Ed Larson: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of Our Nation

Pulitzer Prize-winner Ed Larson returns to The Commonwealth Club with a revealing look at how the twin strands of liberty and slavery were joined in the nation’s founding. New attention from historians and journalists has been raising pointed questions: Was the American revolution waged to preserve slavery? Was the Constitution a pact with slavery, or was it a landmark in the antislavery movement? Leaders who called for American liberty are scrutinized for enslaving Black people themselves, such as George Washington’s consistent refusal to recognize the freedom of those who escaped his Mount Vernon plantation.

Larson insightfully synthesizes these issues in his new history of the founding that fully includes Black Americans in the Revolutionary protests, the war, and the debates over slavery and freedom that followed. With slavery thriving in Britain’s Caribbean empire and practiced in all of the American colonies, the independence movement’s calls for liberty proved far too 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. But 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 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, it is the voices of Black Americans that prove the most convincing of all on the urgency of liberty.


George Hammond


A Humanities Member-led Forum program. Forums at the Club are organized and run by volunteer programmers who are members of The Commonwealth Club, and they cover a diverse range of topics. Learn more about our Forums.

Speaker photo by Cronhall Photography.

Image - Edward Larson

Edward Larson

University Professor of History, and Darling Chair in Law, Pepperdine University; Author, American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765-1795

Image - George Hammond

In Conversation with George Hammond

Author, Conversations With Socrates