Larson, Edward J. American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765-1795. First edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2023.
Pepperdine University’s Edward J. Larsen offers a third way between the Left’s view of slavery as the cause of the American Revolution, the Right’s focus on liberty in the body politic, and the dismissal of slavery as incidental to America’s founding. Postulating a centrist argument, the Legal and History professor posits that America’s freedom and slavery intertwine founding moralities like DNA strands (x). Given the increasing polarization of America’s origin story, Larson’s middle-ground approach is a welcome addition creating a more robust and inclusive founding narrative. However, as a combined argument, those advocating diverged viewpoints will assess Larson’s work as controversial.
A Pulitzer Prize winner for Summer for the Gods, a study of the Scopes Trial, Larson acknowledges in the preface that his research builds upon the scholarship of two eminent historians (vii). First, his juxtaposition of freedom and slavery evokes Edmund Morgan’s 1975 American Slavery, American Freedom. Larson’s double helix analogy is similar to Morgan’s expose of the contradictions between obtaining freedom from British “slavery” while enslaving hundreds of thousands of Black Americans. Controversially, Morgan’s thesis is that American republican freedom came into being supported by its opposite, slavery.[i] While Morgan focused on Tidewater Virginia slavery, Larson broadened Morgan’s concepts to all thirteen revolting colonies. Second, Larson cites Benjamin Quarles’s The Negro in the American Revolution as foundational to his monograph. Quarles’s seminal 1961 book is the first to delineate the influences and interpret the impact of Blacks in Revolutionary America.[ii] He argues that Blacks’ “major loyalty was not a place or people but to a principle” and joined “the side that made him the quickest and between offer in terms of those unalienable rights.”[iii] Larson extends and supports Quarles’s thesis by including the extensive African-American scholarship in the intervening years.
Larson’s principal contribution is a cogent overview of the issues of slavery and freedom during the last third of eighteenth-century America. He does not break new ground in fewer than three hundred pages spanning thirty years. However, his synthesis is highly valuable for readers to gain an understanding of the sectional tensions and compromises to maintain or abolish slavery in the founding era. While attempting to avoid lighting rod assertions, Larson makes some notable arguments that will be challenged. For example, his assessment that the Somerset legal decision, which ended slavery in Britain, had a modest impact of increasing the freedom suits in Massachusetts but was largely irrelevant in other colonial locations is well-supported but controversial (66-72). Left-leaning historians and journalists assert that the Somerset decision, while not legally dispositive in the colonies, further drove a wedge between the American colonists and the British government. Conversely, right-leaning historians will chafe at Larson’s depiction of John Adams’ and Benjamin Franklin’s overt racism and their willingness to sacrifice enslaved Blacks to obtain white freedom openly.
Readers seeking new discoveries and stories of underrepresented people will be disappointed in Larson’s work. However, those seeking a fresh look at familiar African-American characters such as Benjamin Banneker[iv] and Ona Judge[v] will be rewarded with captivating vignettes. I recommend American Inheritance to those readers wishing to avoid the left-right polarized discourse and seeking a well-written overview of the impact of slavery in the founding era.
While an excellent overview of the contradictory tensions between African-American slavery and white freedom, a momentous contributor to America’s founding is inappropriately omitted. There is no mention of Native Americans, their impact on the country’s founding, and their mistreatment by Europeans. It is essential to recognize that Native Nations are a third strand of Larson’s DNA metaphor.
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[i] Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, Second (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2003), x.
[ii] Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1961).
[iii] Quarles, vii.
[iv] C. Cerami, Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Publisher, Patriot (Wiley, 2002), https://books.google.com/books?id=_evywAEACAAJ.
[v] E.A. Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (Simon & Schuster, 2018), https://books.google.com/books?id=wCbiyQEACAAJ.