Did Slavery Cause the War for American Independence?

Another interesting topic for Black History Month–Was the War for American Independence caused by the possibility of the abolition of slavery? I mean wouldn’t it be seriously ironic if the people who said things like “give me liberty or give me death” and “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal blahblahblah” were slaveowners?

Sommersett’s Case (aka R v Knowles, ex parte Somersett [1772] 20 State Tr 1) was a famous judgment of the English Court of King’s Bench in 1772 which held that slavery was unsupported by existing law in England and Wales:

“The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”

News of this case had reached the New World and the Southern Slaveowners were well aware of it. This comes from the attached essay:

Edwards (2002) suggests that when our southern colonials heard about Somersett’s Case (1772) they lost much of their ardor for their pursuit of the full rights and obligations of Englishmen: If Parliament saw fit to impose Somersett law on the colonies, the imposition would end the blessings enjoyed by slaveholders. Thus, if the northern colonials were motivated toward independence by the mercantile threat of the British East India Company, the southern colonials were motivated by Somersett’s threat to slavery.

Of course, one has to remember that the Declaration of Independence was written as a justification for rebellion to a domestic audience (it was refuted by Thomas Hutchinson, Samuel Johnson, and John Lind).  Thus, high sounding reasons would serve as justification for the rebellion. It is a bot of a letdown to find out that Samuel Johnson may have hit the nail on the head when he said that:

We are told, that the subjection of Americans may tend to the diminution of our own liberties; an event, which none but very perspicacious politicians are able to foresee. If slavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?

Anyway, I think that more investigation needs to be given to the role of the Loyalists and slaves in what was the first of many American Civil Wars.


Landers, Jane, Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions(Boston, 2010) Harvard University Press.

Schama, Simon, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (New York, 2006) HarperCollins Publishers.

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