- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

American Taxation, American Slavery

By Robin L. Einhorn

University of Chicago Press, $35, 352 pages

The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution

By Gary B. Nash

Harvard University Press, $19.95, 256 pages

Reviewed by James Srodes

Two newly publishedbooks show that the damnable institution of slavery had an impact on the early Republic that is more complicated, dramatic and important to the way we are today than our college profs taught us. As it is so often, the truth is a better tale. But not a pretty one.

In “American Taxation, American Slavery,” Robin Einhorn, a history professor at the University of California at Berkeley, tells what might have been a complicated story in an engaging and accessible manner. It is her contention that slavery and the reaction to it to a great extent shaped the kind of nation we are today, because it shaped the kind of tax policies we constructed to fund the kind of government we got.

This puts her, as she notes, squarely into conflict with the two leading political schools of history on America’s beginnings. In the traditional history our nation was born in a tax revolt. The conservative fantasy has it that “Impatient of government restraints on their liberty and resenting the costly pomp of parasitic kings and aristocrats, the colonists jettisoned this European baggage for a republican government that was small, weak, and frugal.”

Against this Ms. Einhorn contrasts “the old fashioned liberal story of government growth,” which has the Industrial Revolution and the rapid urbanization of the country as the driving force for greater government size and activity, and for an increasing role for taxation as a shaper of our destinies.

She concludes that neither story is an accurate accounting. Agrarian America was quite happy to use taxes and active government to provide it with roads, schools and direct support for religion or other social subsidies. Even Founding Fathers, it seems, wanted welfare when it helped their interests. Where slavery underpinned the economic structure of a colony, the tax laws reflected the desire of the majority to preserve that hateful institution through a weak, non-intrusive government.

Indeed, Ms. Einhorn concludes, “From the beginning of the colonial era, American governments were more democratic, stronger, and more competent where slavery was a marginal institution: in those colonies where most people were free and there were few slaves or slaveholders.

“American governments were more aristocratic, weaker, and less competent where slavery was a major institution in the economy and society: in those colonies where large fractions of the population were enslaved and there were many slaves and slaveholders. Democracy and liberty produced stronger and more competent governments in early American history.

“And, from the moment the colonies banded together to create the United States, slaveholders realized that strong, competent, and democratic governments were the only institutions in American life that posed credible threats to slavery.”

It is when one begins to compare and contrast the actual functioning governments and tax policies of, say, a Virginia against a Massachusetts that the weight of slavery is most stark.

Virginia’s case is particularly glaring. The British Crown appointed the governor who, in turn, named citizens to the Council, and it was the Council who chose the members of the House of Burgesses.

Even when, in the 18th century, a small measure of local control was handed over to sheriffs and county justices, the offices were an inheritance of a small oligarchy of leading families and a source of incredible corruption, since the sheriffs both levied the property taxes and seized property from those unable to pay.

Since the public office holders were themselves property owners of the same class, Virginia ended up with a government of little usefulness and shaky financial health, well into statehood.

If Virginia had the comfort of a moribund, impotent government, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was in almost constant rowdy turmoil. Its colonial government was decentralized, with considerable power to promote public projects in the hands of local councils that were turned out of office with great regularity.

Taxation was on real and personal property as in Virginia, but there was not a large population of slaves to distort the notion of what was property and wealth. If government was more fractious (and finally more rebellious), it was closer to real democracy, and the infrastructure and services provided by government served a greater good.

But what of the property at issue? What of the slaves themselves? UCLA history professor Gary Nash shows that the African slaves hardly stood by impassively as Revolution approached and that at least part of their plight when their fate was considered at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was that so many of them had made a daring political choice — but a disastrous one as it turned out.

“The Forgotten Fifth” is an expanded version of a series of lectures Mr. Nash gave in 2004 at Harvard. In it Mr. Nash illuminates a largely overlooked chapter in black history, the flight of thousands of slaves to the side of the British during the War for Independence. It is debatable which came first, the offer of freedom to the slaves of rebel colonists, or the rush to take up arms on the side of the King against their hated masters. But scores of thousands did so without hesitation.

For the British, encouraging the slaves was classic counter-insurgency strategy. If the American rebels were heedless enough to take up arms against their king, the British commanders would give them something new to fear. Indian tribes also were roused all along the western frontier to bring particularly horrible vengeance against the fragile outposts of rebel settlers.

Two days after the first exchange of gunfire at Lexington and Concord (and thus too soon for news to travel), a group of slaves in Williamsburg told Royal governor Lord Dunmore they would flee their masters and take up arms under the king’s banner.

Soon afterwards Dunmore had enough volunteers to form the first British Ethiopian Regiment, with uniforms that sported a white sash that proclaimed “Liberty for Slaves.” Most British and Hessian regiments that followed had companies of black guides and irregulars, and any unit of any size had a large population of older men, women and children in their train of camp followers who were a permanent labor force.

For their part the British offered nothing but an initially sincere promise of liberty after the rebellion was quelled, or, as the war dragged on, that at the least they would not be returned to their masters for re-enslavement and reprisal.

Sadly, while the British did carry away scores of thousands more to exile, they could not take all of the blacks who had come over to their side. And exile, while it could mean resettlement in relatively benign places like Nova Scotia, also meant certain re-enslavement in places like Jamaica.

At Yorktown, when food ran low, Lord Cornwallis simply opened his fortifications up at night and forced the blacks who had dug those entrenchments out into the open, where an awful reprisal awaited.

But even after independence was won, blacks continued to seek liberty even though their white masters were busy writing guarantees of universal liberty that excluded them. All of the Founding Fathers who owned slaves lost numbers of them during and after the Revolution.

One of the funnier tales is of Ona Judge, a seamstress to Martha Washington, and Hercules, the prize chef to President Washington, making separate escapes from the capital in Philadelphia. Hercules was never heard from again, but the president sent emissaries to Ona in Rhode Island to lure her back, without avail. The Father of Our Country was baffled at the ingratitude of both. He just didn’t get it.

Mr. Nash also offers some interesting if not completely convincing insights to the ultimate question of whether the Constitutional Convention of 1987 should have called the bluff of the Southern delegates and outlawed slavery for once and all.

He is on firmer ground when he takes a whack at the Yankee view that the hated institution was really a Southern problem after all. “Yet most northern slaves slipped their shackles only by dying or running away, while their children got freedom only after long periods of indentured servitude, usually twenty-eight years,” he concludes.

Both books are required reading for anyone who ponders the impact of slavery on our lives today.

James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father,” by Regnery Publishing.

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