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Rumors of Freedom: the Lives of Blacks in the American Revolution

Photo by Steve Snodgrass | CC BY 2.0

Uncertainty dominated the lives of thousands of black slaves throughout the American Revolution.  Swept along by the political machinations of a divided colonial populace, slaves became pawns in the power struggle among colonial revolutionaries, Loyalists, and the British Crown and its military.  In many instances, slaves were faced with difficult choices. They “had reached a crossroads…with one large contingent casting their lot with the British and the others hoping against hope that white Americans would honor their founding principles by making all people free and equal” (Nash, p. 427). During the Revolution and in the post-revolutionary period, black slaves took sustenance in rumors of freedom.

For a decade prior to the onset of the American Revolution, slaves absorbed lessons from the growing discontent among whites in the colonies.  The Stamp Act crisis of 1765 finally opened the floodgates of rhetoric concerning freedom and the rights of the colonists in the face of British tyranny.  Within that rhetoric, the earliest rumors of freedom for slaves began to grow, creating anxiety and hope.  The irony of slavery was not lost on growing numbers of colonists and blacks as the debate between rebels and Loyalist conciliators expanded.  In the North, abolitionists and free blacks seized the moment to define the hypocrisy of slavery.  By 1776 Lemul Haynes, a “mulatto” from New England, was able to exclaim: “If you have any Love to yourselves, or any Love to this Land, if you have any Love to your fellow-men, Break these intolerable yoaks (sic)” (Brown cites Lemul Haynes, p. 258).  In the South, where the vast majority of slaves lived, fearful planters schemed to preserve the economic benefits of slavery.  In both regions, ideological economic and moral arguments became major factors in determining one’s position on slavery (Brown cites Sylvia R. Frey, p. 263).

The ideology of revolution empowered some slaves to resistance.  As the colonial resistance to British rule strengthened, so did the dreams of freedom among slaves throughout the colonies.  Among illiterate blacks, an oral tradition fueled hopes of freedom, as complex revolutionary ideas spread over vast distances with amazing rapidity.  The close proximity of slaves to one another, in communities often dwarfing those of their masters, allowed easy conversation among would-be free slaves.  Their ideas mirrored their masters’ written and active protests of British injustice.  A typical instance of blacks emulating the revolutionary zeal of whites occurred in Charleston, South Carolina in 1765, when, hearing cries of “Liberty!” among Stamp Act protestors, slaves echoed the call, frightening the white populace (Brown cites Frey, p. 263).

When the first shots of the war were fired at Lexington in 1775, free blacks were among the patriots, and conditions were in place for notions of liberty to expand exponentially among slaves.  The same year, word of Lord Dunmore’s promise to free slaves who fought for Britain began to spread through the colonies.  Dunmore’s cynical plan would create a cauldron of anger and fear among anti-abolitionist colonists, and create further angst among slaves.  The edict was granted under a threat.  It would entice slaves to run away from their masters and join the British Army, where they would essentially be enslaved anew under threats of a death penalty for desertion.  No promises were made regarding their status once hostilities ceased (Brown cites Hezekiah Niles, p. 260).

Dunmore’s gambit was designed to punish the southern rebels, who were heavily reliant on slave labor, as well as to raise troop levels and reward British officers with slaves of their own.  It was also meant to pacify southern Loyalists, whose rumor-inspired runaway slaves would be returned to them by British troops (Nash, p. 331).  While creating plenty of concern for planters on both sides of the war, many of whom feared a major black insurrection, Dunmore’s ploy forced slaves to carefully consider their options.  The British offered a way out of slavery, but it seemed a dangerous gamble.  Nonetheless, runaway slaves were often willing to take the risk amid the war’s chaos, particularly in the South, when the battles drew nearer to the largest populations of slaves (Brown cites Ira Berlin, p. 277). In the North in 1779, fighting in New Haven, Norwalk and Fairfield, Connecticut created the chaos necessary for some slaves to escape to the British army, as homes, stores, churches and schools were set afire by the British under the command of former New York Governor William Tryon. At the same time, abolitionists in Pennsylvania were plotting legislation to free slaves, invoking the words of the Declaration of Independence, which declared all men “equal.” The Committee of Correspondence in Chester County, knowing it had a tough sell, reasoned that a compromise with anti-abolitionists might offer the best chance to eradicate slavery.  The committee petitioned for gradual abolition.  The plan made concessions to slave owners—and small progress against slavery.  Nevertheless, as slaves heard rumors of the effort, they took the work of the abolitionists as a sign of hope, along with the news of their brethren’s escape to the British side in Connecticut (Nash, pp. 322-323).

Hope and its attendant rumors held significance in the North before 1779 of course, particularly in the religious realm.  Often, the force of the abolitionists’ message was based in the faith held by whites, free blacks and slaves.  Wars of words and ideas flourished, along with accusations of corruption and biblical reckoning. Anti-abolitionists were accused of taking bribes to keep slavery alive.  These words, from a coalition of black slaves, and drafted with the support of abolitionists, were written in 1773: “The divine spirit of freedom seems to fire every humane breast on this continent, except such as are bribed to assist in executing the execrable plan” (Brown cites Leslie Fishel and Benjamin Quarles, p. 257).   The group even had a political plan, a method of making life easier for everyone:

“We acknowledge our obligations to you for what you have already done…give us that ample relief which, as men, we have a natural right to…We are willing to submit to such regulations and laws as may be made relative to us, until we leave the province, which we determine to do as soon as we can, from our joint labours procure money to transport ourselves to some part of the coast of Africa, where we propose a settlement.  We are very desirous that you should have instructions relative to us, from your town, therefore we pary (sic) you to communicate this letter to them, and ask this favor for us” (Brown cites Leslie Fishel and Benjamin Quarles, p. 258).

For their part, the anti-abolitionist could invoke Leviticus with a similar religious fervor, plus get at the crux of the matter.  Bondage was the lot heathens deserved.  Slaves were better off being slaves.  Danger lurked in misguided and sinful attempts to free those who would commit, as advocates from three Virginia counties put it in 1785, “The Hoors (sic) of all the Rapes, Murders, and Outrages, which is a vast Multitude of unprincipled, unpropertied, revengeful, and remorseless Banditti are capable of perpetrating” (Brown cites Tuete Schmidt and Barbara Wilhelm, p 260). The status quo had its political agenda too, of course, in case faith did not quite stir the masses to action.  Lord Dunmore’s offer to slaves was a ploy to usurp the rights of Congress and revolutionary ideas, and it violated property rights (Brown cites Tuete Schmidt and Barbara Wilhelm, p. 260).

In 1778, with the war in the North at a stalemate, the Crown turned more attention to the South, where agrarian dependence on slavery gave the British a wedge to drive between rebels and their slaves.  This was just one of several strategies employed by the British to end the rebellion.  In New England they had sought a complete military victory.  In the South the policy was pacification, though it would quickly turn quite bloody.  The southern strategy had three aspects, according to historian Sylvia R. Frey: “to enlist the help of loyalists to defeat the rebels and to hold territory; to weaken rebel resistance by depriving the South of its labor force,” and to despoil the cash crops that helped fund the rebellion through exportation (Brown cites Sylvia R. Frey, p. 265).

While the North debated abolition, the war came to the South and proved the rumors of Lord Dunmore’s intentions a reality.  The most intense and devastating fighting of the war began on New Year’s 1779, as the British thrust into Georgia and captured Savannah.   From then until the end of the war in 1781 “African-Americans struggled to take advantage of the massive tearing of the social fabric in the South” (Nash, p. 327).  To slaves in Georgia the British could offer little, for they were generally the property of Loyalists, whom the British could ill-afford to anger.  Loyalists’ slaves who made it to the British lines were turned back and redelivered to their owners.   For the slaves of Georgia’s patriots, a more propitious opportunity arose, but was quickly squelched when the majority of the colony’s whites fled advancing British columns, taking their slaves with them (Nash, p. 328).

The strength of the British forces necessitated that Congress look again at the issue of slavery in the South, considering the difficulties it confronted in building a viable military.  Concessions had been made to allow free blacks into the Continental Army earlier in the war.  Would it be wise for Georgia and South Carolina to draw up several regiments of blacks in the South?   To do so would mean having to open the military to slaves, for there were very few free blacks in the South.   For their troubles, slave owners would be paid, but the recruits would not.  However, should a slave survive the war and demonstrate good service, he would be paid fifty dollars and granted freedom (Nash, p. 329).

The plan intrigued many rebellion leaders in the North and at least one important figure from South Carolina, John Laurens. Laurens, aide-de-camp to George Washington, was an abolitionist.  He had seen blacks fight for the patriots at Newport, in 1778, as members of the Rhode Island First Regiment, and he believed in their capabilities as soldiers.  For Laurens, and others of a similar persuasion, including Alexander Hamilton and Laurens’ father John, a past president of the Continental Congress, the plan made sense.  Soldiers were difficult to recruit into the regular army from the patriot pool because they were needed at home to protect family property, which included slaves that might run away and join the British cause (Nash p. 329).

Washington feared the idea. He conjured images of armed black rebels roaming the colonies intent on a rebellion of their own and unafraid to shoot any white man resistant to the idea.  He also feared the action would create an unwieldy class system among slaves, wherein resentment of free soldier-slaves would grow among those still bound by their chains.  Uncontrolled havoc would thence emerge as jealous factions of slaves versus newly freed soldiers tore into each other with a vengeance (Nash, p. 329).

Gary Nash posits that perhaps the Revolution and slavery itself may have drawn to an earlier end had Washington cajoled the majority in Congress to support the plan (Nash, p. 329).   But this is simply an area of conjecture in Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution.  It is unsupportable in the historiography of the Revolution.  The truth is there is no way of knowing what would have happened, favorably or unfavorably, to the emerging nation.  Keeping within the theme of this essay, the argument might be described as a Rumor of History.  (This is a small lapse in Nash’s otherwise temperate and plausible evidential analysis of the war.)

What actually happened, as Nash is clear about, is that slaves in vast numbers began to find refuge with the British as the war expanded into South Carolina in the spring of 1779.  Chaos enveloped the battle fields of the South and thousands of slaves, women and children included, escaped.  Some of them found their way to the British lines.  Others found refuge wherever they could in the back country, traveling roads they hoped would lead to safety.  Some stumbled upon British units and were forced to make a quick decision.  Dangers lurked everywhere.  Militias and the British were liable to turn the slaves back to their owners, or claim them as prizes (Nash, p. 329).   As in every war, the unknown prevailed over reason and probability.

It is impossible to put a neat face on what happened.  Some people made wrong decisions and died, just as others made lucky or calculated choices and survived.   Some won freedom as others did not.  What were, beyond luck, some of the mitigating factors among the survivor-slaves?   Gordon S. Wood has reasoned that the relationship between slaves and masters was an evolutionary process.  By the time the Revolution began, many of the old tenets of the relationship were cracking.  Wood suggests that republican ideals which were leading colonists out of London’s orbit were also altering the psyches of masters and slaves.  Monarchical methods of governing through kin and patronage were dying.  At its core, republicanism deflated centuries’ old paradigms of human interaction.  Societal pressures, sparked by revolutionary political ideas, made the drift to egalitarianism unavoidable. The mutual dependency of the slaveholding class and its subjects began to erode.  The pretense of owner superiority then turned buffoonish and unreal as even the most economically successful slaveholders, those most vested in slavery’s survival, began to sense something amiss.  Slave owners developed crises of consciousness as slaves lost their dependency.  Both groups could see the “falsehood of deference” within the system (Wood, p. 155).

Extrapolating from Wood, it is possible to argue that the degree of formulation of the newly evolving master and slave paradigm would count for something in the individual slave’s quest amid the fury of the South.  The degree of the individual’s concept of the meaning of freedom would propel the individual along extraordinary paths.  The new formulation amounted to enlightenment, which became a force in the individual’s willingness to take risks.  Freedom, in a sense, became chance.  Ultimately, it became the chance that the British would win the war and uphold the promise of true freedom for fighters and other aides in the British effort.

Chance then led an estimated one-third of South Carolina’s 80,000 slaves to run for freedom.  Those enjoined in the British army served as laborers, hauled supplies, cleared roads and dug latrines.  They served as scouts and spies and sometimes were given the freedom to form armed companies. In the American-led campaign to retake Savannah in September 1780, newly freed black volunteers helped the British rebuff French freedmen fighting on the rebel side.  At Charleston, the slaves of patriots besieged by the British were forced to build fortifications.  As the city fell around the patriots, freedmen and slaves fought each other (Nash, p. 330).

As the war ground on, many slaves further assimilated into the British army.  Some Loyalist militias also gave slaves opportunities to use the skills they had developed under their former masters.  But as if further cursed, the freedom of many blacks was destroyed by diseases which raked the colonies at the height of the war.  Smallpox, typhus and typhoid struck the British army and spread throughout black and white populations.  “The hopes of thousands of slaves for a better future by fleeing to the British were shattered,” writes Nash.  As the British expelled blacks from their camps in an effort to control the spreading diseases, people were forced to fend for themselves alone in the wilderness.  Many died and remained unburied in the forests (Nash, p. 331).

Once merely a rumor, the freedom slaves sought became a reality for many.  For thousands, the wrong army won.  As losers, the British were never in a position to aid and abet all those slaves who helped them in the war.  Again, chance and individual circumstances became determining factors in the diaspora of those able to break away from slavery.  It was no time for rumors to die.  “Signs appeared that the American victory over England might be capped by the patriots’ attempt to redeem their virtue through resolving the massive contradiction of fighting for freedom while enslaving one-fifth of the population,” writes Nash (Nash, p. 404).

Contingents of ex-slaves found their way north, as things were rumored to be better in Nova Scotia.  British controlled, the province might be a haven for freedmen who fought for the Crown.  The reality there was different.  It was colder than the South.  The British looked with their fundamental sensibility upon the ex-slaves—free or not, blacks were an inferior race.  Others found land to the west of the population centers of Savannah and Charleston, managing to avoid the clutches of whites still determined to enslave them.  Some drifted further south to Florida, only to be disappointed again when Congress claimed the former Spanish territory for the new republic.  Many slaves longed for Africa, the homeland of their ancestors, or in some cases their own homeland.  Would it be better or worse there than rumor had it?  To be avoided:  ships sailing to the West Indies, where the slave business still thrived.  That destination promised a new cycle of slavery (Nash, p. 406).

Uncertainty and rumors then continued to dominate the majority of blacks’ lives at the end of the Revolutionary War.  Political change had not manifest itself in the greatest radical aspect of the Revolution and in the area most concerned to blacks—the freedom and equality of all men.  “This was the great hope of those who believed the Revolution would mark the dawn of a new day for the sons and daughters of Africa,” writes Nash, reflecting on the “last best chance” the new nation would have before the Emancipation Proclamation (Nash, p. 402).

But it is Gordon S. Wood who best defines the legacy of the Revolution for blacks in the United States—“Indeed, the Revolution made possible the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements of the nineteenth century and in fact all our current egalitarian thinking” (Wood, p. 7).

Sources

Brown, Richard D., ed., Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760 to 1791, 2nd edn (Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

Nash, Gary, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (Viking, 2005).

Wood, Gordon S., The Radicalism of the American Revolution (Knopf, 1993).

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Terry Simons is the founder of Round Bend Press Books in Portland, Oregon.  This story is excerpted from his memoir of growing up in Oregon, A Marvelous Paranoia.

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