American Revolution For Dummies
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The American Revolution was drenched with deep and bitter ironies, and none was deeper or more bitter than conducting a fight for personal liberties while continuing to embrace the institution of slavery. It was a contradiction of which the Founding Fathers were well aware.

“The Plant of Liberty is of so tender a nature that it cannot thrive long in the neighborhood of slavery,” warned Dr. Benjamin Rush. “Remember, the eyes of Europe are fixed upon you, to preserve an asylum for freedom in this country after the last pillars of it have fallen in every other quarter of the globe.”

The Methodist minister John Allen of Maryland was blunter: “Blush ye pretended warriors for freedom! Ye trifling Patriots . . . for while you are pleading for a restoration of your charter rights, you at the same time are continuing the lawless, cruel, inhuman and abominable practice of enslaving your fellow creatures!”

But untying the knotty problem proved beyond their abilities — or desire — to do so at the risk of dissolving the shaky bonds between the states.

A stark and telling example of the contradiction — or hypocrisy — that the issue engendered was contained in the person of Thomas Jefferson. A slaveowner, Jefferson had blasted King George in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence for waging “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery,” and for not allowing the colonies to end the slave trade.

The section was deleted, however, at the insistence of Southern states’ representatives. And two years later, as governor of Virginia, Jefferson signed a bill offering land, money, and “a healthy sound Negro” for anyone enlisting in the Virginia militia for the duration of the war. And even anti-slavery figures, such as John Adams, privately counseled that the abolition issue should be sidestepped for fear of driving Southern states out of the colonies’ shaky coalition.

Fighting for freedom on the American side

The half-million African-American slaves were well aware of what the fight raging around them was all about: Of 289 slaves and former slaves who enlisted in the Connecticut militia, 23 gave surnames of Liberty, Freeman or Freedom. In applying for a military pension years after the war, Private John Grant wrote “when I saw Liberty Poles and the people all engaged for the support of freedom, I could not but like and be pleased with such things. . . .” (He did not get his pension, Congress deeming that since he was a fugitive slave at the time, he did not merit one.)

That Grant and others like him fought at all for the American cause was a bone of contention among political and military leaders throughout the war. In July 1775, as soon as he took command, George Washington ordered an end to the enlistment of any more African Americans in the Continental Army. In November, he decided to discharge those already serving, after polling his command staff. None of them favored the idea of African Americans serving, whether slave or free. “The policy of our arming Slaves is in my opinion a moot point,” he wrote. Washington, a slaveowner himself, was troubled by news that slaves in Jamaica had staged a bloody and ultimately failed uprising, apparently inspired by news of the American fight for independence.

Even anti-slavery advocates like John Adams were leery about the idea, although for more pragmatic political reasons than the slave-owning Washington. When a trusted aide to Washington formally proposed arming 3,000 slaves in the South with the promise of freedom for fighting the British, Adams told him “Your Negro battalion will never do. South Carolina would run out of their Wits at the least Hint of such a Measure.”

Adams’ prediction was accurate. “We are much disgusted here at Congress recommending to us to arm our Slaves,” South Carolina militia commander Christopher Gadsden wrote to Sam Adams. “It was received with great resentment as a dangerous and impolitic step.”

But reality tempered the opposition to African Americans serving with the American forces. The simple fact was that the Americans needed every man they could get. By the end of 1775, Washington had rescinded his ban on African Americans from the army and left it up to local recruiters to use their best judgement in enlisting free — but not slave — African Americans. By the end of 1777, slaves were also allowed to enlist. In fact, some slaveowners facing their state’s draft sent slaves in their place.

Washington’s change of heart was spurred by another reality: The British were openly inviting slaves to join up and fight for the king — and their own freedom.

Luring slaves to the Loyalist side

The royal governor of Virginia, John Murray, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation in November 1775, offering freedom to every slave who agreed to enlist in what Dunmore called his “Ethiopian Brigade.”

As many as 800 slaves took Dunmore up on his offer, including a 35-year-old native of the African nation of Gambia. His name was Harry Washington, and he had fled from a plantation, where he worked in the stables. The plantation was called Mount Vernon. “There is not a man among them (the slaves) here but would not leave us, if they believ’d they could make their Escape,” Mount Vernon’s manager, Lund Washington, wrote to his cousin, the plantation’s owner George Washington.

Dunmore’s proclamation sent shudders throughout the South. In “tampering with the Slaves,” James Madison wrote a friend, Dunmore had hit on the Southern states’ greatest weakness, “and if we shall be subdued, we shall fall like Achilles, by the hand of one that knows the secret.”

Actually, the British had no intention of freeing slaves to any great degree. Dunmore’s proclamation applied only to the slaves of those who supported the Rebel cause. Slaves who ran away from Loyalist masters were returned to their owners. While as many as 20,000 slaves took the opportunity to flee to British “protection” during the war, relatively few found freedom.

“Tis only changing one master for another,” wrote John Cruden, a North Carolina Loyalist official who oversaw the confiscated estates of plantation owners on the American side. “Let it be clearly understood that they (slaves) are to serve the King for ever, and that those slaves who are not taken for his Majesty’s service are to remain on the plantations, and perform, as usual, the labors of the field.”

Those who were taken for “his Majesty’s service” worked as valets for British officers, dug latrines, took care of livestock, and generally performed many of the same tasks they had as slaves. Many were abandoned when the British army moved on, and many of those died of recurring smallpox epidemics or starved to death.

In the end, perhaps as many as 5,000 African Americans served in the American forces, while perhaps 20,000 served on the British side.

Fleeing to freedom

As the war ground to an end, thousands of slaves who had fled their bondage wound up in British-held New York City, including George Washington’s slave Harry. As slave owners descended on the city to claim their “property” in the summer of 1783, British clerks entered the names of 2,775 African Americans in what was called The Book of Negroes.

The slaves whose names were in the book were among, but not all of, those who had, with the aid of the British government, escaped to Canada, England, or elsewhere. Washington later ordered the book seized so that owners of slaves listed in it could petition Congress for compensation.

Harry Washington went first to Nova Scotia and then to an area in what is now the African country of Sierra Leone, established by the British as the “Province of Freedom.” About 1,200 former African American slaves settled there. As if to bring the saga full-circle, Harry Washington led a rebellion against the British over unfair taxation and was eventually banished to another section of Sierra Leone.

Despite the exodus of thousands of former slaves, America actually had more people in chains at the end of the war than at the beginning, mostly because of a high birth rate among slaves. By 1807, when Congress outlawed the importation of slaves, there were more than four million already in the United States.

The contradiction of slavery and fighting for freedom did stir some states to make halting steps toward abolition. But even laws that dealt with freeing slaves were loaded with fine print and loopholes. In Connecticut, a law abolished slavery “as soon as may be, consistent with the rights of individuals (in other words, slaveowners) and the Public Safety and Welfare.”

Another state law said the children of slaves born after March 1, 1784, would be free — when they reached the age of 25. The impact of that was as the slaves neared the age of 25, they were sold to other states. By the first federal census in the 1790, only Massachusetts reported no slaves within its borders.

“It always seemed a most iniquitous scheme to me,” mused John Adams’ wife Abigail, “to fight for ourselves for what we are robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.”

“Iniquitous” as it was, however, America would raise and then drop or sidestep the issue for decades, until another bloodier and deeper civil war was waged.

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Steve Wiegand is an award-winning political journalist and history writer. Over a 35-year career, he worked as a reporter and columnist at the San Diego Evening Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and Sacramento Bee. He is the author or coauthor of seven books dealing with various aspects of U.S. and world history.

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