Wednesday, October 27, 2021

King Tobacco and the American Revolution

The American Revolution can be viewed as a contest between King Tobacco (the tobacco tycoons of Virginia) and the King of England (George III). In his book American Slavery, American Freedom, Edmund Morgan notes that the causes of the American Revolution cannot be understood without understanding the tobacco economy of Virginia. He writes:

“Virginia was the largest of the new United States, in territory, in population, in influence—and in slaveholding. Virginians owned more than 40 percent of all slaves in the new nation. It was Virginia slaves who grew most of the tobacco that helped to buy American independence. And Virginia furnished the country’s most eloquent spokesmen for freedom and equality. Virginia adopted the first state constitution with a bill of rights. A Virginian commanded the Continental Army that won independence. Virginians drafted not only the Declaration of Independence but also the United States Constitution of 1787 and the first ten amendments to it. And Americans elected Virginians to the presidency of the United States under that constitution for thirty-two out of the first thirty-six years of its existence. They were all slave holders. If it is possible to understand the American paradox, the marriage of slavery and freedom, Virginia is surely the place to begin.”

When the Americans were fighting for independence, they were the biggest slave holders in the British Empire. The British used to ask: “Why are these Americans clamoring for independence when they are denying freedom to their slaves?”

In a letter (dated 31 May 1775), Washington wrote: “Unhappy it is though to reflect, that a Brother's Sword has been sheathed in a Brother's breast, and that, the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with Blood, or Inhabited by Slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous Man hesitate in his choice?” On the one hand Washington stood for independence of the Europeans in America, but on the other hand he stood for slavery of the Africans and forced assimilation of the natives.

The plains of Virginia, which Washington calls “happy and peaceful,” had been full of slaves for almost a century, and 135 of these slaves belonged to him. When he died, he owned 277 slaves. When Jefferson was the governor of Virginia, he had hundreds of slaves. When he died, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, he was still a slave holder and the number of his slaves had probably increased. In his 5000 acre plantation at Monticello, he was using African slaves for the cultivation of tobacco. He did not free his slaves in his will; after his death, they were sold to the highest bidder to settle his debts. Edmund Morgan says: “The rise of liberty and equality in America had been accompanied by the rise in slavery.”

The American Revolution was financed by Virginia’s tobacco tycoons who realized that the revolutionaries would not outlaw slavery which was tobacco industry’s lifeblood. In his book The Emergence of a National Economy, 1775-1815, Curtis P. Nettels has said that France came out in support of American revolutionaries because of King Tobacco Diplomacy. He writes: “One American export—tobacco—towered over all else. Prewar shipments to Britain had amounted annually to 100,000,000 pounds, four fifths of which was re-exported, mainly to Europe. To wrest this lucrative trade from Britain was an impelling commercial ambition of France: its conduct in foreign affairs might be called “King Tobacco Diplomacy.”

Condoleezza Rice has called slavery “America’s birth defect.” Morgan argues that slavery was not a birth defect—it was the driver of the American Revolution. American slavery made American independence and, consequently, American capitalism possible.

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