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The Struggle for Freedom


The Role of Slaves in the Struggle for Independence

Contributing teacher: Reiko Hillyer
Time period: 1770s–80s

In his lecture on slavery and the American Revolution, Eric Foner observes that "the most dramatic immediate result of the struggle for independence was that slaves realized that they could seize for their own purposes the rhetoric of the patriotic struggle." Foner explains that slaves seized the moment in various ways: Drawing on the language of liberty that the Revolution had unleashed, slaves drew up "freedom petitions"; capitalizing on the chaos brought on by war, slaves escaped in increasing numbers; realizing the desperate need for soldiers on both sides, slaves enlisted in the warring armies, hoping to win their freedom in exchange for their service. In the end, Foner points out, "while some blacks gained their liberty by fighting on the American side, far more found that it was easier to gain their freedom by siding with the British."

Woody Holton, in Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), takes a different approach to examining the relationship between the American Revolution and the institution of slavery. Although he agrees that slaves were able to use the Revolution as an opportunity to advance the cause of their own freedom, Holton argues that slaves helped to propel many free white Virginians into the movement for independence in the first place. He writes that "in seeking their own freedom, black Virginians indirectly helped motivate white Virginians to declare independence from Britain" (136).

As tensions escalated between the British and the colonists, slaveholding Virginians began to suspect that the British were inciting slave insurrections as a way of suppressing the patriot movement. The Earl of Dunmore's 1775 proclamation that he would offer freedom to all slaves who would bear arms against the rebellion raised understandable panic among slaveholders already fearful about the loyalty of their slaves. No doubt encouraged by the alarm of their owners, slaves looked to Dunmore's forces as their deliverers from bondage. Primed by Dunmore's promise, slaves flocked to his lines and to his warships, and those who did not were nonetheless infected by the dream of liberty and sought the anonymity of nearby cities or fled to so-called maroon communities in the backcountry. Although British policy toward slavery was actually inconsistent and equivocal—a point that Sylvia Frey explores in detail in Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991)—Holton argues that British exploitation of slave unrest propelled many white Americans toward the goal of independence. Indeed, the fact that the British came to be seen as fundamentally responsible for threatening the very existence of the southern slave system converted some British Loyalists into American patriots. Seeing in British actions the potential for dangerous and violent insurrection, the southern gentry became increasingly alienated from the British and hardened their commitment to the Revolution. The gentry's support for independence, according to Holton, was solidified by their desperate desire to reassert their hegemony over their slaves and thereby preserve their fragmenting world. In this sense, posits Holton, the southerners' struggle against Dunmore and his black soldiers was not a revolution but a counterrevolution (161). Thus, Holton seems to be saying, American slaves not only benefited from the Revolutionary cause, but—in an ironic way, contrary to their own interests—helped to generate it.

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