Paul R. Ehrlich
Hope on Earth
My declaration that I would arm and set free such slaves as should assist me if I was attacked has stirred up fears in them which cannot easily subside as they know how vulnerable they are in that particular, and therefore they have cause in this complaint of which their others are totally unsupported.
— Lord Dunmore to the Earl of Dartmouth, June 1775
As Aristotle once said of the helots in Sparta, slaves were “lurking in ambush” for their American masters in the early eighteenth century. On September 9, 1739, launching what became known as the Stono Rebellion, blacks in South Carolina marched along the Stono River with banners that proclaimed “Liberty!” Led by “Jemmy,” they killed the two owners of a gun shop and armed themselves. By evening, they numbered nearly one hundred. The rebels killed twenty-five whites before Lieutenant Governor William Bull rallied the better-armed whites to kill half of the blacks and eventually to arrest the others. Similar uprisings in Manhattan in 1712, where the black slave population rivaled that of free whites, and in Maryland in 1740, where authorities suppressed a plot to seize Annapolis, reveal an ongoing black resistance to bondage.
But legends of revolt terrified whites as much as real violence, and even accounts of actual acts of rebellion reveal as much or more about white anxieties concerning the possibility of slave revolts as they do about the black resistance to slavery itself. In 1741, for example, ten fires broke out in New York, and Cuffee, a black man, was seen running from one. Powerful New Yorkers, particularly Daniel Horsmanden, a judge and member of the governor’s executive council, suspected a conspiracy. They charged and hanged a group that included both blacks and poor whites, some of whom had congregated at John Hughson’s tavern. Curiously, all other “legal” records have perished; only Horsmanden’s account of the trials survives.
After some confessed, under torture, the authorities charged a wider circle, and in prison some of the accused heard that naming others was the only way to avoid hanging. They later recanted. The evidence for the revolt was thus dubious, but Horsmanden argued that torture ascertained “the appearance of truth”—that is, what the torturer already knew—despite blacks’ “great deal of craft,” “unintelligible jargon,” “broken hints,” and the assumption that “it will be chiefly found in the examinations and confessions of negroes” that they “are seldom found to hold twice in the same story.” Nearly one hundred executions stemmed from Horsmanden’s suspicions. But ostensible colonial justice paid little attention to the rule of law.
Even for a white “Englishman,” if poor, there was no habeas corpus. For instance, the Hughsons, who owned the tavern, Mary Kerry, and other poor whites were swept up in the hysteria and hanged. In 1737 Hughson had organized gatherings parodying the secretive stuffiness of well-to-do Masons, which also appear to have been taken for “a conspiracy.” In confessing a desire to burn “white New York,” some poor whites identified with blacks.
Working-class taverns or “grog-shops,” with their joining of black and white artisan republicanism, indeed would continue to play a significant role in egalitarian agitation through Gabriel’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1800. But the reason that the prosecution of the “conspiracy” of 1741 was carried out in the racist terms that characterize Horsmanden’s discourse was that the events occurred against a background of fear about the possibility of impending black slave revolts and rebellion.
As historian Jill Lepore notes, as early as the 1730s, “from the depths of cargo holds, Caribbean slaves sold in New York brought stories of [West Indian] uprisings with them.… Dozens of black Caribbeans traveled to New York in ships owned by New York merchants whose slaves would be accused of conspiracy in 1741.… In all 39 of the black New Yorkers accused in 1741 were owned by men who directly participated in the Caribbean slave trade.”
In 1702 New York had passed the most draconian legislation against slaves in the British Empire: “The body of legislation that constituted New York’s ‘Negro Law’ is a brutal testament to the difficulty of enslaving human beings, especially in cities. New York’s slave codes were almost entirely concerned with curtailing the ability of enslaved people to move at will, and to gather for fear that they might decide, especially when drunk, that slavery was not to be borne and one way to end it would be to burn the city down.” New York’s “Act for Regulating Slaves” called for castrating black men accused of raping or “fornicating with” white women.
In 1712, in response to the uprising of that year, New York had carried out a wave of executions: authorities arrested seventy slaves and four free blacks, tried forty-three, convicted twenty-five, hanged twenty, and burned three at the stake. In a June 23 letter to the Lords of Trade in London, a frightened Governor Robert Hunter recounted: “In that court were twenty seven condemned, whereof twenty one were executed, one being a woman with child, her execution by that means suspended. Some were burnt, others hanged, one broke on the wheel, and one hung alive in chains in the town, so that there has been the most exemplary punishment inflicted that could be possibly thought of.” Pointing to the small number of executions following Caribbean revolts, he reported to the lords: “I am informed that in the West Indies where their laws against their slaves are most severe, that in case of a conspiracy in which many are engaged a few only are executed for an example.”
Like the accounts of Caribbean slave revolts in New York, the accounts of events such as the Stono Rebellion and the New York revolts of 1712 and 1741 rippled through the colonies, and like them, they propagated further fears and anxieties. During the American Revolution, a Hessian captain, Johann Hinrichs, wrote fearfully of the Stono Rebellion, but got the date wrong by three years: “In the month of August, 1736, each was told whom he was to kill” by some mysterious other. Males were to be slain, women used “to gratify [the rebels’] desires,” children to be “sacrifices.” And naming his fears, on April 11, 1756, James Glen, the royal governor of South Carolina, warned of “dangerous Enemies, [our] own Negroes, who are ready to revolt on the first Opportunity, and are Eight times as many in Number as there are white Men able to bear Arms.” Assemblyman Henry Laurens of South Carolina, of whose son John we will hear much in the chapters that follow, feared “domestic broils … more awful and more distressing than Fire, Pestilence, or Foreign Wars.”
The anxiety about the possibility of slave rebellions thus formed a common bond among many white settlers in both the North and the South. In 1733 Andrew Bradford, editor of Philadelphia’s American Weekly Mercury, warned of a slave rebellion by recalling the “villainous attempt” in New York in 1712, which, but for the local garrison, might have “reduced [the Town] to Ashes … the greatest part of the Inhabitants murdered.” The editor also invoked a recent “massacre on the Island of St. Johns” in the Caribbean. In language that Loyalist strategist Joseph Galloway would echo in 1775, Bradford alerted “communities not to be too careless of their Safety, with respect to those intestine and inhuman Enemies who are in some Colonies but too much indulged, and by some particular Persons rather encouraged in their Vices, than put under a due and necessary Subjection.”
Anxieties about the threat of slave revolts also merged with the threats posed by other others: “So soon as the Season was advanced that they could lay in the Woods, one certain Night was agreed on, that every Negro and Negress in every Family was to rise at Midnight, cut the Throats of their Masters and Sons, but not meddle with the Women, whom they intended to plunder and ravish the Day following, and then set all their Houses and Barns on Fiore [sic], kill the draught Horses, and secure the best Saddle Horses for their flight immediately towards the Indians in the French Interest.” Similar fears of black–Native American unity haunted elites in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
In 1739, as well as during the French and Indian War of 1755, Maryland owners also feared insurrections of blacks in alliance with Catholics transferred by the Crown from Canada. In Maryland the slave and servant population, added to the despised Catholics, nearly equaled free Protestant whites. In 1755 Maryland jailed William Stratton, a white “servant,” and “two slaves” for poisoning Jeremiah Chase, a member of the House of Delegates. Because slaves were considered less than human, their names went unreported. Governor Horatio Sharp put the militia on alert.
As a restless, ever-present “enemy,” the “witches,” Loyalist Quakers, and “Papists” threatened narrow, Protestant communities in the South. Thus, the Maryland House of Delegates denounced Governor Sharp for encouraging “Popery” because “the constant and unwearied Application of the Jesuits to proselyte, and consequently to corrupt and alienate, the Affections of our Slaves from us, and to hold them in Readiness to arm at a proper Time for our Destruction, together with every Consideration of Danger from a powerful Foreign Enemy, are circumstances truly Alarming.”
White fears were strengthened by slave revolts that continued throughout the Atlantic colonies in the latter half of the eighteenth century, especially in the Caribbean. In 1760 Tacky’s Rebellion burst out in Jamaica. Named for an enslaved Coromantee chief from Africa who gathered fellow Coromantee bondsmen, the rebellion started in St. Mary’s Parish on Easter Monday. According to Edward Long, the sugar planter and historian, this uprising was “more formidable than any hitherto known in the West Indies.” In April, blacks burned the cane fields. As a symbol of allegiance with a revolt that would dominate Jamaica for several months, slaves shaved their heads. Freedom fighters killed sixty soldiers. The British army shot three hundred to four hundred blacks. Some took their own lives rather than submit. Rebellions occurred in Bermuda (1761), Dutch Guyana (1762, 1763, and 1772), Jamaica (1765, 1766, and 1776), British Honduras (1765, 1768, and 1773), Grenada (1765), Montserrat (1768), St. Vincent (1769–73), Tobago (1770, 1771, and 1774), and St. Croix and St. Thomas (1770 and after).
Faced with the reports of past black revolts and the possibility of future slave rebellions, “only the blind could be free from fear,” the historian Winthrop Jordan notes—“a chilling fear which even the rhythmic tedium of daily life could never entirely smother.” But as the tensions between the American colonies and the metropolitan British government grew in the years before the American Revolution, the fears of slave revolts that gripped the white colonists and slaveholders in the British colonies in America were exacerbated by the unmistakable movement on the part of the British government toward the abolition of slavery. That movement did not come to fruition in the British Empire until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the abolition of slavery itself in 1833. Its early manifestations, however, appeared at the same time that the tensions between the colonies and the metropolis were coming to a head, and indeed, for some white colonists, the specter of abolition seemed to be among the many impositions on the colonies, North and South alike, that the movement for freedom and independence sought to redress. Thus, the issues of emancipation and independence—the movement for the emancipation of the slaves held across the British Empire and the movement for independence from it in the thirteen North American colonies—were inextricably linked.
Emancipation and Independence
What exacerbated the fears of white colonists instead appeared to the slaves of the American colonies a source of hope. Fears of the consequences that an imperial policy of freeing the slaves might hold helped motivate many white colonists to join the Patriot cause as the Revolution unfolded. At the same time, hope that the British were recognizing the inhumanity and immorality of slavery and were willing to contemplate freeing the slaves motivated many black slaves to side with the Loyalist cause.
As it did for many Patriots, for whom the king, in accord with a long political tradition, literally embodied the nation, for black slaves in the American colonies, hope for redress of their condition sometimes centered on belief in a “good king” misled by nefarious ministers of state. According to Bradford, “Hall’s Negro,” supposedly drunk, had told a white man named Rennalds that “the Englishmen were in generall a pack of Villains, and that they kept the Negroes as Slaves contrary to a positive Order from King George, sent to the Governor of New-York, to let them all free, which the said Governor did intend to do, but was prevented by his C . . . [word abridged in text: Council] and A … [Army], and that was the Reason there subsisted now so great a difference between the Governor and the People of both Provinces.” And in 1774 in St. Bartholomew’s County, South Carolina, a black man known only as George foretold that a good king would free the slaves.
Ironically, in the rhetoric of the Old Whigs that framed the discourses of the American Revolution, what the Patriots were claiming in a just war for independence fought to achieve their own rights as free men and women was freedom from “slavery.” What black American slaves who embraced the Loyalist cause were claiming was the same thing—not as a hyperbolic term for the effects of taxation without representation or mercantilist economics, but as freedom from being treated as mere chattels and property. In this context the words “independence” or “sovereignty” took on a resonance among southern Patriots not of “no taxation without representation” but of the preservation of bondage from the threat of emancipation. As the British abolitionist Granville Sharp pointed out in an acute way to the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, “American liberty cannot be firmly established without some scheme of general Enfranchisement” because “the toleration of domestic slavery in the colonies greatly weakens the claim of natural Right of our American Brethren to Liberty.” Sharp added: “Let [the Americans] put away the accursed thing (that horrid Oppression) from among them, before they presume to implore the imposition of divine Justice.” But among many white Patriots, the cry “liberty” in Patrick Henry’s famous phrase “Give me Liberty or give me Death!” became a perverse call for the “freedom” to hold others as slaves.
Thus, two revolutions were actually under way in the 1770s and 1780s in Britain’s American colonies, and the victory achieved in one with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 both delayed and made imperative victory in the second, a victory not achieved until fourscore years later. The struggle for the independence of the American colonies from Great Britain stood in a complex relationship with the struggle for the emancipation of the black slaves in those colonies. The prospect of an emancipation promised by the colonial British administration was actually one of the factors that drove the white slave-owning colonists toward rebellion and independence. At the same time, both the pragmatic tactical advantages of employing freed slaves in the struggle for freedom and the logic of a revolt against a colonial administration perceived as attempting to “enslave” free Englishmen and to deprive them of their fundamental human rights helped move the Patriots toward a recognition of the contradictions in their own thought and behavior and the eventual necessity of a further revolution in which emancipation, not just independence, would be the result.
Somersett, The Dunmore Proclamation, and The Prospect of Freedom
As the American Revolution approached, the hopes of black American slaves were raised by William Murray, chief justice of Britain and the first Earl of Mansfield. His 1772 decision in R v Knowles, ex parte Somersett, held slavery to be illegal in Great Britain, although not elsewhere in the British Empire, declaring that “the state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of now being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”
The origins of the case lay in the late 1760s, when Charles Stewart, a slave owner, returned to London from a job as paymaster in Boston. He brought with him James Somersett. Two years later, Somersett escaped. Captain John Knowles recaptured Somersett, imprisoned him on the slave ship Ann and Mary bound for Jamaica, and attempted to sell him. Making a test case of bondage, Granville Sharp, one of the first and fiercest English campaigners for abolition and a great democratic theorist, sued on Somersett’s behalf. On June 22, 1772, Lord Mansfield emancipated Somersett.
No British law, Mansfield argued, sanctioned “so high an act of do minion”—the seizure of Somersett by Knowles on English soil. The opinion also did not return Somersett to Stewart. Thus, the verdict appeared to mean that Justice Mansfield granted the freedom of blacks in Britain— James Somersett had made himself free there.
Yet imperial rulings about slavery were characteristically a patchwork. This decision could have had only a narrow legal scope. Mansfield certainly did not manumit all blacks in the British Isles. As Benjamin Franklin, a visitor in London, put it acidly, “Pharisaical Britain! To pride thyself in setting free a single slave that happens to land on thy coasts, while thy merchants in all thy ports are encouraged by thy laws to continue a commerce whereby so many hundreds of thousands are dragged into a slavery that can scarce be said to end with their lives since it is entailed on their posterity!” In other such cases, Mansfield’s rulings reject cruelty, but do not abolish bondage. Even in the report of the Somersett case, Mansfield hesitated: “The setting of 14,000 or 15,000 men at once loose by a solemn opinion is very disagreeable in the effects it threatens.” Despite his triumph in Somersett, Granville Sharp rightly indicted the chief justice’s willingness to prefer “pecuniary or sordid property, as that of a master in a horse or a dog, to inestimable liberty.”
But the Somersett verdict brought hope to blacks. On June 27, 1772, the Public Advertizer, a London newspaper, noted, “On Monday near two hundred blacks with their ladies had an entertainment at a public-house in Westminster, to celebrate the triumph which their brother Somerset [sic] had obtained over Mr. Stuart, his master. Lord Mansfield’s health was echoed round the room; and the evening was concluded with a ball.” Most ordinary people interpreted the Somersett decision to emancipate all slaves on English soil.
Blacks then made their way to freedom in London. Often, even the masters shared their belief about Somersett or could not stop them. On July 10, 1772, John Riddell of Bristol Wells angrily wrote to Charles Stewart, “I am disappointed by Mr. Dublin who has run away. He told the servants that he had rec’d a letter from his Uncle Sommerset [sic] acquainting him that Lord Mansfield had given them their freedom & he was determined to leave me as soon as I returned from London which he did without even speaking to me. I don’t find that he has gone off with anything of mine. Only carried off all his own cloths which I don’t know that he had any right so to do. I believe that I shall not give my self any trouble to look after this ungrateful villain.” In America, twenty-one newspapers published forty-three stories about the Somersett decision. For slave owners, that verdict sounded a death knell. They could no longer bring their property to the “Mother Country” because it was illegitimate.
In the black underground, word of Somersett spread like lightning. In 1773, for instance, an advertisement warned that a “runaway” couple had fled for Britain, “where they imagine they will be free (a Notion now too prevalent among Negroes, greatly to the vexation and prejudice of their masters).” A different advertisement related the story of Bacchus: “About 30 Years of Age, five feet six or seven inches high, strong and well made. . . . He was seen a few Days before he went off with a Purse of Dollars, and had just before changed a five Pound Bill; Most, or all of which, I suppose he must have robbed me of, which he might easily have done, I having trusted him much after what I thought had proved his Fidelity He will probably endeavour to pass for a Freeman by the Name of John Christian and attempt to get on Board some Vessel bound for Great Britain, from the Knowledge he has of the late Determination of Somerset’s [sic] Case. Whoever takes up the said Slave shall have 5 £ Reward, on his Delivery to Gabriel Jones.”
Among blacks kept illiterate by their masters and without access to judicial documents, the public meaning of the decision alone held sway, and they acted on what they had learned, asking to be emancipated by the British authorities. Between 1773 and 1777, three groups of Boston blacks petitioned for freedom to Massachusetts royal governor Thomas Gage and later to the revolutionary authorities. They appealed to natural rights, as would the Declaration of Independence. In 1777 “a Great Number of Blackes” wrote to the Massachusetts legislature or General Court, denouncing the owners’ hypocritical Christianity: “Your Petitioners apprehend that they have in Common with all other men a Natural and Unaliable [sic] Right to the freedom which the Grat Parent of the Unavers hath Bestowed equalley on all menkind and which they have Never forfeited by any Compact or agreement whatever.” In 1774, if the royal governor would emancipate them, according to a third petition, another “grat Number of blacks” volunteered to fight for the British under General Gage.
Anticipating the arrival of English troops in November 1774, Virginia slaves planned an insurrection. Colonists, however, got wind of the rebellion. In a November 1776 letter to Philadelphia editor William Bradford, James Madison urged hiding the truth that it was the British who seemed to colonial slaves to be the defenders of liberty: “If america and Britain should come to an hostile rupture I am afraid an Insurrection among the slaves may and will be promoted. In one of our Countries lately a few of those unhappy wretches met together and chose a leader who was to conduct them when the English Troops should arrive—which they foolishly thought would be very soon and that by revolting to them they should be rewarded with their freedom Their Intentions were soon discovered and proper precautions taken to prevent the Infection. It is prudent such things should be concealed as well as suppressed.”
Madison was the one being foolish here. On November 7, 1775, in a proclamation that would echo though the colonies, John Murray, the fourth Earl of Dunmore and the royal governor of the colony of Virginia, would indeed offer slaves their freedom:
I do require every Person capable of bearing Arms, to [resort] to His majesty’s standard, or be looked upon as Traitors to His majesty’s Crown and Government, and thereby become liable to the Penalty the Law inflicts upon such Offences; such as forfeiture of Life, confi scation of Lands, &c. &c. And 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 as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper Sense of their Duty, to His majesty’s Liege Subjects, to retain their Quitrents, or any other Taxes due or that may become due, in their own Custody, till such Time as Peace may be again restored to this at present most unhappy Country, or demanded of them for their former salutary Purposes, by Officers properly authorised to receive the same.
The Dunmore Proclamation was a response to a particular situation in Virginia, as we will see, but the strategy that it exemplified and the rise of abolitionist sentiment in the mother country made what had seemed unthinkable as an official policy of the British administration in London— emancipation throughout the empire—suddenly the subject of speculation in the American colonies. Replying to Madison on January 4, 1777, Bradford recognized Parliament’s instigation of slave revolt: “Your fear with regard to an insurrection being excited among the slaves seems too wellfounded.” According to Bradford, “A letter from a Gentleman in England was read yesterday in the Coffee-house, which mentioned the design of [the] administration to pass an act (in case of rupture) declaring all Slaves & Servants free that would take arms against the Americans. By this, you see such a scheme is thought on and talked of; but I cannot believe the Spirit of the English would ever allow them publically to adopt so slavish a way of Conquering.”
As independence neared, the Somersett decision helped ignite a wildfire of egalitarian unrest. As we noted in the New York riots of 1741, class and race forged ties of solidarity in opposition to both the slaveholders and the colonial elites. This was particularly evident in the resistance to press gangs, one of the abuses that continued into the nineteenth century and that led to the War of 1812. In the Knowles riot in Boston of 1747, “armed Seamen, Servants, Negroes and others” fought press gangs that forced civilians into the British navy. In 1765 “Sailores, boys, and Negroes to the number of above Five Hundred” rebelled against press gangs in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1767 in Norfolk, Virginia, “Whites & Blacks all arm’d” attacked Captain Jeremiah Morgan. In 1768 a “mob” of “sturdy boys & negroes” staged a riot in Boston—royal revenue collectors had seized John Hancock’s sloop, the Liberty, provoking a series of uprisings. As historian Jesse Lemisch notes, after 1763 “armed mobs of whites and Negroes repeatedly manhandled captains, officers, and crews, threatened their lives, and held them hostage for the men they pressed.’” Rebels met imperial force with force.
Revolts thus often occurred in ports. As historian Markus Rediker stresses, “With their promise of anonymity and an impersonal wage in the maritime sector, [ports] served as a magnet to runaway slaves and free blacks throughout the colonial period and well into the nineteenth century. Most found work as laborers and seamen. Slaves too were employed in the maritime sector, some with ship masters as owners, others hired out by the voyage. By the middle of the eighteenth century, slaves dominated Charleston’s maritime and riverine traffic, in which some 20 per cent of the city’s adult male slaves labored.” Thus, slaves, free blacks, and impressed and free whites worked together.
With commerce and the tides, sailors spread news of liberty, and in the second revolution, the revolution for freedom and equality for all, the emancipatory idioms of sailors played a role. In London, North American, and Caribbean ports, sailors denounced impressment as “slavery plain and simple,” governed by the lash and an absence of rights. In 1773 John Allen’s “Oration on the Beauties of Liberty” condemned the corruption of gangs, which “ought ever to be held in the most hateful contempt, the same as you would a banditti of slave-makers on the coast of Africa.” Black sailors, free and slave, carried these words among bondsmen. They brought their knowledge to a subterranean network proceeding from slave to slave, house to field, and plantation to plantation across hundreds of miles.
In 1772 slaves rebelled against bondage in Perth Amboy, New Jersey; in 1774 a joint African-Irish movement arose in Boston, again uniting blacks and poor whites. In December 1774, in St. Andrews Parish, according to the Savannah (GA) Gazette, “six negro fellows and four wenches” killed a master and an overseer and attacked neighboring plantations. British authorities burned two of the leaders alive. At a meeting the next year, St. Andrews’s residents expressed “abhorrence” of slavery, but did not free blacks.
In 1775, in Ulster County, New York, Dorchester County, Maryland, and Norfolk, Virginia, blacks demonstrated. According to the Dorchester Committee of Inspection, “The insolence of the Negroes in this county is come to such a height, that we are under a necessity of disarming them which we affected on Saturday last. We took about eighty guns, some bayonets, swords, etc. The malicious and imprudent speeches of some among the lower classes of whites have induced them to believe that their freedom depended on the success of the Kings troops. We cannot therefore be too vigilant nor too rigorous with those who promote and encourage this disposition in our slaves.”
In Wilmington and Tar River, North Carolina, owners suppressed “conspiracies.” In Tar River, Merrick plotted with a white sailor to obtain arms. In June, also in North Carolina, the Wilmington Committee of Public Safety instituted “patrols to search & take from Negroes all kinds of Arms whatsoever.” As Janet Schaw, a “Lady of Quality,” records in her journal, the committee aimed to force each black to return home by nine at night. Schaw adds that a Whig “killed”—we would now say murdered— one of these blacks. No insurrection took place because, she thought, slaves did not possess guns. Nevertheless, she noted, when a posse jailed forty blacks, torturers gave them each “a hundred lashes” and “cropped their ears.”
Patriot protests about British denials of law and liberty were thus fundamentally compromised by persistent, despotic Patriot violence toward blacks. From St. Bartholomew Parish in South Carolina, Thomas Hutchinson wrote to Henry Laurens that a certain Jemmy denounced a leader named George for stirring revolt: “Prince and Patience belonging to Francis Smith, Jack, hector & daphney, belonging to William Smith, Shifnal, Quashey & Jupiter, belonging to his Master, Ben & Pearce, belonging to James Parson’s Esqr. & Ben, belongg to Jno. E. Hutchinson are Preachers, & have (many of them) been preaching for two Years past to Great crowds of Negroes in the Neighborhood of Chyhaw, very frequently, which [Jemmy] himself attended … that at these assemblies he had heard of an Insurrection intended & to take the Country by Killing the Whites.” On the testimony of one witness, citing words, not acts, a South Carolina “court” murdered George.
We can turn to none other than John Adams as the voice of opposition to the second American revolution. In 1770 Crispus Attucks led a demonstration in Boston against the forcible quartering of troops with civilians and the English redcoat competition with American journeymen for jobs. (British soldiers also took civilian employment.) Of African and Native American ancestry, Attucks had escaped bondage and became a sailor. In the “Boston Massacre,” redcoats murdered him and five others. In a shining moment, John Adams would fiercely advocate the Declaration of Independence. Yet his speeches and writings were often sublimely reactionary. As the Crown’s lawyer, Adams demonized Attucks: “This Attucks … appears to have undertaken to be the hero of the night; and to lead this army with banners, to form them in the first place in Dock square, and march them up to King street with their clubs.… This man with his party cried, do not be afraid of them.… To have this reinforcement coming down under the command of a stout Molatto fellow, whose very looks was enough to terrify any person, what had not the soldiers then to fear? He had hardiness enough to fall in upon them, and with one hand took hold of a bayonet and with the other knocked the man down.” Adams spoke for the elite who feared the revolutionary activism of blacks and poor whites. If they struck against the British, might they not also strike at American slave owners?
The Declaration of Independence maintains that each of us is “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights” and that among these are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But at the time, this founding document restricted these liberties to whites. Thus, Jefferson suspected that George III could use blacks and Indians—those most oppressed by the colonists—against the American cause. As the Declaration avowed: “He [the King] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is an indistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
Perhaps out of shame, Jefferson did not name blacks. And in drafting the Constitution, William Paterson, a New Jersey representative, stated flatly that Congress “had been ashamed to use the term ‘Slaves’ and had substituted a description.” According to another New Jersey delegate, the Constitution’s authors sought by omission to avoid any “stain” on the new government. Nevertheless, the practice of bondage betrayed the American Revolution more deeply than a word.
Faced with rebellions in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia and the menace of newly freed black redcoats, owners experienced ceaseless “dread of instigated insurrections,” in the common phrase. Paralleling the Declaration of Independence in a 1776 book, North Carolinian James Iredell denounced Britain’s “diabolical purpose of exciting our own Domestics (Domestics they forced upon us) to cut our throats, and involve Men, Women and children in one universal massacre.”
The two revolutions in eighteenth-century America—the revolution for independence to escape from the “slavery” imposed on the colonies by the imperial British administration and the revolution for freedom and emancipation from the slavery imposed by many of those who sought to achieve independence from Great Britain—thus proceeded together, often at odds with each other and always in a complicated relationship in which both the highest principles of the Enlightenment and of Christianity and the basest motives of human prejudice, fear, and greed contended, sometimes in the same person, to shape the future of the new United States and the world beyond.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 1-14 of Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence by Alan Gilbert, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2012 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)