Slavery had long been an established institution in the American colonies prior to the advent of the Revolutionary War, and yet a degree of ambiguousness marked the attitude of white colonists to blacks and to the institution of slavery in late-18th century America. Thomas Jefferson, generally considered the leading intellectual light of the incipient republic, could call into question the practice of slavery while at the same time lending it his tacit approval as the owner of hundreds of black servants. Indeed, as the Continental Congress and its undermanned military forces faced the world’s greatest military power, expediency rather than social order and notions of racial supremacy ruled the day. Though their contribution to the struggle for freedom failed to abolish slavery in all 13 of the American colonies, thousands of blacks fought bravely against (and among) British and Hessian forces.
Fighting for liberty
While approximately one-fifth of early America’s black population was enslaved, there were tens of thousands of free blacks in the colonies, many of whom were as fervently anti-British as any Son of Liberty (Wood 2002, 55). One of the most renowned was Crispus Attucks, a free black citizen of Boston killed in 1770 in the so-called “Boston Massacre.” As the war proceeded and need drove the leaders of the American cause, entire black units were formed to swell the ranks of the hard-pressed Continental army. Indeed, by the time the war had reached its conclusion, the makeup of Washington’s force was visibly multi-racial, with blacks and even native American faces helping to fill the ranks. It is interesting to note that a detailed sketch of four American foot soldiers, made in 1781 by a French lieutenant named Jean-Baptiste-Antoine de Verger, displays a fully uniformed and well-armed black infantryman from the 1st Rhode
Island Regiment, generally considered the first all-black unit in the American army (deVerger 1781).
It is one of the great contradictions – possibly the greatest – of American history that a new country seeking liberty and freedom from tyranny should have accommodated so great a social ill as slavery. Americans, from their beginnings, have earned the admiration of the world for their ability to compromise, to strike agreements that enable the country to survive and thrive in times of crisis in spite of widely divergent political views. The great men who spoke and wrote so eloquently of the rights of man, men who were products of Enlightenment thinking, had sufficient leisure, money and influence to embark on the struggle for independence thanks to the labor of slaves who harvested crops, tended to flocks and cared for plantation houses. The great plantation owners of Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas accumulated massive fortunes on the backs of their human chattel, fortunes they were reluctant to see taxed by what many came to regard as a foreign and arrogant power.
George Washington elected to free his slaves upon the death of his widow, and it is perhaps worthwhile to contemplate whether the contributions made on the field of battle by blacks in his army motivated such a remarkably enlightened and magnanimous decision. To be sure, the freeing of slaves was not without precedent. But for the most famous American of his day to have done so seems as much a public relations tactic as a grand gesture, as though the man credited with having defeated the British was trying to set an example for others to follow. There is no equivocating in his will, no inter-woven legal subtleties: he writes “it is my Will and desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedomAnd I do moreover most pointedlyenjoin it upon my Executors to see that this clause respecting Slaves (in totality) be religiously fulfilled” (Washington 1799). What is more, Washington provided for the care and clothing of those slaves who may have been too old to care for themselves at the time of their liberation (1799).
On the battlefield
If Washington’s magnanimity was indeed motivated by the courage and fidelity of his black soldiers, it was well-founded. The Continental Army’s African-American troops covered themselves in glory from the war’s earliest stages. In fact, the legendary “shot heard ‘round the world” may well have been fired by a black member of the famous “Minutemen” militia. A slave named Peter Salem was at Lexington serving as an infantryman in Capt. Simon Edgel’s company, but it was in subsequent action that Salem became something of a legend in the New England theatre of war. At the battle of Bunker Hill, Salem “’took aim at (British) Major Pitcairn, as he was rallying theBritish troops & shot him thro’ the head’The major fell dead just as he was shouting to his men, ‘The day is ours.’” (Davis 1976, 15). Salem evidently made a strong impression on his white comrades-in-arms, who took up a collection as a reward, and he was later commended to Washington himself as the man who had killed the British commander at the war’s first major conflict (15).
A century later, the citizens of Massachusetts commemorated Salem as a hero of the Revolution with a memorial in the town of Leicester. In 1882, the townspeople unveiled a plaque inscribed “Peter Salem/A Soldier of the American Revolution/Concord/Bunker
Hill/Saratoga” (Buckley 2002, 26). Another slave, Prince Estabrook, was wounded at Concord
Bridge in 1775 and, in May, a free Massachusetts black citizen named Barzillai Lew joined
Ethan Allen’s famous “Green Mountain Boys” (10). Black soldiers were also on hand in 1776 when Washington’s troops surprised and cut down the vaunted Hessian mercenary troops at Princeton, N.J. A black soldier from the 2nd New Jersey regiment named Oliver Cromwell, interviewed on his 100th birthday in 1852, recalled the action that Christmas morning when Washington’s small but determined force scored a shocking victory and “knocked the British about lively” (Davis 1976, 4). Cromwell’s distinguished service during four years on the New Jersey line earned him the army’s Badge of Merit (4).
The integration of black troops was a common occurrence in the American army. In Rhode Island, an all-black regiment was formed in 1778, with a young white officer named Colonel Christopher Greene at its head (Buckley 2002, 25). As was the case among the northern colonies, the soldiers of the 1st Rhode Island were promised their freedom in exchange for their service, along with wages and bounties equivalent to those of white soldiers (25). The Rhode Islanders served with distinction throughout the war, winning honors in the only battle fought in Rhode Island. “By holding the line for four hours of British-Hessian assaults, the 1st Rhode Island helped the American army to escape,” one of many such strategic retrograde movements executed by the Americans throughout the war. Egalitarianism characterized the actions of the 1st Rhode Island, whose troops proved faithful to its white commander to the end. When Col. Greene was killed by British troops at Points Bridge, scores of his men fell trying to defend him (25).
God grant deliverance…
In Race and Revolution, the historian Gary B. Nash writes that the American Revolution
was, for all intents and purposes, “the largest slave uprising in our history” (2001, 57). And it was as much a struggle for freedom for blacks as for white Americans, with slaves in the North emerging from the war as free citizens. By the time the war ended, approximately 60,000 slaves had been freed in the North where, after independence, legislation was passed abolishing slavery once and for all (Davis 1976, 2). The implications for the country’s future were significant. Northern blacks would contribute materially to the region’s prosperity – when in 1861 the nation was plunged into civil war, the descendants of Washington’s black soldiers had played an important part in preparing the country for its next great fight against tyranny.
As for those blacks enslaved on southern plantations, even those who aided the cause of liberty, the great ethical split in the American character must have seemed a bitter state of affairs. The black author and poet Phyllis Wheatley commented on the hypocrisy of America’s founders in a letter to the Reverend Samson Occom, writing that she fervently hoped that “God grant deliverance in his own way and time, and get him honour upon all those whose avarice impels them to countenance and help forward the calamities of their fellow creatures” (Wheatley 1774). This hope, she wrote, arose not from a desire to see the destruction of such men but to “convince them of the strange absurdity of their conduct” (1774). It was as if Wheatley understood the promise and potential of the new society which the men she criticized were struggling to establish. She could, in her eloquence, have argued convincingly enough that America’s slave population was within its rights, as human beings, to rise en masse and destroy their white masters. And yet she believed that what Jefferson, Madison, Adams and their compatriots spoke and wrote of amounted to much more than simple words and high-flown phrases.
Nash observes that slaves in both North and South adopted the rhetoric of their masters, though liberty had an even more profound meaning for them than for the leaders of the Revolution. The clandestine meetings that fueled the burgeoning political movement were very much learning opportunities for slaves, who readily identified with and quickly absorbed key revolutionary messages. It was inevitable that “blacks imbibed the ideology of natural and inalienable rights and fit the ringing phases of the day to their own situation” (Nash 2001, 58). This became the vocabulary of freedom for subsequent generations of African-Americans and informed the abolitionist rhetoric of the 19th century. Biblical imagery united blacks and lent their cause a righteous aspect and moral superiority.
Wheatley wrote that her people were endowed with the same natural and inalienable rights as the white men who were demanding freedom from British oppression. As such, it was reasonable to assume that one day God would grant blacks liberty as surely as he would the fervent men of 1776. “God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverancethe same Principle lives in us” (Wheatley, 1774). In her letter, Wheatley helped to establish the conviction among blacks that they were a chosen people, for whom God had some special purpose in store (Nash 2001, 58). Nash writes that even before the Revolutionary War, many slaves acted very differently from the passive and obsequious retainers that history has often portrayed; rather, a concerted and organized campaign for universal emancipation was carried on among northern blacks, who were swept up in the widespread call for freedom (58).
Routes to freedom
During America’s revolutionary struggle, the most direct route to freedom was to take up arms with the enemy. The British offered freedom to any escaped slave and, for a time, this raised real concerns among planters and slave owners in both North and South. As Nash points out, blacks in the North were heavily engaged since the majority of fighting took place in that part of the country (Nash 2001, 60). The number of slaves who fled and sought sanctuary with the British was “very large;” indeed, Thomas Jefferson told Congress that when the British invaded Virginia in 1781 as many as 30,000 slaves ran from their masters (60). In South Carolina, it is thought that approximately half of the colony’s adult male slaves escaped to the British during their campaign in the Deep South.
In American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm, Gail Lumet Buckley notes that escaped slaves were a major economic concern after the British defeat at Yorktown in 1783. The vast majority of those who escaped were males of an age and physical condition which made them prime candidates for the backbreaking physical labor that supported the country’s agricultural economy. In addition to those who joined the British army during the conflict, thousands took ship and left American soil forever when the Royal Navy began ferrying troops home. All in all, it is thought that as many as 100,000 slaves found freedom through military service or through passage to England (Buckley 2002, 34). The promise of liberty, it seems, was too alluring to be ignored, even for those former slaves who left families behind.
After Yorktown, even concern for family was insufficient motivation to consider a return to bondage for many thousands who had served in the British army. A far more effective motivator was the unpleasant prospect of placing themselves under the control of their former owners. British officials took note of this unenviable predicament when it came time to leave North America. That the British were willing to extend this offer to blacks even after suffering ignominious military defeat offers some indication of the severity with which they regarded the situation. British general Alexander Leslie wrote that the former slaves could not “in justice be abandoned to the merciless resentment of their former masters” (Buckley 2002, 34). In all, approximately 20,000 blacks left with the British (34). Still others considered that the best way to secure freedom was to continue the war effort. To that end, a black battalion of some 300 former slaves continued hit-and-run operations after the final British surrender until finally brought to heel by Georgia and South Carolina militia (34).
Buckley adds an interesting account of black ex-slaves who focused their efforts on furthering a nascent abolitionist movement. One educated and eloquent former slave, the preacher David George, found sanctuary with other blacks in Canada. He later sailed to England to entreat the British to help him establish a colony for ex-slaves. His efforts caught the attention of the famous British abolitionist William Wilberforce, the man who helped inspire the establishment of Britain’s anti-slavery policy (Buckley 2002, 34). Wilberforce and other abolitionist voices in Britain joined with George and created the West African colony of Sierra Leone. In 1792, George headed a group of about 1,200 blacks who left Nova Scotia for West Africa and freedom (Buckley 2002, 35). For blacks who remained in America after the war, those who lived in the northern colonies benefited from the Compromise of 1787, the accommodation that many have considered a “devil’s bargain,” which allowed the southern colonies to continue the practice of slavery in order to maintain the newly forged union.
In Black Heroes of the American Revolution, Burke Davis writes that when Southern members of the Continental Congress struck Thomas Jefferson’s denunciation of slavery from the Declaration of Independence, it meant that those black soldiers who would faithfully serve the American cause could not expect to be honored, as were the white soldiers of Washington’s army (1976, 1). When the war was over, about 60,000 slaves, the vast majority of them in the North, were granted their freedom (2). Among those in the South, perhaps none is as well-known as William Lee, Washington’s personal servant and close companion.
Washington would eventually grant Lee his freedom and provide for his care in old age. Davis speculates that the close relationship that existed between the two men, perhaps the closest friendship Washington ever knew, not only had much to do with the general’s decision to free all of his slaves but led him to believe as Jefferson believed. It may well be because of his friendship with William Lee that Washington, “a slaveholder, said that there was ‘not a man living’ who wished more sincerely than he that slavery could be abolished by law” (Davis 1976, 3). Nevertheless, despite the profound misgivings of Washington and Jefferson, slavery would remain the most important economic institution of the South, unmoved by the invocation of liberty and equality which announced the establishment of a nation professing itself dedicated
In Founding Myths: Stories that Hide our Patriotic Past, Ray Raphael addresses many of the misperceptions and untruths that have persisted concerning blacks during the revolutionary period. One notable example is the disproportionate representation of the slaves who journeyed to freedom via the Underground Railroad in comparison to those who fled slavery during and after the Revolutionary War (Raphael 2004, 233). Raphael makes a point that has been obscured in American history books when he notes that the tens of thousands freed by the British after the Revolution dwarfs the number of those who were helped by white abolitionist Americans to find their way into free northern states in the mid-19th century (2004, 234). Such a story, Raphael argues, would cast America’s revolutionary heroes, ironically, in the role of oppressor, whereas those who sought to oppress the liberty-loving American patriots - the British - served the cause of liberty by freeing multitudes of slaves from their American masters.
Raphael’s impressions are quite valid given the predilection among many historians for overlooking the darker aspects of American history. The Founding Fathers succeeded in their great crusade to secure liberty for white Americans while making a “separate peace” with the agents of oppression in the Southern colonies. Ironically, it was the British who proved the greatest practical abolitionists in early American history, securing the freedom of thousands of former slaves despite having lost the war. Burke Davis also makes an important point about the inconsistent behavior of America’s founders, noting that although men such as Washington and Jefferson spoke openly of their apprehensions, slavery remained the one indispensable component of the new nation’s most prosperous agricultural region. Gary Nash and Gail Buckley also discuss the British offer to free any slave who fought on their behalf, an offer that tens of thousands were willing to take up. In their separate ways, these four authors each addressed an unfortunate, unavoidable and overlooked aspect of American history.
Whether aiding the cause of American independence or fighting alongside the British, blacks acted - one way or another - in the interests of liberty. That those interests should have been self-serving should in no way lessen the contribution of men such as Peter Salem or Prince Estabrook, or the soldiers of the 1st Rhode Island regiment. Historians often overlook the fact that whether blacks fought for American independence or for British rule they were supporting the cause of liberty, either their own or to help establish a new Democratic Republic. Rather, it is the actions of famous and celebrated men such as Jefferson and Madison, patriots who risked their lives on behalf of liberty for Americans, denied blacks the most basic human freedoms. Thus, America’s Founding Fathers gave with one hand and took away with the other.
Buckley, Gail. 2002. American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution
to Desert Storm. New York: Random House.
Davis, Burke. 1976. Black Heroes of the American Revolution. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc.
DeVerger, Jean Baptiste Antoine. 1781. American Foot Soldiers, Yorktown Campaign. Anne
S.K. Brown Military Collection. Providence, RI.
Nash, Gary. 2001. Race and Revolution. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Raphael, Ray. 2004. Founding Myths: Stories that Hide our Patriotic Past. New York: W.W.
Norton and Company.
Washington, George. 1799. Last Will and Testament. Mt. Vernon, VA.
Wheatley, Phyllis. 1774. Letter to Rev. Samson Occom. Connecticut Gazette. New Haven, CT.
Wood, Gordon. 2002. The American Revolution: A History. New York: Modern Library.