A Black Perspective of American History
By Leon Dixon, Gerald Hynes, and Carolyn Gaines Nelson
Part Two: American Revolution Through 1800
Between 1771 and 1776, the New England Colonies passed several anti-slave trade measures. Though the Royal African Company had been dissolved in 1750, the slave trade was an important part of the English economy; "the wealth and growth of such great ports as Bristol and Liverpool depended on it; its profits were financing the mills and factories and inventions which were producing the Industrial Revolution in England." The British government was determined to see the slave trade continue. Hence, the English Parliament struck down the anti-slave trade measures passed by the colonies.
In addition to this, the French who in the territory west of the English colonies (the Louisiana Territory) began expansionists designs eastward. This caused conflicts between the French and the English colonies. The colonies expected the English crown to defend its frontiers. The Crown said that to do so would require extra troops, which the colonies should pay for, or else defend the frontiers on their own. In 1754, the "French erected Fort Duquesne, on the site of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania" which caused quite a stir among the English colonials. Later this same year, George Washington fought against the French in the Ohio Territory. This skirmish was to be the first of the French and Indian Wars, "which spread (in 1756) to Europe and became known as the Seven Year War."
In the meantime the Crown had been obliged to send in English troops to the aid of the colonials. And in order to pay for additional expense of this they began to levy taxes against the colonies (i.e. Sugar Act, 1767; Tea Tax in 1770). The colonies felt that they should not have to pay this added expense (i.e. taxes). Moreover, since they had no representation in parliament to advocate in their behalf, they began to cry out against "taxation without representation." (The colonials' reaction to the Stamp Act was the organizing of the Sons of Liberty; to the Tea Tax, it was the Boston Tea Party.)
These considerations, and others, coagulated to produce discontentment among the colonials. Retaliatory skirmishes began to break out. In 1770, several colonists, led by ex-slave Crispus Attucks, baited some English soldiers in Boston, Massachusetts. The soldiers fired into the crowd killing first Attucks then others. Making Attucks the first to die for the budding American Revolution in what came to be known as the "Boston Massacre." The Boston Tea Party was held in 1773.
The following chronicled events are taken from the New York Times Encyclopedia Almanac:
1774—First continental Congress met in Philadelphia with representatives from all colonies except Georgia.
1775—Patrick Henry made his "Liberty or Death" speech before Virginia Assembly.
—Parliament passed New England Restraining Act, forbidding colonies to trade with any nation except Britain and British West Indies.
—Minutemen fought British at Lexington and Concord, signaling start of American Revolution's military phase.
—Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and appointed Washington chief of Continental forces.
—British defeated Americans at Bunker Hill and attacked Boston; city under siege until March, 1776.
1776—Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" published, calling for American independence.
—Declaration of Independence adopted by Congress.
—Washington, leading troops across Delaware River, made surprise attack on British at Trenton, New Jersey.
The American Revolution was well on the way. But what of the Blacks during all of this:
Blacks proved themselves as brave fighters, but this was not enough for some white people. General Washington and others were opposed to Black soldiers. Thus, on November 12, 1775, an order was sent forbidding all Blacks, slaves or free, from participating in the war. ("Many people in the New England states and an overwhelming majority in the southern states who feared that arming the slaves might lead to insurrection or, at the very least, that the dignity of serving in the Continental Army might give Negroes the idea that the bold words of the Declaration of Independence applied to them too.")
Though Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, when he penned the Declaration of Independence, he was forced to delete the following indictment (referred to as "The Deleted Clause") against King George III:
"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people (Africans) who never offended him; captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither."
George Washington, who also owned slaves (and had all his children by his slave women), wrote in 1786 "…I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see some plan adopted for the abolition of it." Both Ben Franklin and John Adams came out against it. In 1775, a year before he wrote his famous pamphlet "Common Sense," Thomas Paine wrote an article entitled "An Height of Outrage Against Humanity" in which he denounced slavery.
"But these men and others who stirred the fires of revolution… in order to win their struggle for independence…had to have the support of more conservative elements of the colonies. Thus, from the very beginning of the history of the United States as an independent nation, the rights, hopes, and dreams of Negroes were sacrificed on the alter of 'unity' and expediency."
Lord Dunmore, British Governor of Virginia, sized up the situation and issued a proclamation, in November 1775, that all Negroes enlisting in the British forces would be freed. Though he was forced to flee Virginia by advancing American troops and failed to realize any results from his proclamation, other British commanders adopted the policy and did.
Tens of thousands of slaves deserted to the British lines. They were used as cooks, laborers, and spies; about one thousand served under arms. North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia were forced to set out fugitive slave patrols to check the flow of deserting slaves.
Meanwhile, enlistment were running lower and lower in the Continental Army. Bounties of land, money, and in some states slaves were offered to entice volunteers. But recruitment was just not sufficiently forthcoming.
After having braved the ordeal of the 1777–1778 winter in Valley Forge, Washington welcomed every able-bodied man, Black, white, free, or slave into the Continental Army. "By the end of the war, some five thousand Negroes, slaves and freemen, had shouldered arms in defense of American liberty. There were Negro soldiers from every one of the original thirteen colonies…"
"Negro soldiers fought and they fought brilliantly. …Negro seamen, sailors and pilots distinguished themselves in the infant Navy. …There were also spies and undercover agents… Perhaps the greatest of all Negro spies was James Armistead, a Virginian who helped trap (Gen.) Cornwallis." The Negroes were used generally, however, as cooks, laborers, orderlies and guides.
In 1783, the Treaty of Paris (negotiated by Ben Franklin, John Adams and John Jay) acknowledged American Independence. Thus, formally ending the war. (The British, in 1786, established the colony of Sierra Leone for the Blacks that they had promised freedom.)
Also, many slave owners, feeling the pangs of conscience, manumitted their slaves. Men's ears were ringing with the glorious words of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, a proponent of this attitude, tried in vain to get the Continental Congress to add freedom of Blacks in the document. (Recall "The Deleted Clause.")
For a short period, men were speaking out for the "rights of man." Blacks flooded the courts with petitions to gain freedom. Even some southerners were making steps to free slaves. Slavery died in the North as a direct result of the "rights of man" movement (together with its non-plantation and non-agrarian environment).
In addition to this, many Blacks were given a chance to develop their potentials. Among them were the likes of Benjamin Banneker: astronomer, author of an almanac; mathematician, and inventor; maker a wooden clock; drafter of the layout the city of Washington, D.C. Also, there was Phillis Wheatly, Poetess; Prince Hall, organizer of the Masonic Lodge; Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
By this time, there were enough free Blacks to advocate for their brethren still in bondage. Among the most notable ones was Banneker. The fear of slave uprisings haunted the southerners. The Toussaint L'Oveture upheaval in the Haiti beginning in 1791, sent a save of horror and fear over the South which responded with more repression on the slaves as well as free Blacks.
Moreover, their fear of introducing the rebellious Blacks from the West Indies caused them to accelerate their anti-slave trade feelings. The news of Gabrial Prosser's conspiracy in 1800 agitated the southerners' apprehensions.
Eventually, congress enacted a law abolishing the slave trade in 1807
. But this still did not quiet the uneasiness among southerners. For insurrection of many forms persisted up until the Civil War. Denmark Vesey was to make his presence felt in 1822. Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831, following David Walker's Appeal in 1828, calling for bold action, wreaked havoc in the South. The problems wrought by this "peculiar institution" were eating into the very soul of the country.
Author's Note: All quotations are from Bennett, Goldstein, and Rogers