When the signers of the Declaration of Independence placed their names in ink on that sacred text, they placed a defining principle of what it means to be a citizen of the United States, “That all men are created equal.”[i]This is something we take for granted today but at the time was a radical statement. Of course, the notion that all men are equal is also a hypocrisy in the American Revolution, because of Slavery. Men, women, and children of African descent were the property of wealthy individuals and worked in bondage without rights. They were not seen as citizens even though they made up a large minority in colonies. However, slavery played an intricate role in the founding of the United States. The American Revolution’s impact on slavery caused large populations of Slaves to be freed, established the issue of Slavery into politics, and defined how Slaves would be represented in government.
It is known that not every American living in the colonies at the time of the Revolution wanted independence from Great Britain. While many radical Patriots and were prepared to shed the bonds of monarchy, others very much identified themselves as Englishmen. In his book, Birth of the Republic 1763-89, Edmund S. Morgan estimates that about one-fifth of Americans Colonist fought for the British during the American Revolution.[ii]As tensions rose towards conflict, many Americans sitting on the fence had to choose one side or the other and this choice was not limited to white landowning men, but to large populations of African slaves in the colonies. The slave population numbered close to 500,000 in all the colonies, with the most working in bondage on rice and tobacco plantations in the South.[iii] Many slaves did choose to fight for Great Britain and against the colonies.
There was an immediate effect that the American Revolution had on slavery, once the war got started a British call-to-arms for any slave willing to fight for the crown was proclaimed with the promise that they would be freed after their service. On November 17, 1775, Lord Dunmore executed martial law and issued an order requiring “every person capable of bearing arms to resort to his majesty’s standard.”[iv] This must have been a tempting offer for many slaves to openly rebel with the backing of the British Military. However, any slave who did not choose to take this offer would be treated as a traitor and be subject to punishment.[v]The offer to free the enslaved Africans was not made for any moral reasons as the British sought to use the slave population to their advantage in the war, still, though, at least fifteen thousand Africans migrated from the American colonies after the war.[vi]
At the surface, these numbers seem to indicate that either the British government was far more enlightened than Americans when concerning the institution of slavery, or that Africans who fought on the Loyalist side benefited greatly compared to those who were Patriots. However, the truth is more complex as the fate of all fifteen thousand slaves did not end with freedom. Eight to ten thousand African Americans resettled in the British Empire.[vii]About three thousand freed black loyalists moved to Canada after the war, and in 1792 twelve hundred moved again to Sierra Leon, a free black colony in Africa.[viii] On the other hand, about half of the migrating Africans leaving the colonies were slaves traveling with their loyalist masters.[ix]They would find themselves to be resettled in Florida, Jamaica, or other British Caribbean colonies not as free men but as slaves.[x]
Late 1700s Britain’s position on slavery is complex as one would expect of an Empire spanning from North America to Africa and India. While they had no qualms moving wealthy Loyalist and their slaves elsewhere to continue the horrid practice of human bondage, they also resettled many Blacks, giving them not only freedom but land to settle on and a place in society. A hypothetical encounter comes to mind wherein two Africans, one a freed Loyalist and one a slave of a Loyalist, meet each other as the British scramble to migrate Loyalists from the colonies after their defeat. Did these two people see each other as equals and how did they feel about the plight of slaves overall? Where they hopeful or pessimistic? Freedom for slaves was not a cause either side fought for during the Revolution, and both fates of liberty and enslavement constituted the lives of Africans who left the colonies as well as those who continued to live in the new nation of the United States.
The relationship between Great Britain, Colonial America, and the slave trade was the center of much debate at the time of the American Revolution and this debate engraved the issue of slavery into politics and public opinion. In his essay, The American Revolution Prompted New Debates About Slavery, Christopher Leslie Brown makes the point that in the exchange between American and British propaganda blaming each other for the evil of slavery the issue itself became a topic of morality.[xi]Brown says, “This sharpened sense of the slave system as a product of human choices and preference enabled radically different descriptions of moral duty.”[xii]The irony of this particular effect that the Revolution had on slavery was that the arguments and propaganda were more focused on blaming either the British or the Americans on slavery rather than establishing the evils of the institution itself.[xiii] Indeed, it was akin to a parent discovering two children covered in spilled milk, each pointing fingers at the other while the mess is yet to be cleaned. However, many in the colonies did see the issue of slavery as a moral hypocrisy in regards to the ideas of the Revolution and sought to end the tyranny of human bondage as the modern world was born. In fact, there were many petitions signed for slave emancipation and in defense of the practice of slavery.
A letter written on April 20, 1773, and addressed to legislators in Boston, Massachusetts by four slaves petitioning for the manumission of them and their fellow Africans, is an example of a peaceful attempt at freedom.[xiv] Peter Bestes, Sambo Freeman, Felix Holbrook, and Chester Joie, use moral argument and an air of civility in the attempt to legitimize their request.[xv] They use words and phrases mimicking Patriot ideas such as freedom, fellow-man, and liberty while remaining humble insisting on gaining freedom through peaceful and lawful attempts.[xvi] This breaks the preconceived stereotype of the illiterate slave and shows that the ideology of the Revolution was held by slaves as well as free whites.
Another petition was addressed to the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 1779 and signed by nineteen slaves.[xvii] They center their arguments on very strict moral ground often using religious reasoning to shed light on their injustice.[xviii] The Petition made it a point to note that God had created all men equal including African slaves in America.[xix] By appealing to the religious morality of the New Hampshire representatives, they separated themselves from the notion that slaves are property but instead are equal men who share the same creator as Whites. It is telling that much of colonial culture was now being adopted by the slave population. In fact, most of the names signed onto the petition are English or names carried over from ancient Rome, a civilization the Republic was in some ways trying to recreate.[xx]
Manisha Sinha is a Professor and Historian who specializes in African American History.[xxi] In her work, To “Cast Just Obliquy” on Oppressors: Black Radicalism in the Age of Revolution, Manisha Sinha discusses these petitions among others and is quick to point out the radicalism present in black abolitionists during the Revolution.[xxii] Sinha notes that a counter-tale of the revolution consisted of the hypocrisy of slavery rather than a celebration of freedom.[xxiii] She says, “Rather than simply reiterating revolutionary ideas to condemn slavery, they often challenge and reversed the symbolism of the American Revolution, describing the Patriots as tyrants and oppressors and their ideas as, at best, empty rhetoric.”[xxiv] The most radical of black revolutionists looked towards the Haitian Revolution rather than to the American Revolution for inspiration preferring even death over slavery and calling for rebellion.[xxv]
We cannot know whether the rhetoric of the American Revolution was truly believed by all who participated but we can see how it was used. This includes the manumission acts of the Northern states that banned slave slavery after the war. The idea of a benevolent creator under whom all mean was made equal and language copied straight from the Declaration of Independence was used. In 1784 the Rhode Island General Assembly passed “An Act authorizing the Manumission of Negroes, Mallottoes, and others, and the gradual Abolition of Slavery.”[xxvi] This document clearly states that all men are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and goes on to say that slavery is “repugnant to this principle.”[xxvii] Not only does this act gradually abolish slaves it pays attention to freed children of slaves, enabling them to receive a formal education.[xxviii]
Pennsylvania passed a similar act in 1780, establishing a “Gradual Abolition of Slavery.[xxix] This document compares the tyranny of Great Britain to that of the slaves and says that the freedom won by the colonists should extend to others, now that they have the power to do so.[xxx] In very colorful language it says “we find our hearts enlarged with kindness and benevolence towards men of all conditions and nations.”[xxxi] However, Pennsylvania’s Act also states that runaway slaves will be returned to their owners.[xxxii] In here we see a contradiction between the ideology behind slave manumission and the reality of the times. Even when granted freedom African Americans still were subject to laws that men of other color were not.
When examining the numbers of Slave populations compared to Whites, we can grasp certain realities. As for the Northern colonies, there were far fewer slaves even years prior to the American Revolution.[xxxiii] Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New York had 550 to 11,014 slaves apiece in the 1750s, 157- 21,193 (and one free state: Massachusetts) in the 1790s, 108-15,017 (and two free states) in the 1810s, and by the 1860s were all free states.[xxxiv] This is a stark comparison to the southern states whose slave population was continually nearly equal to half of its white population.[xxxv] In the 1790s the South had 654,121 Slaves and 1,240,454 Whites, 1,103,700 Slaves to 2,118,144 Whites in the 1810s, and by the 1860s the Southern States had 3,950,511 Slaves to 8,036,700 Whites.[xxxvi] (The above figures omit Free Nonwhites that added to the total populations)
As we can see of the original thirteen colonies, the northern states had a slave population that was dwarfed in comparison to the Southern colonies. While the North’s slave population dwindled, the South’s skyrocketed well unto the Civil War. As to why the North became free while the South continued the practice of slavery two reasons are prominent. First it was the South that relied heavily on slave labor for its economy and second, Whites who lived in the South had a fear of a large population of Africans running unchecked.[xxxvii] As before mentioned the slave population in the south was 1 slave for every 2 whites.[xxxviii]The fear of what damage a slave rebellion could cause was real. In Birth of the Republic 1763-89, Edmund S. Morgan quotes a slave owner, Landon Carter, from the time of the Revolution who says, “If you free the slaves, you must send them out of the country, or they must steal for their supper.”[xxxix] This fear held as much practicality as it did racism and the South’s dependence on the institution of slavery, as well as how they viewed African slaves in general, spurred a sectionalism that divided the new United States and influenced the make-up of the young nation’s democracy.
In 1785, three counties in Virginia sent out a petition totaling near three hundred signatures which defended the right to own slaves.[xl] Arguing in favor of property rights, an important issue to Patriots of the Revolution, they also sought to defend slavery on a spiritual level.[xli] Using several verses from the Christian Bible, these Virginians claim that slavery was a natural existence that was ordained by God himself.[xlii] Finally, the petition warned that a massive slave emancipation would cause great harm to the country saying it would cause a “breach of public faith, and loss of credit with foreign nations: and, lastly, sure and final ruin to this now flourishing free and happy country.”[xliii] We cannot know if every signature on this document came from men who believed in the “holiness” of slavery, or if this is just a pursuit of the self-interests of the state of Virginia. What we do know is that in the construction of the Constitution delegates debated as to whether a slave should be legally viewed as property, a measure of wealth, or if slave populations should be calculated into representation in the democracy.[xliv]
In a battle for representation in Congress, the delegates at the Constitutional Convention were in a deadlock between Northern free states and Southern slave states. Early in the convention, there had been a push for wealth as a measure of representation.[xlv] John Rutledge, a powerful politician from South Carolina, said concerning the issue, “Money is power, states ought to have weight in the government in proportion to their wealth.” [xlvi] For this reason, the Southern states wanted to count slave population with their free population which would grant them more seats in Congress. The delegates from the North did not wish for their citizens to be on the same level as the slaves.[xlvii] The compromise to count “all other persons,” meaning slaves, as three-fifths of a person settled the matter. In his book, Plain, Honest Men: The making of the American Constitution, Richard Beeman elaborates on the reasoning behind this. He says, “The three-fifths compromise was not proposed because the delegates believed that African slaves were only 60 percent human. Rather, the fraction ‘three-fifths’ was intended as a rough approximation of the measure of wealth that an individual slave contributed to the economy of his or her state.”[xlviii] Beeman goes on to say that the delegates had merely deferred the problem of political sovereignty and the sectionalism between the North and South attributed to the causes of the American Civil War.[xlix]
At to its impact on the institution of Slavery, the American Revolution played direct and indirect roles, both towards emancipation and against manumission. The British government and the Loyalists in the colonies spurred massive migrations including Whites and Africans after the war. Some find freedom in new lands while others continued to endure bondage. Meanwhile, the exchange in debate between the Crown and American Propagandists etched the issue of slavery into United States Politics which lead to many petitions for and against slavery. The Northern States slowing abolished the practiced based on religion and the principles that fuel the revolution while the South preserved Slavery using the same ideas. The role of how slave populations would factor into representation in Congress affected the Constitution and foreshadowed the division between North and South that would erupt in Civil War. Regardless of the positive or negative effects it had towards Slavery, the American Revolution was deeply involved and provides us historical context in how we understand Slavery in the United States today.
Finally, it is imperative that we consider the suffering of slaves and try to understand the hardships that they endured. With modern values, we look back on slaves in the United States and realized that they were Americans and were a part of our culture. The cruelty of owning another human being is thankfully a thing of the past in the United States, but the importance of this is lost if we do not recognize the hypocrisy of the founding fathers, many of whom owned slaves. To understand slavery and racism is crucial to understanding the values that Patriots originally fought for and what it means to be a Citizen of the United States. That all men are created equal, and all men have certain unalienable rights.
“Slavery Economics.” Accessed February 20, 2017. http://faculty.weber.edu/kmackay/history%201700_slavery%20economics.html.
Beeman, Richard. “Slavery and Sectionalism Influenced the Convention Debates.” In Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791, 3rd ed, edited by Richard D. Brown and Benjamin L. Carp, 464-473. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014.
Bestes, Peter. Peter Bestes, Sambo Freeman, Felix Holbrook, and Chester Joie to the town representatives, Boston, 20 April 1773. “Massachusetts Slaves Argue for Freedom 1773.” In Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791, 3rd ed, edited by Richard D. Brown and Benjamin L. Carp, 248-249. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014.
Brown, Christopher Leslie. “The American Revolution Prompted New Debates About Slavery.” In Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791, 3rd ed, edited by Richard D. Brown and Benjamin L. Carp, 261-277. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014.
Hammond, Isaac W, eds. “New Hampshire African-Americans Petition for Freedom, 1779.” In Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791, 3rd ed, edited by Richard D. Brown and Benjamin L. Carp, 251-253. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014.
Jasanoff, Maya. “Loyalists in Exile Highlight the Wider British Empires.” In Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791, 3rd ed, edited by Richard D. Brown and Benjamin L. Carp, 202-211. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014.
Morgan, Edmund S. The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Murray, John. 4th Earl of Dunmore. 1775. “Lord Dunmore Promises Freedom to Slaves Who Fight for Britain, 1775.” In Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791, 3rd ed, edited by Richard D. Brown and Benjamin L. Carp, 249-250. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014
Schmidt, Fredrika T. and Wilhelm, Barbara, Early Proslavery Petitions in Virginia. “Three Virginia Counties Defend Slavery, 1785”. In Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791, 3rd ed, edited by Richard D. Brown and Benjamin L. Carp, 253-254. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014.
State of Pennsylvania, An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. March 5, 1780. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/pennst01.asp. Accessed February 25, 2017.
Sinha, Manisha. “Black Abolitionists Developed Their Own Radical Tradition.” In Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791, 3rd ed, edited by Richard D. Brown and Benjamin L. Carp, 277-285. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014.
Rhode Island General Assembly, An Act authorizing the Manumission of Negroes, Mallattoes, & others, and for the gradual Abolition of Slavery, 1784. http://sos.ri.gov/virtualarchives/items/show/71. Accessed February 25, 2017.
University of Connecticut, Department of History. “Mansiha Sinha.” Accessed February 25, 2017. http://history.uconn.edu/faculty-by-name/manisha-sinha/
U.S. Continental Congress. “The United States Declare Independence.” In Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791, 3rd ed, edited by Richard D. Brown and Benjamin L. Carp, 150-152. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014.