"Democratical Radicals"

When the time came for the European-Americans to claim their sovereignty and break with the British empire, the leaders did so plagued by the inconsistencies between moral sense philosophy and practice. Neither a doctrine of human rights nor a confidence in democracy as a basis of governing found widespread support among the established elite. Bernard Bailyn concluded, after his extensive review of the pamphlets, correspondence and other literature of the period, that:

Throughout the colonial period, and increasingly in the early Revolutionary years, the dangers of "democratical despotism" preyed on the minds not merely of crown officials and other defenders of prerogative but of all enlightened thinkers. ...The leaders of the Revolutionary movement were radicals -- but they were eighteenth-century radicals concerned, like the eighteenth-century English radicals, not with the need to recast the social order nor with the problems of economic inequality and the injustices of stratified societies but with th need to purify a corrupt constitution and fight off the apparent growth of prerogative power. To them it did not seem reasonable to "collect and assemble together the tailors and the cobblers and the ploughmen and the shepherds" of a vast domain and expect them to "treat and resolve about matters of the highest importance of state."

Could such men, whose acceptance of superior ability among European-Americans of position so dominated their thinking, realistically be expected to view Africans or indigenous Americans as political equals? They were largely unable to do so even for other European-Americans of a lower socio-economic station than themselves. Of the prominent colonial leaders, only Benjamin Franklin and the Quakers who formed the Pennsylvania Abolition Society stand out in their opposition to slavery on purely moral grounds. Even Jefferson seems far more concerned with the threat to the social order posed by an enlarged African-American population than with the inherently unjust enslavement of one group of people by another. European and European-American knew very little about the societies of the African continent or their history. In terms that spoke only to the state of productive capabilities and the division of labor, Adam Smith expressed with certainty "that the accommodation of an European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages." Two chapters later he adds the following:

All the inland parts of Africa ... seem in all ages of the world to have been in the same barbarous and uncivilized state in which we find them at present.

The reason for this, states Smith, is that the opportunity for extended commerce and, hence, interaction with distant societies, was impeded by an absence of an extensive system of interconnected waterways. "The great rivers of Africa," he wrote, "are at too great a distance from one another to give occasion to any considerable inland navigation." Access to the sea by these inland waterways is even more important in determining which societies are innovative and thrive:

The commerce besides which any nation can carry on by means of a river which does not break itself into any great number of branches or canals, and which runs into another territory before it reaches the sea, can never be very considerable; because it is always in the power of the nations who possess that other territory to obstruct the communications between the upper country and the sea.

And yet, the eventual European conquest of much of the African continent as well as the capture and deportation of so many Africans as slaves to the Americas would not have succeeded without the material assistance of the Africans themselves.