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Race in The American Revolution

Revolution from Within

Slaves were not directly affected by stamp duties or tea taxes, but—in the words of historian Gary Nash—"nonetheless they were politicized by the language and modes of white protest and were quick to seize the opportunities for securing their own freedom that emerged from the disruptions of a society in rebellion."129 As social upheaval reached their cities and towns, many blacks seized the opportunity to flee. Thomas Jefferson estimated that some 30,000 slaves had run away during the British invasion of Virginia in 1781. Some of them joined up with Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore's black regiment, where Dunmore promised enlistees their freedom in exchange for taking up arms against their old masters. A 21-year-old named Titus recruited both free blacks and slaves to join guerilla bands that fought against the Patriots. But for all of their hope and ambition in search of any possible route to freedom, many of these runaways still met a miserable fate in British camps, where thousands succumbed to disease, battle wounds, and malnutrition.

Free Negroes

Most black Loyalists were evacuated to Jamaica, Nova Scotia, or Florida at war's end. The primary basis of the free black community in the United States came from former slaves who were either emancipated by state law, manumitted by their former masters, rebelled, or who ran away but managed to remain in the country. Through these diverse means, America's free African-American population skyrocketed from just a few thousand in the 1760s to almost 200,000 by the first decade of the nineteenth century. While the free black population had been almost entirely of mixed racial origin before the war, now a more substantial number of blacks could embody the role of free men and women and remind American whites that skin color need not dictate a person's freedom or abilities.

Taking Advantage of the Social Rupture

Slave rebellions during the revolutionary period supported Virginia Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie's theory that "any Emergency" that divided the white population could provide slaves with the opportunity to rebel.130 In New York, a white man overheard two slaves conspiring over how they could obtain more gunpowder for an insurrection plot; in a Virginia county, James Madison described another slave plot led by a man "who was to conduct them when the English Troops should arrive"; and in St. Andrew Parish, Georgia, slaves rebelled in December 1774 and managed to kill four whites before being captured and burned alive.131

Attempting Legal Channels to Freedom during the Revolution

A few educated slaves managed to make a written challenge to the hypocrisy of bondage amidst a war for freedom. In Boston, Massachusetts, four black men petitioned the governor and state assembly in April 1773, expressing gratitude for recent attempts to abolish slavery but asserting that, "as the people of this province seem to be actuated by the principles of equity and justice, we cannot but expect your house will again take our deplorable cause into serious consideration, and give us that ample relief which, as men, we have a natural right to."132 African-Americans of the counties of Bristol and Worcester in Massachusetts also petitioned the Committees of Correspondence in March 1775 for assistance in obtaining their freedom, and the Worcester County Convention responded by passing a resolution that "we abhor the enslaving of any of the human race, and particularly of the Negroes in this country. And that whenever there shall be a door opened, or opportunity present, for anything to be done toward emancipating the Negroes: we will use our influence and endeavor that such a thing may be effected."133

Some black and white abolitionists penned broader appeals that addressed not just their state assemblies but the general public. Though she was a devout Christian owned by exceptionally doting masters in Boston, the African-American child prodigy and poetess Phyllis Wheatley nonetheless began inserting subtle pleas for emancipation into her work by 1772. This young slave, the first published black poet in North America, recognized the powerful symbolic ties between America's cause and the cause of freedom for her people. She wrote verse directed at King George III to request a repeal of the Stamp Act, decried a British customs officer who murdered a Boston teenager, and wrote a poem praising George Washington, to which Washington responded with a hand-written letter humbly thanking her.134 Wheatley followed the classical poetic conventions of her time, but incorporated an unmistakable message in her lines, as when she celebrated:

The silken reigns, and Freedom's charms unfold.
No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress'd complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain.135

Wheatley also reminded her readers that—as a slave—"can I then but pray / Others may never feel tyrannic sway?"136 Such eloquent appeals were not exclusively the product of well-known child prodigies. An anonymous New England mulatto (then a term for a person who was half white and half black) penned an attack on slavery in 1776 that quoted the Declaration of Independence ("that all men are created Equal") and the Bible ("make of one Blood all nations of men, for to dwell upon the face of the Earth") to make a very persuasive case against human bondage.137

Taking Up Arms

For both illiterate slaves denied an education and literate bondsmen frustrated by the frequent ineffectiveness of the written petition for freedom, actions could speak louder than words. In Virginia, black men, women, and children all "enlisted" with the British army to gain their freedom. Over 5,000 blacks served in colonial militias and were involved in some of the first battles of the Revolution.138 A black man, Crispus Attucks, was one of the five colonists shot in the Boston Massacre. Black soldiers also fought at the first major Revolutionary skirmish at Bunker Hill. One of them was Salem Poor, a man in his thirties from Andover, Massachusetts who had been born a slave and bought his freedom at a heavy price in 1769. Fourteen officers from Poor's regiment petitioned the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to commend Poor as "a brave and gallant soldier" who "behaved like [an] experienced officer." Though as many as 4,000 colonists fought at Bunker (and Breed's) Hill that day, Poor is the only one that extant records indicate was singled out for his exceptional service. After the war was long over, a white sixteen-year-old fifer named John Greenwood wrote a memoir in which he remembered his terror upon the commencement of hostilities at Bunker Hill, when soldiers' bodies were being laid out on the Boston Common. He was encouraged by the sight of "a Negro man, wounded in the back of his neck," with "blood running down his back," who did not seem to mind his wounds and said that he was only going "to get a plaster put on it and meant to return."139 Continental Generals also reported to Congress in 1775 that there were "Negroes" in "several" of the Massachusetts regiments, "a number" among the Rhode Island soldiers and "less" from New Hampshire.140

Yet old racial fears prevailed among southern slaveowning commanders like George Washington, and at the insistence of representatives from heavily slave-dependent South Carolina, blacks were initially barred entirely from the Continental Army. But when times got tough for the colonists after the first year of fighting, the Continental Congress reconsidered and Washington acquiesced in allowing at least northern states to solicit black recruits. Washington re-authorized enlistment for blacks with "prior military experience" in January 1776. By January 1777, as the Continental Army's situation became desperate due to desertions from the horrid winter encampments, enlistment was extended to all free blacks.

States in the upper South reluctantly accepted black volunteers when the British shifted military operations into their territory by late 1778. Free African Americans served in the army and navy of Virginia, and slaves could serve as substitutes for their masters (whether they wanted to or not) in Delaware and North Carolina. Maryland authorized slave enlistments and even drafted free blacks. Yet whites from the Lower South remained firmly opposed to the mobilization of the region's black majority, many of whom were newly-arrived Africans who worked the lowland rice swamps in much larger concentrations than their wealthy white owners.141 Even when a desperate Congress offered to pay a whopping $1,000 to masters for each slave they enlisted in 1779—more than twice the $400 compensation they offered to Rhode Island slaveowners—Georgia and South Carolina still refused.142

Many African-American soldiers capitalized on their newfound freedom and their army pay. In 1783, Maryland shoemaker James McHenry bought his own freedom and then rented a farm. Sea Captain Paul Cuffee and sail manufacturer James Forten became very successful businessmen. A Virginia native named Henry Carter was emancipated in 1811 and managed to save up enough money to purchase the freedom of his wife Priscilla.143 Even if most free blacks remained confined to poverty, these success stories became powerful symbols to the entire black community...and to whites who questioned black abilities and racial equality.


During the Revolution, Georgia and South Carolina only solidified their reliance on slave labor and their firm resistance to any sort of slave mobilization, even in the cause of independence. Free blacks did not inhabit the Lower South in significant numbers until the 1790s, when hundreds of mulattoes (or gens de couleur) fled the Haitian Revolution for the United States. The war also prompted many sympathetic whites in colonial New England (which was the region least reliant on slave labor) to enact schemes for total or gradual emancipation across the region by 1804.

Even in these seemingly freedom-loving areas, tens of thousands of slaves remained in bondage well into the nineteenth century. While the Revolution prompted many inroads towards the cause of emancipation, it also marked a lost opportunity for creating a truly free nation. If anything, this period further solidified the preexisting differences between the North and South; New England and parts of the Middle Atlantic began their steps toward a slave-free society, while the Deep South persisted and redoubled its emphasis on a slave-dependent society and economy. Many planters in the Upper South expressed their abhorrence of bondage, yet insisted on procrastinating until future generations could grant slaves the freedom that they were too scared or incapable of granting themselves. So long as slavery and patriarchy persisted, American society could not be truly democratic.

Meanwhile, the First (and eventually, the Second) Great Awakenings helped to form multiple communities of burgeoning abolitionists (black and white), who internalized the movements' evangelical messages of equality and love for one's fellow man. Blacks both slave and free were affected by these exciting periods of revivalism, and Protestant sects from the Quakers to the Methodists to the Baptists would forever change black ideology, organization, and even spirituality. This passionate spiritual life, which was oftentimes the sole source of hope and uplift to black people in America, also became one of their strongest connections to the new country. Belonging to American sects of Christianity—like the Baptists and (by 1796) the African Methodist Episcopals—undergirded many black peoples' sense of being American.

Most of the African-Americans who remained in the new United States prayed to a Christian God for salvation and for freedom. Thousands of them had served their country in the military. Others took up the principles of the Revolution and petitioned state governments and their fellow citizens to plead the case of their people. And still others acted out the true meaning of freedom and independence by claiming their own liberty and running away from their masters. Though the rest of white America failed to fully support these dreams of freedom and equality, some whites did recognize the mistake of retaining slavery in a newly independent land. And those whites who thought they could do away with both slavery and black people at once had failed to recognize one of the most salient facts of the revolutionary era: Africans were becoming African-Americans, and they weren't going anywhere.

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