (which I thought was an excellent production btw) I could not help but notice the irony in seeing all those talented black people on stage singing their praise for freedom and crediting the very struggle that actually kept their ancestors in chains.
Today, I will also celebrate. Not so much the Revolution of 1776 but the mistakes that people like Jefferson and Madison made when they decided to frame their demands in the lofty poetry of righteousness, because it’s that poetry with phrases like “All Men are Created Equal” (where Jefferson was obviously being rhetorical) that allowed later generations to find a foothold in their struggle for true freedom in much the same way Somerset’s lawyers did when referencing Common Law.
I am celebrating the people like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr… For these, and many others like them, are the true heroes that we should be thanking for our freedom.