Race in Revolutionary America
Digital History ID 3795
1. The Revolutionary Era transformed slavery into a moral problem.
2. The colonists were convinced that the British Parliament was seeking to reduce them to political slavery, and it proved impossible to ignore the parallel between political slavery and chattel slavery.
3. The First Continental Congress called on the colonies to end the international slave trade. Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, North and South Carolina, and Virginia did so.
4. African American soldiers served with valor at the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill. In November 1775, however, Congress decided to exclude blacks from future enlistment out of a sensitivity to the opinion of southern slaveholders. But in 1775, the royal governor of Virginia offered to emancipate slaves who joined the Royal Army. Lord Dunmore's offer of freedom led Congress reluctantly to reverse it decision, fearful that black soldiers might join the redcoats.
5. The Revolution was highly disruptive to the institution of slavery. A third of the slaves in Georgia and a quarter of the slaves in South Carolina escaped during the fighting. Free blacks became the fastest growing portion of the population.
6. As a result of the Revolution, slavery was transformed into a purely sectional institution. When the war was over, the New England and Middle Atlantic states abolished slavery by legislative or judicial action or adopted gradual emancipation schemes. Still, as late as 1810 there were more than 30,000 slaves in the northern states.
7. The Northwest Ordinance outlawed slavery in the west north of the Ohio.
8. The late 18th century witnessed the emergence of pseudo-scientific racism.
Questions To Think About
1. Was the Constitution a Pro- or Anti-Slavery Document?
- The original Constitution never mentions the word slavery.
- Nevertheless, slavery was debated from the first day of substantive debates until the last and led to numerous explosions.
- The Constitution gave Congress the power to enact a fugitive slave law; power to put down uprisings.
- There were only two unamendable provisions of the Constitution. One guaranteed states a republican form of government; the other forbade legislation restricting the slave trade until 1808
- The 3/5s Compromised enhanced Southern power in the House of Representatives and the electoral college. In 1820, it gave the southern states an additional 20 representatives.
- Politically, the Revolution strengthened the slave South, since there was no all-powerful Parliament to abolish slavery. But the Revolution also created a radical egalitarian ideology that undermined the legitimacy of slavery
2. What was the status of free blacks after the Revolution?
- The post-Revolutionary military excluded blacks
- Early naturalization laws limited the process to whites only
- Until the 1820s, blacks could not carry the federal mail or hold elective office in the District of Columbia.
- Every new state denied free blacks the vote; most did not allow free blacks to serve on juries or testify in cases involving whites.
- Many states (including Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Oregon) and territories (including Michigan) barred free blacks from residence or required substantial bonds before they could enter.
- While the Northwest Ordinance forbade slavery it did not prohibit long-term "apprenticeships."
- Before 1820, free black men in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire could vote. They lost that right in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania before the Civil War.
- A few blacks received passports to travel abroad under the aegis of the United States during the 1840s and 1850s.
- In 1823 the Supreme Court declared state laws imprisoning free black sailors while their ships were in port unconstitutional. (Despite this ruling, several southern states continued the practice until the Civil War.)
- It was not until enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 that black citizenship was finally guaranteed. Although these guarantees did not ensure the protection of their constitutional rights, African Americans were at last irrefutably American citizens.
Interpreting Primary Sources
The petition of A Great Number of Blackes detained in a State of slavery in the Bowels of a free & Christian Country Humbly shuwith [showeth] that your Petitioners apprehend that thay [they] have in Common with all other men a Natural and Unaliable [inalienable] Right to that freedom which the Grat Parent of the Unavers hath Bestowed equalley on all menkind and which they have Never forfuted by any Compact or agreement whatever-but thay wher Unjustly Dragged by the hand of cruel Power from their Derest friends and sum of them Even torn from the Embraces of their tender Parents-from A popolous Pleasant and plentiful contry and in violation of Laws of Nature and off Nations and in defiance of all the tender feelings of humanity Brough hear Either to Be sold Like Beast of Burthen & Like them Condemnd to Slavery for Life-Among A People Profesing the mild Religion of Jesus A people Not Insensible of the Secrets of Rational Being Nor without spirit to Resent the unjust endeavours of others to Reduce them to a state of Bondage and Subjection your honouer Need not to be informed that A Life of Slavery Like that of your petioners Deprived of Every social privilege of Every thing Requisit to Render Life Tolable is far worse then Nonexistence.
Petition to the Massachusetts Legislature, 1777
Lend an ear to the poor oppressed African Blacks that are now in the Chaine[s] of Bondage - Gentlemen please to give The Leave to Give a little Idea of the Cruelties that we Poore Slaves have to endure and undergo…. Gentlemen we are Dragged from our native Country for Life…Leaving our mothers our farthers our Sisters and our Brothers….Further more gentlemen after we have…fought the grandest Battles that has Been fought in this War the greatest part of us - We and our children and our Brothers are taken By force of violence and carried where…we are Beaten…without any Law…. Is this…Right and just…? No, it is murder….
Petition to the Connecticut General Assembly, 1788
Reading 3 (writings by George Washington):
There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it…. But when slaves who are happy & content to remain with their present masters, are tampered with & seduced to leave them… it introduces more evils than it can cure."
George Washington, complaining about a Quaker antislavery society, April 12, 1786
To liberate a certain species of property which I possess very repugnantly to my own feelings, but which imperious necessity compels, and until I can substitute some other expedient by which expenses not in my power to avoid (however well disposed I may be to do it) can be defrayed.
George Washington, hoping to rent or sell part of his land so that he could allow his slave to work as free laborers; he was unable to find a suitable renter, 1793
To sell the overplus I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species. To hire them out is almost as bad, because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse the families I have an aversion.What then is to be done? Something must or I shall be ruined…"
George Washington, feeling he had too many slaves, but it would be immoral to sell any, 1799
Reading 5 (writings by John Adams):
There is one Resolution I will not omit. Resolved that no Slaves be imported into any of the thirteen colonies.
John Adams, discussing trade resolutions before the Continental Congress, 1776
I shudder when I think of the calamities which slavery is likely to produce in this country. You would think me mad if I were to describe my anticipations…If the gangrene is not stopped I can see nothing but insurrection of the blacks against the whites.
John Adams, 1820
Reading 6 (writings by Benjamin Franklin):
If we forbear to make Slaves of their People, who in this hot Climate are to cultivate our Lands? Who are to perform the common Labours of our City, and in our Families? Must we not then be our own Slaves? And is there not more Compassion and more Favour due to us as Mussulmen, than to these Christian Dogs? We have now about 50,000 Slaves in and near Algiers. This Number, if not kept up by fresh Supplies, will soon diminish, and be gradually annihilated. If we then cease taking and plundering the Infidel Ships, and making Slaves of the Seamen and Passengers, our Lands will become of no Value for want of Cultivation; the Rents of Houses in the City will sink one half; and the Revenues of Government arising from its Share of Prizes be totally destroy'd! And for what? To gratify the whims of a whimsical Sect, who would have us, not only forbear making more Slaves, but even to manumit those we have.
Benjamin Franklin, writing a parody of apologies for slavery, in which a Barbary pirate defends the seizure of Christians as slaves, 1790.
From a persuasion that equal liberty was originally the Portion, & is still the Birthright of all men, & influenced by the strong ties of Humanity & the Principles of their Institution, your Memorialists conceive themselves bound to use all justifiable endeavours to loosen the bands of Slavery and promote a general Enjoyment of the blessings of Freedom. Under these Impressions they earnestly entreat your serious attention to the Subject of Slavery, that you will be pleased to countenance the Restoration of liberty to those unhappy men, who alone, in this land of Freedom, are degraded into perpetual Bondage, and who, amidst the general Joy of surrounding Freemen, are groaning in Servile Subjection, that you will devise means for removing this Inconsistency from the Character of the American People, that you will promote Mercy and Justice towards this distressed Race, & that you will Step to the very verge of the Powers vested in you for discouraging every Species of Traffick in the Persons of our fellow Men.
Benjamin Franklin, petitioning Congress on behalf of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, 1790
The laws of certain states …give an ownership in the service of negroes as personal property…. But being men, by the laws of God and nature, they were capable of acquiring liberty….
Alexander Hamilton, 1795
Reading 8 (writings by James Madison):
Establishing a Settlement of freed blacks on the Coast of Africa... might prove a great encouragement to manumission in the Southern parts of the U.S. and even afford the best hope yet presented of putting an end to the slavery in which not less than 600,000 unhappy negroes are now involved. In all the Southern States of N. America, the laws permit masters, under certain precautions to manumit their slaves. But the continuance of such a permission in some of the States is rendered precarious by the ill effects suffered from freedmen who retain the vices and habits of slaves. The same consideration becomes an objection with many humane masters against an exertion of their legal rights of freeing their slaves.
James Madison, 1789
A general emancipation of slaves ought to be 1. gradual. 2. equitable & satisfactory to the individuals immediately concerned. 3. consistent with the existing & durable prejudices of the nation... To be consistent with existing and probably unalterable prejudices in the U.S. freed blacks ought to be permanently removed beyond the region occupied by or alloted to a White population.
James Madison, 1819
Reading 9 (writings by Thomas Jefferson):
[King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another
Thomas Jefferson, from a draft of the Declaration of Independence, 1776
It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state…? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousands recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."
Thomas Jefferson, discussing his 1777 proposal which would have eventually freed slaves in Virginia and deported them.
I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind…..
There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do.
... Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.
Thomas Jefferson, writing notes on the State of Virginia, 1780
We have the wolf by the ears and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale and self-preservation in the other.
Thomas Jefferson, 1820
To send off the whole of these at once, nobody conceives to be practicable for us, or expedient for them. Let us take twenty-five years for its accomplishment, within which time they will be doubled. Their estimated value as property…must be paid or lost by somebody."
Thomas Jefferson, proposing to deport slave children over a period of 25 years, 1824
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