Slavery and the American Revolution

Many historical studies on the American Revolution War have been to a great extent focused on the evaluation of the events that led to the Revolutionary War (Davis 236). Although this issue is important, researchers tend to miss the key point, as they do not address the role played by the African-American slaves. In addition to this, history does not provide a detailed account on the experience of the slaves after the war or the type of impacts that manumission of slaves created on the slavery institutions that existed previously.

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The American Revolution was not the first conflict that involved the African American slaves. In 1639 and later on in 1705, laws were passed in Virginia that explicitly banned the blacks from any form of military participation (Frey 383). However, the war had a toll on the American state militia, whereby diseases and labor shortages outweighed the legal reluctance of providing the African Americans with weapons. The biggest paradox in history is the fighting of colonial leaders, like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, battling for freedom from the British Crown whereas they owned slaves themselves (Frey 390). In a letter from Abigail to her husband, she addresses the parody in daily fights for freedom, whereas plundering the right of slaves who equally had a right for freedom as much as they did. A slave who once helped Washington in crossing of the Delaware River told him that Washington was headed to fight for the American’s liberty, however, the African Americans did not have any liberty (Davis 192).

In the studies on the matter, first, it is important to establish the events behind the American Revolution. For a long time, the British had neglected the colonies, hence they were actively governing themselves, becoming accustomed to the self-rule governance. Later, in 1760s, Britain started asserting its governance power over the colonies through the enforcement of trade laws and aggressive collection of taxes (Frey 381). This, in turn, led to the rebelling of the American colonies due to the increased control of the British authorities.

The American Revolution War is seen as a movement that was against taxation, and this was central issue for the Americans in fighting for their right to own ‘property’. In the 18th century, the term “property” also included other individuals in the form of slaves. In many ways, the revolution acted as a reinforcement to the commitments towards slavery. On the other hand, there were ideas of equality and liberty that challenged the traditions of slavery (Coclanis, para. 3). In the late 18th century, slavery was applauded positively and accepted as a normal institution by the white Americans. Evangelical religious commitments that advocated for equality of all people before the eyes of the Lord declined tobacco business profitability, and revolutionary ideals formed the basis for anti-slavery movements.

The American slaves served diligently in the battles of Bunker Hill and Lexington, nevertheless, the Congress decided to exclude them from enlisting in the military in 1775 due to the sensitivity of the slave holders from the South and their opinions. Amongst the remembered African Americans who participated in the early conflict wars is Salem Poor, who purchased his freedom to fight and eventually was commended as an experienced, exceptionally behaved officer in addition to being an excellent fighter (Davis 256). Furthermore, there was a fear of providing the African American slaves with weapons as they felt that this could result in rebellions and resistance. Moreover, most of the African Americans were considered to be servants owned by their masters, and enlisting them could have been in violation of the property rights of their lords. Earlier, there was reluctance from the national army that had an obligation of appealing to the colonists in the east coast. However, the promise of freedom to the slaves who were enlisted in the British army led to the reversal of the decision, fearing that the slave soldiers would join the redcoats (Davis 141). Approximately 5000 free slaves were actively involved in the continental army, hence, they were very critical to the revolution (Davis 120).

The American Revolution had major impacts on the slavery institutions, with thousands of slaves gaining their freedom after serving both sides of the revolutionary war. Some slaves were manumitted, whereas thousands opted to escape, thereby freeing themselves. Lord Dunmore, who was the governor of Virginia during 1732-1809, threatened to proclaim slaves’ liberty if the colonist kept defying the British authority (Davis 219). In 1738 to 1795, Sir Henry Clinton promised protection to all the slaves who could desert their masters, and this implied that to a great extent the revolution was a war based on slavery, leading to the alienation of some loyalists and neutrals.

Silas Deane, an American diplomat, developed a secret plan to incite insurrections. The Congress was then persuaded to unanimously approve a plan that could see the recruitment of over 300 army troops that comprised of slaves, and this could see the owners of the slaves being compensated, whereas each slave could receive fifty dollars at the end besides being emancipated. However, the plan was rejected by the South Carolina legislature. This served to ascertain further that neither the Americans nor the British were willing to issue an emancipation proclamation and risk a full-scale social revolution. The African American slaves were willing to join forces with the British, as they had promised emancipation and freedom. However, to the African Americans, the freedom they fought for did not bring any but instead caused them many additional years of slavery (Morgan 39).

In 1783, the American colonists and the British, through the signing of the Treaty of Paris, decided to end their conflict. Amongst the points of the treaty that affected slavery was the decision that all property confiscated by loyalists and all prisoners of war were to be returned to the Patriots. This raised a great challenge as in some cases property also meant slaves and yet they had been promised emancipation by the British in the case of the end of the war. The British held some part of their bargain by refusing to return slaves to their colonist and documented the services of the slaves in the Book of Negroes (Coclanis, para. 5). This decision resulted in the shipping of thousands of slaves from New York to Jamaica, Scotia, Liberia, Barbados, and Britain. For a majority of the slaves, the end of war meant they had been thrusted back to the slave network again, with many slaves finding themselves working in the Caribbean plantations of sugar. On the other hand, the freed groups of slaves were shipped to start a new country, Liberia.

The Revolutionary War set dilemmas for different groups on which side to join, with the colonist having a tough decision on whom to support. However, the slaves made their decisions based on what side could guarantee their freedom faster. Both the enslaved and free African Americans played critical roles in the shaping of conflict of the history of America and, hence, should be recognized for their efforts (Morgan 45). Nevertheless, the American Revolution War altered the institution of slavery, especially after the war, as the ripple effect of it impacted the global slave trade in the preceding years.

The states of North Delaware passed rules that outlawed slavery in their states after the war. However, the impact of the laws was felt later on, and this led to the freeing of children that belonged to slaves, which was only done when the “children” turned 25 (Huber-Warring et al. 61). There were also significant movements in the south that advocated for the freeing of the slaves. The decline in tobacco production in the south meant that the demand for slave labor was also declining. On the other hand, the population of blacks grew rapidly, with the free population outnumbering the enslaved African Americans in the ratio of three to one. By 1810, over a third of the slaves in Maryland were given freedom (Huber-Warring et al. 64). These African Americans started developing a broad range of public institutions that used the term “African” in their naming to show their insistence for equality and distinctive pride.


Works Cited

Coclanis, Peter. “Slavery and the Southern Economy: Myths & Realities.” Hand on History Library, Accessed 23 June 2017.

Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Frey, Sylvia R. “Between Slavery and Freedom: Virginia Blacks in the American Revolution.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 49, no. 3, 1983, pp. 375-398.

Huber-Warring, Tonya, Andrew Bahn, and Chris Pears. “Sourcebooks in making freedom: African Americans in US History.” Multicultural Education, vol. 12, no. 4, 2005, pp. 56-66.

Morgan, Philip. “Origins of American Slavery.” America on the World Stage: A Global Approach to U.S. History, by Morgan, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008, pp. 35-49.