Listen to Prof. Moore's podcast with the New Books Network What problem do you address in the book? The two central problems I address are the broader research question of how slavery relates to the foundation of American cultural institutions like universities and libraries, and the narrower one of how and why colonial Americans used profits from slavery to purchase imported books.
That narrower question was the product of wanting to know more about the century culture of taste and why affluent Americans wanted so badly to have English china, silverware, furniture, clothes, art, architecture and books that they heard about through the latest imported London magazines. I asked myself how these affluent readers paid for all of these books? Then, by narrowing my inquiry to the investigation of early private libraries — proprietary subscription libraries where you needed to own a share of stock to borrow a book — I was able to cross reference the records of who were shareholders in the libraries of five major seaports with archival evidence of their business dealings.
Then, I got free online access to the papers of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and other Virginians with extensive private libraries. It turned out their practice was to put their tobacco or rice or other slavery-produced crop on a Europe-bound ship and enclose a list of goods — tools, wine, books, etc. Not at all.
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One of the myths you and I grew up with is that slavery was limited to the South. Then I looked at their business dealings and, bingo! First of all, northerners did own slaves well into the nineteenth century. Most would have a single domestic servant who might be either an African or Native American, although in Medford, Mass. In the North the real money came from ship building, rum distilling and fishing out of places like Boston, Salem, Providence and Newburyport.
First, the ships cost a lot of money to buy. Second, merchants from these cities all traded with the West Indies in what has become known as the Transatlantic Slave Triangle. The wealth created thereby got put into the great New England banks and insurance firms, which in turn insured slave ships up until the Civil War.
The whole Atlantic economy was effectively based on slave trade. I began my research with some investigative sleuthing.
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Here, again, the public-school history you and I grew up with about patriotic Americans rising up to challenge an evil colonial empire was, in retrospect, quite a bit more complicated. The case, which was closely watched on both sides of the Atlantic, went to highest court where justice William Murray of Mansfield said he was free on British soil. Now, England was an empire so if you make a legal decision in part of the empire it stands in the other parts as well.
This freaked out the colonists. After the Revolution, the slave trade business accelerated in New York state until the trade was abolished in , after which New York-owned vessels continued with illegal slave trading through Far from it! For example, few people know that Franklin became anti-slavery. We need to keep this in mind when we read and talk about great books and great ideas. What was the deep context, political, social and economic, in which they arose and became the official ideology of a nation? Skip to main content.
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It’s time to remember the central role slavery played in the making of America | Opinion
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