Our air was not as pure as England

Bob Diamond

Patrick Henry uttered his immortal words on March 23, 1775 to encourage the American Colonies to mobilize against the encroaching British military force:

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”

When Jefferson drew his original draft of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, in giving the reasons for our rebellion against England, he inserted a clause blaming the King of England for having “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty” by perpetuating the African slave trade. Despite their owning over 200 slaves, neither Henry nor Jefferson accepted responsibility for slavery, nor their slave-owning plantation peers. The Continental Congress struck out the clause as too controversial. During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the Framers approved a constitution that legally allowed slavery.

In 1772, four years before Jefferson’s Declaration, Lord Mansfield, a courageous Chief Justice of the British Kings Bench, rendered a decision in the famous Somerset Case, wherein he freed a slave and concluded that slavery was illegal in England. This momentous decision was 89 years before our Civil War (1861) in which over 600,000 soldiers died over the issue of slavery. In 1857, our Supreme Court in the Dred Scott Case not only upheld the legality of slavery, but Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared that a black man, whether free or slave, “had no rights which a white man need respect.”

British pupils have memorized words from the Mansfield case: “The air of England is too pure for a slave to breath, and so everyone who breathes it becomes free.” In 1807, the British Parliament formally abolished the entire slave trade. Despite the Mansfield decision, slavery remained in the United States. Lord Mansfield’s decision played a key role in smoothly ending slavery in England without the necessity of a Civil War. Our American air was apparently not as pure as that of England.

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