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The Impact of the Revolution on Slavery Previous Next
Digital History ID 4571


The Revolution had contradictory effects on slavery. The northern states either abolished the institution outright or adopted gradual emancipation schemes. In the South, the Revolution severely disrupted slavery, but ultimately white Southerners succeeded in strengthening the institution. The Revolution also inspired African-American resistance against slavery.

During the Revolution, thousands of slaves obtained their freedom by running away. Thomas Jefferson estimated that 30,000 slaves fled their masters during the British invasion of Virginia in 1781. Some 5,000 slaves in Georgia and 20,000 slaves in South Carolina--perhaps a quarter of their slave populations--gained freedom as a result of the conflict. By the 1790s, however, the slave population was growing again and was beginning to spread into new lands in what would become the cotton belt.

Inspired by the natural rights philosophy of the Revolution, free blacks agitated against slavery. They petitioned Congress to end the slave trade and state legislatures to abolish slavery. They repeatedly pointed out the contradiction between American ideals of liberty and equality and the base reality of slavery.

Slaves began to speak the language of natural rights. In 1800, a group of slaves in Virginia plotted to seize the city of Richmond. Led by a man named Gabriel, the insurrection was inspired in part by the slave revolt that began in the French colony of St. Domingue (Haiti) in 1791. It was also motivated by the ideals of liberty that had led the American colonists to revolt against Britain. About 30 of the accused conspirators were executed, and many others were sold as slaves to Spanish and Portuguese colonies.

Here, a visitor to Virginia describes why one of the slaves had decided to participate in Gabriel's revolt.

"In the afternoon I passed by a field in which several poor slaves had lately been executed, on the charge of having an intention to rise against their masters. A lawyer who was present at their trials at Richmond, informed me that on one of them begin asked, what he had to say to the court on his defence, he replied in a manly tone of voice: "I have nothing more to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial by them. I have adventured my life in endeavouring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice in their cause: and I beg, as a favour, that I may be immediately led to execution. I know that you have pre-determined to shed my blood, why then all this mockery of a trial?"

President Thomas Jefferson recognized that the Virginian slaves had been motivated by the same ideals that had inspired white colonists to revolt against Britain. In a letter to the U.S. Minister to Britain, Jefferson proposed that a group of the insurgent slaves be deported to Sierra Leone in West Africa, where an English abolitionist organization had established Freetown as a home for former slaves. Jefferson told the minister to assure the British that the rebel slaves were not criminals, but men aspiring for freedom.

The negotiations with the British were unsuccessful, and most of the accused conspirators were sold as slaves to Spain and Portugal's New World colonies. For Jefferson, Gabriel's Conspiracy reinforced his view that race war could be avoided only if emancipation were tied to expatriation--what came to be called colonization.

Thomas Jefferson, July 13, 1802, to Rufus King, U.S. Minister to Britain:

"[The slaves in question] are not felons, or common malefactors, but persons guilty of what the safety of society, under actual circumstances, obliges us to treat as a crime, but which their feelings may represent in a far different shape. They are such as will be a valuable acquisition to the settlement already existing there, and well calculated to cooperate in the place of civilization."

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