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Race in Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

The Paradox of American Liberty

Though the phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" has been repeated ad infinitum (endlessly) in classrooms and probably memorized by most school children, its noble sounding aim actually reflects deep contradictions if one turns to the context in which it was written. Author Thomas Jefferson was himself a slaveowner, who would not have been capable of penning such eloquent lines had he not enjoyed the leisure time for his own education and intellectual development that was afforded to him because he did not have to toil in his own fields. He prevented his slaves from learning how to read and write, for he feared that if they could do so, they might find a means of escaping their "subjection." Though hundreds of Virginia planters enlisted their slaves in the Continental Army, thus affording them the opportunity to fight for their freedom as well as for the nation's, Jefferson did not do so, and in fact remained silent on the question of emancipating slaves.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1789), Jefferson espoused deeply racist sentiments, calling into question the intellect and imagination of black people and complaining of their "strong disagreeable odor." He had literally grown up with the institution; his first memory was of being carried on a pillow as an infant by a family slave. In an understandably shocking turn of events that suggest just how conflicted the man truly was, recent DNA evidence has also proven that he was also the father of at least one child with Sally Hemings, one of his two hundred slaves. Yet he never freed Sally or most of his other slaves, having died deeply in debt as a result of his epicurean lifestyle, in which he had enjoyed purchasing, among other things, a vast library and large amounts of wine. He did however manumit Sally's children upon his death, and he let Sally run away with her (possibly their) daughter Beverly, aged 23, when Jefferson was nearing the end of his life in 1821 or 1822.

Even more paradoxically, Jefferson was opposed to slavery, at least in theory. He penned an attack on the British for their promotion of the slave trade in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, but it was censored by the Continental Congress. He proposed (unsuccessfully) to exclude slavery from all U.S. western territories after the year 1800. But when the slaves of Saint Domingue (modern-day Haiti) successfully liberated themselves in 1800 under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture (also spelled Louverture), Jefferson was horrified and secured an embargo against any trade with the country while he was president. He espoused the concept of African colonization for blacks because he did not think that blacks and whites could ever coexist in equality as citizens. It was his fear of a "horrific race war" that he cited as justification for avoiding the issue of immediate emancipation as the topic came to the forefront during the state constitutional conventions of the 1770s.

Though the promise of Jefferson's beautiful language in the Declaration of Independence still infuses the United States with the promise of hope for thousands of immigrants across the world, Jefferson's own life experience serves as an excellent example of the difficulties involved in trying to make noble theories into real-life practices.

Lord Dunmore

In November 1775, Virginia's royal governor, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation promising freedom for all Virginia slaves and servants who left their masters and were willing to bear arms against the white colonists in the Revolution. In the next few weeks, five or six hundred slaves responded. Up to twenty percent of all enslaved African-Americans sought their freedom behind British lines.

Some historians such as Maya Jasanoff have argued that, compared with the United States, "the British empire looked like a good bet if you were an enslaved black or a Native American." While this may have been true, we should not exaggerate the British commitment to equality and freedom. England did abolish slavery in 1833, thirty years before the United States would. Yet its priority during the Revolutionary War years was clearly to defeat the colonists, not to erase or reverse a colonial policy that had tolerated and in fact actively facilitated the slave institution, which had proven so profitable to the mother country.

Nonetheless, 20,000 to 100,000 slaves ran away during the American Revolution (scholars are still debating the exact figure, as evidence for this remains understandably scarce and incomplete). Three thousand of them—black men, women, and children—were evacuated from New York along with other British loyalists between April and November 1783. Thus, they became what Professor Cassandra Pybus called a "diaspora within a diaspora": a people torn from their native Africa and brought in chains to America, then forced to relocate again to the far-flung corners of the vast British empire. Most went to Nova Scotia and England, but many traveled to Jamaica, St. Lucia, the Bahamas, and the unregulated territory of the Mosquito Shore and the Bay of Honduras (present-day Guyana and Belize). Professor Pybus has traced at least a few dozen refugees who made it as far as Germany.

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