Assertions that a primary reason the Revolution was fought was to protect slavery are as inaccurate as the assertions, still current, that southern secession and the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. In his reply to our letter, though, Silverstein ignored the errors we had specified and then imputed to the essay a very different claim. In place of Hannah-Jones’s statement that “the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain … because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery,” Silverstein substituted “that uneasiness among slaveholders in the colonies about growing antislavery sentiment in Britain and increasing imperial regulation helped motivate the Revolution.” Silverstein makes a large concession here about the errors in Hannah-Jones’s essay without acknowledging that he has done so. There is a notable gap between the claim that the defense of slavery was a chief reason behind the colonists’ drive for independence and the claim that concerns about slavery among a particular group, the slaveholders, “helped motivate the Revolution.”
But even the evidence proffered in support of this more restricted claim—which implicitly cedes the problem with the original assertion—fails to hold up to scrutiny. Silverstein pointed to the Somerset case, in which, as I’ve noted, a British high court ruled that English common law did not support chattel slavery. Even though the decision did not legally threaten slavery in the colonies, Silverstein wrote, it caused a “sensation” when reported in colonial newspapers and “slavery joined other issues in helping to gradually drive apart the patriots and their colonial governments.”
In fact, the Somerset ruling caused no such sensation. In the entire slaveholding South, a total of six newspapers—one in Maryland, two in Virginia, and three in South Carolina—published only 15 reports about Somerset, virtually all of them very brief. Coverage was spotty: The two South Carolina newspapers that devoted the most space to the case didn’t even report its outcome. American newspaper readers learned far more about the doings of the queen of Denmark, George III’s sister Caroline, whom Danish rebels had charged with having an affair with the court physician and plotting the death of her husband. A pair of Boston newspapers gave the Somerset decision prominent play; otherwise, most of the coverage appeared in the tiny-font foreign dispatches placed on the second or third page of a four- or six-page issue.