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The American Revolution and Slavery Previous Next
Digital History ID 3038


Leaders of the patriot cause repeatedly argued that British policies would make the colonists slaves of the British. The colonists' emphasis on the danger of mass enslavement derived in part from the highly visible example of racial slavery.

Both the British and the colonists believed that slaves could serve an important role during the Revolution. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, promised freedom to all slaves belonging to rebels who would join "His Majesty's Troops." Some 800 slaves joined British forces.

Meanwhile an American diplomat, Silas Deane, hatched a secret plan to incite slave insurrections in Jamaica. Two South Carolinians, John Laurens and his father Henry, persuaded Congress to unanimously approve a plan to recruit an army of 3,000 slave troops to stop a British invasion of South Carolina and Georgia. The federal government would compensate the slaves' owners and each black would, at the end of the war, be emancipated and receive $50. The South Carolina legislature rejected the plan, scuttling the proposal.

As a result of the Revolution, a surprising number of slaves were manumitted, while thousands of others freed themselves by running away. Georgia lost about a third of its slaves and South Carolina lost 25,000. Yet despite these losses, slavery quickly recovered in the South. By 1810, South Carolina and Georgia had three times as many slaves as in 1770.

The Revolution had contradictory consequences for slavery. In the South, slavery became more entrenched. In the North, every state freed slaves as a result of court decisions or the enactment of gradual emancipation schemes. Yet even in the North, there was strong resistance to emancipation and freeing of slaves was accompanied by the emergence of a virulent form of racial prejudice.

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