cover image American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765–1795

American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765–1795

Edward J. Larson. Norton, , $32.50 ISBN 978-0-393-88220-9

Pepperdine University historian Larson (Franklin & Washington) explores in this solid account the interplay of liberty and slavery in the decades leading up to and following the American Revolution. Among other individuals and events, Larson spotlights enslaved Boston poet Phillis Wheatley, the 1772 Somerset v. Steuart ruling that American laws protecting slaveholders’ property rights did not apply in England, and Ona Judge, who ran away from President George Washington’s household in 1796. Elsewhere, Larson analyzes meanings of liberty in the writings of John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, and others; examines how the independence movement, born of opposition to the 1765 Stamp Act, employed slavery as its “activating metaphor”; recounts how the sectional divide deepened at the Constitutional Convention; and details how abolitionists sought to use Benjamin Banneker’s 1792 almanac to refute Thomas Jefferson’s belief that Blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. Larson’s memorable turns of phrase (“As arbitrary as it was, the three-fifths compromise acted like a riptide sucking in delegates no matter how they tried to swim against it”) and keen insights into important yet lesser-known figures keep the narrative moving, even as he sticks to mostly familiar terrain. The result is an accessible and informative overview of the paradox at the heart of the American experiment. (Jan.)