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America’s Original Sin — Ed Larson On Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation

American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765-1795 (book cover)

Shermer and Larson discuss:

  • Was America founded in 1619 or 1776?
  • What is/was an “American”?
  • Founding Fathers attitudes toward slavery: John/Abigail Adams, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine
  • What was the justification of slavery?
  • constitutional convention and slavery compromises
  • U.S. Constitution and slavery
  • Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments
  • Atlantic slave trade
  • Fugitive Slave Act and Clause
  • Native Americans
  • monogenism vs. polygenism (did Blacks descend from Adam and Eve or as a separate species
  • slavery abolition
  • Quakers push for abolition
  • Three-fifths Compromise
  • The Dread Scott Decision and the Civil War
  • Abraham Lincoln and his rational argument for ending slavery
  • the future of race relations in America.

Edward J. Larson is the author of many acclaimed works in American history, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning history of the Scopes Trial, Summer for the Gods. He also authored Franklin and Washington: The Founding Partnership, The Return of George Washington 1783-1789, A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800—America’s First Presidential Campaign, An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science, To the Edges of the Earth: 1909, the Race for the Three Poles, and the Climax of the Age of Exploration, and the textbook Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. He is University Professor of History and Hugh and Hazel Darling Chair in Law at Pepperdine University, and lives with his family near Los Angeles.

About the Book

New attention from historians and journalists is raising pointed questions about the founding period: was the American revolution waged to preserve slavery, and was the Constitution a pact with slavery or a landmark in the antislavery movement? Leaders of the founding who called for American liberty are scrutinized for enslaving Black people themselves: George Washington consistently refused to recognize the freedom of those who escaped his Mount Vernon plantation. And we have long needed a history of the founding that fully includes Black Americans in the Revolutionary protests, the war, and the debates over slavery and freedom that followed.

We now have that history in Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Edward J. Larson’s insightful synthesis of the founding. With slavery thriving in Britain’s Caribbean empire and practiced in all of the American colonies, the independence movement’s calls for liberty proved narrow, though some Black observers and others made their full implications clear. In the war, both sides employed strategies to draw needed support from free and enslaved Blacks, whose responses varied by local conditions. By the time of the Constitutional Convention, a widening sectional divide shaped the fateful compromises over slavery that would prove disastrous in the coming decades. Larson’s narrative delivers poignant moments that deepen our understanding: we witness New York’s tumultuous welcome of Washington as liberator through the eyes of Daniel Payne, a Black man who had escaped enslavement at Mount Vernon two years before. Indeed, throughout Larson’s brilliant history it is the voices of Black Americans that prove the most convincing of all on the urgency of liberty.

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This episode was released on August 22, 2023.

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