Blacks and The American Revolution
The American Revolution was not only the colonies fight to gain independence but the African-Americans largest slave revolt. There was an inherent contradiction in the whites wanting to gain liberation from England while enslaving blacks at the same time. This contradiction has its roots in the white concept of liberation as opposed to that of the blacks. To white Americans the war meant freedom and liberty in a political-economical sense rather than in the sense of personal bondage the blacks suffered from.
The white fight for freedom gave the blacks the perfect opportunity to cast their own bid for freedom. They increased the number of freedom suits and petitions to the state legislatures. Individual slaves could bring up their own freedom suits but in order to free many slaves at once they had to get together and form a petition. The inconsistency between the ideals of the Revolution and the institution of slavery fueled the black movement for freedom.
However the blacks made their greatest bid for freedom by taking up arms. They took up arms fighting for the British early in the Revolution. The British offered blacks their freedom in return for their aid in fighting the Americans. Blacks took up the offer not because they were fighting for the British but because they were fighting for their freedom.
The Americans also opened up their ranks to African-Americans. However, they did not offer the chance for blacks to join the army until 1777, well into the Revolution, when they were desperate for more forces. The blacks eagerly took up arms because the Americans also promised freedom in exchange for service. The fact that blacks fought on both sides of the war only helps prove that they weren't in favor of either side, they were fighting for freedom.
The new day that the black soldiers had fought so hard to attain was never realized. It did, however, cause some whites to question the institution of slavery. These whites came to see the contradictions in American thought as they applied to the rights of the black man. Unfortunately, these whites were far outnumbered by the whites that where blind to the inconsistencies in American ideologies and slavery. This white majority was able to justify these contradictions by maintaining that blacks were not a part of the socio-political community and therefore had no right to enjoy the freedom and equality gained in the War.
Their continued quest for freedom lead to more white and black contact. Even though the war failed to emancipate them, they began to experience a sense of distinct identity. This identity reflects the essential values of the Revolutionary War. The identity flourished into a collective sense of community. The construction of antonomous black churches played an integral role in creating the sense of community. Through the churches, the free African-Americans came to the understanding that they were to ones who best upheld the "revolutionary tradition" of social justice, equality, and most of all, freedom.
The Revolution gave the blacks a chance to assert their drive for freedom. While the Revolution did not emancipate them, it united them in their belief of freedom. It aided in the creation of a sense of community and gave them a platform from which to fight for the abolition of slavery.
Nash, Gary B. Race and Revolution. Madison House Publishers, 1990.
MacLeod, Duncan J. Toward Caste. Taken from Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution. Edited by Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman. University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Archives on the WWW
Blacks in Nova Scotia is a link to information on why the black loyalists crossed to British side in order to gain their freedom. It also discussed the struggles the African-Americans had in stettling in Nova Scotia.
Library of Congress holds information on the African-American soldier. In the American Memories Collection search under the key words African-American. The selection The Negro as a Soldier leads to the Revolutionary War.
Clements Library has manuscripts and collections of books that are useful in further study of the African-American invovlement in the Revolutionary War.