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Slavery and Greene

History is always messy, even with larger-than-life figures such as Nathanael Greene. As my co-author John and I researched this book, we were astounded by the accomplishments of Greene and how he did so much with so little. But, as is the case with most important figures in American history, there are always one or two things that leave a reader uncomfortable, or downright disappointed, wishing they had chosen another path. One aspect of Greene's post-war life is one of those moments. At the end of the war, Greene was contemplating his future. His investments with two sets of friends had gone sour, and the business back in Warwick, RI was not doing as well as he hoped. He had essentially co-signed a loan for supplies for his troops with a shady character named John Banks of Virginia. Banks died, and Greene was left with the loan. He was headed for a life of financial ruin. And then he did the unthinkable for a former Quaker. Awarded a confiscated plantation at Mulberry Grove in Georgia, he turned to slavery to turn a profit on his 2,000 acre plantation. He was warned by others not to do it. A Congregationalist minister from Roxbury, MA wrote him, "I hope You & your Lady will not sit down to enjoy the sweets of your toils . . . where slaves are more numerous than Freemen," and that "the Rhode Island & Providence Plantations have the first right to your services." His friend Joseph Reed of Pennsylvania asked him, "Will you be a Planter with a Retinue of Slaves? Or will you come Northward to enjoy more Ease, but less Splendor?" A Quaker from Delaware reminded Greene that to "countenance slavery . . . would be a stigma to thy character in the Annals of History." Dr. Benjamin Rush, famed Philadelphia physician wrote Greene in 1782 about the future of importing slaves from Africa, "For God's Sake, do not exhibit a new Spectacle of the World, of men just emerging from a war of liberty with their cloathes not yet washed from the blood which was Shed in copious & willing streams in its defence, fitting out vessels to import their fellow creatures from Africa to reduce them to Slavery."

Greene wrote in 1775 that "Slavery shuts up every avenue that leads to knowledge, and leaves the soul ignorant of its own importance; it is rendered incapable of promoting human happiness, piety or virtue; and he that betrays that trust, being once acquainted with the pleasure and advantages of Knowledge and freedom, is guilty of spiritual suicide." However, in 1783 he was writing that on his plantation the "their [slaves'] condition will not be worse but better." Greene had deluded himself. As fate would have it, the plantation became a huge disaster for Greene, debts were mounting and Greene wrote to his wife Catharine, "I am doomed to a life of slavery and anxiety." Greene never recovered financially and died a premature death in 1786. We are left with what if . . .

For more detail and discussion, read chapter 9.


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