Digital History

Introduction by Steven Mintz

The American Revolution and Slavery Previous Next
Digital History ID 454



The meaning and outcome of the American Revolution was intimately tied to slavery. 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. In 1774, George Washington explained that if the colonists' failed to aggressively assert their rights, then the British ministry "shall make us as tame and abject slaves, as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway."

Both the British and the colonists believed that slaves could serve an important role during the Revolution. In April 1775, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, threatened that he would free the colony's slaves if the colonists resorted to force against his authority. In November, he promised freedom to all slaves belonging to rebels who would join "His Majesty's Troops." Some 800 slaves joined British forces, some wearing the emblem "Liberty to the Slaves."

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 3000 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. In the end, however, and in contrast to the later Latin American wars of independence and the U.S. Civil War, neither the British nor the Americans proved willing to risk a full-scale social revolution by issuing an emancipation proclamation.

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 firmly 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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