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Was the Somerset Decision in 1772 in England the real underlying cause of the American Revolutionary war?

Was the Somerset Decision in 1772 in England the real underlying cause of the American Revolutionary war?

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I had a discussion with a Brit the other day and naturally the topic drifted to our historic break from the UK in 1776 and I boasted of our noble fight for liberation and freedom. The Brit was amused and said I was brought up believing "rubbish".

He said the real reason for the revolutionary war was not for freedom but on the contrary for preserving slavery. He said one of the first articles in the US Constitution was to protect slavery. This was in response to a landmark court decision "Somerset vs. Stewart" in England in 1772 where a slave was not required to be sent back to his master in Virginia since "slavery was antithetical to the British constitution and English common law".

This decision really rattled the bourgeoisie in the American colonies since their economy was heavily dependent on slavery, hence their motivation for financing the rebellion and declaring independence 4 years later.

The Brit also emphasized that the colonial common folk were worse off economically post revolutionary war. He cited even heavier taxation and more concentration of wealth at the top causing revolts of which Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts was an example. He said a dozen families owned most of New York state for example.

In reality, indeed we look back and can see the multitudes of colonial common folk having little to do with the taxes the British charged to property owning upper class, the colonial conventions held in Philadelphia where the decision for independence and republic shaping took place, or being concerned with slavery. The masses just did not have much accumulated money and were too busy just surviving day to day. Practically none of them could afford the luxury of going to Philadelphia for several months, owning slaves, or paying taxes. So what cause would the colonial common folk be willing to risk their lives for? Fighting for whose freedom and freedom to do what?

After pondering and doing some searching, I am afraid what the Brit said made an impression on me of the ugly truth to our history. Was the American rebellion primarily motivated to preserve slavery?

He's not 100% wrong that the desire of slaveholders in the States to protect their "property" and the institution itself has been drastically underplayed by Americans in talking about their own history (and really, can you blame them?) For a good historical perspective on this, I highly recommend Slavery and the Founders, by Paul Finkelman.

However, as the reason for the revolution it really doesn't hold water. If that were the reason for the Revolution, you would expect to have seen revolutionary sentiment be strongest in the Deep South, and significantly weaker up north. In fact, the opposite was true. Fighting first broke out in New England (prior to any Declaration), and prewar agitation was always strongest there (eg: Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party). By contrast, the most Southern states always had the strongest Loyalist sentiment. For a while, the British actually tried to use this feature of American sentiment, by fighting in the South where Loyalist support (and their own naval logistics) was strongest, and working their way north. The problem was that the further north they got, the less Loyalists they found. By the time they got to North Carolina, they found there were no longer enough of them to make it work anymore.

On an individual note, lets take a look at Crispus Attucks, known as the first American to die in the Revolution. He was essentially the ringleader of the protest that set off the Boston Massacre, and died in the first volley (one might well imagine due to being specifically aimed for). He was a sailor, and also most likely a runaway slave. Now we don't necessarily know exactly what had Attucks so upset with the British, but I think its assured it wasn't that he wanted them to be better about returning runaway slaves.

I think that there were probably a great many factors that led to the American Revolution. Concerns about the growing anti-slavery movement in the UK were undoubtedly among them.

Although it is true that the case of Somerset v Stewart in 1772 was a landmark in the campaign against slavery, I suspect that an earlier case would probably have caused greater alarm to slave-owners in British colonies.

In the case of Shanley v Harvey (1763), the Lord Chancellor, Lord Henley stated "… as soon as a man sets foot on English ground he is free". He further observed that, in his learned opinion, a negro could take his master to court for cruel treatment. Now, these comments were only obiter dictum, and so not binding on subsequent courts, but they would have caused huge concern to slave owners anywhere in the world who considered themselves to be British subjects.

56 delegates signed the Declaration of Independence. 41 of them owned slaves. It is also true that slavery was federally protected in Section 9 of the first article of the original constitution. This protected the importation of slaves by preventing Congress from banning the practice for at least a generation:

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

  • Constitution of the United States, Article 1, Section 9 (my emphasis)

However, the most that we can reasonably infer from this is that preserving the institution of slavery was extremely important to the authors of the original constitution, but not necessarily to those who signed it.

James Madison's notes on the convention were published in 1840 (see below), and The Constitution a pro-slavery compact, or, Selections from the Madison papers was published in 1844. This analysed the compromise made between slave-owners and abolitionists during the Constitutional Convention, and concluded that the Constitution did indeed favour the institution of slavery.

The book recommended in @T.E.D.'s answer, Slavery and the founders : race and liberty in the age of Jefferson by Paul Finkelman (available to borrow on concurs:

A careful reading of the Constitution reveals that the Garrisonians were correct: the national compact did favor slavery.

However, despite this, we certainly cannot draw any inferences about the motives of those who campaigned, and fought, for American Independence but did not attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787. In fact, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts who signed the Declaration of Independence (he did not own slaves), later refused to sign the constitution.

I think it would be naive to think that the desire to preserve slavery was not a significant factor among those that motivated the American Revolution, but I am not convinced that it was the primary one.

James Madison's notes on the convention

Anyone interested in reading more about the debates and the views expressed at the Constitutional Convention may find the following volumes of interest (available to read or download on using the links below).

The papers of James Madison : purchased by order of Congress, being his correspondence and reports of debates during the Congress of the Confederation, and his reports of debates in the Federal Convention; now published from the original manuscripts, deposited in the Department of State:


  • Was the Somerset Decision in 1772 in England the real underlying cause of the American Revolutionary war?
  • He said the real reason for the revolutionary war was not for freedom but on the contrary for preserving slavery.
  • He said one of the first articles in the US Constitution was to protect slavery.

Short Answer
I can find no compelling truth in his argument that slavery or the perceived British outlawing slavery, played any role motivating the revolutionary war. In fact Britain in 1776 was more dedicated and associated with safeguarding slavery than were most of the colonies.

  1. Britain was not more progressive on Slavery than the Colonies in 1770's. The British Empire was the largest economy in the world in the 18th century and 80% of it was based on slavery. Britain was the largest participant and largest benefactor of the slave trade. Britain's profits on this slave based trade peaked after the American Revolution began in the 1780's. Nobody believed abandoning 80% of the British economy over the obscure Summerset finding was imminent other than British Abolitionists who would be disappointed.
  2. The Declaration of Independence contains about 30 itemized grievances with British rule, it doesn't mention outlawing or restrictions on slavery as a cause of rebellion. Slavery was discussed at the Continental Congress's deliberations and even inserted into the declaration but as an evil associated with British Rule. (not in the final draft). Language proposed by Thomas Jefferson himself a Southern slave owner.
  3. The majority of the 13 Colonies abolished slavery themselves during or shortly after the Revolutionary war. Which places most of them ahead of the first remaining British Colony to "limit" slavery in 1793.
  4. The Somerset Decision didn't effect slavery in any British Colonies only the Isle of Britain. Britain was the largest slave trading nation throughout the 18th century.
  5. The Constitution is and was an anti slavery document, it did not protect slavery. It diminished the representation and authority of slave states not enhanced them and it directly lead to abolishing the international slave trade in the United States.

Detailed Answer
Many political decisions in the United States between the revolution and the civil war were concerned with slavery, your buddy might have picked one of the few important decisions which was not. His argument is spurious.

The Revolutionary War began in July 4th 1776, with a Declaration of Independence… This document literally lists the colonial's grievances with the crown in itemized form. Not only does the document not mention slavery, but the southern author of the document (a slave owner) tried to insert a "slavery clause" which denounced the practice; linking slavery to the abuses of British Rule; which truth be told it was. Didn't make it into the final text; but neither did any mention of slavery or abolishing slavery by the British.

Scrapped Clause of Declaration of Independence
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.

Your buddy is also mistaken that the US Constitution protected slavery. The U.S. Constitution on the contrary diminished the representation of slave states by counting slaves as 3/5th of a person for the purposes allotting congressional(house) seats. It diminished the representation and power of slave states in the Federal Legislature. No less an abolitionist figure than Fredrick Douglass believed the United States constitution was an anti slavery document.

Article I, Section 2 3/5ths Claus.
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within the Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

Also, Article 1 Section 9 of the US Constitution doesn't protect slavery either, it grand father's the importation of slavery. Set's expectations that the importation of slavery would end on or around 1808. Claiming this clause "protects slavery", is a stretch… The United States outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808, under President Jefferson who had been calling for the action since the 1770's.

It is not reasonable to claim as some have, this clause in the Constitution was somehow a price extracted by the South for committing to the Revolutionary war (motivation for war) given every colony/state would outlaw the international slave trade well before the Constitutional deadline was reached, and ultimately closed the door federally on the trade.

Article 1 Section 9
"The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person."

The Somerset Decision(1772) did not effect slaves in the British Empire, just Britain itself. Slavery continued on in in the Empire, specifically in Canada, the Caribbean and South Africa. If the war was over British isle becoming a safe haven for slaves, the United States itself was split between slave and free states during the revolution and all the Free States basically became safe haven's too for runaway slaves until the Fugitive slave Act of 1793.

If the American Revolution (Apr 19, 1775 - Sep 3, 1783) was primarily about Slavery, how does he explain that 5 of the 13 colonies banned slavery during or immediately following the war? (two others New York and New Jersey banned it shortly after the Revolution 1799 and 1804 respectively). Bringing the majority(7) of the original 13 colonies having outlawed slavery 4 decades before [the British Empire entirely outlawed slavery in 1843.?

Slavery in Britain (*) Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, with exceptions provided for the East India Company, Ceylon, and Saint Helena. These exceptions were eliminated in 1843.

When the Colonies outlawed Slavery…

Vermont becomes first independent state to ban slavery 1777.

  1. Pennsylvania - 1780
  2. Massachusetts - July 8th, 1783
  3. New Hampshire - 1783
  4. Connecticut - March 1, 1784
  5. Rhode Island - 1784
  6. New York - 1799
  7. New Jersey - 1804

  8. Virginia

  9. South Carolina
  10. North Carolina
  11. Georgia
  12. Delaware
  13. Maryland

from Comments

from sempaiscuba. As @PieterGeerkens said above, it was a compromise. It turned out that the importation of slaves ended in 1807, but it could easily have turned out differently. In the event, the abolitionist North won the day, but that was by no means assured when the Constitution was signed in 1787. However, the two cases cited in my answer would have undoubted have worried slave-owners across the British Empire, not just in the American colonies. In the event, they eventually did lead to the abolition of slavery across that empire, but the American colonies had long since gained their independence.

Well every action taken by a legislative body is a compromise, that's not a controversial statement. I would just leave you with a few facts.

If Article 1 Section 9 of the Constitution(Jun 21, 1788) was protection for the international slave trade in the South it was lousy protection. The Southern States individually banned international slave traffic prior to 1808. And the 1808 law was the brain child of Thomas Jefferson who had been lobbying for the law since the 1770's.

Likewise Great Britain wasn't seen as progressive on the slave issue in the 18th century. They were the largest slave traders throughout the century.

Regulation the African Slave Trade
In 1760 South Carolina banned the trade outright because the colonists feared the growing number of African-born slaves, but royal authorities disallowed this law.8 In 1764 the colony levied a new tax of £100 per head, on imported slaves because, as the legislature noted, the growing number of African-born slaves "may prove of the most dangerous consequence."9 However, as it had done in the previous example the royal authorities disallowed this law also.


from @sempascuba There were other reasons for all the southern states banning importation of slaves prior to 1808.

I offered no rational for why the slave states banned importation of slaves because it's not important. The original question proposes that slavery was the motivation behind the revolutionary war. And further proposes article 1 section 9 of the Constitution was somehow an objective of the war. That all the colonies individually banned the importation of slaves before or around the ratification of the Constitution refutes this regardless of why they banned importing of slaves. Clearly the importation of slaves was not a powerful motivation for revolution if for whatever reason all the states banned it.

from @sempascuba
@JMS You appear to believe that the desire to preserve the institution of slavery was limited to preserving the slave trade with Africa. The case cited in the question was to do with the principle of slavery, not just the slave-trade. It is undoubtedly true that many abolitionists in the UK thought that the end of slavery was imminent in 1772 following Somerset v Stewart. They were wrong - it would take another 60 years. But equally many that depended on the institution for their wealth & power feared the end of slavery was imminent - including many in the American colonies.

We were discussing the point of the original Question, that Article 1 Claus 9 of the American Constitution written more than a decade after the declaration of independence, was some sort of requirement for southern participation in the Revolution. That the south required the decade delayed "protection" as you said, based upon their anxiety over weakening slavery in general. Which of coarse is a weak point.

As for your now broader claim that the South believed the Summerset Decision of 1772 signaled the imminent colapse of slavery, and that motivated them to take a leap of faith, risk their lives and property. Jump into an alliance in which most of their new allies would shortly ban slavery, is not any stronger than your first point. It was not news to anyone in 1772 that Britain had a different "interpretation" of their common law for their home islands than they had for the empire. That proclivity of the British is a much more supportable cause of the Revolutionary War than the British Empires non existent "progressive" stance on slavery in the 1770s. British courts had first ruled that slavery had no place under their common law in 1569 under Queen Elizabeth. The Cartwright Case. This did not impede Britain from creating the largest economy in the world based on the slave trade. Claiming the Summerset Decision of 1772 was somehow new, or even threatened 80% of the British Economy in 1770's seems fanciful; regardless of what British Abolitionists believed.

The Abolition Project By the 1760s, Britain was the foremost European country engaged in the Slave Trade. Of the 80,000 Africans chained and shackled and transported across to the Americas each year, 42,000 were carried by British slave ships.

The profits gained from chattel slavery helped to finance the Industrial Revolution and the Caribbean islands became the hub of the British Empire. The sugar colonies were Britain's most valuable colonies. By the end of the eighteenth century, four million pounds came into Britain from its West Indian plantations, compared with one million from the rest of the world.

It seems much more likely given the dearth of scholarship supporting this claim, that the conservative southern plantation owners would get their information from the British bankers, merchants, and industrialists whom they knew and did business with; and whom were entirely dependent upon slavery also. The Somerset case after all didn't even produce a written finding. That's how influential it was at the time.

The entire claim that the Summerset Case's importance in the American Revolution seems rather self serving. It preports the British were ahead of the colonies with regards to progressive action on slavery. Reality and history doesn't support that, not in the 1770's.


Ports of the Transatlantic slave trade
In the context of the Caribbean trade it is also worth remembering that sugar and other products being brought in by direct trade often represented payment for African slaves delivered by other ships. Again in Bristol, about 1789, trade to Africa and the Caribbean, but most particularly to the Caribbean, comprised over 80% of Bristol's overseas trade.


Ending the Atlantic Slave Trade Sugar surpassed grain as the most valuable commodity in European commerce (1750). Sugar made up 20 percent of all European imports and by 1790, 80 percent of that sugar came from the British and French Caribbean sugar islands.


From @T.E.D.
Slavery was in fact mentioned in the Declaration. The founders, being genteel people, of course didn't like to mention slavery by name. (In the Constitution they used the phrase "other persons") However, they had a phrase in the indcitements that was not-so-coded racial horror language talking about slave revolts and Indian attacks: "He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages… "

Agree with you on the Constitution and the "gentile" point. but I don't read that as referring to slavery or even alluding to slavery. "He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages… " to my mind doesn't refer to the British inciting slave revolts. Rather it's referring to the recruiting of American loyalists and Indians to attack across the American frontier… Not just because the blurb specifically refers to Indians.

On the other hand In 1776 just months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence there were rumors of the British recruiting American Loyalists and Indians to raid across the frontier and attack Patriots/Rebels.

Sir John Johnson, 2nd Baronet
In January 1776, nine months after the outbreak of the American Revolution (but before the declaration of Independence was drafted), Johnson gathered several hundred armed supporters at Johnstown. He sent a letter to Governor William Tryon, through Captain John McDonell, saying that he and his Loyalist neighbors had conferred about raising a battalion for the British cause. He also said he could raise 500 Indian warriors who, when used with his regular troops, could retake all of the forts captured by the rebels.

The Continental Congress would have been aware of these reports given Continental General Schuyler, with a force of Continental troops were sent to disarmed Johnson again prior to the signing and drafting of the Declaration. This and episodes like this, are much more likely what the Founding fathers were referring too in that incitement.

Comment From T.E.D. @JMS - I suppose you could decide to look at it that way if we were operating in a complete vaccum. However, we don't have to guess what they were referring to, because the historical record here is quite well documented. This passage refers to Royal Governor Dunmore's Proclamation of 8 months prior, which promised freedom to slaves who left their owners and joined the British Army. He was hoping the southerner's innate terror of slave revolt would bring them in line (spoiler: It didn't)… to finish the story, the Virginia Assembly (of which Thomas Jefferson was a delegate) released a response which characterized this as "encouragement to a general insurrection". In the event, somewhere between 800 and 2,000 slaves took Dunmore up on the offer. Dunmore created a regiment out of them, and it did in fact see action against the colonial Virginia militia. - T.E.D.

Your link doesn't support your position statement. Thomas Jefferson's original Declaration of Independence before it was edited. Did Contain a clear incitement which mentions the British induced slave revolt which was dropped from the original text.

Jefferson's Original Ruff Draft of the Declaration of Independence

  • he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

. Along with a version of the incitement which we are discussing.

Jefferson's Original Ruff Draft of the Declaration of Independence
he has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, & conditions of existence:

Here is the final passage we are discussing for comparison…

Final Text of the Declaration of Independence
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

The final version of the incitement we were discussing seems to be a mash up. I attributed the first blurb to of the final draft to this also dropped incitement.

Jefferson's Original Ruff Draft of the Declaration of Independence
he has incited treasonable insurrections in our fellow-subjects, with the allurements of forfeiture & confiscation of our property:

It's kind of a fine point. I'll grant you the final text

"excited domestic insurrections amongst us"

To your point, could have been lifted from

"exciting those very people(slaves) to rise in arms among us"

or to my point…

"incited treasonable insurrections in our fellow-subjects"

The final draft of the declaration of independence had nine different people editing and changing words, I'm not sure if even Jefferson knew which group of insurrectionists(slaves or tories) the editor of the final version was refer to.

I think your cut version has more words in common with the final draft. I think my version fits better given the Tories were the allies of the Indians mentioned specifically. Too close for me to be certain.

Thank you for the interesting discussion. and good one on the British inciting slave insurrection I wasn't aware of that.

It's not so much that it was a primary factor in driving the Revolution as an enabling one. The critical thing to remember about the revolution however, is that a partial rebellion that only involved several colonies was a non-starter. New England would not have rebelled in full without support from the mid atlantic and southern states. The Somerset v Stewart case garnered substantial southern resentment towards the King and was doubtlessly a major factor in driving them towards support for independence. Even so, keep in mind that probably a third and possibly even less of the colonial population supported the revolution.