Slavery and America’s early foreign policy

Gene Allen Smith's  The Slaves' Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812,  is an attempt to look at the decisions made by the slaves who fought in that war both on the American side -- including in Andrew Jackson's forces at the Battle of New Orleans -- and for the British.

The account makes clear that the Civil War was not the first time African-American soldiers took up arms against slavery. It's also a look at how other countries saw slavery as an opportunity to undermine American security in the early days of the republic.

This was often motivated more by realpolitik than by moral opposition to the institution. The British Empire had outlawed in the slave trade in 1808, but continued to benefit from it by enlisting slaves freed from seized transatlantic ships into its navy. Until 1790, the Spanish colonial government of Florida also opportunistically offered asylum to escaped American slaves. The communities they formed were frequently the target of raids by American militias.

Smith argues that fears of slave escapes to foreign-controlled territory or Native American tribes, combined with the unease provoked by the Haitian uprising of 1791 led Southern states to tighten controls on slavery to prevent escape or rebellion. This was further compounded by the War of 1812, during which British forces promised freedom to any slave that reached British territory. The author argues that these factors were an important part of the motivation for new laws cracking down on escaped slaves and the attempted expulsion of free blacks from states like Virginia.

I spoke with Smith, a historian at Texas Christian University, about the war's lasting impact on slavery:

I'm almost convinced that before the war of 1812, the bonds of slavery were loosening. After the war of 1812, those bonds become much, much tighter. If you're a Virginia or Maryland planter and a member of the militia, and you see British sails coming toward you, you're also looking behind you to see if your slaves are going to rebel or flee. The federal government's failure to protect the American coastline during the war made southerners much more convinced that they had to do everything in their power to defend slavery.

Again, the British weren't exactly selfless liberators. The senior British admiral in the conflict, Alexander Cochrane, was himself a slave owner at his plantation in Trinidad. But nonetheless, the British mostly stayed true to their word, and somewhere around 4,800 slaves were evacuated to freedom in British colonies during the war. Around 600 fought in the British forces.

The same can't be said for the Americans, particularly the slave-owning Andrew Jackson:

The British and the Spanish were willing to take slaves out of North America and take them to other colonies and give them freedom. Although Jackson promised slaves at New Orleans that they would get their freedom after the battle was won, he didn't give it to them.

I'm an American and came to the project from an American perspective. But as I concluded the project, I became more and more convinced that the real heroes of this story are the British and the Spanish, not the Americans.

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