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Rough Crossings: Britain, The Slaves and the American Revolution
Rough Crossings: Britain, The Slaves and the American Revolution
Simon Schama
Ecco / HarperCollins, 2022
496 pp., 29.95

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Mark Noll

Clashing Languages of Liberty

Books like Rough Crossing raise a large, important, and tragically enduring question.1 It is whether the United States' historical profession to be a land of liberty should be taken seriously. Ask generations of willing immigrants—ask adherents of countless religious minorities persecuted for one reason or another in their homelands—ask entrepreneurs beyond counting, the numberless founders of voluntary faith-based organizations or the great legion of American purveyors of print—and the answer must, on balance, be a conclusive yes. But concentrate on the history of African Americans, and the answer is not nearly so obvious. Is their experience an exception that proves the rule, or is it a deadly fly poisoning a hypocritical ointment?

Simon Schama's Rough Crossings joins a gathering stream of publications that will doubtless grow larger in the approach to March 25, 2007, which marks the 200th anniversary of the final enactment of the British Parliament's "Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade."2 For a comparison germane to Schama's purposes, it is pertinent to note that the United States Congress also enacted a ban on slave trading in 1807. Yet the effect of the American action was only marginal. For decades after 1807, the British naval squadrons that were dispatched to the west coast of Africa to enforce Parliament's action regularly interdicted slave ships bound with their human cargo to North America.

This book is presented as the story of American slaves who during the American Revolution escaped from "the Sons of Liberty" in order to find refuge, manumission, and at least some support from the British "tyrants." More than the subtitle might suggest, however, it is also about the zealously persistent British reformers who championed abolition and expended great energy in pursuing that goal on three continents. In its first half the key figure is Granville Sharp (1735–1813), a Quaker-influenced evangelical whose lifelong anti-slavery advocacy ...

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