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
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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?
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
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