Expanding the Revolution:
Slavery and the American Revolution

 E Pluribus Unum

 

 

If "All Men are Created Equal,"
What About African-Americans?

When we think of slavery in America, we are likely to conjure up an image that could work as an illustration for an edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin or perhaps that's still the source for many of our ideas of slavery. We picture field workers in tattered clothes picking cotton on a southern plantation in the middle of the 19th century. But did you know that the Spanish first introduced African slaves into the Americas because the Native Americans made unsatisfactory slaves? Did you know that the first Africans arrived in America at least a year before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock? Did you know that slavery existed throughout the colonies until after the revolution, or while slavery in England was abolished four years before the Declaration of Independence was signed? And did you know that there was a period in the Revolutionary War when enlistees were given a slave as a bonus for enlisting in the fight for "freedom"? 

 

In 1769 Americans were protesting that the British were taking away their freedom and treating them as slaves.

Meanwhile, this sale was taking place.

 


The 20th Century "Discovery" of
18th Century American Slavery

If any of these facts come as a surprise, it may be because little attention was paid to slavery in early America until recently. History treated the founders with reverence through the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century as well. However, in the second half of the twentieth century, Americans became increasingly interested in issues of rights, gender, class, and race. As part of that trend, scholars who had once focused their attention largely on elite individuals and groups expanded their interests to include work on "ordinary" and even oppressed people, and minority groups. When the story that Thomas Jefferson may have fathered children by Sally Hemings recently erupted, public interest was sparked, and countless controversies other controversies before and since have further contributed to the interest and sense of confusion.

 

 

 18TH CENTURY ADVERTISEMENTS FOR ESCAPED SLAVES
PUBLISHED IN
THE SAVANNAH GEORGIA GAZETTE

October 11, 1769

RUN AWAY from the subscriber, A NEGROE FELLOW, names GEORGE, of the Coromantee country, formerly the property of Henry Younge, Esq. is about five feet ten inches high, and about 40 years old, commonly has a long beard; he had on when he went away a green jacket; he was lately shot in the leg, and was not completely cured, is very lame; it's supposed he is harboured in or about Savannah or Skidaway island. Whoever will take him, and deliver him to the Warden of the Work-house, shall have ten shillings reward, and all reasonable charges paid by

JAMES CUTHBERT

 

 

Savannah, 10th October, 1769 and November 1, 1769

RUN AWAY from my plantation on Hutchinson's Island, opposite to Savannah, on Monday morning last, THREE NEW NEGROE MEN, of the Conga country, called, BEN, PETER, and TOM; they carried with them a canoe with three paddles, and it is supposed would go towards the sea; Ben and Peter are tall, the other a short thick fellow, with a very broad face, seemingly swelled; they had on white negroe cloth jackets and breeches, two of them double worsted milled caps, and the other a common single worsted one; Ben speaks a little English, tho' it is probable will not be able to tell his master or overseer's name. Whoever takes up the said negroes, and delivers them to me in Savannah, or at my plantation, shall be rewarded, over and above what is usually given.

JOHN GRAHAM

 

 

Savannah, 1st November, 1769  and October 25, 1769

RUN AWAY from Augusta, A MUSTEE FELLOW, named HARRY. He is middle aged, and has a halt in his walk from a rheumatick complaint he is subject to. He has carried off with him his wife, named CASSANDRA, a tall slim young black wench. The fellow is very artful and plausible, and both he and his wife are well known about Savannah, though it is supposed they may endeavor to get to the Indian nation, or to Mobile, where the wench's parents and other relations live. Whoever will apprehend them, and deliver them to me at Augusta, or to the Warden of the work-house at Savannah, shall receive 20 s. sterling reward for each, besides all reasonable charges; and if any persons harbour them they may expect to be prosecuted.

ANDREW JOHNSTON

 

 

November 22, 1769

RUN AWAY from the plantation of Capt. Thomas Savage at Great-Ogechee about three weeks ago, TWO NEGROE MEN, named CORKE and SANCHO. Corke is tall and slim, and of a dark complexion. Sancho is about six feet high, and of a yellow complexion; he ran away in the summer and was taken up at Mr. Wertsch's cowpen, 85 miles above Savannah, from whence he was sent to the Work-house in August last. They are both of the Guiney country, and had on when they went away white negroe cloth jackets and breeches and worsted caps.

Also run away last June, A NEGROE FELLOW, named DRUMMOND, of a dark complexion, likewise of the Guiney country, had on when he went away an oznabrig frock and short trowsers.

Whoever takes up the said negroes, and delivers them to me at the said plantation, or to the Warden of the Work-house in Savannah, shall receive what the law directs, besides all reasonable charges.

DAVID HUGUENIN
Parish of St. Philip

 

 

Nov. 13, 1769

NOVEMBER 22, 1769

RUN AWAY from Mr. M'Gillivray's plantation at Vale-Royal the 13th instant, THREE NEW NEGROE YOUNG MEN, and THREE YOUNG, viz. JACOB, five feet six inches high; CHARLES, five feet nine and a half inches high, of the Guiney country; TONY, five feet six inches high, of the Kishee country; their ages about 22 or 23 years: JAMINA, a stout woman, about five feet six inches high; HAGAR, a young wench, five feet five and a half inches high, has very small country marks on each side of her face; the women are of the Guiney country. The had on when they went away cloaths of white negroe cloth, milled cape, and duffil blankets. It is uncertain whether they are gone towards the salts or the back country. Whoever takes up the said negroes, or any of them, shall be handsomely rewarded, according to the trouble and distance, by

LACHLAN M'GILLIVRAY

N.B. None of them can speak English; nor tell their master's name. December 13, 1769

 

 

WENT AWAY from the Governor's plantation near Savannah the beginning of October last, THREE NEW NEGROE MEN, of the Guiney country, named PITT, POMPEY, and CARLOS: they were purchased in June last, and it's supposed cannot speak English enough to give any account of themselves, or who they belong to. It is known that they kept up between Savannah and Ogechee Rivers. They had on when they went away coarse oznabrig breeches and white negroe cloth robins. Whoever takes up said negroes, and delivers them to Richard Gambell at Savannah, or to me at the Governors Plantations at Ogeechee.

 

Using Primary Sources to Understand the Past: Slavery and Runaway Slaves in Colonial America (1769), by Bruce Fehn

 


What's at the Bottom of the Liberty Bell?

 

 

When the National Park Service officials decided to build a new pavillion to house Philadelphia's famous "Liberty Bell," they little anticipated that their plan would stir countless newspaper articles, letters to the editor, public meetings, congressional debates, and even demonstrations by hundreds of protestors. It had seemed like such a simple notion; how could anyone protest against the idea of celebrating American freedom? Yet, the problem arose from the fact that the ostensible "simple" idea of liberty turns out to be more complex in practice than in theory. The controversy began when it was discovered that the new Liberty Bell Pavillion would be built on the site of America's first executive mansion, where Washington and Adams lived during their terms as president. Ironically, however, the Liberty Bell would also mark the place in which Washington quartered the slaves who served him during his presidency. At that point, the question of whether (and how) to acknowledge the lives of Washington's slaves in a monument intended to celebrate American liberty became yet another thread in our long national conversation on how to deal with the contradiction between the founders' commitment to the principle that "all men are created equal" with our history of slavery.

 

Gilbert Stuart's "Presumed Portrait of' George Washington's Cook,"
Museo Thyssen Bornemisza, Spain

 

During his term as the first president, George Washington brought his slave, Hercules, from Mount Vernon to do the cooking. 

Pennsylvania law decreed that anyone who lived in the state for more than six months could not be held as a slave, so Washington sent Hercules back to the plantation for periods of time to guarantee that he would continue in his slave status.

Hercules found his own way of dealing with this issue, however, and escaped in 1796 as Washington was in the process of moving his household back to Mount Vernon permanently..

 

When first confronted with the evidence that Washington's slave quarters had existed on the same site as the Liberty Bell memorial, Park Officials declined to include that information on signs claiming it would "confuse" the public. In a sense, that's true. We are confused, confused about how to reconcile our respect for the leaders of the revolution and their commitment to the ideals of freedom with the knowledge that many of them were also slave owners. As Aaron Garrett wrote in his essay, "On Race and Rememberance" (published by Common-Place):

Is interest in the racism of past and hallowed philosophers and statesmen the obsession of a politically correct society gone amok? Or is it an acknowledgement of the ways in which the racist ideas of our forebears still hold sway over our present social and political concerns? Does the racism of a thinker like Thomas Jefferson irremediably infect his writings and his legacy? Must it stalk him, creeping from century to century?

It is exactly for this reason that it is important for Americans to develop an understanding of the role slavery played in the early history of our nation. In 1848, a writer for The American Whig Review rejoiced at the publication of a biographical encylopedia, explaining,

"We have need enough as a people, in the rapid fluctuations of events, to keep an eye backward, in order to preserve our identity. . . Hence it is necessary to the prosperity of a state, it might be argued, to treasure the lives of its distinguished men, as well as proper in individuals to desire to read of them." (A Review of The Library of American Biography. Jared Sparks, The American Whig Review, April 1848, p. 486 courtesy of Making of America)

Life in America certainly hasn't slowed down since 1848. We're still trying to figure out who we are as Americans and hoping to find heroes we can claim as our models. However, slavery was a part of our history before America was even an independent nation. We cannot hope to answer Crevecoeur's immortal question "Who is this new man, this American?" unless we come to terms with this important part of our history.


In the pages that follow, you will find brief introductory essays and collections of links on the following subjects:

1) What were the origins of slavery in America, and what was the status of slaves in the era of the Revolution?

2) What role did African-Americans play in American life in the era of the revolution, and what role did they play in the revolution itself?

3) How could the founders repeated protest their own "enslavement" by the British while owning slaves of their own? How could they build a nation based on the idea that "all men are created equal" and allow the continuation of slavery?

4) Were there any advocates for abolition in the colonial and early national periods? Did the debates that led to the revolution, the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and the establishment of a new government have any effect on slavery in the years after the revolution?

5) How have Americans dealt with the treatment of slaves in the early national period in later periods, and does this issue continue to have consequences today?

6) How do we make sense of our national identity, our ideals of freedom and equality, and our founders, when our history shows contradictions between our principles and practices and reveals that some of our greatest national heroes were flawed?

Exploring these questions may tempt some to become cynical and others to turn away from the topic altogether. However, it is only by facing these difficult, but important, questions that we can hope to have any understanding of the American identity, any appreciation of American freedom and equality, and any hope of making the American experiment a success.


Index to Section on Expanding the American Revolution: If "All Men Are Created Equal," What About African-Americans?

Expanding the Revolution: Race, Slavery and the American Revolution

Investigating the History of Race and Slavery in Early America: A Guide to Critical Reading

Investigating the History of Race and Slavery in Early America: What the Founders Said, Wrote About and Did About Race and Slavery

Revolutionizing the Revolution in the 19th Century: Using the Founders and Founding Documents to Fight Slavery

Expanding the Revolution: An Annotated Guide on Topics and Resources on Africans, African-Americans, Native-Americans, and Women in the Era of the Revolution

 

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The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is co-directed by Dr. John McClymer, Professor of History, Assumption College; Dr Lucia Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College; and Dr. Arnold Pulda, Director of Gifted and Talented student programs for the public schools in Worcester, MA. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.