American Patriots Revisted by Ronald Isetti
“The Yelps of Drivers of Negroes”:
Were the American Revolutionaries Hypocritical?
by Ronald Isetti
As historical figures, the leaders of the American Revolution loom larger than life. The facial sculptures of two of them–George Washington and Thomas Jefferson–are as massive as mountains. Over the centuries, historians have extolled the nation’s “founding fathers” as heroic champions of liberty and justice for all. These were not tawdry, small-minded politicians, but noble statesmen and political philosophers of the first order. Along with Washington and Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin have also been placed in this pantheon of honor and respect. To downsize these men, even to treat them as mere mortals, is akin to an act of sacrilege for many patriots of the present day. However, three relatively new studies of the American Revolution, all focusing in one degree or the other on the role of the African slaves and the persistence of slavery in the new republic, have raised troubling questions about the sincerity of these leaders and the nobility of the “glorious cause” they ostensibly championed.
Richly detailed and vividly written, Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings: The Slaves, the British, and the American Revolution manages to stand our conventional conception of the American Revolution on its head, portraying the southern revolutionaries as being most immediately concerned with preventing a massive slave rebellion ignited by a British emancipation proclamation. Gary Nash’s The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution suggests that “the dirty little secret” of the American Revolution is that the African slaves fought for their freedom on the British side and not on our own. Finally, Maurice Jackson’s Let This Voice be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism, a new biography of the early-day Quaker abolitionist, shows how advanced his ideas about race relations were in comparison to those of most of the revolutionary leaders, who refused, for the most part, to act on their noble declaration that “all men are created equal.”
One is not surprised to read in Rough Crossings that Lord Dunmore, Virginia’s last royal governor, issued a proclamation in 1775 declaring “free” all Black slaves and indentured White servants who would rally to the “standard” of King George III and bear arms against the rebels. This simple fact usually gets a passing nod in college history course lectures on the military campaigns of the American Revolution. But Schama underscores the full significance of Lord Dunmore’s desperate gambit with a small but significant detail that hits with the force of a sledgehammer–one of these runaways from a Patriot planter, having made it safely either to English ships offshore or to British lines on land, decided to celebrate his new status as a free man by giving himself a new name–“British Freedom!” The bitter irony of his new name raises a troublesome question–didn’t the African slaves have more cause to revolt against their colonial masters than the colonists had to revolt against England? Or, as Schama might have rephrased it, weren’t George III and his colonial officers more devoted to personal liberty than George Washington and his fellow southern planters, many of whom held large numbers of slaves? In my opinion, with the publication of Rough Crossings, historians are now obliged to address the American Revolution “in a freshly complicated way,” as Schama would bid us to do, however unsettling this refocusing may turn out to be.
Although Lord Dunmore was himself a slave owner and issued his emancipation proclamation for purely military reasons, his unprecedented action caused Patriot planters from Virginia to Georgia to redouble their efforts to fend off a possible British-sponsored slave rebellion, so much so that from 1775 to 1776, Schama convincingly argues, “the vaunted war for liberty” in the southern colonies was really “a war for the perpetuation of servitude” more than anything else. “The contortions of logic [among the Patriots at this time],” he writes, “were so perverse, yet so habitual, that General Washington could describe Dunmore as ‘that arch traitor to the rights of humanity’ for promising to free slaves and indentured servants, whilst those who kept them in bondage were heroes of liberty.”
One of George Washington’s own slaves, Henry Washington, made his way to British forces. He became part of a mass exodus of between 80,000 and 100,000 Blacks who slipped away from their plantations in the fog of war, seeking to escape from bondage and, in many cases, to find freedom with the Redcoats. American historian Gary Nash claims that British emancipation policies “triggered the greatest slave rebellion in North American history–one almost too shocking for the American public to contemplate even now.” British Generals William Howe and Henry Clinton later expanded Dunmore’s emancipation edict to include Black women and children, and they also flocked by the thousands to the banner of the Union Jack. Southern planters were shocked that their slaves began running away in large groups rather than individually or two or three at a time. Pregnant Black slaves who gave birth under English protection were given certificates for their children that proclaimed “Born [or Born Free] Behind British Lines” or sometimes just “BB.” Altogether the British army provided 3,000 former slaves with certificates of freedom, entitling them to leave the newly independent nation rather than be returned to their masters when the fighting ended.
This mass exodus of Black slaves had almost as much to do with a recent English court case as with Dunmore’s emancipation proclamation, the first ever issued in what is now the United States of America. In 1772, the Court of the King’s Bench in England had narrowly ruled in the Somerset case, in the middle of the constitutional struggle between the mother country and its American colonies, that a certain Black slave named James Somerset should be set free because British Common Law did not recognize the “power of a master to transport his slave against his will, out of England to a place where he might be sold.” Although the judge in this instance declined to make a general ruling on the legality of slavery in England, many Blacks and White abolitionists in Britain chose nonetheless to believe that his decision was based on the broad legal dictum that a slave became free as soon as he stepped on British soil and sucked in the air of British liberty. News of the Somerset judgment spread quickly throughout the Southern colonies, and many Black slaves became convinced that they would win their freedom if they could just make it to territory occupied by the British army. Dunmore’s proclamation merely reinforced this conviction.
There is even evidence to suggest, according to Nash, that overtures from Black slaves to fight for the King in exchange for their liberty preceded and even helped to precipitate the Virginia governor’s now famous emancipation edict. The Somerset case also inspired Black slaves in the Northern colonies. According to Jackson, four enslaved Africans presented a petition to a Boston court on April 20, 1773, which reads: “We expect great things from great men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow men to enslave them.” Specifically, these bondsmen asked only to be allowed to work one day a week for their freedom. The petition was rejected, but African slaves in the colonies continued to draw a parallel between their own quest for freedom and that of the White colonists. Although the Somerset case did not have a big impact in Britain, where slavery barely existed, it apparently had an enormous influence in the North American colonies.
English treatment of runaway slaves could sometimes be callous and brutal, but the fact remains that it was the British more than the liberty-loving colonists who inspired the hopes of tens of thousands of slaves for freedom and a better life. Nash unabashedly admits in The Forgotten Fifth:“For many decades, the dirty secret that black Americans’ quest for liberty was mostly tied to fighting for the British–the side in the War for Independence that offered them freedom–remained only in the memories of descendants of black participants in the war.” Until very recently, American historians have not given due weight and significance to this embarrassing fact, even when acknowledging the tragic irony of the Patriots’ failure to end slavery during or after a Revolution ostensibly waged in the name of freedom and liberty.
What makes the American Revolution so paradoxical is that the language the colonists employed in their fight with England over taxes was precisely the same language that African slaves and free men used against Patriot slave masters to fight for their own freedom and human rights. Time and again, the Americans complained that being taxed by Parliament without their consent had the direct effect of stealing their labor, clamping them in chains, and condemning them to perpetual bondage. For example, during the stamp tax crisis, one Patriot insisted that the colonists were being threatened with “perpetual bondage and slavery”; another claimed that the new tax “was the first step to rivet the chains of slavery upon us forever.” Later John Dickinson of Pennsylvania objected to the Townshend Acts in the now familiar rhetoric of slavery and perpetual bondage. “[We] are . . . slaves,” he warned, if England could force the colonists to buy their necessities from her and then tax them as she pleased before letting them take them home or when these goods were landed here. Referring to the provision of the Townshend Acts to pay the salaries of royal governors and judges, Dickinson further wrote: “If we can find no relief from this infamous situation . . . we may bow down our necks, and with all the stupid serenity of servitude, to any drudgery which our lords and masters shall please to command.” Predictably, the Patriots again employed the rhetoric of bondage in opposing the Tea Act. One pamphlet darkly declared that the “baneful chests of [tea] contain in them. . . something worse than death–the seeds of SLAVERY.”
The inconsistency between the Patriots’ rhetoric about the slavery of unjust taxes and their own sometimes cruel treatment of African slaves was not lost on British observers. The acerbic Doctor Samuel Johnson pointedly asked: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Some of the Patriots themselves, especially those with more advanced views on the slavery question, also recognized and acknowledged the profound contradiction in the colonial position. In language that sounds quite contemporary, Doctor Benjamin Rush confessed to a French correspondent in 1769: “It would be useless for us to denounce t he servitude to which the Parliament of Great Britain wishes to reduce us, while we continue to keep our fellow creatures in slavery just because of their skin color.” Among the Patriots, Rush was an exceptional and not a dominant voice in advocating the abolition of slavery after the Revolution.
However sincere and persistent, colonial claims of British enslavement through heavy taxes were exaggerated. Even if the colonists had paid all of Parliament’s levies, their tax burden would have been light and easy to bear. If spread out evenly, the hated stamp taxes, for example, would have added up in one year to a single schilling per colonial wage earner or the equivalent of three hours of work on a single day. John Hancock’s recent biographer Harlow Giles Unger declares: “Indeed, the sums involved in the Stamp Act were so trivial that, without the streams of invective by [James] Otis, Sam Adams, and [Patrick] Henry, it alone could not have provoked the eruption of colonial anger that would burst across America in the summer of 1765.” Even the noted colonial historian Edmund S. Morgan admits in his classic The Birth of the Republic that “neither the stamp tax nor the Townshend duties were formidable in themselves. . . .” The colonists could rightly complain of customs racketeering, trials without juries, and standing armies but not of heavy and capricious taxation, although the lack of representation in the Parliament that taxed them remained a justified grievance. (Of course, the British on their part could object to colonial smuggling and bribery, lenient juries that freed smugglers, and physical attacks on royal officials.)
Most of the taxes imposed by Parliament were never paid, either because the colonists resisted or evaded them, or the levies themselves were swiftly rescinded. The Townshend duties, for instance, were in effect for only four short months. The argument that the Patriots opposed all British taxes on principle, no matter how small they might be, is hard to sustain. From 1770 to 1773, during the so-called “period of calm,” many colonists did in fact pay duties on tea and sugar (molasses) after trade boycotts had fallen apart and a brisk transatlantic commerce with the mother country had resumed. The inconsistent behavior of the Patriots raises vexing questions about the sincerity of their attachment to the principle of no taxation without representation, as even Morgan, their staunch defender, readily admits.
Moreover, Parliament did not impose taxes on the colonists out of spite but rather out of stark necessity. Heavily burdened with war debts and facing tax revolts at home, the British asked the colonists to pay for only a third of the costs of their own defense. One wonders, along with Imperial historian Lawrence H. Gipson, if the colonists would have objected to paying a trifling import tax on sugar (it was only a pence and half greater than the standard bribe they had already been paying) to quarter the Redcoats, if France and their Indian allies had won the recent war and still threatened the western frontier, or even if England in victory had permitted the French to retain Canada and limited their territorial demands in North America because of the high costs of administering and protecting the new empire. A major reason why the colonists objected to paying any taxes is that their burden had never been as heavy as that of their compatriots in the mother country. For example, John Hancock, one of the wealthiest men in the colonies, “paid half as much on his declared revenues as a comparably wealthy Englishmen. . . .”
Colonial claims that imperial taxes on sugar and molasses would have ruined the New England rum distilling industry are not altogether convincing. “The merchants argued disingenuously,” Unger declares, “that the duties would double retail prices of rum and leave colonists unable to afford a drop of their favorite drink, but in truth only greed lay behind their objection to duties. They distilled a gallon of molasses costing sixteen pence into a gallon of rum, for which they charged 192 pence–a gross profit of 1,100 percent! In all, New England merchants paid about 100,000 pounds a year for molasses and earned gross revenues of about 1.25 million pounds, on which they refused to pay a mere three percent–37,500 pounds–in taxes. Although merchants in England routinely paid duties on imports, two centuries of unfettered free enterprise had left colonists not only evading duties but arrogantly smuggling in cheap sugar and molasses from the French West Indies–an enemy land–thus undermining the economic future of their fellow country men in the British West Indies.”
Even to compare the relatively mild tax burden the British sought to impose on the colonists with the unremitting labor to which Black slaves were subjected for their whole life seems indecent and disproportionate on the face of it. When southern planters, in particular, complained that Great Britain was threatening them with enslavement and perpetual bondage with import duties and stamp taxes, they should have stumbled over their own words. In fact, a few of them did. In 1773, in the midst of the struggle with England, Patrick Henry rhetorically asked Anthony Benezet in a letter: “Is it not amazing, that at a time, when the Rights of Humanity are defined and understood with precision, in a Country above all others fond of Liberty, that in such an Age, and such a Country we find Men. . . adopting a Principle [of human slavery] as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistent with the Bible and destructive to Liberty?” Unfortunately, Henry did not immediately act on his own noble words, honestly confessing to the “general Inconvenience of a living without” his slaves. This single word “inconvenience” suggests how difficult it was for Southern planters to put their Revolutionary ideals into practice by abolishing slavery. Such a step would have upended their whole way of life, destroyed their property, and challenged their racial assumptions, especially regarding the alleged intellectual inferiority of their African slaves. The challenge to change was just too great, and they could not and did not meet that challenge.
In contrast, Anthony Benezet devoted his whole life to bettering the lot of Black slaves and freedmen. He corresponded with anti-slavery Revolutionary leaders such as Doctor Benjamin Rush and John Jay, established links with the British abolitionist Granville Sharp who had submitted a tract Benezet had written to the judge in the Somerset case, and founded the African Free School in Philadelphia. According to Jackson, “Benezet’s dream was to create a transatlantic anti-slavery movement to free the enslaved Africans from their misery and to establish a network to support and educate blacks once freed.”
The painful ironies exposed in Schama’s and Nash’s books, as well as the work and witness of Anthony Benezet, force us to ask some irreverent questions about the American Revolution, questions that for some will border on blasphemy, given the hundreds of books written by numerous historians down the decades to justify and extol the American Revolution and the men who made it. It is noteworthy, perhaps, that Robert Middlekauff’s beautifully-written narrative history of the era is titled The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, a phrase General George Washington often employed in his correspondence to describe the ostensibly noble struggle to which he had devoted his life. Notwithstanding this almost universal praise of and adulation for the American Revolution, recent historical scholarship, especially respecting the mass exodus of Black slaves, raises some disturbing questions that we can no longer safely or honestly ignore: Have we overlooked or downplayed for too long the inconsistencies or, perhaps, even the hypocrisies of those we have honored with the semi-sacred title of founding fathers? Shouldn’t we be dismayed that tens of thousands of Black slaves fought on the English side rather than on our own? Weren’t the Patriots more concerned with protecting narrow property rights than with securing those broad human rights we value so much today and which during the colonial period certain Quakers such as Benezet, who opposed the Revolution, had championed as the prescient proponents of a better world based on human equality and brotherly love? Is it even accurate to call the American Revolution a “revolution” since it effected so little social and political change in the short run and left about eighty percent of the population, notably slaves, indentured servants, and women in some form of servitude? Has the time come to retell the story of the American Revolution without excluding a fifth of the population in the process, as if, as Nash puts it, “the British and the Americans had fought for seven years. . . [while] half a million African Americans had been magically whisked off the continent[?]”
Of course, even to pose such questions will raise the hackles of those Americans who have come to regard Patriots such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as the wise and noble founders of a great nation based on liberty and justice for all and George III and General Guy Carleton as despots and instruments of British oppression and tyranny. It has been said that we see what we want to see, blinded as we often are by racism, unthinking patriotism, mythology, the tyranny of tacit assumptions, fear, and the unconscious and sometimes even dogged unwillingness to face the plain truth. Even Nash, who is honest and open about the positive role Britain played in emancipating Black slaves, falls back on hackneyed and habitual rhetoric about the American Revolution when he claims that White Patriots “pitted a desire for independence against a tyranny-minded, overpowering English government.” Nash describes the concomitant Black struggle for freedom as “a revolution within a revolution.” Even while admitting that the slaves faced greater odds than did White revolutionaries and that their “leap into the dark” was therefore “bolder,” he does not give sufficient weight, in my view, to the contradictions and tensions between these two movements. He is almost, although not quite, willing to see a moral equivalence between these twin revolutions, largely because he lends too much credence, I would contend, to the timed-honored but perhaps tired charge of British oppression and enslavement.
During the Revolution, the Patriots themselves did not respect civil liberties and could often be as tyrannical as those they opposed. In their attempts to enforce the non-importation agreements against the Townshend Acts, mobs in Boston used various forms of intimidation, especially tarring and feathering, against those merchants who continued to trade with England. It took a very brave man to stand against the crowd, but one such merchant sent a letter to a Boston newspaper early in 1770 complaining that he had not consented either in person or through a representative to the rules and regulations set down by the local revolutionary committee. Turning slavery rhetoric on its head, he said he felt as a result more immediately threatened by the slavery of local zealots than of the King. “I had rather be a slave under one Master;” he declared, “for if I know who he is, I may, perhaps, be able to please him, than a slave to a hundred or more, who I don’t know where to find, nor what they will expect of me.”
Given the tensions prevailing in Boston, a tragic incident between royal troops and local mobs and ruffians was bound to take place, and it did on March 5, 1770. After being pelted with snowballs, stones, rubbish, shells, and vile epithets, British soldiers of the Twenty-ninth Regiment panicked and fired on a crowd of protestors. Five Bostonians were killed, three immediately, and six were wounded. No Redcoats were injured. One of the colonists shot dead was Crispus Attucks, a runaway Black slave with an Indian mother, who has since become a kind of martyr for liberty and an icon for those African-Americans who understandably want to be included in the story of the birth of American freedom. Ironically, for present-day African-Americans there are more appealing models of noble fighters for human liberty on the Loyalist side, “British Freedom” and “Liberty Lagree” being among them.
Remarkably, the British army permitted all of the accused soldiers to be tried by a colonial jury in the local Suffolk County courthouse. One of the key witnesses for the defense was Newton Price, a Black barber. For testifying that the Redcoats had been provoked, he was tarred and feathered by the angry Patriots; it is completely understandable that he later decided to leave Boston with the British army when it was forced to evacuate. Crispus Attucks is remembered in high school American history textbooks (even though he belonged to a tough waterfront gang John Adams later described as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish Jack tars” ); and Price, a respectable barber, is never even mentioned, although he was perhaps the more heroic and honorable of the two. Unfortunately, Price was on the wrong side of history. On account of exculpatory testimony from witnesses such as this Black barber and Adam’s formidable legal skills, Captain Thomas Preston was acquitted of ordering his soldiers to fire, and the two who did shoot into the crowd had their thumbs branded for the crime of manslaughter. Still, many American historians continue to call this tragic incident a “massacre.”
Despite their evasions and inconsistencies, the Patriots did produce one of the great political documents in human history, the justly praised Declaration of Independence, whose influence on the history of this nation and even of the world has been enormous and liberating. But like so much else associated with the American Revolution, this document is often misunderstood. About the only section of the Declaration that is ever quoted or recited is the eloquent preamble. The much larger second part–that is, the long bill of indictment against England–is almost totally ignored by politicians, political scientists, and philosophers today. And for good reasons. It is turgid and legalistic, sometimes propagandistic, and not always accurate. Most of the blame for the injuries for which the colonists were seeking redress is unfairly placed on the shoulders of George III rather than on the acts of Parliament, which body in fact levied the taxes that the colonists claimed would enslave them. Ironically, Jefferson’s attempt to include a long indictment of the king’s role in the infamous slave trade in the Declaration of Independence was beaten back by his fellow delegates to the Second Continental Congress. It originally read: “He [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most scared rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel power, is the war of the Christian king of Great Britain determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold. He has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die; he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, and murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
It is easy to understand why other delegates to the Second Continental Congress would want to excise this prolix and misleading grievance from the Declaration of Independence, fully aware, as they must have been, of their own and their ancestors’ complicity in the horrors of the “middle passage” and in the perpetuation of chattel slavery in the New World, not that King George III was an innocent bystander in all of this. Nonetheless, Black slaves from Africa were not forced on the southern planters by an unrighteous king but eagerly sought by them, as far back as 1619. New England shipping interests, especially in Newport, Rhode Island, had for decades made big profits off of the infamous triangular trade in African slaves, West Indian molasses, and New England rum. There was plenty of blame to go around, in both the mother country and the colonies.
The only part of the lost paragraph on the slave trade that made its way into the final draft was the charge that King George III was inciting “domestic insurrections amongst us,” by which Jefferson meant not only to refer to British attempts to enlist the “merciless Indian savages” in their cause but the emancipated African slaves as well, hundreds of whom joined the Loyalist forces of Lord Dunmore and other British officials. Schama points out that about twenty thousand Black slaves fought for the British (some as the Ethiopian Regiment, with “Liberty for Slaves” embroidered on their uniforms, and others as Black Pioneers and partisans of the Black Brigade), or assisted them by serving as pilots, scouts, carters, porters, laundresses, cooks, woodcutters, nurses, spies, couriers, sappers, musicians, drummers, pipers, and trumpeters. For these former slaves, King George III was “their friend, emancipator and guardian.” And the British army, for all of its military rigors and cruelties, which should not be minimized, became an “asylum” and “source of hope” for thousands of Blacks. As Schama puts it, “The majority of slaves wanted nothing to do with the new American republic of bondage.”
Five thousand Black slaves and freedmen did bear arms for the American side in order to gain their freedom if they survived combat, to secure enlistment bounties, to fulfill the military obligations of their masters, to make up for recruiting shortfalls when Whites refused to serve, or to further the Patriot cause. If there was a “British Freedom” on the Tory side, there was also “Dick Freedom” on the Patriot side. However, efforts to recruit large numbers of slaves for the Continental army were finally scuttled because the idea of arming thousands of Blacks, whether freedmen or slaves, was not a pleasant prospect for southern planters, always fearful of bloody slave uprisings, to contemplate. This was especially true in South Carolina, where a proposal to recruit Blacks was shot down when the local House of Representatives feared that such a gambit would be used by Northerners to further emancipation and later the abolition of slavery. Moreover, the Continental Congress was too strapped for funds to compensate slave owners for the loss of their property on the battlefield. In a few cases, White Patriot soldiers were recruited for service by promising them a slave after the war as a sign-up bonus or given a captured Loyalist slave in lieu of monetary payment. The admirable Patriot John Laurens did his best to persuade Washington and the Continental Congress to enlist Black soldiers in the Revolution, in order to fit them for freedom, but he finally failed and died a tragic, premature, and senseless death as a young man in his twenties.
In retrospect, it seems clear that Jefferson did not have his own Black slaves in mind when he said “all men are created equal” in the lofty preamble. Jefferson’s notion of human equality, and that of most of his fellow Patriots, extended immediately only to the White American people as a whole–in other words, they were equal to the British and therefore should rule themselves. However, it is important to note, so as to fend off accusations of judging the past by present-day standards, that there were Americans at the time who were moving inexorably toward the notion of full religious, social, and political equality for Blacks–Anthony Benezet, in particular. To their credit, some of the more courageous Patriots also opposed slavery and promoted equality in the name of the Revolution; included in this forward-looking group were James Otis, John Laurens, Doctor Benjamin Rush, and Abigail Adams Perhaps the true heroes of the Revolutionary era, if the measure is commitment to human equality, were not so much Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington as these lesser known figures, as well as Quaker saints such as John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, who used the Revolution’s rhetoric of freedom on behalf of those most deprived of their liberty, even though they deplored and opposed the war itself.
At the time of the stamp tax crisis in 1765, Benezet asked in A Caution and a Warning to Great Britain “how many of those who distinguish themselves as Advocates of Liberty, remain insensible and inattentive to the treatment of thousands and tens of thousands of our fellow man,” the enslaved Africans? Ten years later, Benezet became the first president of The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully held in Bondage, which was organized in Philadelphia about the same time fighting broke out between the colonists and the Redcoats in Lexington and Concord. This great humanitarian stood on no extraterrestrial height from which he could view the future; he used the same Christian (Quaker) beliefs, Enlightenment ideas, powers of observation, and common sense to which Jefferson, Washington, and Madison had equal access to come to the bedrock conclusion that slavery was incompatible with the professed goals of the Revolution, that it should be abolished in its wake, and that Blacks should be given an education that would fit them for freedom and equality. The reason he put his high ideals into practice, when others could not or did not, is because he was not wedded to the unbridled pursuit of profit and wealth, as were many wealthy Patriot leaders. As a plain-living Quaker, Benezet often criticized the excesses of capitalism with the same moral conviction he used to censure slavery. Although many leaders of the Revolution in the South honestly recognized the incompatibility of slavery with the high ideals they were fighting for, their capacity to abolish or even to alter the peculiar institution was severely limited not only by their racist assumptions but also, and perhaps more significantly, by their economic self-interest, which factor often trumped all others and made any solution to the slavery problem all the more complicated.
The American Revolution was actively supported by a minority of the population, most likely somewhere between thirty and forty percent of the colonists, which means that more colonists opposed the break with England or were indifferent to its outcome than supported it. More than 80,000 Loyalists, or about two and half percent of the total population, chose to leave the colonies with retreating British armies rather than submit to Patriot rule. Included in this group were thousands of freed Black slaves who first sought refuge in Nova Scotia and subsequently crossed the Atlantic in an armada of freedom to found the free Black state of Sierra Leone in Africa. Schama movingly tells their story in Rough Crossings, without glossing over the betrayals and depredations these refugees suffered at the hands of fellow Loyalists and some English officials.
The British General charged with the task of evacuating Loyalists was Guy Carleton, who had earlier successfully defended Canada against a Patriot invasion. He had hoped, even after Yorktown, to effect a reconciliation between the mother country and its rebellious colonies through pardons and the promise of an American parliament with full power to tax. Instead, the ministry in England decided to make peace with the rebellious Americans, even if this meant granting the former colonies their complete independence. The big question then became: what was going to happen to the fifteen thousand former Black slaves living in the British enclaves of New York, Charleston, and Savannah? Some southern planters demanded that, before prisoners were exchanged or the peace treaty was ratified, their former bondsmen and women be restored to them. At the last minute, the Revolutionaries insisted that an article be inserted that the English not be allowed to carry away American property and slaves. Nonetheless, Carleton upheld British honor by insisting that those slaves granted their freedom for serving the Crown should not be returned to bondage, and he even ordered that the British army protect them from their former slave masters. A Book of Negroes was opened to record the names of all those slaves seeking to leave the new American nation. Carleton was very liberal in determining eligibility, much to the consternation of Americans such as James Madison who urged Washington to repudiate American debts owed to the British in retaliation. Washington, not wanting to restart the war and perhaps feeling personally guilty about slavery, refused. Thousands of Blacks therefore left with the British, many sailing to Nova Scotia where they hoped to begin a new life.
One way to measure the sincerity of the American revolutionaries is to gauge how well they put their stated ideals into practice once they were in complete control of their own affairs. Here their record of accomplishment is not as impressive as one might have expected or hoped for. One of the two great slogans of the American Revolution was “no taxation without representation.” However, after the Revolution only Pennsylvania conferred the franchise on all taxpaying White males of a certain age; all other states confined the suffrage to property holders, which meant in effect that some adult White men in twelve states paid taxes but were still not represented in their respective legislatures. Did that make them slaves in their own country? In Massachusetts, the very cockpit of resistance and rebellion, property qualifications for voting were actually increased after the Revolution, although this was fortunately not typical and the amount of the increase was not large. Most states reduced property qualifications but did not get rid of them completely. Of course, it goes without saying that Black slaves and freedmen were not allowed to vote, along with those poor White men who did not own sufficient property, including thousands of indentured servants who had sold themselves into seven years of servitude to gain passage to the New World. Moreover, in the new American states south of Pennsylvania, the western sections were not represented in the legislatures in proportion to their population, as also had been the case before the Revolution.
The second great slogan of the American Revolution was “all men are created equal.” Probably the best test of the Revolution’s devotion to human liberty is therefore to be found in the postwar treatment of Black slaves. In the name of the Revolution’s high ideals, all of the Northern states eventually abolished slavery as an institution, gradually emancipated their current slaves, and prohibited the slave trade in the future. Of course, there were many fewer slaves in the North, and those who lived there did not exercise a crucial impact on the northern economy based, as it was, on small-scale farming and trade in rum, fish, and provisions. Nonetheless, a small number of slaves were in fact set free, important legal precedents were established for the future, and slavery became a “peculiar institution” confined to the South. More to the point, many northerners acknowledged the inconsistency between slavery and the Revolution’s professed ideals, so that in 1774 Rhode Island passed a law stipulating that in the future all slaves imported into the colony would be freed because “those who are desirous of enjoying all the advantages of liberty themselves should be willing to extend personal liberty to others.”
Some southern planters, acknowledging the incompatibility of slavery with the Revolution’s ideal of human equality, voluntarily freed their slaves by a legal process known as manumission, often at the time of their death. Washington, to his credit, was one of them. Ten thousand slaves were set free by conscience-stricken masters in Virginia alone; however, the vast majority of Black slaves in the South, about half a million, were kept in bondage. When the Patriots created a new Constitution in 1787, they decided to count Black slaves as 3/5ths of a person for purposes of apportioning representation and assessing taxes, largely to placate the Southern States, which probably would not have otherwise approved of the new government. Here is the great irony of the American Revolution–abolishing slavery in its name would have destroyed the new nation it created. Another provision of the new Constitution did put an end to the infamous slave trade, but not until 1808. Luther Martin of Maryland bolted the Constitutional Convention and refused to sign the document because he regarded the 3/5ths compromise and the continuance of the slave trade as “a solemn mockery of, and insult to that God whose protection we had . . . implored, and could not fail to hold us up in detestation, and render us contemptible to every true friend of liberty in the world.”
In a highly-original, thought-provoking chapter, Nash suggests that during the Revolutionary Era the conditions for abolishing slavery were much better than during the previous and succeeding periods in the nation’s history. The Northern States were gradually emancipating slaves, and abolitionism was popular in the South, especially in Virginia and Maryland. A national consensus was building around the idea that slavery was incompatible with revolutionary principles and republican government, and a school of thought called “cultural environmentalism” convinced many Whites that the inferior status of Black was due not to innate inability but to the lack of education and opportunity. International trends also seemed to portend the elimination of slavery in the Western world. Revolutionary France emancipated millions of slaves in 1794. Historians have often argued that the United States could not do something similar because of the opposition of the southern states, but Nash contends that South Carolina and Georgia were too exposed to Indian threats to stay out of a Union that abolished slavery. Moreover, a nationwide effort to eradicate slavery might have proved a unifying rather than divisive force in the nation by removing a potential source of division and civil war and by aligning the nation more closely to its professed principles. Abundant land in the West could have been sold by the federal government to compensate slave holders for their losses and provide freed slaves with a fresh start. Although the situation was ripe for change, it did not occur because of a tragic failure of political leadership in both the North and South, Nash argues. Although Franklin did more than other Founding Fathers to abolish slavery, being coaxed into the anti-slavery movement by Benezet, he did not fully expend “the vast reserve of credit he had amassed with the public” in the cause of emancipation. John Adams, in contrast to his wife Abigail, was much more reticent and detached on the issue, and did nothing practical to end slavery. Washington finally refused to cooperate with Lafayette in a scheme to free and resettle slaves, Jefferson was mired in a deep-seated racism that prevented constructive action but not sexual liaisons, and Madison opposed slavery but never put forth specific plans to abolish it.
Perhaps Nash is a bit too sanguine about the chances of abolishing slavery in the decades immediately following the Revolution, although he at least points out other possible paths that might have been pursued by more courageous, consistent, and committed leaders. The racial prejudice that undergirded slavery was deeply rooted in both the Old and New Worlds. Despite the Somerset case, chattel slavery survived in the British West Indies well into the nineteenth century, and the former Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Latin America continued to hold millions of Blacks in bondage in the decades following the American Revolution. All of this makes the persistence of slavery in the United States more understandable, although it does not justify it. It is painful to note, moreover, that all of those nations in the Western Hemisphere that practiced slavery eventually abolished it without the trauma of a devastating civil war, most of them before the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.
The political failure of the Founding Fathers to present practical plans for the abolition of slavery–which may be considered the original sin of the American Revolution–would have devastating consequences. Presidents such as Jefferson may have heard the fire bell in the night, but they did not answer the alarm. Tellingly, Nash concludes: “Historians are not mathematicians, and even if they were, they could not calculate with precision the degrees to which moral, psychological, economic, or political elements contributed to the failure of the founding fathers to become risk takers rather than risk averters on the matter of slavery. But the result is painfully evident. . . Sixty years after Jefferson became president in 1801, the bloodletting began that would claim the lives of more than six hundred thousand Americans and shatter the bodies of many more, in a war in which emancipation became one of the Union’s main goals.” The horrific and widespread devastation and death caused by the Civil War is poignantly described by Drew Gilpin Faust in her profoundly moving book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.
All that as been said up to this point would lead one to ask if the American Revolution was really justified on strictly moral grounds. However, as one of my former colleagues has reminded me, it is the task of the historian to explain and analyze the past and not to pass judgments or even to pose such a question. Perhaps there is a danger in such a detached approach: if we simply try to understand why things happened as they did, do we not assume a kind of historical inevitability that precludes the possibility of other outcomes? I sometimes wonder if there might not be occasions when historians are obliged to lament lost opportunities rather than pretend to be objective and dispassionate. Even if our task is to stick to the facts and not to moralize, can we not fairly conclude that the American colonists were not heavily taxed (although perhaps unjustly), inconsistent in their arguments about no taxation without representation, and embarrassingly hypocritical about the continued existence of slavery? Perhaps the term hypocritical is not fair or accurate, because most of the founding fathers knew that slavery was wrong and admitted as much. However, they consistently failed to put their political beliefs into practice by taking practical steps to abolish or even to ameliorate the “peculiar institution.” Although professional historians have long recognized the ambiguities and contradictions of the American Revolution, the popular view of it remains largely mythological, with righteousness and freedom on our side and oppression and tyranny on the British side. This simplistic conception seems “quite impervious to factual evidence that refutes it, ” largely because myths are a matter of belief rather than of argument. Moreover, myths can only be sustained if large parts of the historical record are either ignored or expunged. Only by leaving out the plight of Black slaves, who constituted a fifth of the population, and ignoring the slave revolt that British policies precipitated can the American Revolution be viewed uncritically as a “glorious struggle” for human freedom and liberty, even though the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence later inspired the liberation of women, Blacks, and other oppressed minority groups. Despite its admitted high-minded idealism, the American Revolution was much more complicated and paradoxical than we normally assume that it was, as Schama is at pains to point out.
Finally, in a nation that has virtually canonized its founding fathers, often attributing to them more courage and consistency than they may have possessed, it may be time for all of us to regard them henceforth as mere mortals, with all the flaws that come with being fallible human beings rather than demigods. Only then will we be able to appreciate both their noble ideals and their tragic blind spots, of which the persistence of slavery in the new republic was the most ironic, glaring, and painful.
i New York: Harper Collins, 2006. Although British, Schama teaches at Columbia University.
ii Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.
iii Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
iv Schama, 75-76.
v Ibid., 3-5.
vi Ibid., 6.
vii Ibid., 7-8.
viii Ibid., 8-9.
ix Nash, 23. Emphasis added.
x Ibid., 27.
xi Schama, 151, 155.
xii Ibid., 55.
xiii Ibid., 18, 55-57.
xiv Nash, 24.
xv Jackson, 47.
xvi Nash, 3.
xvii Quoted in Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 123, 130.
xviii Quoted in Harlow Giles Unger, John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot (New York: John Wiley, 2000), 114.
xix Quoted in Schama, 11-12.
xx See “Taxation No Tyranny: An Answer to the Resolutions and Addresses of the American Congress,” The Works of Samuel Johnson (Try, New York: Pafaerts and Company, 1913), 93-114.
xxi Quoted in Jackson, 28.
xxii Harry M. Ward, The American Revolution: Nationhood Achieved, 1763-1799 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 34-35.
xxiii Unger, 88.
xxiv Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, 52.
xxv Ibid, 50-53. Morgan claims that the colonists were generally sincere and “asserted a principle with less force when the principle seemed less in danger,” but he also says “that many historians are inclined to doubt the strength of their attachment” because “the colonists submitted to the tea and molasses duties during the period 1770-1773.”
xxvi In The American Revolution: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2002), Gordon Wood puts the postwar national debt at 137,000,000 pounds, 17; Middlekauff, at 122,603,336 pounds with an annual interest rate of 4,409,797 in 1763, 61; and Unger, at 145,000,000 pounds, of which 1,150,000 “had gone to the colonists for their part in the [French and Indian] war,” 72.
xxvii ”The American Revolution as an Aftermath of the Great War for the Empire, 1754-1763,” Political Science Quarterly, LCV, 1 (March, 1950), 102-104.
xxviii Unger, 79.
xxix Ibid., 73.
xxx Quoted in Jackson, 129-130.
xxxi Ibid., ix-xv.
xxxii Nash, 4.
xxxiii Ibid., 7, 67.
xxxiv Quoted in Middlekauff, 207.
xxxv See Morgan, 47-50; Middlekauff, 209-213; Unger, 150-151; and Schama, 10.
xxxvi Schama, 10.
xxxvii Quoted in Morgan, 47.
xxxviii Middlekauff, 212.
xxxix See Julian Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, I, 1760-1776 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), 243-247.
xl Schama, 4, 5, 8, 73-74, 84, 111, 133.
xli Schama, 7, 100-105; see also Middlekauff, 570-572; Nash, 12-13.
xlii See Middlekauff, 338-339, 570-572.
xliii Quoted in Jackson, 28.
xliv Ibid., 63, 66.
xlv Schama, 127-156, especially 148-149.
xlvi Morgan, 94.
xlvii Ibid., 93-94.
xlviii Quoted in ibid, 96-97.
xlix Ibid., 97.
l Ibid., 141.
li Quoted in Nash, 77.
lii Ibid., 69-122.
liii Ibid., 121-122.
liv New York: Random House, 2008.
lv The phrase is Doctor Carl Guarneri’s, as are several of the ideas in this last paragraph. My former colleague at Saint Mary’s College of California was good enough to read and criticize a much earlier and longer version of this piece.