According to author Alan Gilbert, in his newly published book; “Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence,” there were two revolutions in America in the mid-1770s, one for Independence whose history is seemingly well-known, the other for emancipation of slaves, long buried on both side of the Atlantic. Alan Gilbert Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence published May 20th [the book is just arriving in stores now] by University of Chicago Press tells the remarkable story of this second revolution to make American freedom the freedom not of the few (male slave-owners, the propertied along with white artisans) but of the many.
These two revolutions moved often in opposition, but sometimes in harmony. George Washington relied on black troops, particularly the First Rhode Island Regiment, at Yorktown. Under the command of his aides John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton, black soldiers stormed and took the two crucial British positions and decided the battle.
But the dark secret of the American Revolution and the reason that historians, until recently, have ignored the leading role of black soldiers on both sides is the recruitment of escaped slaves by the British and their later leaving for freedom with the British.
Starting in 1772, Royal Governor of Virginia Dunmore threatened to free all the slaves and indentured servants of American rebels and raze their mansions to the ground. In 1773, Chief Justice Mansfield in Britain rule that the slave James Somersett was free on British soil. But if slavery was not legal in Britain, how long would it remain legal in the colonies?
Poor whites were also often abolitionists. Sailors, black and white, had learned from slave uprisings in the Caribbean and took the word to London and Boston and Charleston. Quakers had been opposed to slavery since the journeys and conversation of John Woolman in the 1750s. With competition among Protestant sects, their influence spread. In 1775, the New Light Presbyterian minister Samuel Hopkins in Providence denounced bondage as “a sin of crimson dye.” He wisely warned that Patriots must free their slaves now to prevent the British from mobilizing them against the revolution.
Around every owner’s table as revolution approach, Patriots denounced American enslavement by the Crown. As the servants cleaned, did they not think: but what about my natural rights? And the measure, as the Quaker David Cooper wrote, was clear enough. Patriots rebelled over arbitrary Royal tax on tea. They spoke of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But what is a tax on tea compared to the enslavement (physical and sexual) of a human being for her whole life?
As John Adams reported of the South, a long train of information from house slaves to field slaves travelled hundreds of miles. As James Madison said, potential slave insurrection was the “Achilles’ heel” of the American Revolution and that word of uprisings in Virginia and elsewhere, increasing in 1773-74, must be, at all costs suppressed.
Samuel Johnson, the famous British essayist quipped: “How come we hear the greatest yelps for liberty from the drivers of slaves?”
In South Carolina, Henry Laurens, soon to be the second President of the Continental Congress, helped railroad a free black sea captain, Thomas Jeremiah, for allegedly plotting a slave uprising to greet the British troops sailing in Charleston. Some Patriots and the British Governor worked to free Jeremiah against whom there was no reliable evidence and towards whom the law was misapplied. A Patriot-led “Court” beheaded him and burned his body.
Laurens also plotted a mission with the Georgia Council of Safety to massacre maroons – escaped blacks who were not participants in the war at Tybee Island.
In Virginia, Patrick henry called for using the militia to present slaves from escaping. His riveting “Give me liberty or give me death!” also meant: give me bondage over others or give me death!
Prefiguring the Civil War, this book startlingly reveals, the South seceded from Britain primarily to preserve bondage. The Battle of Great Bridge where Lord Dunmore’s forces, numbering 600, were half black, made up of a newly recruited Royal Ethiopian Regiment, was an early Patriot victory. But one hears in history texts of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, and not of battles in the South which previously have been “whited out.”
Fortunately, George Washington was more a statesman than a slave owner. In answer to the British, he allowed Rhode Island in 1778 to recruit an all-black and Narragansett indian regiment. They fought throughout the war – most mainly white militias served only for 10 months – and had become, by Yorktown, the most disciplined and determined American fighters.
John Laurens, the son of Henry, had studied in Switzerland, learned from Rousseau that the two words slavery and right can never go together, and led the fight in the American leadership for abolition. In 1779, the Continental Congress passed a resolution calling for the freeing of 5,000 slaves in South Carolina and Georgia in exchange for soldiering. Unlike the Crown which freed slaves simply opportunistically, Gilbert shows, these forces fought to make the American revolution consistently for freedom.
Georg Daniel Flohr, a German private with a French unit allied to the Patriots, walked around the field at Yorktown. In his diary, he reported that most of the corpses on both sides were “Mohren” (Moors). Until this book, this has been one of the most deeply kept secrets of the American Revolution.
The military competition to free and recruit slaves nearly resulted in gradual emancipation in the American Revolution. As Gilbert shows, other independence movements of black and brown people in the Hemisphere, long neglected in the comparative study of revolutions, resulted at least in gradual emancipation. They did in the North, too. Why slavery survived the American revolution in the South, is, as Black Patriots and Loyalists shows, something of a mystery.