Revolution: Slavery and Blacks in the Revolution

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Revolution: Slavery and Blacks in the Revolution

In the late colonial period, slavery pervaded British North America. It was legal in every colony. Along the seaboard south of Delaware, African bondage was central to society and the economy. But slaves could hardly follow the North Star to freedom, as they later did, for slavery was only becoming more entrenched in the northern colonies. Slaves were a vital element of the workforce in such cities as New York and in the countryside of New York, northern New Jersey, and parts of Pennsylvania. As evidenced by sporadic flight and revolt, black colonists valued freedom and spoke its tones amongst themselves. But they had little opportunity of acting on this desire.

The American Revolution gave them the openings they needed. Its rhetoric provided them a language with which to appeal to whites for freedom. And the competing armies and dislocations of the war offered them chances for flight. The path of flight was fraught with great risks, and not all who took it gained liberty. But the Revolution expanded the freedom of black Americans beyond anything previously imaginable.

language of freedom

As white colonists began demanding liberty from British tyranny in the 1760s, their slaves saw that they now spoke a common language. To be sure, not all slaves found appeals to libertarian rhetoric fruitful. Patriots in Charleston protested the Stamp Act in 1765 by surrounding the stamp collector's house chanting "Liberty! Liberty and stamp'd paper." In short order, a group of black Charlestonians alarmed the city by raising their own cry of "Liberty."

This application of Revolutionary rhetoric did not secure these slaves their freedom, but others were more successful in the heady atmosphere of the Revolution. In 1776 a slave man named Prince rowed George Washington across the Delaware River. In 1777, as his master, Captain William Whipple of New Hampshire, again went off to fight the British, he noticed Prince was dejected. When Whipple asked him why, Prince responded: "Master, you are going to fight for your liberty, but I have none to fight for." Whipple, "struck by the essential truth of Prince's complaint," immediately freed him (Berlin and Hoffman, eds., Slavery and Freedom, p. 283). Whipple was unusual in his haste, and a slave rowing Washington across the Delaware illustrated some of the ironies of the Revolution. But Whipple was far from alone. In Massachusetts, for instance, African slaves and their white allies brought freedom suits against the slaves' masters. They argued that the egalitarian language of the 1780 state constitution rendered slavery unconstitutional. A series of judges ruled in their favor, bringing slavery to an end in Massachusetts by the middle of the 1780s. In other Northern states lawmakers rather than judges abolished slavery in the midst or wake of the Revolution. In 1777 Vermont's constitution enacted gradual emancipation; in 1780 Pennsylvania did so by statute, as did Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784, New York in 1799, and finally New Jersey in 1804.

Nor was the effect of Revolutionary ideas confined to the North. In 1782 Virginia passed a law giving slaves easier access to manumissions by reducing restrictions on their masters. In the decade following the act, Virginia masters freed roughly ten thousand slaves. So liberalized did Maryland's manumission laws become after the Revolution that some slaves reversed the traditional assumption that African descent conferred slave status by suing (sometimes successfully) for their liberty on grounds of descent from at least one white person.

openings for flight

When the war of words became a protracted military conflict, slaves took advantage of the chaos of war. Most chose flight over revolt, partly because commanders on both sides offered freedom in exchange for their services.

On 7 November 1775, faced with a solid Patriot phalanx in his colony, Virginia's royal governor, Lord Dunmore, proclaimed that any slave or indentured servant who could bear arms would secure freedom by doing so for the crown. Dunmore's proclamation set slaves in motion up and down the seaboard seeking freedom with the British.

The slaves who sought out British lines took enormous risks. There was always the possibility of recapture and reprisal by masters. Moreover, most British soldiers were hardly abolitionists and did not welcome fugitives who had no military usefulness, such as family members fleeing alongside young men. Sometimes they sold runaways, in a number of cases to loyal planters to keep the latter's allegiance. British commander Lord Charles Cornwallis mercilessly abandoned the black laborers who had dug his trenches at Yorktown, driving them out to face their masters when food ran low during the siege there. Such unreliability made the decision to flee to the British perilous.

But tens of thousands of slaves, especially in the Lower South, judged some manner of flight worth the risk. Whether by death or flight, South Carolina masters lost an estimated twenty-five thousand slaves during the eight years of the war. Georgia's prewar slave population was about fifteen thousand, of which an estimated ten thousand decamped. Thousands left the new nation along with evacuating British troops to an uncertain, but free, future.

Especially in the North, other black colonists chose the Patriot militias and the Continental Army as their route to freedom. The slaveholding commander George Washington was initially loath to admit black troops. But in response to troop shortages, Dunmore's proclamation, and the urgings of some of his subordinates, Washington abruptly reversed course late in 1775, favoring their recruitment. Congress did not follow his lead, but after 1777, when it imposed troop quotas on the states, towns and states from Maryland northward created black battalions. They had no trouble filling them with slaves eager for freedom. Black northerners thus helped all Americans win their freedom even as they seized their own. The chaos and opportunities of the war may have eroded northern slavery even more than the ideology of the Revolution.

But it was the combination of ideas and openings on the ground that gave the American Revolution its significance for slavery. In particular, it struck a death blow to slavery in the North. It thus not only gave thousands of black people freedom in the short term, but created a haven for fugitive slaves of future generations. Northern abolition also laid the groundwork for the Civil War by making the institution peculiar and sectional. For this reason alone, the Revolution might be said to be second only to the Civil War in importance for the history of American slavery and abolition.

See alsoAbolition of Slavery in the North; African Americans: Free Blacks in the North; Slavery: Slave Insurrections .


Berlin, Ira. Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Pantheon, 1974.

——. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Berlin, Ira, and Ronald Hoffman, eds. Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983.

Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, 1975.

Frey, Sylvia R. Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.

Wood, Peter H. "'Liberty Is Sweet': African-American Freedom Struggles in the Years before White Independence." In Beyond the American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism. Edited by Alfred F. Young. DeKalb: Northern Illinois Press, 1993.

Zilversmit, Arthur. The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Matthew Mason

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Revolution: Slavery and Blacks in the Revolution

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Revolution: Slavery and Blacks in the Revolution