The Sons of Liberty

The Sons of Liberty, Book I is the first installment in Alexander and Joseph Lagos’ 2010 graphic novel series of the same name. Book II came out last year, but I haven’t gotten to that one yet. The premise is that two slave boys in colonial America acquire superpowers via experiments into electricity performed on them after they escape from their master, a Virginia tobacco farmer. The boys are Graham and Brody, and they come under the tutelage of fictionalized Benjamins Lay and Franklin in 1760.

The book is unusual for several reasons. There aren’t a ton of graphic novels set in the Revolutionary period, nor does Random House put out all that many graphic novels, for that matter. But it provides a great opportunity to take a quick look at a rather unpleasant chapter in American legal history: laws having to do with slavery.

One of the main antagonists in the story is a slave catcher by the name of Cole Walker, who does not appear to have been based on an actual historical figure. This is actually something of a problem. There weren’t any “free states” before 1776, so this wasn’t nearly as fraught an issue as it would prove to be in the nineteenth century. The thing of it is, Walker seems to be acting as if he had powers which did not really exist until the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793 (not to be confused with the much harsher Fugitive Slave Act of 1850), almost a generation and two national governments after the events in this part of the story. It’s not clear to me that slave catchers who had no other vocation really existed much before the early-to-mid nineteenth century. At that time slave catching appears to have been done by sheriffs and other officials rather than private individuals. Even the ones that did exist in the eighteenth century wouldn’t have had the legal authority to apprehend any black person they suspected of being a runaway slave.

But whether they intended to or not, the authors have captured something accurate about the phenomenon of runaway slaves in the eighteenth century, namely that trying to get back to Africa was not as unrealistic a goal as it sounds. Why? Because they didn’t really have anywhere else to go, particularly not from as far north as Virginia. Slavery was legal in all of the colonies, and it was not until the 1780s that any of the states began to gradually abolish slavery. Even Canada had legal slavery until Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. The Underground Railroad wouldn’t even exist until the nineteenth century. Some slaves did flee towards Spanish Florida, which offered freedom to any slave who was Catholic or converted to Catholicism, and this did serve as the motivation for the Stono Rebellion in 1739. But Graham and Brody are in Virginia, apparently not all that far from Philadelphia,* so running south wouldn’t have been a terribly attractive option. There are records of slave owners in Virginia taking out classified ads about escaped slaves, many of which mention the escapees either heading south or heading for a boat. Those were really the only two alternatives, other than simply passing for a freeman, which is what Graham and Brody ultimately settle on. But until that situation worked itself out, trying to get on a ship and go back to Africa was one of the more plausible options available to them.

Regardless, being a fugitive slave was a dangerous proposition, even in the eighteenth century. And given that this is a fairly clear alternate history, one could simply posit that the conflict over slavery took a different form in this version of the story. But by the time tensions over slavery got to the point that they seem to have in The Sons of Liberty, the US was only a few decades, not over a century, from the bloodiest conflict in its history. But given that the real Ben Franklin had only just started down the road towards abolitionism by the mid 1760s, whereas this one seems already a fairly committed abolitionist, we may just be seeing the authors engaging in a bit of creative anachronism to serve the plot.

As a graphic novel, the work isn’t precisely a stellar example of the type. There are some pretty unfortunate font choices that make certain parts difficult to read, something the authors seem to have picked up on halfway through, as this changes for the better. The action scenes are also a bit hard to follow. But the concept is interesting enough that we’ll be back to take a look at the second book in a few weeks. Most of the major comics publishers tend to be a little leery of exploring issues as fraught and unpleasant as slavery, so it’s encouraging to see someone taking it on.

*The real Abingdon, VA is in far southwest Virginia, just north of Bristol, along the Virginia/Tennessee border, but it wasn’t settled until the late 1760s/early 1770s and wasn’t called “Abingdon” until 1778, so the “Abingdon” in the book is likely a fictional place, given its apparent proximity to Philadelphia.

17 responses to “The Sons of Liberty

  1. Couldn’t the escaped slave head west? The officially organized colonies only go so far and then you’re into straight wilderness. The pioneers might actually like to have extra labor walk in.

    Also, in that period it might be possible for the escaped slave to join an Indian tribe. That might be a stretch but it is not impossible.

    • Good ideas, but two things.

      First, there really wasn’t all that much going on west of the Appalachians in 1760, and really, not all that much going on more than a few hundred miles from the coast, period. Heck, there were parts of Virginia that weren’t actively settled until the 1780s, and many of the towns on Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana wouldn’t be founded until then or even decades later. Further, the territory west of the Appalachians was actually under French control until the end of the Seven Year/French and Indian War in 1763, and the French definitely had slaves. So in 1760, striking out west might have meant freedom, but it would also have meant basically living off the land, in isolation, and thus likely starvation.

      Second, joining a native tribe wasn’t much of a solution. Native peoples were also subject to slavery, as well as forced relocation and what amounts to genocide. When one compares the lot of the eighteenth-century Native American with the eighteenth-century black plantation slave, it’s hard to say which one fares worse.

      • James Pollock

        Isn’t the original grant to the Virginia colony lacking a western border? Obviously, Virginia has one NOW, but when was the border established?

      • All border issues, including Virginia’s, were officially resolved by the first United States Congress, so sometime after 1787. Until then, many of the states claimed their territory extended all the way to the west coast. I don’t remember the exact date.

        Another alternative may have been to run away to England. In R v Knowles, ex parte Somersett (1772) 20 State Tr 1, a British court freed a black slave who ran away from his American master in England because slavery was not supported by English law. This was only 12 years later.

        If this subject will be revisited, a couple a sources that may be helpful are Southern Slavery and the Law (1619-1860) by Thomas Morris, Virginia Statutes on Slavery and Virginia Slave Codes of 1705.

  2. This is really not that important in the grand scheme of your article but I have a quick comment to make about the reference to slavery in Canada. Before Confederation in 1867, Canada wasn’t really Canada, it was a British Colony. I realize that your link does clarify that it was the British Parliament that enacted the Slavery Abolition Act, but your text implies that Canada had a Parliament of its own. So it’s really the British who allowed slavery up until 1833 in all of its colonies, including Canada here in North America.

    • Sorry about any miscommunication. As an American, when I hear “Parliament,” I automatically assume “UK.” But yes, the thrust of the point is that all of the British Colonies, including what would eventually become Canada, had legal slavery until 1833. Canada would not gain its independence for a few decades after that.

      • Thanks, Ryan. Canada is governed through a Parliament of its own now, hence my clarification. We’re not actually fully independent of Great Britain, though, as our Head of State is still the British Monarch. Most constitutional monarchies, such as Canada, employ a parliamentary system of government.

      • Ryan Davidson

        Oh yes, I’m aware of that. But us Yanks generally think “Britain” when we hear “Parliament.” We’d say “the Canadian Parliament,” or “the New Zealand Parliament,” but just plain “Parliament” is normally assumed to be in Westminster.

      • Chakat Firepaw

        Some further correction:

        First, Canada had parliaments long before 1867: The Constitutional Act of 1791, (which split the Province of Quebec into Upper and Lower Canada), created them.

        Second: One of the things done in the first session of the Parliament of Upper Canada was the passing of the Act Against Slavery in 1793. This prohibited the importation of slaves and would free any child born to a slave at the age of 25.

      • Ryan Davidson

        Be that as it may, it does nothing to help the story, which is set mostly in 1760 with a little in 1777.

    • Thanks for the clarification – I was actually thinking of the Canadian Parliament when I read that.

  3. “Even Canada had legal slavery until Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.”

    Which is fine and good but in 1760 there was no such country as Canada: it was New France. Escaping to New France would have been like escaping to Louisiana at the time: both were French territories.

    In any case, had the story been set after 1793 there would have been legislation protecting slaves. “The law, titled An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude within this Province, stated that while all slaves in the province would remain enslaved until death, no new slaves could be brought into Upper Canada, and children born to female slaves after passage of the act would be freed at age 25.” In other words, slaves were not allowed to be brought into Canada after 1793. I don’t know what that would mean for slaves that escaped and went to Canada on their own: as 1793 was after the American Revolution it may not have been a simple matter for an American slave owner to ask for assistance in finding a slave. Now obviously an American slave owner could enter Canada by himself and track down the slave himself but going back to the U.S. might be a problem because the Canadian authorities might not look too kindly on somebody going to Canada and grabbing somebody and bringing them back to the U.S.: they would have to somehow prove that the slave was in fact owned by them and then explain that the slave had escaped into Canada and that they had not therefore broken the law by bringing a slave into Canada in the first place.

    Thus, while slavery wasn’t abolished in Canada until 1833, no new slaves had been introduced into Canada for forty years by that point.

    It is an interesting coincidence that the Canadian Act Against Slavery was passed in the same year that the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in the U.S. Presumably no slaves made it as far as Canada back then so it’s a moot point.

    • Shortly after the passing of the Act Against Slavery there were court decisions regarding the recapture and return of slaves: It could happen, but the standard for proof of ownership was very strict and could not usually be met.

  4. The end of the Underground Railway was Canada; that put a runaway slave safely beyond the reach of being returned to the slaveowner if captured. Jumping from ice floe to ice floe to cross the river (border) and escape is featured in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

  5. A minor geographical note, ‘Abingdon’ almost definitely doesn’t exist (as they portray it) but they might have based it on the real town of ‘Abington’ which was settled by Quakers in the late 17th century and is fairly near Philadelphia.

    And I’m surprised. I was under the impression that comics had looked at slavery more than once, it was just that they usually didn’t do so with much skill.

  6. Pingback: Revere: Revolution in Silver | Law and the Multiverse

  7. I think the action may be in PA; it’s “Abington” with a T, not “Abingdon” with a D, and Bristol PA is right across the river from NJ, where the flash-forward takes place. Both are towns to the northwest of Philadelphia. There was some mention of one of the towns being 24 miles from Philadelphia; Bristol, PA is about 22 miles from Independence Hall.

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