“Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.”
~ Marcus Tullius Cicero
Earlier this week, a friend emailed good wishes for a happy Carolina Day (June 28th) with a reminder of the importance of that victory to American independence. He also mentioned Thomas Jeffersonâ€™s displeasure at the editing done to his original draft of the Declaration of Independence. This led me to reflect on recent events. As background, Included in Jeffersonâ€™s initial draft of the Declaration was grievance language condemning slavery:
“He [King George III] 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 & 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, by murdering the people on 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.”
In addition to criticizing slavery, Jefferson called out the King’s strategy of divide et impera. This diabolical tactic continues to be used by politicians in the U.S. and around the world.
Writing his autobiography in 1821, Jefferson wrote:
“The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with still haunted the minds of many. For this reason, those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offense. The clause, too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under these censures, for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”
Jefferson’s assertion that the inhabitants of Georgia had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves was incorrect. Georgia’s founder, James Oglethorpe, persuaded the British government to ban slavery in 1735 (under Oglethorpe’s leadership, attorneys and hard liquor were also banned). While Oglethorpe returned to England for good in 1742, his ban of the evil institution lasted until 1751. My theory is that following the leadership vacuum created by Oglethorpe’s departure, a group of unethical lawyers snuck into Georgia, got everyone liquored up, and succeeded in ending the prohibition against slavery.
Note that slavery was legal in Georgia for 115 years (1751-1865). This is less time than in the other 12 original colonies/states including Massachusetts where slavery was legal for more than 150 years; Pennsylvania where it was legal for more than 180 years; and New York where it was legal for more than 200 years. Something to keep in mind when our Northern brethren get a little sanctimonious.
Among the many things our schools fail to teach is that the practice of slavery existed in virtually every country in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America. The slave trade was, by far, the richest part of Britain’s trade in the 18th century. Slave trade fortunes were made in Britain as well as New England (as Jefferson noted in his original draft of the Declaration and in his autobiography). The despicable slave trade was eventually abolished by the U.S. on March 2, 1807, and by Britain three weeks later, on March 25, 1807. In 1833, the U.K. abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, with the exception of those territories in the possession of the Crown’s mercantilist creation – the East India Company. Slavery was abolished in other countries of the Americas throughout the 19th century, the last being Brazil in 1888 – 23 years after the U.S. did away with it. Ironically, the U.S. and Haiti were the only countries to abolish slavery through violent means. All others managed to do it peacefully, including Saudi Arabia which, with encouragement from President John Kennedy, ended slavery in 1962.
13 States declared their independence and seceded from Great Britain in 1776. The first official U.S. flag was a Confederate flag, in that at the time of adoption the United States consisted of a 13-State Confederacy operating under a constitution called The Articles of Confederation. During this initial Confederate period, slavery was legal in every state of the union.
But I digress. Let’s go back to the mid-18th century south. George Whitefield, a famous British evangelist during the period known as the “Great Awakening”, happened to be living and preaching in Charleston. Whitefield, though an influential man of the cloth, nevertheless joined with other South Carolinians in a push to lift the prohibition against slavery in Georgia. As previously noted, Oglethorpe’s ban was lifted in 1751 and Whitefield subsequently purchased slaves and a plantation in coastal Georgia. As a further aside, Whitefield and other radical ministers like Josiah Smith, had a considerable influence on a young man named John Newton – another Brit who happened to find himself a Charleston resident in 1749. Newton, a recent convert to Christianity, was flabbergasted by the practice of Whitefield, Smith, and other Charleston ministers who were engaged in the revolutionary practice of baptizing slaves.
Born in London in 1725, John Newton was impressed into the British Royal Navy at the age of 18. He rose to the rank of Midshipman aboard the HMS Harwich. After attempting desertion, Newton was demoted to Seaman and received 96 lashes before the 350-man crew. Humiliated, he was then transferred to the slave ship Pegasus bound for Africa. The crew of the Pegasus found Newton so annoying that they put him ashore in Sierra Leone where he was one of many slaves â€“ white and black – of an African Duchess named Princess Peye.
He escaped in 1748, whereupon he began serving as a crew member aboard slave ships. Newton arrived in South Carolina as First Mate aboard the slave ship Brownlow in the late summer of 1749. He and his shipmates made initial landfall on Sullivan’s Island, across the harbor from Charleston. Due to a high risk of Smallpox and Yellow Fever in the city, Sullivan’s Island was designated a quarantine station (lazaretto). There, as required by law of the time, slaves were kept for at least 10 days before being brought to the slave market in town. A “pest” (short for pestilential disease) house was built to accommodate sick Africans. Sullivan’s Island has been called the Ellis Island of Slavery as an estimated 40-50% of African Americans can trace their lineage to someone who first stepped onto North America at this location. Of his time in Charleston, Newton wrote:
“I began to taste the sweets of communion with God in the exercises of prayer and praiseâ€¦ My relish for worldly diversions was much weakened, and I was more a spectator than a sharer in their pleasuresâ€¦ I had, for the most part, peace of conscience, and my strongest desires were toward the things of God.”
Newton returned to England, got married, gave up the slave trade, and became a tax collector. He also began serious religious studies, which led to his becoming an evangelical lay minister, followed by ordainment as an Anglican priest in 1764.
Back in North America the anxiety level was on the rise because King George III, seeking revenue to pay off debts arising from the 7-year French and Indian War, attempted to impose new taxes on the colonists. Following the War, the King also issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which contained a provision with a demarcation line running along the Eastern Continental Divide atop the Appalachian Mountains, reserving all land west of that line for the Indians. This didn’t go over so well with land speculators. Particularly those with last names like Washington and Franklin who held legal claims to land west of the line. This was a contributing factor in the rising angst against King George III, which would eventually culminate in hostilities between Great Britain and her 13 American colonies in 1775.
Anticipating a British invasion, a fort made of sand and palmetto logs had been hastily constructed by Americans of African and European descent at the quarantine station on Sullivan’s Island in early 1776. The mighty British fleet attacked the fort on June 28, 1776. Greatly outgunned and outmanned, the Americans, fighting under William Moultrie, managed to fend off the British in what would come to be known as the first major victory of the American War of Independence. News of this victory is said to have emboldened some of the reluctant members of the Continental Congress who, though they had voted to approve the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, didn’t actually sign their name on that parchment until August 2, 1776.
A few years later in 1779, John Newton, now the Rector of a parish church in Olney, a tiny town in southeastern England, published the Olney Hymns. Among these hymns was one that would arguably become the most popular song in the history of the world, an autobiographical poem entitled Amazing Grace. In 1788, Newton published Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade in which he described the terrible conditions of slave ships and apologized for “a confession, whichâ€¦comes too lateâ€¦ It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” Newton became a leading abolitionist, and served as mentor and spiritual guide to William Wilberforce, the Parliamentarian who led the fight to end the British slave trade. As previously mentioned, this happened in 1807. Newton lived to see this important milestone, and died a few months later at the age of 82.
In the aftermath of the American victory in its War of Independence from Britain, a little town called Moultrieville sprang up on the southern end of Sullivan’s Island. In 1796, nine years before the U.S. slave trade would end, the quarantine station was moved from Sullivan’s Island across Charleston Harbor to James Island. And what became of the former pestilential house of the lazaretto? The Episcopal Diocese acquired the building and converted it into Moultrieville’s first house of Worship – Grace Church.
John Newtonâ€™s autobiographical hymn did not become well known until “The Southern Harmony” was published in 1835 by William â€śSinginâ€™ Billyâ€ť Walker of Spartanburg, South Carolina. Walker, a self-taught composer, combined Newtonâ€™s hymn with the tune “New Britain” to create what has become the most popular song in the world.
Happy Independence Day! May yours be filled with connection and grace.