The American Revolution and the revelation of an embarrassing truth


In the rebel colonists’ view, the London government, which in sovereign fashion imposed taxation on citizens or subjects not represented in the House of Commons, was behaving like a master towards his slaves. But-objected the others-if slavery is the issue, why not start to discuss the slavery that is manifested in brutal, unequivocal form precisely where liberty is so passionately lauded? As early as 1764, Benjamin Franklin, in London at the time to plead the colonists’ cause, had to face the sarcastic comments of his interlocutors:

You Americans make a great Clamour upon every little imaginary infringement of what you take to be your Liberties; and yet there are no People upon Earth such Enemies to Liberty, such absolute Tyrants, where you have the Opportunity, as you yourselves are.

The self-styled champions of liberty branded taxation imposed without their explicit consent as synonymous with despotism and slavery. But they had no scruples about exercising the most absolute and arbitrary power over their slaves. This was a paradox: ‘How is it’, Samuel Johnson asked, ‘that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?’ Across the Atlantic, those who sought to contest the secession ironized in similar fashion. Thomas Hutchinson, royal governor of Massachusetts , rebuked the rebels for their inconsistency or hypocrisy: they denied Africans those rights that they claimed to be ‘absolutely inalienable’ in the most radical way imaginable. Echoing him was an American loyalist Jonathan Boucher), who, having taken refuge in England, revisited the events that forced him into exile and observed: ‘the most clamorous advocates for liberty were uniformly the harshest and worst masters of slaves’.


  1. Losurdo, Domenico, and Gregory Elliott. Liberalism: A Counter-history. London: Verso, 2011. Print. 10-11.

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Filed under History, Notes on History, Philosophy, Politics

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