Slavery and the Homefront, 1775–1783
SLAVERY AND THE HOMEFRONT, 1775–1783
No African-American colonist signed the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, despite the Patriots' common use of the words slavery, tyranny, and oppression in making a case for separation from Great Britain, the signers of the Declaration did not consider the slavery as it was lived by African-American colonists a cause for revolution. Holding no promise for freedom for the men and women in bondage, the American Revolution posed difficult choices for black colonists. For some, the Revolution's rhetoric of freedom raised the hope that the ideals of the Revolution would mean freedom for all Americans. Despite the lack of a clear statement from the Patriots on how the Revolution could benefit African Americans, black militiamen took part in the Revolution's initial skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, and by the end of the conflict an estimated 5,000 African-American colonists had served the Patriot cause on land and sea. However, not all African-American colonists supported the fight for independence. As Benjamin Quarles writes in his classic The Negro in the American Revolution, many were likely "to join the side that made [them] the quickest and best offer in terms of those inalienable rights'" (p. vii). Still others fled the colonies altogether, settling in Canada or Florida or on Indian land.
slavery in the american colonies
An estimated one-fifth of the population in the American colonies before the Revolution were slaves—more than a half million individuals. Slavery was dispersed unevenly across the colonies, but few white colonists, North or South, could escape knowledge of the institution. Even in the North, slaves (often called servants, which tended to disguise their real status) were part of many households. Among the Patriots, it was not just George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who owned slaves; so did the early Whig leader John Dickinson of Philadelphia. New England families (including the family of Boston Patriot Samuel Adams) often included a slave member. Slaves were sold at auction in Northern ports such as Philadelphia and Newport, Rhode Island; advertisements of slaves for sale (in Boston, unwanted slave children were simply given away) and calls for the return of so-called runaway, or escaped, slaves were regular parts of local newspapers.
This widespread awareness of real, not metaphorical, slavery in colonial America provided a compelling although not always recognized impetus to Revolutionary slogans. White American colonists did not have to imagine what slavery might mean; it was demonstrated daily. However, the Patriot call to end American slavery to Great Britain with no corollary promise to end slavery at home did not go unnoticed by African Americans. Phillis Wheatley, a former slave and Boston poet, wrote:
O might God! Let conscience seize the mind
Of inconsistent man, who wish to find
A partial god to vindicate their cause
And plead their freedom while they
break its laws.
(quoted in Bradley, 106)
encouraged African-American colonists to take up the call of liberty and unalienable rights for all. Free black colonists Prince Hall and Paul Cuffee were among the signers of slave petitions for the freedom that Revolutionary rhetoric encouraged. Lemuel Haynes, a Patriot soldier and an African-American Congregational minister, preached that slavery was an affront to God. In a 1773 petition to the Massachusetts legislature, a Boston man, whom we know only as Felix, called for liberty in the emotional language of the time: "We have no Property! We have no Wives! No Children! We have no City! No Country!" (Aptheker, p. 6). In an essay in the Essex Journal, a former slave, Caesar Sarter, asked white readers to put themselves in the place of a family sold the auction block: "Suppose you were trepanned [kidnapped] away, the husband from the dear wife of his bosom—the wife from her affectionate husband—children from their fond parents—or parents from their beloved offspring."
the revolution and antislavery sentiment
The Revolutionary period also produced considerable activity by white antislavery advocates, many of them Quakers who opposed not only slavery but also all war, including the Revolution, and were thus not part of the Patriot leadership. Other antislavery advocates were influenced by the conservative New Divinity stream of Congregationalism, which saw slavery as a sin against God. However, Congregationalist ministers were not generally influential in the Revolutionary period, when American colonists became increasingly secular or, in the case of Southern Patriots, had little connection to formal churches.
Most Northern Patriots were not willing to jeopardize the support of the Southern colonies by adopting an antislavery stance. A few exceptions should be noted. Thomas Paine and Benjamin Rush, both important Patriots, sought unsuccessfully to have the Patriot message include opposition to slavery. As president of the Pennsylvania Society Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, Franklin called slavery "an atrocious debasement of human nature," but that was after the Revolution was won.
african americans in the military
The willingness of African-American Patriots to serve the cause did not always translate into the opportunity to do so. Military recruiters for the Continental Army at first excluded slave and nonwhite Americans, for several reasons—suspicions of Toryism, fear that armed slaves would turn on white Americans, and the belief that African Americans would lack courage under fire. As white volunteers dwindled, however, Northern recruiters ignored policy, sometimes with the encouragement of masters who enlisted their slaves for the land bounty they would receive.
The fear of allowing African Americans to serve in the military was particularly strong in the South, and a proposal by South Carolina's John Laurens, the son of a planter, to supply the Continental Army with 3,000 black South Carolinians was strongly rejected. Still, Southern slave masters were willing to turn over slaves to the army (for a price) for use in the laborious tasks of backing up frontline troops. In both North and South, black soldiers typically served as non-arms-bearing infantrymen. Others were guides, messengers, and orderlies. Yet stories of African-American heroism emerged, including the story of Jack Sisson, who was credited with taking part in the capture of General Richard Prescott in 1777 and became the subject of a popular song. The American navy was less resistant to black enlistment, and African Americans served there with distinction. One example is James Forten, who survived British capture to become a wealthy and famous Philadelphian.
The British took advantage of the Patriots' reluctance to accept black soldiers. Indeed, the British general John Burgoyne expressed the view that the British could not win the war unless discontented slaves and Indians could be attracted to the British side. His theory was put to the test in 1775, when Virginia's royal governor, Lord Dunmore, promised freedom to any American slave (that is, a slave owned by an American rebel; British slave owners were protected) who would fight for the British. Despite a virtual lockdown of the colony, some 2,000 Virginia slaves, courting capture and death, found their way to the Dunmore fleet, where they were armed and fitted out with British uniforms, which had sashes emblazoned with the words "Freedom for Slaves." They participated in military actions on land and sea, but the British were slow to follow Dunmore's example and his proclamation was not repeated until it was picked up in 1779 by Sir Henry Clinton—a lag time that may have cost the British the war. Exact numbers are unknown, but Quarles estimates the "number of Negroes who fled to the British [to be] into the tens of thousands" (p. 119). However, slaves who joined the British usually found they had exchanged one master for another; they served British officers as personal servants and worked as laborers, spies, drummers, couriers, guides, and seamen, but seldom as combatants. Slaves were also occasionally plundered by the British from American masters and given to Loyalists to make up for slaves who had escaped.
When hostilities ceased, the American military sought to reestablish slavery along prewar lines. The return of captured African Americans to their former Patriot masters was including in the terms of the Yorktown surrender, setting off a new wave of flight to the British as black Americans sought places on departing British warships, escaping to problematical futures.
the constitutional convention
Even as many white Americans sought to reestablish the prewar slave society, the rhetoric of the Revolution, the discussion it engendered among blacks and whites, and the service of African Americans in the war itself prompted six Northern states to outlaw slavery within a few years of the war's conclusion. But at the Constitutional Convention delegates could not even agree to abolish the slave trade, much less slavery itself. The discussion of slavery at the convention turned not on its existence, but rather on how slaves were to be counted. In the resulting Three-Fifths Compromise, the Southern states agreed to federal taxation in exchange for an agreement that slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of (white) representation in the Congress. As it turned out, Congress did not levy taxes on the states before the Civil War, but the inclusion of slaves in the population count helped maintain Southern legislative power. The Bill of Rights that came to accompany the Constitution and made its approval possible has come to represent the meaning of the nation, but none of its ten amendments abolished slavery. It was not until after the Civil War that the Thirteenth Amendment began the process of fulfilling the American Revolution's promise of freedom.
Aptheker, Herbert, ed. A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, vol. 1. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1973.
Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.
Bradley, Patricia. Slavery, Propaganda, and the American Revolution. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975.
Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, VA, 1961.
"Africans in America's Journey through Slavery." Public Broadcasting System. Available from <http://www.pbs/wgbh/aia>.
Digital History; Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Available from <http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu>.
See also:Slavery in America.