The Movement for Emancipation
The Movement for Emancipation
New England . As the rhetoric of freedom rang out across the colonies in the early 1770s, blacks in the North raised their voices against the injustices of slavery and legal discrimination against freedmen. In 1773 and 1774 slaves in Massachusetts sent a series of petitions to the colony’s legislature asking for emancipation and requesting that they either be settled on a grant of land in the colony or given passage to Africa. These slaves described themselves as a “Grate Number of Blacks of this Province who are held in a State of Slavery within the bowels of a free and christian country” who claimed in “comon with all other men a natural right to our freedom without Being depriv’d of them by our fellow men. . . .” The petitioners failed to gain the support of the legislature.
Hall and Cuffe . Nevertheless agitation continued in Massachusetts. Prominent free blacks, including Freemason and businessman Prince Hall and shipping merchant Paul Cuffe, petitioned the legislature again in 1777. They spoke out on behalf of abolition as Massachusetts delegates met to write a constitution for the state in 1778. At first things went badly as delegates explicitly banned black citizenship. However, the determined efforts of the Reverend William Gordon to eliminate this constitutional provision were successful. The constitution of 1780 did not explicitly ban blacks from citizenship though it did prohibit them from voting. The declarations of universal equality in the constitution, however, opened the door for the courts to rule that slavery was unconstitutional; a state supreme court justice did precisely that in 1783.
Vermont . The first legal abolition of slavery in the colonies took place in Vermont. Declaring itself an independent state on 16 January 1777, Vermont adopted a constitution the following July that explicitly banned servitude. The area had a mere handful of slaves and only fifty black residents in 1780.
Pennsylvania . In Philadelphia Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote and spoke out against slavery and the slave trade. He advocated gradual emancipation and called on the colonies to write it into law. The hypocrisy of slavery was troubling to many advocates of independence. Thomas Paine called for the abolition of slavery more than a year before he published Common Sense (1776), the pamphlet that rallied Americans to the cause of independence. Quakers in Pennsylvania agitated for a law abolishing slavery but met with strong resistance, particularly from Scots-Irish Patriots of the backcountry. The best that Pennsylvania could manage was a gradual emancipation law that passed the legislature in 1780. Despite this legal failure, slavery was crumbling in Pennsylvania as else-where
in the North. There were only 239 slaves in the state at the census of 1790.
Military Emancipation. As the Continental Army took shape in 1775, George Washington restricted the enlistment of blacks to those who had already served in local militias. Southern delegates to the Continental Congress tried to remove all blacks from Patriot service. But in November 1775 John Murray, Lord Dunmore, the British governor of Virginia, changed the racial character of the war by issuing a proclamation of emancipation to all blacks who would desert the Patriot cause and join the Loyalists. Only three hundred slaves initially responded to Dunmore’s call for an Ethiopian Regiment, but it was enough to throw the Patriots into a panic. An alarmed Washington wrote “If that man, Dunmore, is not crushed before Spring he will become the most dangerous man in America.... Success will depend on which side can arm the Negroes the faster.” Washington ordered his officers to enlist a limited number of free blacks but arbitrarily excluded many free blacks and all slaves. The hardest fighting of the Revolution took place in the South, and Washington realized that the Patriots had to offer some incentive to blacks to prevent large-scale revolts. The revolutionaries began to offer freedom to slaves of Loyalists who were willing to serve in the militia or the Continental Army.
Occupation Brings Freedom. From 1775 through 1783 the British at various times occupied Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. British offers of freedom riveted the attention of slaves. Many whose masters had not evacuated them to unoccupied areas gained at least temporary freedom by joining forces with the British, serving in the army or navy. When the British evacuated Philadelphia in 1778, many of the freed slaves left with the British army. Five years later, with the rebel victory, the British evacuated their last stronghold in the North, New York City. They took with them three thousand former slaves, whom they shipped to Nova Scotia. Many others had died in military service or remained behind, hoping to evade reenslavement by former masters.
Military Strategy. In 1779, as the battles of the Revolution moved to the Southern colonies, British general Henry Clinton issued another freedom proclamation while occupying large areas of South Carolina. However, the British army could not handle the thousands of slaves who arrived at their encampments. Putting many of them to work or under arms, they sent most back to their plantations and established military police to keep order on the plantations. The British saw a chance to do great harm to the Patriot cause by undermining their valuable agricultural production and setting the slaves in revolt. Patriot militias in South Carolina and Georgia spent much of their time guarding slaves rather than fighting the British, so dependent were they on continued production of tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton. Even so, the Revolution provided blacks with increased opportunities to escape, either to the wilderness or to the British lines. Slaves could also negotiate better terms of work on the plantation, with their masters short of manpower. The drivers or supervisors of labor gangs on plantations had been white. Planters during the Revolution were forced to trust black drivers, and in return these drivers kept order and kept their fellow slaves loyal to the Patriot cause. Eventually about five thousand blacks would serve the Patriot cause while eighty thousand to one hundred thousand blacks would either fight for the British or escape
to the protection of the royal army. At the end of the Revolution the British evacuated twenty thousand blacks to various overseas destinations, including Sierra Leone in West Africa, Jamaica, and Great Britain.
Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman, eds., Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983);
Philip S. Foner, History of Black Americans: Volume I, From Africa to the Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975);
Jessie C. Smith and Carrell P. Horton, eds., Historical Statistics of Black America (Detroit: Gale Research, 1995).