We commonly think of the American Revolution as simply the war for independence from British colonial rule. But, of course, that independence actually applied to only a portion of the American population—African Americans would still be bound in slavery for nearly another century. Alan Gilbert asks us to rethink what we know about the Revolutionary War, to realize that while white Americans were fighting for their freedom, many black Americans were joining the British imperial forces to gain theirs. Further, a movement led by sailors—both black and white—pushed strongly for emancipation on the American side. There were actually two wars being waged at once: a political revolution for independence from Britain and a social revolution for emancipation and equality.
Gilbert presents persuasive evidence that slavery could have been abolished during the Revolution itself if either side had fully pursued the military advantage of freeing slaves and pressing them into combat, and his extensive research also reveals that free blacks on both sides played a crucial and underappreciated role in the actual fighting. Black Patriots and Loyalists contends that the struggle for emancipation was not only basic to the Revolution itself, but was a rousing force that would inspire freedom movements like the abolition societies of the North and the black loyalist pilgrimages for freedom in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.
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About the Author
Alan Gilbert is a John Evans Professor in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens, Democratic Individuality, and Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?He lives with his wife, Paula, and their son, Sage, in the mountains of Morrison, Colorado.
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Black Patriots and LoyalistsFIGHTING FOR EMANCIPATION IN THE WAR FOR INDEPENDENCE
By Alan Gilbert
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLord Dunmore, Black Insurrection, and the Independence Movement in Virginia and South Carolina
[Dunmore's proclamation tends] more effectively to work an external separation between Great Britain and the Colonies, than any other expedient, which could possibly be thought of. — Edward Rutledge, South Carolina signer of the Declaration of Independence, December 1776
In Virginia, in a fraught atmosphere in which white Patriots believed themselves threatened alike by the oppressions of the colonial administration and the prospects of slave revolts, not just the Dunmore Proclamation but a whole series of actions by Governor Dunmore exacerbated the hostility between the Patriots and the Crown, simultaneously hastening the advent of the American Revolution and helping to put in motion the revolution that paralleled it, the revolution in the status of America's black slaves. A similar situation prevailed in South Carolina, where advocates of the revolution for American independence were both motivated by and opposed to the revolution in the status of black slaves. The specter of slave revolts incited by Dunmore's actions seemed to many Patriots in both colonies to be of a piece with other deliberate acts by the colonial administration contrary to the interests of the colonial settlers.
Attracted by British freedom, blacks thronged to Dunmore's standard. One result was the central role of the Royal Ethiopian Regiment on the British side in the first battles of the Revolution in Virginia. Another was a continuing ferment, for instance by Loyalists William Dalrymple and Joseph Galloway, to enlist and emancipate slaves while Patriot elites, zealous to preserve bondage, seceded.
Already in 1772, Governor Dunmore, contemplating the emancipation of colonial slaves, had written to Colonial Secretary William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, that Patriot slave owners, "with great reason, trembled at the facility that [their] enemy, would find in Such a body of men, attached by no tye to their Master nor to the Country.... It was natural to Suppose that their Condition must inspire them with an aversion to both, and [that they] therefore are ready to join the first that would encourage them to revenge themselves, by which means a Conquest of this Country would inevitably be effected in a very short time."
Initially paralyzed by the interests of British commerce and the fact that some slaves were Tory "property," the Crown hesitated to adopt Dunmore's strategy. London did not free blacks for joining the British army. Instead, Prime Minister North awaited events in the field. Nonetheless, hopes for freedom from an idealized king, the Somersett decision, and Dunmore's threats encouraged blacks to escape to the Crown in massive numbers even before Dunmore's official proclamation on November 7, 1775.
Virginia's Patriot slave owners' fears of a black insurrection incited by royal policies coalesced with their growing resistance—armed resistance—to the agents of the British Crown. On the morning of April 20, 1775, the day after the Battle of Lexington in Massachusetts marked the outbreak of armed hostilities between the Patriots and the British, Governor Dunmore transferred twenty barrels of gunpowder from the public magazine in Williamsburg to an imperial ship, the Magdalen. This had a double effect. It denied the gunpowder both to the Patriots at a time when armed rebellion against the Crown was breaking out and to the white community at a time when rumors of slave rebellions once again exacerbated white fears. At this crucial juncture, the two revolutions, for independence and emancipation, came together—and came in conflict.
With both the thwarted 1774 black insurrection in Virginia, news of which Madison wanted to suppress, and word of other uprisings fresh in people's minds, as Dixon and Hunter's Virginia Gazette reported on April 22, the people of Williamsburg assembled, led by the mayor, and sent a note to Dunmore citing the possible imminent slave rebellion—and his administration's apparent encouragement of it—as the reason why they needed access to the gunpowder: "We have too much reason to believe that some wicked and designing persons have distilled the most diabolical notions into the minds of our slaves and therefore the utmost attention to our internal security has become the more necessary." The phrase "some wicked and designing persons" refers elliptically to Dunmore's own repeated threats. Later, on May 1, 1775, Dunmore reported to the Earl of Dartmouth, the secretary of state for the colonies, that the mayor had delivered an address that had stressed "the alarm into which the people had been thrown at the taking away of the powder in a private manner by an armed force, particularly at a time when they are apprehensive of insurrections among their slaves, (some reports having prevailed to this effect)" and had concluded "with a peremptory demand that the powder be delivered up immediately to them."
It was the prospect of the gunpowder falling into the hand of rebelling slaves, Dunmore told the mayor, that had caused him to secure it on the ship for safekeeping. "Hearing of an insurrection in a neighboring county," Dunmore had responded; he had removed the powder. If a slave revolt were to occur in Williamsburg, he said, he would swiftly return it. Yet "he was surprised to hear that the people were under arms on this occasion and that he should not think it were prudent to put powder into their hands in such a situation."
Patriots marched on the Magdalen. Armed with grapeshot, the ship's log reports, sailors opposed "the inhabitants of Williamsburgh [who] were under arms and threatened to attack the Schooner." And Patriots Alexander Spottswood, G. Weedon, Jonathan Willis, and Hugh Mercer, officers of the Fredericksburg militia, wrote to Commander William Grayson of the Prince William County militia that they had indeed gathered troops to march on Williamsburg. They sought his support: "In these sentiments this Compny could but determine that a number of public spirited gentn should embrace this opportunity of showing their Zeal in the Grand Cause by marching to Wmsbrg to enquire into this Affair and there to take such steps as may best answer the purpose of recovering the powder & securing the Arms now in the Magazine."
The "Grand Cause" of the revolt of the American colonies against British oppression here became one with fear of slave uprising as the motive for pursuing Virginia's independence. In response to the Dunmore Proclamation, Virginian "Patriots" strove to preserve bondage. To recruit slave owners for the militia, Patrick Henry circulated the proclamation. Patriot gazettes alluded to the governor's "black banditti." To Thomas Jefferson on June 3, 1776, Francis Eppes, a Virginia plantation owner, referred to "Lord Dunmore & his motley crew." In the backcountry, according to Patriot Phillip Fithian of southwestern New Jersey, the Dunmore Proclamation "quicken[ed] all in Revolution." Too glibly, Richard Henry Lee announced that "Lord Dunmore's unparalleled conduct in Virginia has, a few Scotch excepted, united every Man in that large Colony."
On April 27, 1775, to prevent further escalation of the incident, however, Peyton Randolph, soon to be first president of the Continental Congress, wrote to Mann Page, Lewis Willis, and Benjamin Grymes that the taking up of arms had "incensed the Governor a good deal and from every thing we can learn was the principal Reason why his Answer was not more explicit and favorable. His Excellency has repeatedly assured several Respectable Gentlemen that his only motive in Removing the Powder was to secure it, as there had been an alarm from the County of Surry which at first seem'd too well founded, 'tho it afterwards proved groundless."
By explaining the sequestration of the gunpowder in terms of the threat of a revolution among black slaves, the governor had aimed to secure the submission of white Virginians inclined to their own kind of revolt. On May 1, 1775, the governor reported to Dartmouth, he had thought it prudent to seize the gunpowder at Williamsburg to thwart "the raising of a body of armed men in all the counties." As Randolph's April 27 letter underlines, however, the raising of Patriot soldiers occurred outside Williamsburg only as a response to Dunmore's removal of the powder. And while Dunmore claimed to Dartmouth that he took the arms to protect owners against black insurrection, no elite Virginian believed this.
If Dunmore's flamboyant stance had been more honorable, he might have taken credit for attempting to undo bondage. Instead, imperial emancipation was, for him, a means to maintain the empire. In contrast, American insights would eventually generate a novel contractarian vision of black and white equality. Still, if freedom is the measure of the American Revolution, ironically, it was not an American Patriot, but a British royal governor, "Dunmore the Liberator," in historian Benjamin Quarles's phrase, who, despite the colonial administrator's equivocations, initially took action for the relief of the most oppressed.
LORD DUNMORE, EMANCIPATION, AND THE PATRIOT REBELLION But Dunmore had danced a tightrope between inciting the menace of black insurrection to achieve the submission of slave owners and at the same time provoking them by infringing on their right to bear arms. And the colonists weren't his only problem. Despite his incendiary words, Dunmore needed to persuade London that he somehow proceeded with caution. As he explained to the secretary for the colonies, "I thought proper in the defenceless state in which I find myself, to endeavour to soothe them verbally to the effect that I had removed the powder, lest the Negroes might have seized upon it, to a place of security from whence when I saw occasion I would at any time deliver it to the people; but in the ferment in which they then appeared it would be highly improper to put it into their hands."
However, to promise salvation from the threat of black rebellion to those to whom he depicted the horrors of a slave uprising that he himself would instigate could only inspire indignation. To seize powder at the rumor of black insurrection, prompting Patriots to take up arms against him, and then to tell them that he did it "in their defense" further incensed them. Such paradoxes reveal Dunmore's contempt for the acuity of both the colonists and his London superiors.
He soothed no elite Virginians, and their armed revolt proceeded apace. To Dartmouth, Dunmore wrote: "Parties of armed men were continually coming into town from the adjacent counties the following days, offering fresh insults." Once again, Dunmore threatened to reduce the colonists' "houses to ashes" and to arm their slaves against them: "And I have already signified to the magistrates of Williamsburg that I expect them on their allegiance to put ... a stop to the march of the people now on their way before they enter this city, that otherwise ... it is my fixed purpose to arm all my own Negroes and receive all others that will come to me whom I shall declare free; that I do enjoin the magistrates and all others professing to be loyal subjects to repair to my assistance or that I shall consider the whole country in an actual state of rebellion and myself at liberty to annoy it by every means possible, and that I shall not hesitate at reducing their houses to ashes and spreading devastation wherever I can reach."
On May 15, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage alerted Dartmouth to Dunmore's "very alarming" situation. Gage feared that "the assistance in my power to give him will avail but little." He ordered the Fourteenth Regiment at Providence Island and St. Augustine to Virginia. In addition, Gage had heard "by a private letter that a declaration his lordship had made of proclaiming all the Negroes free who should join him had startled the immigrants." Long before Dunmore issued his famous proclamation, everyone—white and black, Patriot and Tory—knew that the governor bid blacks to free themselves by joining the Crown.
In a June 19 "Address to the Earl of Dunmore," the House of Burgesses suggested disingenuously that "the county was in a perfect state of tranquility till they received an account of your lordship's removal of the gunpowder from the public magazine to one of His Majesty's ships of war and of your irritating and most unjustifiable threats." Imagining conspiracy, the burgesses described Dunmore's act as part of a pattern designed from London: "The inhabitants of this country, my lord, could not be strangers to the many attempts in the Northern Colonies to disarm the people and thereby deprive them of the only means of defending their lives and property. ... The like measures were generally recommended by the ministry and the export of powder from Great Britain had been prohibited. Judge then how very alarming a removal of the small stock which remained in the public magazine for the defense of the country and the stripping the guns of their locks must have been to any people who had the smallest regard for their security."
The burgesses pointed out the irrationality of Dunmore's "reassurances." White Virginians hardly stood in the way of suppressing black revolt: "The reason assigned by your lordship for taking this step we should have thought the most likely at any other time to have dictated a very different conduct. We should have supposed that a well-grounded apprehension of an insurrection of the slaves ought to have called forth the utmost exertion to suppress it."
According to the governor, an imperial ship had originally owned the powder. The burgesses replied: "We have made inquiry into that matter and cannot find that there ever was any powder brought either from the Rippon or any other man-of-war, so that we presume your lordship must have been misinformed."
They insisted that a tax on the colonists for self-defense had paid for the powder. By their first demonstration with guns on April 20, the burgesses suggested disingenuously, they had intended no insult to Dunmore. On the governor's promise to return the powder in case of a revolt, however, they asserted diplomatically, but not credibly, that "everything [would be] perfectly quiet."
Dunmore's posturings were grandiose, his temper hair-trigger. The burgesses recalled, "Your lordship sent a message into the city by one of the Magistrates which you delivered with the most solemn asseverations that if any insult was offered to Captain Foy or Captain Collins you would declare freedom to the slaves and lay the town in ashes and that you could easily depopulate the whole country."
On May 15, Dunmore informed Dartmouth that "the commotion in this colony ... has obliged me to shut myself in and make a garrison of my house, expecting every moment to be attacked." In fact, Dunmore fl ed from the governor's palace to the frigate Foley at Yorktown. On June 24, Virginians sacked his residence. According to Dunmore, "A considerable body of men violently forced into the governor's house bursting open a window by which one part entered who then forced the principal door by which the rest entered, and they carried off all the arms they could find to the number of between two and three hundred stand which had been always kept in the hall of this house, and [a] considerable number of muskets and other arms, my own property."
Dunmore's threats to free and arm black slaves had helped precipitate the rebellion of the Patriots, yet to London, Dunmore denied his provocations. He was within "his rights" as royal governor, he averred, to seize the powder. In a June letter to Dartmouth, however, Dunmore at last acknowledged that slave owners had reason to dread black revolt. His threat to arm and liberate slaves "has stirred up fears in them which cannot easily subside."
A torrent of rumor quickly surged through the colonies about the monarch arming slaves. A 1775 story suggested that William Campbell, the new governor of South Carolina, had brought with him "14,000 stand of arms" for blacks. On April 25, James Kenny, a Philadelphia Quaker, wrote to Humphrey Marshall, a botanist and fellow Quaker, that "a great Woman in London who had been lately in conversation with the King" had revealed terrifying royal secrets. He reported, "Arms is to be given to all of ye. Negroes to act against ye. Colonies."
Excerpted from Black Patriots and Loyalists by Alan Gilbert Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Fear, Hope, and the Two Revolutions in America
Lord Dunmore, Black Insurrection, and the Independence Movement in Virginia and South Carolina
Emancipation and Revolution: The Conjunction of Pragmatism and Principle
The Laurens Family and Emancipation
Black Fighters for Freedom: Patriot Recruitment and the Two Revolutions
Black Fighters for Freedom: British Recruitment and the Two Revolutions
Black Fighters in the Two Revolutions
Honor in Defeat
Postwar Black Emigrations: The Search for Freedom and Self-Government
Democratic Internationalism and the Seeds of Freedom