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

American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765-1795 By Edward J. Larson Cover Image
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A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2023



"A welcome addition to a public conversation…that has largely produced more heat than light." —Jon Meacham, New York Times Book Review



From a Pulitzer Prize winner, a powerful history that reveals how the twin strands of liberty and slavery were joined in the nation’s founding.


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 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.



About the Author


Edward J. Larson's many acclaimed works in American history include the Pulitzer Prize–winning history of the Scopes trial, Summer for the Gods. He is University Professor of History and holds the Hugh and Hazel Darling Chair in Law at Pepperdine University.

Praise For…


Mr. Larson is a calm but vigorous storyteller who melds sophisticated historical analysis with telling anecdotes to vivify a graceful narrative…. While acknowledging that the study of liberty and slavery in the Revolutionary era remains a 'partisan minefield,' Mr. Larson plunges in, sparing none of the era’s most prominent revolutionaries from scrutiny. Mr. Larson is scrupulously careful to acknowledge their considerable accomplishments—but does not shrink from exposing the gaping blind spot that even some of their contemporaries recognized.
— Harold Holzer - Wall Street Journal

An elegantly written, engaging, and immensely informative account of attempts by colonists to reconcile the implications of liberty with the reality of slavery for Blacks.
— Glenn C. Altschuler - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

[A] compelling account of the tangled relationship between liberty and slavery.…[Edward J.] Larson is a judicious and often eloquent guide through the thicket, making a persuasive case that both liberty and slavery, real and imagined, cannot be untangled from the thinking of the founders, the institutions they created, and the ways in which Americans understood their society.
— Fergus M. Bordewich - American Scholar

An enlightening account of how, despite their irreconcilable meanings, liberty and slavery were conjoined in the birth of the nation from 1765 to 1795.

— Harvard magazine

Larson deftly explores the dramatic lives and revealing words of free and enslaved Americans who sought either to preserve or erase the pervasive tension between liberty and bondage in the revolutionary era.
— Alan Taylor, author of American Republics

Timely and compelling. American Inheritance relates the vital story of liberty and slavery in revolutionary America with balance and nuance.

— Susan Dunn, author of Jefferson’s Second Revolution

A seminal and soulful account of the antagonistic role slavery played in the founding of the United States. Every chapter is anchored in deep research, fine-tuned analysis, and good old-fashioned storytelling.
— Douglas Brinkley, author of Silent Spring Revolution

Larson makes clear how inseparable were the concepts of freedom and bondage in these early years, and thereby makes understandable why the contradictions they created have so long vexed us.
— H. W. Brands, author of Our First Civil War

Larson has brought a true historian’s sensibility to the fierce new debate over slavery at the founding. American Inheritance unearths a legacy of unexpected ironies, terrible tragedies, and fateful opportunities—a legacy with which Americans still struggle today.

— John Fabian Witt, author of Lincoln’s Code

A master storyteller and meticulous analyst, Larson offers a wise and balanced account of the founding era’s thorniest themes: liberty, equality, slavery, and race. Larson’s trademark blend of deep erudition and easygoing prose animates every page of this instant classic.
— Akhil Reed Amar, author of The Words That Made Us


Product Details
ISBN: 9781324075219
ISBN-10: 132407521X
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: February 6th, 2024
Pages: 384
Language: English