On July 4, 1776, the thirteen British colonies issued the Declaration of Independence. The second paragraph states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” What this document did not say, although it was implied, was that all white men are created equal. This statement excluded women, Native Americans, and blacks—enslaved or freed. From 1619, when the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown to the start of the American Revolution, the peculiar institution known as chattel slavery was an important facet to the identity of America. While the Patriot’s fought against the British for their own freedom, the question of freedom for enslaved blacks was hidden just below the surface.
Whether voluntarily or forced, blacks – both free and enslaved fought during the American Revolution. While they assisted in fighting for American independence, they would not see freedom themselves for another 82 years. Several factors led to this failure, including: the failure to unanimously choose either the American side or the British, the fact that the promise of freedom was not always made in good faith, and finally the fact that for many Americans, slavery was a necessary institution to secure economic success.
Several historians have discussed the role that blacks played during the American Revolution. Historian Ira Berlin, in his work Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, argues that once the American Revolution began blacks “would be quick to take advantage…” What this statement fails to mention is in what manner would blacks act.
In an article entitled, “Black Soldiers in the Revolutionary War,” Elizabeth M. Collins argues that the British, understanding the feelings the Patriots had against enlisting freed or enslaved blacks, offered freedom to any blacks that were willing to serve the British. This of course was against what Patriots—specifically slave holders and supporters of slavery wanted to do. The last thing they wanted was to arm and train blacks.
In 1776, David McCullough discusses how George Washington initially did not want blacks serving and would ban blacks from the army. He would, however, change his mind in the future. This was based on the lack of willing and able white men to fight and Britain’s promise of freedom to slaves who joined the loyalist cause. David McCullough, while thoroughly discussing the American Revolution, fails to dedicate more than just a few sentences to the blacks that served for either side.
Almost as early as the establishment of the British colonies in America, chattel slavery was established as an integral part of the social and economic culture of the colonies. The first record of African slaves arriving in the colonies dates back to 1619. According to Ira Berlin, “They numbered large among the “twenty Negars” a Dutch man-o’-war sold to John Rolfe at Jamestown in 1619. While slavery has existed in the world for centuries before the arrival of these twenty Africans at Jamestown, there was something slightly different about the form of slavery that would develop and flourish in America.
First, those that found themselves kidnapped from Africa, then forced to endure the Middle Passage, and subsequently sold into slavery in the Americas were chattel slaves. Chattel slavery is unique because chattel slaves are slaves for life and their status as a slave is passed on to their children and future generations beyond that. Over the course of history other forms of slavery were not necessarily for life or hereditary.
Second, in order to continue to perpetuate the belief that Africans were meant to be enslaved, the concept of race was born. Race, according to Ira Berlin, is socially and historically constructed. Those involved in the slave trade, whether captors, sellers, or buyers, decided that what made Africans slave material was the darkness of their skin. No other form of slavery in the history of slavery was based on the color of one’s skin.
Africans did enslave other Africans, but it was usually because of a war that was fought between different African tribes or kingdoms, and those slaves, for the most part, could earn their freedom, or they were only enslaved for a certain period of time. Africans also “sold” other Africans into the slave trade, but it was for the same reasons, or in exchange for European goods like weapons, textiles, and alcohol.
In the years before the American Revolution, many of the inhabitants of the Chesapeake region, including Virginia and Maryland, began growing tobacco. They used slave labor on the tobacco plantations and rather quickly found economic success. As the southern colonies developed, they also used slave labor. However, it was not tobacco that they were growing on their plantations, but indigo and rice. Cotton was grown, but the south did not become known as King Cotton until the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1794.
While the British colonies continued to develop in North America, Britain found itself embroiled in conflict with France. Both European powers were focused on expanding its colonial holdings in North America. This led to a war between France and Britain. In America this war is known as the French and Indian War, as the Native Americans were allies to the French. This war lasted seven years, from 1754-1763. While Britain had some tremendous gains in terms of land in North America as a result of the war, it was left with a crippling debt. One that they would try to resolve, with the seemingly unwilling participation of their American colonies.
Following years of what the colonists felt was oppression by the British Crown and Parliament, they found themselves on the eve of war. One of the first official casualties of the American Revolution occurred five years before the start of the war in March of 1770. Crispus Attucks, while not much is known about him, appears to have been a possible runaway slave, who made his way to Boston and was at the front of the confrontation in which a mob of angry Patriots threatened British soldiers with violence. He was killed, along with four others. According to Mitch Kachun, “Attucks has come to signify African American patriotism, military service, sacrifice, and citizenship – he has become a black founder.” The death of Attucks and his involvement in the Boston Massacre show that blacks were willing to participate in and risk their lives for the Patriot cause. However, what his death does not explain, is how and why did blacks choose to participate in the Revolutionary War. What exactly was in it for them, in a land where the majority of blacks were enslaved and where slavery was an acceptable institution whether one was on the side of the Patriots or the Loyalists?
Just as the colonists sought their independence from the “slavery” they found themselves in with the British crown as their masters, black slaves realized that the language being used by the Patriots, had meaning for them as well. “By using revolutionary language, the black freedom petitions written by organized groups of slaves in the New England colonies during the 1770s imbued their demand for freedom with immediacy.” However, not many Patriots were concerned with, interested in, or even considering the American Revolution as a platform to discuss the abolishment of slavery in the colonies.
This fact did not dissuade the enslaved and the free black populations from taking their chances at freedom. However, there was no collective agreement on which side they would fight for. Furthermore, several factors influenced their overall involvement in the war. First and foremost, as slaves, blacks did not have the ability to just make decisions for themselves. Their decisions were either made for them by their masters, or if they decided to take matters into their own hands, their decisions were made with the understanding that there was no guarantee of freedom and the chances of being brought back to their masters or being killed, were extremely high.
One of the first decisions George Washington made upon becoming commander of the Continental Army was decreeing that “no black, free or enslaved, could be recruited to fight.” It is not a surprise that Washington would not want blacks to fight in the Revolution. First, as a slaveholder himself, Washington understood the implications of having blacks join the military. This could hurt slaveholders economically. They believed that it could also raise the chances of slave uprisings and insurrections. While almost four decades had passed since the Stono Rebellion of 1739, the fear of slave revolts was still fresh in the minds of slaveowners.
However, on the side of the British, Lord Dunmore would make a decision that would influence George Washington’s decision to reverse his previous stance and to allow blacks to serve in the Continental Army. On November 7, 1775 John Earl of Dunmore proclaimed, “…I do hereby further declare all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining his Majesty’s Troops…” Although the Patriots were not allowing blacks to serve, Lord Dunmore’s proclamation opened the door to the possibility of slaves securing their freedom. They only needed to make it to the British lines.
Many slaves took their chances and made it to the British regiment. This was possibly a relatively easy decision for those that had freedom in mind. Lord Dunmore’s proclamation predictably frightened the colonists. Virginians took actions to prevent slaves from making it to Dunmore. They also published articles and the speech in newspapers. In a strange attempt to frighten the slaves from running away to join the British, an article was published in a newspaper directed to the enslaved. According to Benjamin Quarles, “In Alexander Purdie’s Virginia Gazette was published a letter from a subscriber urging that Negroes be cautioned against joining Dunmore.” They also stated that if the British were to lose the war, then any former slaves would be sold back into slavery.
Considering the lack of freedom and the lack of the ability to communicate or spread communications to the entire enslaved population of the colonies, it was nearly impossible to expect the enslaved to be able to come together and decide which side they should join. Had the slaves had some method of coming together and making a decision together to join one side or the other, their chances of freedom may have been greater. As it stood, though, they had to make their decisions based on a number of factors.
First, if they were to run to join the British, would they have made it? How could they be sure that upon serving their time, the British would keep their word and emancipate them? Furthermore, if the British were to lose, what would that mean for their promise of freedom? Joining the British cause was a risky venture, however, it was no more risky than deciding to stay behind and fight for the Patriots.
If the Patriot’s won, would that mean that freedom for the enslaved population was drawing near? Many enslaved believed that after securing their freedom from the British, Americans would be more inclined to emancipate the enslaved population based on the same arguments they used for themselves. Also, the chance of being able to stay with their families was greater. However, the more likely scenario would be that slaveholders would not be willing to part with their property even after they secured their own freedom. Slavery was an economically successful institution and many wealthy colonists had found their fortune on the backs of the enslaved population.
According to Ira Berlin, as slaveholders split “…into Patriot and Loyalist factions…slaves played master against master to their own advantage, eventually inducing commanders of both armies to offer freedom in exchange for military service.” While this did not work for everyone, it did secure freedom for a small number of slaves, but for many more promises of freedom were not honored and thus many slaves who had hopes for freedom found themselves back in chains, both literally and figuratively.
Slaves who did fight, on either side, often did so in place of their masters. For many of these slaves, there was no promise of freedom. Fighting in the war was just another order from their masters that they had to obey. Based on the fact that the British, early on, sought out enslaved blacks from the Patriot side to fight for them, a larger number of African Americans fought for the British, than they did for the Patriots.
Whether they fought for the British or the Patriots, blacks served both in many capacities. Some were on the front lines, fighting next to their white counterparts. Others served as, “laborers…spies, messengers, or guides.” These roles proved to be tremendously helpful to both sides. With the war drawing to a close, it was even more apparent that the American Revolution was not going to mean freedom for all enslaved persons.
While many slaves had secured their freedom by fighting on either the side of the Loyalists or the side of the Patriots, following the end of the war, blacks were left disappointed with the results of the American Revolution and what it meant for them. Some blacks that had fought for the Patriots, with the promise of freedom, were returned back to their masters. In Virginia, “Since only free men could enlist in the state forces, some masters had entered slaves as their substitutes…privately promising them their freedom, but when the term of enlistment expired, they tried to repossess their former chattels.”
Following the end of the war, many things changed for blacks in America and many things stayed the same. There was no mass emancipation for those that remained enslaved in the new United States. However, there were many states that decided, following the American Revolution, that based on the same ideals and principals that were used to argue for American independence, that blacks should not remain in bondage. As a matter of fact, Pennsylvania abolished slavery almost three years before the end of the American Revolution. Over the course of the next several years, many more northern states would follow suit.
The Articles of Confederation was ratified by all 13 colonies in 1781. This first constitution “created a loose confederation of sovereign states and a weak central government, leaving most of the power with the state governments.” It would not take very long for the states to realize that not having a strong central government was not going to work. In the course of developing the Constitution, however, one of the most divisive topics came to the forefront. What was to be done about the institution of slavery? This was an opportunity to create a nation in which there was no slavery.
Of course, that is not what occurred. Many founders were slaveholders themselves, and thus were strongly opposed to ending chattel slavery. Those founders who were not slaveholders, believed two things. First, they believed that slavery would eventually end on its own. It was just the natural course. Second, they believed that creating a strong union was more important than dividing the new nation over the abolishment of slavery. So not only was slavery not abolished, but the founders were careful to not use any language in the Constitution in regards to the equality of all men, so that slaves could not use that as a basis to try to fight for their own freedom.
What, then, became of the enslaved population who achieved freedom by fighting for the British? Many of them left America and headed to Nova Scotia. Author Lawrence Hill wrote a historical fiction novel called The Book of Negroes. It tells the story of an African girl kidnapped and forced on the Middle Passage. She ended up in South Carolina and when her owner moved her to New York, she escaped and served the British. Following the end of the war, because she could read and write, she was tasked with creating a register of all the freed blacks that were given passage to Nova Scotia. This register was called the Book of Negroes. While, Hill’s story is fiction, the register of blacks that left for Nova Scotia is real, as is the exodus of free black Loyalists from America to Nova Scotia.
Life for blacks in Nova Scotia was extremely difficult. They were not given all of the provisions they were promised, and they were not accepted as equals by the whites that lived there. Many of them eventually requested to be given the land in Africa they were promised. Many of them left Nova Scotia and headed to Sierra Leone “a colony established for former slaves on the west coast of Africa by English abolitionists.”
Meanwhile in the United States, while most northern states abolished slavery, the southern states were working hard to maintain their southern way of life, which depended greatly upon the institution of slavery. For those slaves that had hoped for freedom as a result of the American revolution, the dream of emancipation during their lifetime faded rapidly. Supporters of slavery took several steps to solidify the institution’s place including more restrictions for enslaved people and ensuring that the legality of slavery remained a choice that each state had to make, and not a choice that the federal government was left to make.
In the years leading up to the American Revolution, many blacks believed that there was a possibility that when the Patriot’s began arguing for what they considered fair treatment, inclusion in the British Parliament, and arguing against taxation without representation, that it also meant that they would be able to argue for those same things and gain their freedom. At the start of the war, when the British began offering freedom to those enslaved persons that fought for the British, they believed even more that freedom was a possibility.
Once the Patriot’s began offering freedom for those that enlisted in the Continental Army, it was another misleading sign that freedom was a possibility for the enslaved population. Americans were still too dependent upon the institution of slavery to consider abolishment of the entire practice. Furthermore, those slaveowners that offered freedom to their slaves for their service, often retracted their offer once the slaves contract was over or at the end of the war they attempted to re-enslave their property.
It seems that those that chose the side of the British had much more success at securing their freedom than those that decided to fight for the Patriots. Even at the end of the war, many of the British that offered freedom to those that served, tried to ensure that they kept their promises. This, of course, was not always the case. Some of the British either sold blacks back into slavery, or the kidnapped them for themselves.
In many cases, there was no opportunity to decide to fight for one side or the other. As many slaves fought in the American Revolution or served in some other capacity, many more did not participate at all. If those slaves lived in the north, they were much closer to freedom than those slaves that lived in the South. The South would spend the next 82 years attempting to not only keep slavery alive, but to spread it to newly acquired territories in the west.
Ultimately, the enslaved and the freedmen were unable to secure freedom for the whole enslaved population during the American Revolution. However, they were not entirely to blame. There were many circumstances, including slavery itself, that prevented them from being able to move the country towards abolishment of the institution of slavery. Even as freedmen, blacks were in no position to try to force the abolishment of slavery.
Although the British were closer to outlawing the practice of slavery, their loss in the American Revolution only leaves a question as to what would have happened to the practice in the colonies had they won the war. It is known from the actions taken following the war in establishing the Constitution that there was never any real intent to ban slavery from the United States.
While the American Revolution did not bring an end to slavery, it gave the enslaved a blueprint for the coming abolitionist movement leading up to the Civil War. Blacks were able to help secure independence for the United States and although they did not see freedom until after the Civil War ended in 1865, they believed it was right around the corner.
 “The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription,” National Archives, accessed May 7, 2018, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.
 Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in America (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998), 140-141.
 Elizabeth M. Collins, “Black Soldiers in the Revolutionary War,” U.S. Army, last modified February 27, 2018, accessed April 23, 2018, https://www.army.mil/article/97705/black_soldiers_in_the_revolutionary_war.
 David McCullough, 1776 (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2005), accessed May 10, 2018, https://eholgersson.files.wordpress.com/2017/09/1776-david-mccullough.pdf.
 Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in America (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998), 29.
 Mitch Kachun, “From Forgotten Founder to Indispensable Icon: Crispus Attucks, Black Citizenship, and Collective Memory, 1770-1865,” Journal of the Early Republic 29, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 249, accessed May 20, 2018, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/1270365853?accountid=8289.
 Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 42.
 Elisabeth Goodridge, “For Blacks, There Was No Clear Choice,” U.S. News and World Report (June 27, 2008), accessed May 21, 2018, https://www.usnews.com/news/national/articles/2008/06/27/for-blacks-there-was-no-clear-choice.
 Lord Dunmore, “A Proclamation,” Virginia, November 1775, accessed May 21, 2018, http://edu.lva.virginia.gov/docs/DunmoresProclamation.pdf.
 Benjamin Quarles, “Lord Dunmore as Liberator,” The William and Mary Quarterly 15, no. 4 (October 1958), 499, accessed May 22, 2018, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2936904.
 Ira Berlin, The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations (London: Penguin Books, 2011), 89.
 “The Revolutionary War,” PBS.org, accessed May 23, 2018, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2narr4.html.
 Benjamin Quarles and Thad W. Tate, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 94, accessed May 27, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.
 Ibid., 183.
 “The Articles of Confederation,” Library of Congress, accessed May 27, 2018, http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/articles.html.
 Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in America (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998), 304.