THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR
As a Black Declaration of Independence
During the summer of 1777 Capt. William Whipple, a soldier from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, noted that his slave, Prince, was quite dejected. Asked by Whipple to account for his moodiness, Prince explained, “Master, you are going to fight for your liberty, but I have none to fight for.” Struck by the essential truth of Prince’s complaint, Whipple lost no time in freeing him.
Before his emancipation Prince had been one of the oarsmen who rowed George Washington and his troops across the ice-choked Delaware River in a blinding snow and sleet storm Christmas night 1776. But had Prince Whipple not taken part in one of the most significant battles of the Revolutionary War, there was nothing unusual about his longing to be free. This yearning for freedom was common among those in bondage and its roots ran deep. The contagion of liberty had long infected blacks, reaching epidemic proportions with the outbreak of the war against England. As was the case for other Americans, regional differences characterized Afro-American culture, and within each regional group status determinants such as occupation and skin color further divided both slave and free blacks. Moreover, in ever-changing early America the patterns of black life were not static from one generation to another. But regardless of these distinctions, all blacks during the Revolutionary era shared a common goal – the pursuit of freedom and equality.
The exchange between Captain Whipple and his slave illustrated another major characteristic of Revolutionary War blacks; their tendency to differ with whites in interpreting the rhetoric and the meaning of the war itself. When whites, for example, accused England of trying to enslave them, they had in mind such measures as stamp acts and trade restrictions, royal decrees and Parliamentary legislation. To white Americans the war meant freedom and liberty in a politico-economic sense rather than in the sense of personal bondage. Admittedly, the Revolutionary War did have its social overtones, as J. Franklin Jameson reminded us half a century ago.3 And, as Jesse Lemisch, Alfred F. Young, and others have pointed out more recently, various underprivileged white groups, including women, had distinctive reactions to the war, each of them viewing it as an opportunity for advancement.4
With all due credit for its pivotal role in the history of human freedom, the American Revolution fell considerably short of the egalitarian goals it proclaimed. Like many subsequent armed outbreaks, it was essentially a colonial war of liberation; it was waged, however, against a country not unlike America itself. White Americans claimed that they were fighting for the rights of Englishmen—rights that they had long enjoyed but that the Crown had tried to abrogate; they struggled to retain freedom rather than to acquire it.
Although white patriots might not have cared to acknowledge it, the American Revolution bore the overtones of a civil war; indeed, it was more a war of independence than one of revolution. Moreover, unlike other colonial wars of liberation, as Moses Coit Tyler pointed out, it was “directed not against tyranny inflicted, but only against tyranny anticipated.”5 Its inherent conservatism limited the revolutionary potential of the American War for Independence.
Slaves saw the matter differently. In its impact on them the war was truly revolutionary. Seizing the opportunity, they gave a personal interpretation to the theory of natural rights and to the slogans of liberty and independence. Such a patriotic exhortation as “Give me liberty or give me death” carried special meaning to people in bondage.
The desire of blacks for freedom did not, of course, originate with the American Revolution. In one of his midweek lectures to Boston slaves, delivered on May 21, 1721, Cotton Mather denounced the “Fondness for Freedom in many of you, who lived Comfortably in a very easy Servitude.” Obviously not alluding to religious freedom, Mather had in mind a freedom of the person which, in his opinion, was not the state God had ordained for the assembled bonds people.’6 Half a century later, on the eve of the Revolutionary War, this fondness for freedom had become even more prevalent. The number of blacks had multiplied, and they had become more at home in provincial America and more responsive to its ways of life, particularly those tinged with egalitarianism of substance, tone, or spirit.
The special circumstances of Afro-American life sharpened the desire to be free. In sheer numbers blacks composed in 1774 a larger proportion of the total population than they ever would again, 500,000 out of 2,600,000, nearly 20 percent. These half-million blacks had become Afro-Americans in the true sense of the hyphenated word. Reinforced by more recent arrivals from overseas, they retained strong spiritual and aesthetic ties with their ancestral homelands, their rich cultural heritage already working its way into American music, dance, folk literature, and art. Indeed, in reference to Americans from Africa the term acculturation lacks precision; it would be better to use trans-culturation, a process of exchange and not a one-way street. Despite the persistence of their African heritage, however, most blacks by 1774 had undergone a transition from Africans to Afro-Americans and were no longer the “outlandish” blacks slave traders had deposited in the New World.
Their Americanization had resulted from a complex of influences, economic, socio-religious, and genetic. They certainly had been integrated economically, as a vital source of labor. Slaves in the southern colonies, numbering 50% of the total slave population, produced the agricultural staples of the late colonial period, tobacco, rice, and sugar. A plantation required skilled laborers as well as field hands, and these too were black. As Marcus W. Jernegan pointed out, “It is hard to see how the eighteenth-century plantation could have survived if the Negro slave had not made his important contribution as an artisan.”7 In South Carolina, Peter H. Wood has noted, slaves not only engaged in the full range of plantation activities “but were also thoroughly involved wherever experiments were made with new products,” such as the development of silk culture.8 North Carolina’s blacks likewise performed complex and essential tasks. “If their status often forced them into menial labor,” observed Jeffrey J. Crow, “they still contributed skills and know-how to the colony’s agriculture and crafts.”9
The northern provinces also had their component of slaves with industrial skills. Slave workers in New York, as described by Edgar J. McManus, “showed proficiency in every field of human endeavor.” 10 Lorenzo J. Greene, another authority on blacks in the colonial North, painted a similar picture of the slave in New England who might be called upon “not only to care for stock, to act as a servant, repair a fence, serve on board ship, shoe a horse, print a newspaper, but even to manage his master’s business.”~l1 And in New England, as elsewhere, slave women were proficient spinners, knitters, and weavers.
Daily contacts between black worker and white owner inevitably led to a sociocultural interaction between the parties with the slaves becoming familiar with and sometimes adopting the beliefs and behavior patterns of their owners. Such personal contacts were most frequent when a master owned only one or two slaves. The pattern of person-to-person association between the races was less pervasive on the larger plantations, but even there one would find a corps of domestic slaves, whose children, it may be added, tended to play with the children of the master.
In the absence of a slave row with its separate quarters, the slaves in New England and the middle colonies were in close and constant contact with their owners. In the cities above the Potomac, Ira Berlin has argued, the acculturation of blacks “was a matter of years, not generations.” 12 If somewhat slower, the process also went on in the northern countryside. Traveling in rural Connecticut in 1704, Sarah Kemble Knight took note of white masters who permitted what she termed a “too great familiarity” vis-a-vis their slaves, dining at the same table with them. A terse entry in Madame Knight’s diary bespoke her displeasure: “Into the dish goes the black hoof as freely as the white hand.” 13
Out of such white-black proximity, North and South, emerged another force in the Americanization of blacks— their conversion to Christianity. Although many masters considered it imprudent, the idea of bringing slaves to Christ gained momentum throughout the eighteenth century. The movement was led by the London-based Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (S.P.G.), an Episcopal organization that operated mainly in the southern colonies. A handful of Puritans and Quakers, more often laboring individually than in organized groups, also took up evangelical work across the color line. In 1740 the conversion of blacks assumed major proportions with the religious revival known as the Great Awakening, with its central theme of equality before God. Negroes entered the churches in unprecedented numbers, imbibing the “New Light” ideas that characterized the crusade. Writing in 1743, Charles , a cleric critical of the Great Awakening, complained that it permitted “women and girls; yea Negroes . . . to do the business of preachers.” 14
A significant by-product of this eighteenth-century evangelistic impulse was the emergence of a small but steadily increasing contingent of blacks who could read and write, a case of religion with letters. The S.P.G. established several schools for blacks, one of which, in Goose Creek Parish, South Carolina, employed two black teachers, the first of their race in colonial America.’ The Quakers were especially notable for their efforts to provide education for blacks, their zeal spurred by Anthony Benezet, the leading abolitionist of his day. In 1750 Benezet established in Philadelphia a night school for blacks that was still in operation, and with an enrollment of forty-six, when the Revolutionary War broke out.l6 In New England many slaves received training in the “three R’s,” not only so they could read the Bible but also because literate slaves brought a higher price on the market.
The close relationship between religion and literacy among blacks was reflected in the two best-known poetic publications of the period, one by Jupiter Hammon and the other by Phillis Wheatley. Hammon’s work, a broadside of eighty eight lines, bore the revealing title “An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ, with penitential Cries: Composed by Jupiter Hammon, a Negro belonging to Mr. Lloyd, of Queen’s Village, on Long Island, the 25th of December, 1760.” Far more celebrated than her predecessor, Phillis Wheatley at the age of twenty-three became in 1773 only the second woman in colonial America to publish a volume of poetry. The title of her path-breaking work, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, conveys the basic outlook and orientation of a writer who had in 1771 been baptized in Boston’s Old South Meeting House.
If Hammon and Wheatley personified the religious acculturation of Afro-Americans, the scientist Benjamin Banneker personified another characteristic of white-black proximity, the mixing of bloodlines. Banneker’s white English grandmother had freed and married one of her slaves, Bannaky, a former African chief. As Banneker’s ancestry illustrates, blacks in the thirteen colonies were by no means of exclusively African stock. Early Virginia permitted white-black marriages, but even after all the southern colonies, as well as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, outlawed racial intermixing, miscegenation remained extensive, as evidenced by the large numbers of mulattoes, some of them blue-eyed and red haired. “It is impossible,” Winthrop D. Jordan has argued, “to ascertain how much inter-mixture there actually was, though it seems likely that there was more during the eighteenth century than at any time since.”l7 In addition, Blacks, like whites, also mingled their blood with that of Indians.
As a result of the white-black contacts previously mentioned—economic, socio-religious, and sexual—the half million Afro-Americans of 1774 had begun to experience a sense of distinct identity, a race-conscious identity if you will, but one that reflected the essential values of the Revolutionary era. Watered by the Revolutionary War, this sense of self identity would flower into a collective sense of community,the latter too an affirmation of the most cherished values of the early republic.
The Revolution, with its slogans of liberty and equality, inevitably appealed to a group such as the blacks. If this were the credo of the new America, they would joyfully make the most of it. As a class black Americans were not strong on theory and would hardly have been prepared to discuss the ideological origins of the war. But they could readily understand propositions to the effect that all men were created equal and that everyone was entitled to personal freedom. While short on worldly goods, most blacks did not consider private property, particularly the ownership of slaves, a basic natural right.
Like other Americans, blacks viewed the war in terms of their own interests and concerns. Perceiving what they regarded as an inescapable inconsistency between the ideals of the Revolution and the institution of slavery, they redoubled their efforts for emancipation, their methods including freedom suits, petitions to state legislatures, and military service. In states like Massachusetts that considered them not only property but also persons before the law, slaves instituted suits for freedom. Such actions cast the master in the role of defendant, obliged either to defend the validity of his title or to answer the charge that slavery itself was illegal or unconstitutional.
The effect of a judicial decree extended only to the litigants immediately involved in the case. Hence blacks seeking freedom collectively rather than individually drafted petitions to their state legislatures. Typical of such pleas was that sent in November 1779 to the New Hampshire assembly by nineteen slaves from Portsmouth. Contending that “the God of nature gave them life and freedom,” the petitioners asserted that freedom “is an inherent right of the human specie~, not to be surrendered but by consent.” 18
Slaves in the Revolutionary War South, denied recourse to the courts or the legislatures, expressed their protests more directly. Exhibiting an insubordinate disposition, they became harder to handle. Ronald Hoffman concluded in his study of Revolutionary Maryland that the Eastern Shore centers of black population “were severe sources of strain and worry during the Anglo-American conflict.” 19 By way of example, Hoffman cited a late 1775 dispatch from the Dorchester County Committee of Inspection reporting that “the insolence of the Negroes in this country is come to such a height that we are under a necessity of disarming them. We took about eighty guns, some bayonets, swords, etc.”20
Slave discontent was further evidenced in the marked increase of runaways. To escape-minded blacks the war was a godsend; the number of fugitive slaves reached flood proportions during the conflict. Thomas Jefferson estimated that during the war more than 30,000 Virginia slaves took to their heels.2l Attesting to their numerical strength, runaway slaves in Revolutionary Georgia established communities of their own.
Blacks’ desire for freedom found its greatest fulfillment in wartime service as arms-bearers. British overtures and American military necessity enabled slaves to join the armed forces and thereby win freedom with their muskets. The invitation to blacks to join the British ranks was first offered in the early months of the war by Lord Dunmore, Virginia’s last royal governor. In June 1779 Commander in Chief Sir Henry Clinton issued the most sweeping of the slave-freeing proclamations by the British command. It promised blacks their freedom and stipulated that they would be given their choice of any occupation within the British lines. Blacks welcomed such overtures, their motivation being more pro-freedom than pro-British.
By 1779 the Americans too were welcoming blacks to their armies. In the early stages of the war American military and civilian authorities had adopted a policy of excluding Negroes, a policy based on the mistaken supposition that the war would be over quickly. By the summer of 1777, with the war dragging into its third year, a policy reversal began when the northern colonies and Maryland decided to enlist blacks whatever the risks.
Slaves needed no second invitation. Recruiting agents had only to mention or hint at that magic word freedom to bring them into the fighting forces. It is striking, for example, that of the 289 identifiable blacks in the Connecticut army, five reported “Liberty” as their surname when they signed on, and eighteen reported “Freedom” or “Freeman.” 22
Free blacks also welcomed the coming of the Revolutionary War. Just as their lot was akin to that of the slaves, so was their response. Like the slaves, the free blacks drafted petitions and joined the army. Prince Hall, for example, did both. Led by the Cuffe brothers, blacks in Massachusetts lodged an official protest against the denial of their right to vote even though they paid taxes. In a 1780 petition to the state legislature they invoked the patriotic slogan “No taxation without representation .23
Free blacks who joined the army were variously motivated. They shared the common hope, however, that the high sounding affirmations of the Revolution were more than hollow rhetoric. With a touch of the wishful thinking not uncommon to those who are reform-minded, black Americans tended to take seriously the proclaimed goals of the patriots.
Hence in assessing the temper and spirit of the Revolutionary War blacks, one finds that, slave and free alike, their loyalty was not to a locality in which they were propertyless, not to an assembly in which they could not sit, and not to a social order that denied their worth. They reserved allegiance for whoever made them the best and most concrete
offer in terms of man’s inalienable rights, which is only to say that the loyalty of black Americans centered on the fundamental credos upon which the new nation was founded.
The hope of black Americans for a new day of equality was not realized; it was a dream deferred. True, the Revolutionary War had its positive side. It was imbued with a strong moral overtone, leading some whites to question an institution such as slavery, no matter how time-honored. To whites of a reformist turn of mind the war had exposed the inconsistencies and contradictions in American thought about the rights of man, particularly those of the black man. But if heightened sensitivity to the presence of an underprivileged black group characterized some whites, they were far outnumbered by those who detected no ideological inconsistency. These white Americans, not considering themselves counterrevolutionary, would never have dreamed of repudiating the theory of natural rights. Instead they skirted the dilemma by maintaining that blacks were an outgroup rather than members of the body politic. They subscribed to an equation of equality that excluded nonwhites, regarding them as outside the sociopolitical community encompassed by the Revolutionary War tenets of freedom and equality.
Black Americans, not unexpectedly, gave an entirely different reading to these war-spawned concepts. To them freedom was everyone’s birthright; everyone had certain inalienable rights. In black circles the feeling of independence that these beliefs had fostered outlasted the roar of the guns. Still unspent, the spirit of ’76 found new outlets among blacks. The Revolutionary War as a black Declaration of Independence took on a power of its own, fueled by residual Revolutionary rhetoric and sustained by the memory of fallen heroes and the cloud of living black witnesses. To black Americans the theory of natural rights did not lose its relevance with the departure of the British troops. Blacks were left no choice other than to oppose all efforts to de-revolutionize the Revolution.
However complacent and self-congratulatory their white countrymen may have been after expelling the British, the less euphoric black Americans turned their thoughts to the unfinished business of democracy. Their sense of self-identity, forged in the colonial period and honed by the Revolutionary War, now gave way to a sense of community, of cooperative effort in a cause that was no less true-blue Americanism simply because its advocates were dark-skinned.
Their problems pressing, their resources meager, black Americans took heed of the Revolutionary War slogan “Unite” or they were brought together not so much by a blood kin a common Old World heritage as by a shared experience particularly during the war, and by a shared pursuit o goals articulated by Jefferson in 1776.
Free blacks assumed the leadership roles as keepers of the flame; in 1790 they numbered nearly 60,000. The 700 slaves were hardly in a position to become spokesmen for new freedom, although a growing number of skilled and desperate slaves were more likely to resort to extreme means as they recalled wartime slogans of liberty. As Gerald W. lin pointed out, it was just such a freedom-inspired, little skilled slave, the blacksmith Gabriel Prosser of Richmond who planned one of the most ambitious slave conspiracies United States history. 24 St. George Tucker, a Virginian ar contemporary of Prosser’s, observed that there was a difference between the slaves who responded to Lord Dunmore proclamation in 1775 and those who took part in Gabriel’s I in 1800. The slaves of 1775 fought for freedom as a goal said Tucker, whereas those of 1800 claimed freedom as right.25
The dwindling component of slaves in the post-Revolutionary War North, however, found it unnecessary to resort to overt rebellion; time was on their side and gradual emcipation the vogue, especially with the increased availability of white workers. But, like those to the south, northern slaves were not the same after the war. Even the pacifist-mind bondsman Jupiter Hammon was affected. In February 17 he published “An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York,” a poignantly worded leaflet. “That liberty is a great
thing,” wrote Hammon, “we may know from our own feelings, and we may likewise judge from the conduct of the white people in the late war. How much money has been spent, and how many lives have been lost to defend their liberty. I must say that I have hoped that God would open their eyes, when they were so much engaged for liberty, to think of the state of the poor blacks, and to pity us.”26
With northern slaves quiescent in their expectation of emancipation and southern slaves under surveillance, free blacks led the movement for racial unification and solidarity. As might be expected, such leadership fell largely to those living above the Mason-Dixon line. Their counterparts in the South were not entirely stripped of citizenship rights, but their limited opportunity for independent reformist action is suggested by the title of Ira Berlin’s perceptive study of their marginal status, Slaves without Masters.2′
Out of this impulse toward organized independence in the North came the mighty fortress of the independent black church, a church that preached the equality of all human beings before God and had its own interpretation of the Christian theme of the apocalypse. It was a church whose mission of reconciliation was not only between God and man but also between man and his own noblest ideals, a church that envisioned a new earth as logically ancillary to a new heaven. By the end of the century the pattern of racially separate churches had been firmly fixed.
In the South small independent black Baptist churches first appeared during the Revolutionary War years. Many of these churches were offshoots of white congregations which, for a time, exercised a nominal “watch-care” over them. As in the religious services held by slaves, a characteristic feature of these black churches was the singing of spirituals. If these Negro spirituals had their escapist, otherworldly overtones, they also abounded in code words and double meanings, many of them striking a note of social protest and carrying a barely
concealed freedom ring. It was during the late eighteenth century that blacks began to sing one of the greatest of these spirituals with a hidden or double meaning:
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt land.
Tell ole Pharaoh
Let my people go.23
In the North, Richard Allen, a former slave who had purchased his freedom, led the movement for the independent black church. In 1786 Allen attempted to establish a separate congregation of Negro Methodists in Philadelphia. Rebuffed n this effort by an official of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, Allen withdrew his membership a year later when, at a Sunday morning worship service, a white trustee ordered him and two other black communicants to hie themselves to the gallery. They would never return to St. George’s.
By then Allen who, in the words of biographer Carol V. R. Jeorge, had “imbibed the philosophical preferences of Revolutionary America” had come to the conclusion that an independent black church and a gospel of social deliverance would be mutually supportive.3″ Deeply religious, he would ever lose sight of “that city called Heaven.” But to him, to is co-workers who founded Bethel Church in 1794, and to succeeding generations of black churchgoers, the theology to which they subscribed was a theology of liberation in which Jod spoke out in thunder tones against chattel slavery and sharply condemned other forms of injustice inflicted upon many of His children. Thus the black church was not only a spiritual fellowship; it was also a social unit, and for this reason represented a fusion of redemption, religious and racial.
In whatever sphere it operated, however, a given church tended to confine its immediate services to members of its own congregation, its own denomination. Hence the movement toward black independence also led to the establishment of organizations that cut across denominational ties, even while retaining a broadly Christian orientation. During the early years of the republic a number of societies and organizations emerged to promote black solidarity, self-help, and self-improvement. Blacks certainly played their part in making post-Revolutionary War America a nation of joiners.
The earliest of these black secular organizations was the African Union Society of Newport, Rhode Island, founded in November 1780; it was followed seven years later by the Free African Society of Philadelphia. The 1790S witnessed the birth of the Brown Fellowship Society, located in Charleston (l790), 3l the African Society of Providence, Rhode Island (1793), the African Society of Boston (1796), and the Friendly Society of St. Thomas, in Philadelphia (1797). 32 A sense of racial identity and pride accounts for the frequent use of the word African in the naming of these groups.
As might be expected, the major emphases of these organizations were mutual aid programs, such as supporting one another in sickness and in want, and requirements that their members lead upright lives, minding their morals and their manners. If these goals appeared to be limited exclusively to the welfare of their own participants, however, such was not their overall design. The societies were bent on demonstrating that blacks as a class were, if given the opportunity, prepared to assume the full responsibilities of freedom and citizenship, thus disputing the argument that blacks had never amounted to anything except as slaves, and never would. In a 1794 public letter Richard Allen, founder (with slave born Absalom Jones) of the Free African Society, urged his fellow blacks to fulfill “the obligations we lie under to help forward the cause of freedom.” A special obligation, Allen insisted, fell upon those who themselves had tasted the cup “of which the slave has to drink.”33
The wider concerns of these early societies are revealed by their interest in Africa, particularly in establishing a black Christian presence among their brethren abroad. This missionary impulse to uplift the Africans and at the same time strike an indirect blow against slavery, was particularly strong the Rhode Island societies. In Newport the movement was driven by Newport Gardner, in Providence by Bristol Yamma, other literate former slaves born in Africa.34 The efforts of these eighteenth-century black emigrationists were unsuccessful, but later blacks would echo their call, although with additional reasons, including disillusionment with the Ameran dream.
In company with church and secular groups, the roster of lte eighteenth-century Afro-American organizations included the first black secret fraternal order in this country, le Masons. If black Masonry can be said to have had a single Founder, it was Prince Hall of Boston, a Revolutionary War veteran and, to use a present-day term, a civil rights activist. Determined to establish a black Masonic lodge and rebuffed by white Masonic authorities in America, he succeeded after ten-year struggle in obtaining a charter from the British ,Grand Lodge. On May 6, 1787, African Lodge No. 459 (its charter number) was formally organized with Prince Hall as Master. Ten years later Hall, now bearing the title of Grand Master, established lodges in Providence and Philadelphia, in the latter instance installing Absalom Jones as Worshipful Master. 35
In common with other black self-help and self-improvement organizations, the Masons placed great emphasis on formal education, especially reading and writing. If blacks of the colonial period deemed such education a privilege, blacks of the Revolutionary War era thought of it as an American
entitlement, if not an inherent right of man. “Let us lay by our recreations, and all superfluities, so that we may . . . educate our rising generation,” Prince Hall urged in an address to the African Lodge on June 25, 1792. And in the same breath Hall berated the selectmen of Boston for taxing blacks while not permitting them to attend the public schools.36
In Philadelphia, Absalom Jones established a school for blacks in 1799. “It is with pleasure that I now inform you that the school was opened on the 4th day of March,” Jones wrote to the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, expressing “unfeigned thanks for the encouragement you were pleas[ed] to give me.”37 As a result of the sacrificial efforts of such black leaders as Hall and Jones and the extensive educational operations of white-membered abolitionist societies, the pursuit of formal education became a mainspring in black life during the formative years of the new nation.
Blacks of the Revolutionary War era could work independently, as in their churches, or cooperatively with whites, as in providing schools. But neither by independent nor cooperative action could they make any headway in winning suffrage, a right so vital to the “created equal” concept in the Declaration of Independence. In the New England colonies during the colonial period, slaves had been permitted to establish mock Negro governments, electing their own “governors.” Primarily a form of diversion, these slave “elections” were occasions for feasting and merriment, but as Lorenzo Greene has argued, the “governments” they set up “acted as a sort of political school wherein slaves received the rudiments of political education which could be drawn upon once they were enfranchised.”38
Five of the thirteen states forming the new nation—New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and North Carolina—did not exclude blacks from voting. Indeed, in one of these states, Maryland, a black candidate ran for public office in 1792, very likely the first of his color ever to take this bold step. Thomas Brown, a horse doctor, sought one of the two seats allotted to Baltimore in the House of Delegates. In a September 24, 1792, public letter addressed “To the virtuous, free and independent electors of Baltimore-Town,” Brown asserted that he had “been a zealous patriot in the cause of liberty during the late struggle for freedom and independence, not fearing prison or death for my country’s cause.” Brown closed his somewhat lengthy letter with a pledge that “the corpulency of my body shall be no clog to the exercise of my genius, and agility of my limbs, which shall be kept in perpetual motion for the good of the state.”3l His vote so minuscule as not to have been recorded, Brown was defeated in his bid for office, a circumstance reflecting the times. In but a few scattered instances were blacks a political factor during the eighteenth century, and black enfranchisement in post-Revolutionary America was generally short-lived. In fact after 1810 Thomas Brown himself could not even have voted, Maryland having barred blacks from the polls as of that year. Politically minded blacks could hope for little when property less whites were subject to disfranchisement. 3l”
Postwar blacks resorted to another form of political participation, the right to petition for redress of grievances. On December 30, 1799, as the Revolutionary War era was drawing to a close, a group of seventy-four blacks from the Philadelphia area addressed a petition “To the President, Senate, and House of Representatives,” requesting abolition of the overseas slave trade and modification of the fugitive slave law so as to prevent the kidnapping of free blacks. The document concluded with a plea that blacks might “be admitted to partake of the liberties and unalienable rights” to which they were entitled.41 Although invoking the language and the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the appeal was couched in the most respectful and conciliatory of tones, and it issued from a city in which the Liberty Bell once had rung, heralding the birth of the new nation. But the House of Representatives did not prove to be liberation-minded; the Congressmen rejected the petition by a chilling vote of eighty-five to one.42
This rejection of Revolutionary principles, like others, did not deter blacks from pressing for the Revolution’s goals of freedom and equality. Determined and patient, they would hardly have heeded. J. R. Pole’s observations that “revolutions by the nature of the historical process are always incomplete” and that a revolution tends to raise hopes that it cannot satisfy.” 43 Blacks of the Revolutionary War era would have been more receptive to the contention of jurist Benjamin N. Cardozo that a principle has a tendency “to expand itself to the limit of its logic.”44 For them the war and the freedom concepts it sprouted bore their own seeds of regeneration.
In time, the Revolutionary War can be termed a black Declaration of Independence in the sense it spurred black Americans to seek freedom and equality. The Afro-Americans of that era stood wholeheartedly among those who viewed the war as an ongoing revolution in freedom’s cause. To a degree approaching unanimity, they clothed the War for Independence with a meaning and a significance transcending their own day and time and not confined to the shores of the new republic. To them the full worth of the American Revolution lay ahead.
FOR FURTHER READING
George S. Brookes, Friend Anthony Benezet (Philadelphia, 1937)
Daniel K. Richter, “‘It Is God Who Has Caused Them To Be Servants’: Cotton Mather and Afro-American Slavery in New England,” Bulletin of the Congregational Library 15 (1979):3-13.
Laboring and Dependent Classes in Colonial America, 1607-1783 (Chicago)
The Black Expenence in Revolutionary North Carolina (Raleigh, N.C., 1977)
A History of Negro Slavery in New York (Syracuse, N.Y., 1966)
The Negro in Colonial New England (New York, 1942).
Frank J. Klingberg, An Appraisal of the Negro in Colonial
South Carolina (Washington, D.C., 1941).
Flight and Rebellion. Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (New York, 1972)
Slaves Without Masters. The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York) 1974
Miles Mark Fisher, Negro Slave Songs in the United States (Ithaca, N.Y., 1953)
Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Rise of Independent Black Churches, 1760-840 (New York, 1973)
E. Horace Fitchett, “The Traditions of the Free Negro in Charleston, South Carolina,” Journal of Negro History 25 (1940):144.
Floyd J. Miller, The Search for a Black Nationality: Black Emigration and Colonization, 1787-7863 (Urbana, IL, 1975)
Dorothy Porter, ed ., Early Negro Writing, 1760-1837 (Boston, 1971 )
Lawrence W. Towner, “‘A Fondness for Freedom’: Servant Protest in Puritan Society,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser. 19 (1962)
Oscar Wegelin, Jupiter Hammon, A Negro Poet: Selections from His Writings and a Bibliography (Miami, Fla., 1969)
Charles H. Wesley, Prince Hall: Life and Legacy (Washington, D.C., 1977)
Charles H. Wesley, Richard Allen: Apostle of Freedom (Washington, D.C., 1935).
David O. White, Connecticut’s Black Soldiers, 1775-1783 (Chester, Conn.)
- Charles Brewster, Rambles about Portsmouth: Sketches of Persons, Localities, and Incidents of Two (centuries: Principal from Tradition and Unpublished Sources (Portsmouth, N.H., 1859), p. 153.
Review 85 (1980):44-78, and idem, “The Revolution in Black Life,” in Alfred F. Young, ed., The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (DeKalb, 111., 1976), pp. 351-82.
2. On this point see Ira Berlin, “Time, Space, and the Evolution of Afro-American Society in British Mainland North America,” American Historical Review 85 (1980) :44-78, and idem, “The Revolution in Black Life,” in Alfred F. Young, ed., The American Revolution: Expo
3. The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (Princeton, 1926).
4. Jesse Lemisch, “The American Revolution Seen from the Bottom Up,” in Barton J. Bernstein, ed., Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History (New York, 1968), pp. 3—29; Young, American Revolution.
5. The Literary History of the American Revolution, 1763-1783, 2 vols. (1897; reprinted.,New York, 1957), 1:8.
6. Tremenda: The Dreadful Sound with Which the Wicked Are to Be Thunderstruck . . . (Boston, 1721), quoted in Lawrence W. Towner, “‘A Fondness for Freedom’: Servant Protest in Puritan Society,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser. I9 (1962):201. For a penetrating analysis of Mather’s views on slavery, see Daniel K. Richter, “‘It Is God Who Has Caused Them To Be Servants’: Cotton Mather and Afro-American Slavery in New England,” Bulletin of the Congregational Library 15 (1979):3-13.
7. Laboring and Dependent Classes in Colonial America, 1607-1783 (Chicago, ), p. 23.
Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York, 1974), p. I99.
9. The Black Experience in Revolutionary North Carolina (Raleigh, N.C., 1977), p. 12.
10. A History of Negro Slavery in New York (Syracuse, N.Y., 1966), p. 47.
11. The Negro in Colonial New England( New York, 1942),p. 101.
12. “Time, Space, and the Evolution of Afro-American Society,” p. 49.
13. The Private Journal of Sarah Kemble Knight: Being the Record of a Journey from Boston to New York in the Year 1704 (1825; reprint ed., Norwich, Conn., p. ~,2.
14. Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England (Boston, 1743), quoted in Eldon J. Eisenbach, “Cultural Politics and Political Thought: The American Revolution Made and Remembered,” American Studies 20 ( I 979):74
15. Frank J. Klingberg, An Appraisal of the Negro in Colonial South Carolina (Washington, D.C., 1941), pp. I l l and 1 14—15.
16. George S. Brookes, Friend Anthony Benezet (Philadelphia, 1937), p. 45.
17. Petition reproduced in Isaac W. Hammond, “Slavery in New Hampshire in Olden Time,” Granite Monthly 4 ( 1880): l o8—10.
19. “The ‘Disaffected’ in the Revolutionary South,” in Young, American Revolution, p. 281.
Y”A Spirit of Dissension. Economics, Politics, and the Revolution in Maryland (Baltimore, 1973), p. 148.
2I. John Chester Miller, The Wol~ b~ the kars Thomas Je,~Terso1z and Slaver~~ (New York, 1977), p. 26.
22. David 0. White, Connecticut’s Black Soldiers, 1775-1783 (Chester, Conn., ), pp. 54-64.
23. Petition reproduced in Roger Bruns, ed., Am I Not a Man and a Brother: The Antislavery Crusade of Revolutionary America, 1688-1788 (New York, 197),PP 454-56.
24. Flight and Rebellion. Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (N York, 1972), pp. 140-63.
25. Ibid., p. 157.
26. Oscar Wegelin, Jupiter Hammon, A Negro Poet: Selections from His Writings and a Bibliography (Miami, Fla., 1969), p. 27.
27. Slaves without Masters. The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York, 974)
28. Miles Mark Fisher, Negro Slave Songs in the United States (Ithaca, N.Y., 953), p. 40.
29. Charles H. Wesley, Richard Allen: Apostle of Freedom (Washington, D.C., 935), pp. 52-53.
30. “Segregated Sahbaths: Richald Auen and the Rise of Independent Black (.hvrche~, 760-/84o (New York, 1973), p. 9
‘~’E. Horace Fitchett, “The Traditions of the Free Negro in Charleston, South Carolina,”Journal of Negro History 25 (1940):144.
32. Floyd J. Miller, The Search for a Black Nationality: Black Emigration and Colonization, 1787-7863 (Urbana. 111., 1975), pp. 8, 16, and 34.
33. Dorothy Porter, ed., Negro Protest Pamphlets (New York, 1969), p. 23.
34. Miller, Search for a Black Nationality, pp. 7-9, and 1 5-20.
35. Charles H. Wesley,Prince Hall: Life and Legacy (Washington, D.C., 1977) , p. 124 and 142. For a facsimile of the charter from the British Grand Lodge, see p. 49. 36 “A Charge Delivered to the Brethren of the African Lodge . . .,” in Dorothy Porter, ed ., ka7-1y Negro Writing, 1 760- 1 83 7 (Boston, 1 97 1 ), p 67 .
37. Jones to Pennsylvania Abolition Society, Mar. 11, 1799, Papers of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, and for Improving the Condition of the African Race, Pennsylvania Historical Society, Philadelphia.
38. Creene, Negro in Colonial New England, p. 255.
39. Baltimore Daily Repository, Sept. 26, 1 792.
40. Indeed, down to the Civil War era blacks wielded little power as voters except for a twenty-year span, 1800-1820, when the Federalist party wooed their vote. See Dixon Ryan Fox, “The Negro Vote in Old New York” Political Science Quarte11y 32 (1917):252-75. No black would hold elective office until 18~4, when the voters of Oberlin, Ohio, chose John Mercer Langston as township clerk.40’Petition in Porter, Early Negro Writing, pp. 330—32.
42. U.S., Congress, House, Congressional Record, 6th Cong., Jan. 3, 1800, 244-45
43. The Pursuit of Equality in American History (Berkeley, Calif., 1978), p. 325
44. The Nature of the Judicial Process (New Haven, 1932), p. 51, quoted in A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process (New York, 1978), pp. 383—84.