Black histories of the American Revolution

We are launching a new module in the History degree programme at Northampton this year: HIS1028 ‘United States: War and Society, 1610-2020’. It is taught by four lecturers who each take a chronological chunk and, as an eighteenth-century historian, I am teaching the second section on the American Revolution.

Race is a key theme in all four blocs of the module, which traces the history of the USA from early encounters with Native Americans to the war in Afghanistan. It is certainly important in the War of American Independence, but not necessarily in the way that students might expect.

The American Revolution is one of history’s most famous democratic revolutions, when a people rose up against a great military power and created a new nation on new principles. It was informed by Enlightenment ideas about liberty and equality, and emphasised the rights of the ordinary citizen. As the Declaration of Independence famously stated in 1776:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

In practice, however, only white men were ‘equal’ in the new republic. Women were not regarded as citizens in the eighteenth century, and people still faced exclusion on grounds of race as well. The same document described Native Americans as ‘merciless Indian savages’ and said nothing about slavery.

There were half a million black people in North America at the start of the Revolution. With the exception of a few thousand free blacks – who couldn’t vote and faced unequal treatment under the law – nearly all of them were slaves. The slave trade had long shipped human beings from West Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas, where it was central to the plantation economy. Many of the founding fathers owned slaves, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

When revolution broke out, some slaves entertained hopes that it would improve their condition. But they generally did not look to the rebels for this, since they identified them with the slave-owning class. More often, they looked to the British.

There were several reasons for this. Antislavery sentiment was growing in Britain, often inspired by religious activism or radical politics. A famous court judgement of 1772 had appeared to outlaw slavery in Britain, when a slave named James Somerset who was brought to Britain by his master claimed protection under English law.

Furthermore, the British authorities in America were quite prepared to mobilise slaves if it would help their cause. The Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation in April 1775 that ‘all indentured servants, Negroes or others’ who joined up to fight for the Crown would be declared free.

John Singleton Copley, ‘The Death of Major Peirson’ (1783): Wikimedia Commons

Thousands of slaves fled their plantations and joined the British. Simon Schama calls it ‘the greatest exodus from bondage in African-American history until the Civil War’. Black men served as soldiers, guides and spies. Soldiers and their families endured great hardships as they followed the army on arduous marches, and many perished from hunger and disease. But Schama also argues that they enjoyed unprecedented freedoms, particularly in loyalist enclaves like New York.

At the end of the war, many African Americans left with the defeated British. The British military kept its promise to get many former slaves out, rather than return them to their masters, but subsequent promises that they would be looked after were not kept. Some emigrated to Nova Scotia, where they eked out a hard existence in a harsh climate. Some were persuaded to join a disastrous resettlement scheme in Sierra Leone. Many ended up begging on the streets of London.

Britain therefore had a mixed record when it came to America’s slaves, and of course it had been heavily involved in the slave trade and the colonial economy in the first place. But the history of the American War contains many unexpected stories, that don’t fit our usual narrative of the revolution.

Matthew McCormack

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