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The First Emancipation Proclamation

There was a time, during the American Revolution, when the abolition of slavery seemed to be just around the corner.

The Continental Army had become integrated under the leadership of George Washington, and black soldiers had continually demonstrated their valor. In Congress and among the military leaders, there was a strong assumption that emancipation must soon follow.

One giant step in this direction was Washington’s creation of the First Rhode Island Regiment. By late 1777, patriotism was waning, and the revolutionary cause was in desperate need of soldiers. While camped at Valley Forge, Washington received a message from Brigadier General James Mitchell Varnum of Rhode Island. In the message, Varnum requested permission to enlist black soldiers in his home state.

With Washington’s permission, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed an act granting enlistment eligibility to “every able-bodied Negro, Mulatto or Indian man slave.” To such, the act promised complete manumission, plus all the wages and other benefits to which any soldier was entitled. About 250 men immediately joined the First Rhode Island Regiment, which went on to fight valiantly at the Battle of Rhode Island.

Inspired by the success of the Rhode Island plan, Colonel John Laurens of South Carolina soon drafted a plan of his own. Laurens, heir to a slave-trading fortune, had become persuaded that slavery was wrong; his father Henry Laurens shared his views, and the two had discussed strategies for freeing their own slaves. Realizing that Washington’s Rhode Island plan must inevitably lead to the emancipation of Northern slaves, John hoped to accomplish the same for the South.

In the spring of 1778, John Laurens came up with a proposal to raise a force of 5,000 black soldiers who would remain slaves while in the service, and then receive their freedom at the war’s conclusion. Washington immediately approved the plan; his only regret was for the slave owners’ loss of property.

But then the senior Laurens began to have doubts, worrying that the men might not fight as long as they were still slaves. He proposed instead that they be freed immediately, then be given the choice, as free men, whether or not to serve. Given these circumstances, he presumed that most of them would choose to stay home with their families, thus defeating the stated purpose of the plan. Henry further objected on the grounds that if the proposal were made public, few would support it, and John would be exposed to ridicule. Frustrated by his father’s resistance, John Laurens put his plan aside.

By the end of the year, with Southern loyalists rallying to the British cause, the British had captured Savannah, Georgia. Rumors circulated that they were poised to take South Carolina as well. With his home state facing danger, John Laurens revived his plan for a black regiment. Encouraged by his good friend Alexander Hamilton, Laurens refined his original plan, and in March of 1779 he contacted General Washington.

Given Washington’s earlier support of his idea, and the success of the Rhode Island plan, Laurens surely expected that the commander in chief would give his endorsement. But he was disappointed.

Washington had had a change of heart. He now feared, not that the plan would not succeed,but that it would succeed too well. He seems to have feared the consequences for his own slave property. In his letter to Laurens he wrote:

“I am not clear that a discrimination will not render Slavery more irksome to those who remain in it; most of the good and evil things of this life are judged of by comparison; and I fear a comparison in this case will be productive of much discontent in those who are held in servitude.”

He had realized that the existence of free black battalions would make it impossible to preserve the institution of slavery any longer. Paralyzed between financial considerations and his own conscience, he resisted a plan that might lead to the loss of his own property, despite very compelling military necessity.

The window that had opened at Valley Forge, when Washington had seen fit to include black men in the revolutionary cause, had closed again.

John Laurens did not give up. By now it was clear to everyone that emancipation, rather than enlistment, was primarily at issue. Nevertheless, some Southern leaders were willing to tolerate emancipation, simply because of the dire need for troops. Supported by powerful allies, Laurens submitted his proposal, and on March 29, 1779, the Continental Congress unanimously passed what could be called the first Emancipation Proclamation. According to the resolution, congress would compensate slave owners in Georgia and South Carolina up to $1000 apiece for every able-bodied male slave up to 35 years of age who could pass muster. At war’s end, each black soldier would be expected to turn in his arms in exchange for his freedom.

While no one expected an immediate general emancipation, the revolutionary implications of the resolution were clear to everyone. Congress was laying the foundation for the abolition of slavery in America.

Now all the plan needed was the consent of the Georgia and South Carolina legislatures.

Their answer was immediate. The Southern plantation owners would see their region fall to the British before they would agree to arm three thousand slaves.

As a direct result of South Carolina’s failure to produce a black regiment, Charleston fell to the British. The city was reduced to rubble, and John Laurens himself was captured and imprisoned.

He still did not give up. After being released in a prisoner exchange, he continued to promote his plan, without avail, until 1782.

America’s victory in the war for independence meant there would be no Southern emancipation for another eighty years.

(Wiencek 217-236)

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Roger Williams and the Separation of Church and State

It is often said that when the Puritans first settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony, they were seeking religious freedom. It should more properly be said that they were seeking freedom from religious freedom.

The stated purpose of these Puritans was to establish a City on a Hill, dedicated to their particular vision of God and the performance of what they regarded as God’s laws. They allowed no room for individual interpretation. Puritan ministers were compelled to wear the surplice and use the Book of Common Prayer, or face imprisonment. Everyone was compelled to attend approved church services, or suffer painful consequences. The colony’s leaders believed that it was the responsibility of the State to prevent error in religion; they believed the success of the colony depended on it.

Roger Williams was a young English clergyman, and a graduate of Cambridge. He brought his family to Massachusetts Bay Colony a few months after its establishment, and the Boston church immediately offered him a post.

At first he turned it down. Williams was convinced that preventing error in religion was not the responsibility of the State. He did not believe preventing such error was even possible, for when people interpreted God’s law, they would inevitably err. It was his belief that a society such as the Puritan leaders envisioned would corrupt the church.

Yet he eventually accepted a position at a church in Salem. Soon he had gathered about him a like-minded congregation. The authorities continued to keep a wary eye on him, and eventually his free-thinking interpretations of Scripture became too much for them. In October 1635, the General Court banished him and gave him six weeks to leave the colony.

Because Williams was ill, and winter was coming, they agreed to extend his stay in the colony until spring, provided he did not speak publicly during that time. He complied, yet continued to promote his views privately, among his friends and family. The authorities considered this a violation of their terms, and in January they sent soldiers to arrest him and have him shipped off to England. Warned of the impending arrest, Williams quickly put on his warmest clothes, stuffed his pockets with provisions, and fled into the snow.

For 14 weeks he survived in the wilderness, helped only by some Indians with whom he had previously traded. Eventually he found his way to a likely spot for settlement, and purchased it from the Narragansett Indians. He called the place Providence.

His family and a dozen or so others soon joined him, and quickly he realized they would need some form of government. He drafted up a political contract, a remarkable document that showed just how free-thinking he had become.

Although all English and colonial precedent gave him complete political control over the settlement on the land he had purchased, he relinquished almost all the land to the common stock of the town, and with the land any special political rights to which it would entitle him. He reserved for himself only a vote equal to that of the others. And in stark contrast to the founding documents of every other European settlement in the New World, the compact made no mention of God’s kingdom, God’s will, or God’s blessing. It didn’t mention God at all.

This omission was no accidental oversight. Even Williams’ worst enemies knew how pious he was. Devotion to God informed everything he did, or wrote, or said. By leaving God out of the compact, he was intentionally limiting the government of Providence to matters purely civil. Unlike every other English settlement, this one would neither set up a church nor require church attendance. All this was completely revolutionary.

Massachusetts did not take kindly to having this godless colony at its borders. The authorities began to claim more and more land in an attempt to swallow up the new colony. So Williams sailed to England to convince Parliament to grant him a legal charter.

At first, Parliament was no more receptive than Massachusetts to the idea of divorcing church from state. Tradition and universal public opinion still demanded the death penalty for heretics. But Williams was relentless, promoting his views tirelessly wherever he could get an audience. In February 1644 he published a pamphlet in which he used for the first time a phrase which continues to echo through public debate in America today: “(the) wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world.”

His efforts paid off. Since Rhode Island was a tiny settlement, safely separated from England by a vast ocean, Parliament agreed to let him perform his revolutionary experiment. His charter was granted in March of 1644. The charter gave the colonists complete self-rule, as long as their tiny government conformed, more or less, to English law. Amazingly, it left religious decisions up to the majority of Rhode Island settlers.

Williams had created freest society the Western world had yet seen.

(Barry 72-90)

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