Slavery and the American Revolution
"How is it," asked Samuel Johnson, "that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" The British author was only one of many Europeans who thought it strange that a nation run by slave owners should be so noisily demanding its own freedom. This same bitter inconsistency was embodied in the death of Crispus Attucks. A mulatto slave who had run away from his Massachusetts master in 1750, he spent the next twenty years working as a seaman and living in constant fear of capture and punishment. In 1770, he, with four others, was killed in the Boston Massacre. Ironically, the first man to die in the Colonial fight for freedom was both an Afro-American and a runaway slave. His death became symbolic of what was to be an underlying question in the years to come: "What place would there be for the African in America once the colonies gained freedom from the old world?"
The Quakers were the first group in America to attack slavery. In his book Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, John Woolman contended that no one had the right to own another human being. In 1758 the Philadelphia yearly meeting said that slavery was inconsistent with Christianity, and in 1775 Quakers played a dominant role in the formation of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, the first antislavery society in America.
As the colonists began to agitate for their own freedom, many of them became increasingly aware of the contradiction involved in slaveholders fighting for their own freedom. "To contend for liberty," John Jay wrote, "and to deny that blessing to others involves an inconsistency not to be excused." James Otis maintained that the same arguments which were used to defend the rights of the colonists against Britain could be used with at least equal force against the colonists by their slaves. "It is a clear truth," he said, "that those who every day barter away other men's liberty will soon care little for their own."
In the same vein, Abigail Adams wrote her husband: "It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have." Perhaps the most radical statement was made by the Reverend Isaac Skillman in 1773. Again, comparing the struggle of the colonists with that of the slaves, he said that it was in conformity with natural law that a slave could rebel against his master.
In 1774 the Continental Congress did agree to a temporary termination of the importation of Africans into the colonies, but, in reality, this was a tactical blow against the British slave trade and not an attack against slavery itself. In an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, the British king was attacked for his in involvement in the slave trade, and he was charged with going against human nature by violating the sacred rights of life and liberty. However, this section was deleted. Apparently, Southern delegates feared that this condemnation of the monarch reflected on them as well.
Although neither slavery nor the slave trade was mentioned in the Declaration, it did maintain that all men were created equal and endowed with the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This seeming ambivalence concerning the future of slavery on the part of the Continental Congress left Samuel Johnson's ironic question about American hypocrisy unanswered. From a logical point of view, the Declaration of Independence either affirmed the freedom of the African immigrant, or it denied his humanity. Because each state continued almost as a separate sovereign entity, the Declaration of Independence became a philosophical abstraction, and the status of the African in America was determined independently by each.
Lord Dunmore, the British governor of Virginia, put teeth into Johnson's bitter question. In 1775 he offered to grant freedom to any slave who ran away from his master and joined the British army. Earlier that year, in spite of the fact that both slaves and free men had served at Lexington and Concord, the colonists had shown an increasing reluctance to have any blacks serving in their Army. The Council of War, under Washington's leadership, had unanimously rejected the enlistment of slaves and, by a large majority, it had opposed their recruitment altogether. However, the eager response of many slaves to Lord Dunmore's invitation gradually compelled the colonists to reconsider their stand. Although many colonists felt that the use of slaves was inconsistent with the principles for which the Army was fighting, all the colonies, with the exception of Georgia and South Carolina, eventually recruited slaves as well as freedmen. In most cases, slaves were granted their freedom at the end of their military service. During the war some five thousand blacks served in the Continental Army with the vast majority coming from the North.
In contrast to later practice, during the Revolution the armed services were largely integrated with only a few segregated units. While the vast majority of Afro-American troops fighting in the Revolutionary War will always remain anonymous, there were several who achieved distinction and made their mark in history. Both Prince Whipple and Oliver Cromwell crossed the Delaware with Washington on Christmas Day in 1776. Lemuel Haynes, later a pastor of a white church, served at the Battle of Ticonderoga. According to many reports, Peter Salem killed the British major, John Pitcairn, at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Gradually, the colonies were split into two sections by differing attitudes towards slavery. In 1780 the Pennsylvania Legislature passed a law providing for the gradual abolition of slavery. The Preamble to the legislation argued that, considering that America had gone to war for its own freedom, it should share that blessing with those who were being subjected to a similar state of bondage in its midst. Three years later the Massachusetts Supreme Court decided that slavery was contrary to that state's constitution and that it violated the natural rights of man. Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York all passed laws providing for gradual emancipation. Although the liberal philosophy of the revolution did lead these states to end slavery, most Northern citizens were not genuinely convinced that natural law had conferred full equality on their Afro-American neighbors. Racial discrimination remained widespread.
At the same time, the Southern states which were dependent on slavery for their economic prosperity showed little interest in applying the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence to either the slaves or the free blacks in their midst. If anything, the passage of stiffer black codes increased the rights of the masters while diminishing those of slaves and freedmen. Some Southern states had qualms about the advisability of continuing the slave trade, but this did not mean that they had doubts about the value of slavery. Rather, the number of slave insurrections which swept through South America, highlighted by the bloody revolt in Haiti, led them to fear possible uprisings at home. They had always been cautious about bringing unbroken slaves directly from Africa, and now they were also afraid to import unruly slaves from South America.
In 1783 Maryland passed a law prohibiting the importation of slaves, and in 1786 North Carolina drastically increased the duty on the importation of slaves, thereby severely reducing the flow. The Federal Government finally took action to terminate the slave trade in 1807, but a vigorous, illegal trade continued until the Civil War. The first sectional conflict over slavery had taken place at the Constitutional Convention. Those Northerners who had hoped to see slavery abolished by this new constitution were quick to realize that such a document would never be approved by the South. Most of the antislavery forces concluded that it was necessary to put the Union above abolition.
While the Constitution did not specifically mention slavery, it did legally recognize the institution in three places. First, there was a heated debate over the means of calculating representation to the House. Southern spokesmen wanted as many delegates as possible and preferred that slaves be counted. Northerners, wanting to restrict Southern representation, insisted that slaves not be counted. Some of them pointed out that it was an insult to whites to be put on an equal footing with slaves. The compromise which was framed in Article I, Section 2, was that a slave should be counted as three-fifths of a man.
Second, the antislavery elements tried to make their stand at the convention by attacking the slave trade. However, while many Southern states were opposed to the trade, the issue became entangled in power politics. South Carolina, which had few slaves, believed that the termination of the slave trade would force up the price of slaves and place her at a severe disadvantage in comparison with Virginia which already had a large slave supply. It argued that Virginia would be artificially enriched to the disadvantage of the other Southern states. The states of the North and middle South were again forced to compromise, and, in Article II, Section 9, they agreed that the trade would be permitted to continue for another twenty years.
The third capitulation occurred in Article IV, Section 2, which as the Fugitive Slave Provision. It stated that a slave who ran away and reached a free state, did not thereby obtain his freedom. Instead, that state was required, at the master's request, to seize and return him.
In fact, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were afraid that the revolutionary ideology of freedom and equality had unwisely and unintentionally unleashed a social revolution. Southern planters envisioned the end of slavery on which their wealth was based. Northern capitalists were opposed to the liberal and democratic land laws which the people were demanding. The economic leaders in both sections of the country believed that there was a need to protect property rights against these new revolutionary human rights. While the Northern states strove to stabilize society in order to build a flourishing commerce, the Southern states tightened their control over their slaves fearing that insurrections from South America or ideas about freedom and equality from the American Revolution itself might inspire a serious slave rebellion.
From the time that the first African was captured until the completion of Emancipation, slaves struck out against the institution in one way or another. Herbert Aptheker has recorded over hundred insurrections. Although most slave revolts in America were small and ineffective, there were three in particular which chilled Southern hearts. These were led by Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner and occurred within the short span between 1800 and 1831. Toussaint l'Ouverture in Haiti had previously demonstrated that slaves could be victorious over large European armies, and the American colonists had taught by their example in the American Revolution that violence in the service of freedom was justifiable. The gradual abolition of slavery which was occurring in the Northern states gave hope that the institution in America might be terminated altogether. However, the slaves saw little reason to believe that their Southern masters would follow the example of the Northerners in abolishing slavery. Many of the slaves came to accept that if the institution was to be destroyed, it would have to be done by the slaves themselves.
In August, 1800, Gabriel Prosser led a slave attack on Richmond, Virginia. During several months of careful planning and organizing, the insurrectionists had gathered clubs, swords, and other crude weapons. The intention was to divide into three columns: one to attack the penitentiary which was being used as an arsenal, another to capture the powder house, and a third to attack the city itself. If the citizens would not surrender, the rebels planned to kill all of the whites with the exception of Quakers, Methodists, and Frenchman. Apparently, Prosser and his followers shared a deep distrust of most white men. When they had gathered a large supply of guns and powder, and taken over the state's treasury, the rebels calculated, they would be able to hold out for several weeks. What they hoped for was that slaves from the surrounding territory would join them and, eventually, that the uprising would reach such proportions as to compel the whites to come to terms with them.
Unfortunately for the plotters, on the day of the insurrection a severe storm struck Virginia, wiping out roads and bridges. This forced a delay of several days. In the meantime, two slaves betrayed the plot, and the government took swift action. Thirty-five of the participants, including Prosser, were executed. As the leaders refused to divulge any details of their plans, the exact number involved in the plot remains unknown. However, rumor had it that somewhere between two thousand and fifty thousand slaves were connected with the conspiracy. During the trials, one of the rebels said that he had done nothing more than what Washington had done, that he had ventured his life for his countrymen, and that he was a willing sacrifice.
In Charleston, South Carolina, a young slave named Denmark Vesey won $1,500 in a lottery with which he purchased his freedom. During the following years he worked as a carpenter. In his concern over the plight of his slave brethren, he formed a plan for an insurrection which would bring them their freedom. He and other freedmen collected two hundred pike heads and bayonets as well as three hundred daggers to use in the revolt, but, before the plans could be put into motion in 1882, a slave informed on them. This time it was rumored that there had been some nine thousand involved in the plot. Over a hundred arrests were made, including four whites who had encouraged the project, and several of the leaders, including Vesey, were executed.
The bloodiest insurrection of all, in which some sixty whites were murdered, occurred in Southampton County, Virginia, in August, 1831. Nat Turner, its leader, besides being a skilled carpenter, was a literate, mystical preacher. He had discovered particular relevance in the prophets of the Old Testament. Besides identifying with the slave experience of the Israelites, Turner and other slaves felt that the social righteousness which the prophets preached related directly to their situation. The picture of the Lord exercising vengeance against the oppressors gave them hope and inspiration. While the Bible did appear to tell the slave to be faithful and obedient to his master, it also condemned the wicked and provided examples that could be interpreted to prove God's willingness to use human instruments in order to bring justice against oppressors. Turner's growing hatred of slavery and his increasing concern for the plight of his brothers, led him to believe he was one of God's chosen instruments.
As his conviction deepened, the solar eclipse early in 1831 appeared to him to be a sign that the day of vengeance was at hand. In the following months he collected a small band of followers, and in August they went into action. Unlike Prosser and Vesey, he began with only a very small band which lessened his chance of betrayal. As they moved from farm to farm, slaughtering the white inhabitants, they were joined by many of the slaves who were freed in the process. However, word of the massacre spread. At one farm, they were met by armed resistance. Slaves as well as masters fought fiercely to stop the attack. Some of Turner's men were killed and wounded, and the planned drive towards Jerusalem was thrown off stride. This enabled the militia to arrive and break up the attack. In due time Turner and several of his followers were captured and executed.
White men in both the South and the North saw little similarity between these insurrections and the American Revolution. The Turner massacre was universally depicted as the work of savages and brutes, not of men. Vigilance was tightened, and new laws controlling the slaves were passed throughout the South. Both the violence of the slaves and the verbal abuse of the abolitionists only served to strengthen the South in its defense of the peculiar institution. Slaves who revolted were depicted as beasts who could not be freed because they would endanger society. Submissive slaves were pictured as children in need of paternal protection from the evils of a complex, modern world. They were never seen as men whose rights and liberties had been proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.
As Afro-American freedmen sought to claim their rights as men and citizens, they were confronted with constant resistance from whites who were unwilling to accept them. Actually, pressure from the mass of Northern white workers had contributed to abolition of slavery in those states. In the Northern states slavery was forced to compete with free white labor in a way which was not true of the plantation economy of the South. White workers continually complained that slavery was keeping their wages down and unemployment up, and in 1737 the governor of New York had asked the Legislature to investigate the charges that slave competition contributed to unemployment. While this attack had helped to undermine slavery, it had also exacerbated tension between black and white labor. The continual flow of runaways from the South brought an increasing supply of cheap black labor to compete with white workers, and the friction between the two races continued. While many of the runaways, like Frederick Douglass, had worked as skilled craftsmen in the South, they found economic discrimination in the North limiting them to menial labor.
After 1830, when the tide of European immigration began to swell, the competition for jobs grew even sharper, and blacks found that even menial jobs were being taken over by the new European immigrants. Jobs such as stevedores, coachmen, barbers, and servants, which had traditionally been left to blacks, were now being invaded by the Irish. Whereas in 1830 the vast majority of New York City servants were Afro-American, after 1850 most of them were Irish. This economic competition contributed considerably to the hostility, fear, and discrimination which confronted the Northern freedmen.
In 1816 the American Colonization Society was founded. It was considered the ideal solution to the American racial dilemma. Claiming to be interested in the welfare of the African in its midst, the Society advocated colonizing in Africa or wherever else it was expedient. It comforted slave owners by announcing that it was not concerned with either emancipation or amelioration. Both were outside its jurisdiction. It did imply that slaves might eventually be purchased for colonization. Most of its propaganda tried to demonstrate that the freedman lived in a wretched state of poverty, immorality, and ignorance and that he would be better off in Africa.
The movement received widespread support from almost all sectors of the white community including presidents Madison and Jackson. Several state legislatures supported the idea, and Congress voted $100,000 to finance the plan which eventually led to the establishment of the Republic of Liberia.
However, the Afro-American community was not very enthusiastic about the project. In 1817 three thousand blacks crowded into the Bethel Church in Philadelphia and, led by Richard Allen, vehemently criticized colonization. They charged that the Society's propaganda only served to increase racial discrimination since it stressed the poverty and ignorance of the freedman and claimed he was doomed to continue in his filth and degradation because of his natural inferiority. It also argued that whites would only take advantage of the Afro-American, and that the separation of the two races was the only solution. The participants at the Bethel meeting contended that this propaganda tended to justify racial discrimination.
The claim was also made that the removal of freedmen from America would only serve to make the slave system more secure, and they pledged themselves never to abandon their slave brothers. Besides, while they were African by heritage, they had been born in America, and it was now their home. Most of the fifteen thousand who did return to Africa were slaves who had been freed for this purpose, and the project was acknowledged to be a failure. The Society's own propaganda contributed to the alienation of many freedmen. One of its own leaders admitted that lacks could read and hear and, when they were spoken of as a nuisance to be banished, they reacted negatively like men.
Widespread racial prejudice, besides creating racial discrimination, resulted in oppressive legislation. In 1810 Congress excluded Afro-Americans from carrying the mail. In 1820 it authorized the District of Columbia to elect white city officials, and it consistently admitted new states to the Union whose constitutions severely limited the rights of freedmen. The office of the Attorney General usually took the position that the Constitution did not grant citizenship to Negroes, and Congress itself had limited naturalization to white aliens in 1790. This point of view was later justified by the Dred Scott decision. With only a few exceptions, the Secretary of State refused to grant passports to those wishing to travel abroad, although it did provide a letter of identification stating that the carrier was a resident of the United States. Finally, Massachusetts granted its own passports to its colored citizens, complaining that they had been virtually denationalized.
Also, many states in the Northwest passed laws prohibiting or limiting the migration of Afro-Americans into their territory. An Illinois law said that anyone who entered the state illegally could be whipped and sold at auction. Many states denied blacks the ballot, prohibited their serving on a jury and legally segregated transportation, restaurants, hotels, theaters, churches, and even cemeteries. Most Northern states did not allow them to testify in court against whites. This meant that, if a white man beat a black, the black had no legal protection unless another white was willing to testify on his behalf.
On several occasions white hostility erupted into violence. Black workmen were harassed, abolitionists beaten, and entire communities terrorized. One of the worst of these events occurred in Cincinnati in 1829. With the rapid growth of "Little Africa," that city's black ghetto, the local citizens decided to enforce the state's anti-integration legislation. Some twenty years before, the state had passed a law requiring blacks entering the state to provide proof of their freedom and to post a bond as guarantee of their good behavior. When the inhabitants of "Little Africa" obtained an extension of the 30-day time limit within which they were to comply with the law, the citizens of Cincinnati were outraged, and they took matters into their own hands. White mobs ransacked the area, indiscriminately and mercilessly beating women and children, looting stores and burning houses. It was estimated that half of the two thousand inhabitants of the area left the city. Many of them emigrated to Canada, and the local paper, which had helped to inflame the mob, lamented that the respectable black citizens had left and only derelicts remained.
At the very point in American history when democracy was sinking its roots deeper into the national soil, the status of the Afro-American was being clearly defined as an inferior one. The Jacksonian Era brought the common man into new prominence, but the same privileges were not extended to the blacks. In the South, society was strengthening the institution of slavery against any possible recurrences of slave insurrections. The activities of the slaves, especially those of Negro preachers, were being watched even more closely than before. In the North, both state and federal laws denied blacks many of the rights of citizenship.