To oppose the American Revolution, the British empire freed roughly a quarter of all slaves – one hundred thousand – in exchange for working and fighting. Blacks initially and mainly fought for the British. Because of Virginia Governor Dunmore’s threats to free blacks and raze the mansions from 1772 on, the American South “seceded” from Britain to preserve slavery. Southern independence thus parallels the South’s role in the Civil War. Still, to survive, the American Revolution was also forced to recruit slaves. Further, they used blacks mainly as soldiers. Ironically, in the report of a German private on the American side, most of the corpses at Yorktown were “Mohren” (Moors). Further, the anti-slavery movement in the United States achieved gradual emancipation in the North by the end of the 18th century. I suggest that the same forces, a little stronger, might have permitted such emancipation even in the South.
I found remarkable documents as soon as I started looking in research libraries with questions about the presence of black soldiers, the role of the British in freeing blacks, the need for Americans to rely on blacks as well. Military competition was a driving force in black emancipation. Further, a 225 year veil of silence fell over the issue of blacks in the Revolution – broken only by the work of black historians like Benjamin Quarles. Even Gary Nash’s The Forgotten Fifth (2006) discusses blacks as a matter of identity politics, not as a revolutionary and reshaping force in our understanding of freedom, of emancipation, of the significance of the Revolution as a whole.
In 1776, the American Revolution did not free slaves. Patriots demanded liberty only for whites. The first movement for Independence was, in this respect, profoundly anti-democratic. Yet other Independence and anti-slavery revolutions in this Hemisphere broke the chains. The slaves who burned the mansions in Saint Domingue created Haiti. Venezuela recruited black soldiers and instituted gradual emancipation. Comparatively, these Revolutions isolate the greatest question of the American Revolution. Only the North American Revolution led to a Civil War and to a racism against slaves and their descendants which to this day poisons American democracy.[i] Why did the American Revolution leave the horrors of bondage intact?
Reflecting the masters’ paternalism in contrast to capitalism’s “cold cash nexus,”[ii] some historians retain the illusion that plantation life was bearable for slaves, at least preferable to escape and fighting. These writers mistakenly assume that blacks did not rise up, exerting no pressure to make the Revolution consistently for freedom. In the idiom of Locke and Rousseau, however, the personal security of each slave resembles that of Odysseus and his companions in the cave of Cyclops, waiting to be devoured. That “security” is the respite of the person who awaits torture.[iii] Combatting the Crown, a Revolution sustained, in part, by Patriot masters diverted attention from slaves. Blacks escaped to the British and fought in exchange for freedom.
In effect, the Independence movement spurred blacks - in a second Revolution within the Revolution - to rise against bondage. A social Revolution against a more fundamental despotism undercut political Revolution against the Crown. At the outset, the Empire pitted this Second Revolution against the First. Aiming to reconquer America, Britain could not send enough soldiers who knew the territory. Needing guides and fighters, the Empire recruited American Tories, black and white. In Virginia, however, as many as 11 blacks for every white fled to British General Edward Matthew’s fleet.[iv] Especially if we include the thousands of unorganized or sometimes self-organized blacks who followed every British, most fighting Tories were black.
From 1772 on, John Murray, Royal Governor of Virginia and Earl of Dunmore’s reiterated
threats to free slaves and indentured servants and raze slave-owners’ mansions drove the
entire South into revolt. Dunmore’s initiative reinforced William Murray, Chief Justice of
England and Earl of Mansfield’s 1772 Somerset decision that humans could not be held as
slaves in the British Isles. News of that ruling circulated swiftly among North American
masters and slaves. Notwithstanding Imperial support for the slave-trade, the Crown
appeared, increasingly, to oppose bondage. Comparable to Russian serfs who believed in
emacipation by a “good tsar,”[v] many blacks imagined a “good King” whose liberating word
was frustrated by colonial authorities. In contrast, aiming to preserve slavery, the colonial
South’s revolution for Independence foreshadowed the South’s “secession” in the subsequent
In 1783, Sir Guy Carleton, British Commander in Chief, ordered the creation of a “Book of Negroes” who would emigrate with the Crown to Nova Scotia. It listed 3,000 blacks, roughly 2,600 of whom were free. Thousands of other emancipated blacks escaped to Canada, a total of between 9,100-10,800. Other manumitted emigres left from Southern ports. For the most oppressed - slaves - the Empire offered freedom. Surely, Imperial emancipation and a conflicting social Revolution compromise the political Revolution as an engagement for liberty. In the comparative history of revolutions, this social contradiction rendered the American Revolution a dark star. Partisans of our Independence too easily overlook its war to preserve bondage.
Yet the relationship of the Two Revolutions is still more complex. In Madison’s phrase, the Red-coats rightly saw slavery as the “Achilles heel” of the colonies. To win Independence, many Patriots became aware that they needed to compete with the Empire in freeing and recruiting blacks. For instance, in 1775, George Washington shunned black enlistment. But faced with British competition and a shortage of Continental soldiers, from 1778 on, he urged black recruitment. The idiom of freedom also does not differentiate racially among humans. Moral, religious and practical motives instigated a strong Patriot abolitionist movement.
Starting in 1775, particularly in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, Patriots enlisted blacks and native Americans. They created an all-black and Narragansett Indian First Rhode Island Regiment in 1778 which fought until 1783. Those blacks who survived were more experienced, savvy and motivated soldiers – they fought literally to break their chains - than white militiamen who served but 10 months. Few whites reenlisted in the militias. In contrast, blacks became key American fighters at Yorktown – the ones sent to storm the pivotal British redoubts - and comprised nearly a quarter of Patriot soldiers in that battle.
Further, a strong movement from below, among black and white sailors, craftsmen and many Protestant churchgoers, had long sought emancipation. Still, only the oppressors – the Crown - forced the Patriots to overcome their own racism to win. In the most militant colonies -- Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania (as well as Vermont, which was not yet a colony) -- rivalry with the Crown fused the Two Revolutions. At the Revolution’s zenith of liberty in 1779, the Continental Congress approved John Laurens’s proposal to recruit and liberate 3,000 to 5,000 blacks in South Carolina and Georgia. Military competition with the British forced legislative or judicial acts for gradual emancipation throughout the North during or soon after the Revolution. For instance, emancipation occurred in Pennsylvania in 1780, in the Quok Walker decision in Massachusetts in 1782, and in Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784. The impetus for emancipation had passed from the Crown to the Patriots.
Yet in the large slave-owning colonies, New York and New Jersey, the American push for abolition was weaker than in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, which had fewer slaves. In contrast, British liberation targeted Whig bastions of slavery. New Jersey Tories recruited multiracial “irregular” – guerilla - warriors led by Captain Tye[vi], a former slave. There, the prospect of a slave insurrection, striking at the cruelest Patriot owners, frightened the Independence movement and shook bondage to its foundation. Before the Revolution, there were 20,000 slaves in New York. Four in 10 households in Manhattan held bondspersons. After the Revolution, New York enacted abolition in 1799 and New Jersey in 1804.
Arguably, slavery was as entrenched in New York as in any Southern colony except Virginia and South Carolina. Yet, economic interests in bondage did not bar gradual abolition. Emancipatory legislation initially benefited owners, enslaving blacks and their children much of their expected lifetimes. Only later generations would be free.[vii] If New York and New Jersey could abolish slavery, however, the strength of slave-owning interests in the South alone does not explain the failure of gradual emancipation there immediately after the Revolution. During the Revolution, Patriot Georgia and South Carolina fiercely resisted recruiting black soldiers. Still, given the Laurens proposal and General Nathanael Greene’s persistent efforts to recruit and free blacks until the War’s end, the question lingers: Why did slavery remain intact in the American South?
Some might stress that the British were divided internally about emancipating blacks. Governor Dunmore pursued emancipation, supported by a faction in Parliament; London slave merchants shunned it. Slave-owning interests and widespread racism might be cited to explain the Empire’s failure to mobilize blacks solely as soldiers rather than recruiting many soldiers but consigning others to menial tasks around camp. Internal conflicts, it might be said, prevented the Crown from striking definitively at bondage, for instance, liberating the slaves of Tories, and thus, facilitated the reconsolidation after the Revolution of Patriot slavery in the South.
Yet this argument does not explain why all British commanders recruited black soldiers and workers. Given the examples of Imperial/Tory irregulars in New Jersey and South Carolina and Lord Dunmore’s 1781-82 proposals to revive Imperial fortunes in the South by black guerilla war, this account cannot explain why Imperial forces did not choose to rely on blacks even more strongly. Here politics - strategic decisions rather than underlying economic interests or racist ideology alone - is decisive.
One might also contrast the modes of production in the South and New York. Many Manhattan slaves worked in households, sometimes as few as two or three to a house.[viii] Other blacks, free and slave, worked as artisans or on the docks. Plantations were rare. Blacks and poor whites were in constant contact:
New York city slaves slept in the attics and cellars of their owners’s houses, or in ‘Negro kitchens,’ and worked all day alongside whites as servants, skilled artisans, and day laborers. In New York, whites and blacks lived, literally, on top of one another.[ix]
In contrast, in Virginia and North Carolina, tobacco plantations for export distributed tasks to work-gangs. The main plantations sometimes had over 100 slaves with another 100 or more on nearby “quarters”; on smaller properties, the owner himself worked with the gangs. [x] As distinct from house slaves, field workers were cordoned off from whites.
South Carolina produced rice, also for export, on large plantations in marshes. The work was grueling; blacks often died from malaria, pleurisy, and pneumonia.[xi] Further, a large black majority existed in South Carolina’s low-country, which meant both wider potential for revolt and, otherwise, central control:
In 1775 South Carolina’s white population was an estimated 70,000, the slave population approximately 100,000. Of these, 14,302 whites and 72,743 blacks clustered in the three low-country districts of Beaufort, Charleston, and Georgetown; 55,689 whites and 27,253 blacks lived in the backcountry districts of Camden, Cheraw, Ninety-Six and Orangeburg.[xii]
Fewer but larger slave-owners existed in South Carolina and Virginia than in New York, and controlled their governments more tightly. These governments checked multiracial efforts, including those of sailors and elite abolitionists like John Laurens, for gradual emancipation. Underlying interests might thus be argued to have overcome initiatives for freedom. In contrast, poor whites often came together with blacks against “white New York.” In addition, New York and New Jersey were surrounded by states that fought fiercely in the First Revolution and employed black troops. The former experienced a “demonstration effect” of gradual emancipations in nearby states. In contrast, the South was removed from such influence. Moreover, rather than recruit blacks, South Carolina surrendered to the Crown.
Yet recruitment and freeing of blacks by all British commanders; escape to the Imperial army by or “temporary” conscription of slaves of Tories, broadening de facto emancipation; continuing contests of Americans with “black dragoons”; and repeated Patriot efforts to enlist and emancipate blacks—all this penetrated even into South Carolina. So this view explains neither how emancipation could have surged through the North by the turn of the 19th Century nor why comparable causal forces must have been insufficient in the South.
Emancipation and Independence will explore three main themes. First, the South revolted against Dunmore and the British to preserve bondage, just as it did in the Civil War.[xiii] The revolution for Independence was initially based on an appalling compromise between Northern leaders, notably John Adams, and Southern elites, to ensure that slavery endured. That alliance is a major cause of a long silence among many American historians about the centrality of black rebellion to the Revolution.[xiv] As opposed to Southern Patriot leaders, Dunmore and Royal emancipation were attractive to the most oppressed, casting, in the words of historian Benjamin Quarles, “Dunmore as Liberator.”
Second, out of passion for freedom and fear of the Crown, many Patriots supported the Second Revolution. Emancipation and Independence traces the intense Imperial/Patriot rivalry over recruitment and abolition leading to a startling dependence on blacks by both sides. According to German Private Georg Daniel Flohr, who fought at Yorktown, most casualties were “Mohren” (“Moors”). This military competition helped to generate gradual emancipation in the North during and after the Revolution. Failure to grasp this dynamic by previous historians has led, to this day, to an underestimation of American anti-slavery heroes like John Laurens.[xv]
Third, against the thesis that entrenchment of slave-owning made Southern emancipation impossible, I will argue that military competition could have produced gradual manumission. In 1779, British Commander Sir Henry Clinton made a crucial decision preventing this result. His Phillipsburg Proclamation emancipated a huge number of blacks, but diverted many from soldiering into other kinds of employment. As a result of a series of decisions reacting to the last decision of the other side, particularly Dunmore’s 1775 Proclamation, the 1778 Patriot recruitment of the First Rhode Island Regiment, British General Clinton’s 1779 Proclamation and the 1779 Laurens’ proposal, Imperial/Patriot rivalry deepened unevenly. That competition reflects contingencies of political struggle and strategy, not a necessity of underlying economic interest.
This third theme, that gradual emancipation could have occurred in the South as in the North, is, to put it in technical terms, counterfactual. To some, it will seem counterintuitive; South Carolina’s and Georgia’s capitulation to the British rather than relying on slaves to fight seems proof of this view. In contrast, in the Civil War, the North acted decisively to recruit a near-majority black army – 184,000 African-American soldiers - to crush the slave-owners. The American Revolution might seem outside the range of situations in which gradual emancipation could have occurred in the South. Here, however, my comparisons of Independence revolutions in French and Spanish America which did eliminate bondage – those other “dark stars” -- leads to a reconsideration. If every revolution for Independence in the Hemisphere freed slaves, including in the aftermath the Northern United States, why could not the Independence movement gradually emancipate them in the South, particularly given intense wartime competition to recruit blacks between the Crown and the Patriots?
This comparison calls for a close look at other revolutions—for instance, that of St. Domingue, where the slaves made independence; Venezuela, where a strong network of slave-owners existed but, to defeat Spain, bondage was overcome, and the American Civil War. All involve the fearsome power of slave-holding interests. In each, contingent international events and political strategies enabled the overturning of bondage. For instance, the joining of the French Revolution with the insurrection in St. Domingue helped generate Jacobin emancipation in 1794.[xvi] But the international uniqueness of the American Revolution – that the Imperialists fought a Revolution for Independence by liberating the slaves of Whigs and even some Tories – is also important. Major leaders on both sides recognized the military competition generated by Dunmore’s Proclamation; that rivalry ultimately impelled gradual emancipation throughout the North. These facts make it clear that the American Revolution, with a circuitous struggle over the Second Revolution, belongs in the range of emancipatory independence movements, and could have brought gradual abolition to the South as well.
Compare the Civil War in which a unified North, as the war progressed, mobilized blacks to defeat the slave-owners. Triggering the War was the surprising military role of John Brown in Kansas and, with a multiracial fighting force, his assault on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal in West Virginia. In any other context, Brown might seem only a religious fanatic. In this, “fanaticism” against slavery means acting for decency. Henry David Thoreau memorably praised Brown’s memorable words at capture and trial. His spirit was translated through the lines “John Brown’s body lies amoulderin’ in the grave but his soul goes marching on” into the fighting song of every Bluecoat in the Civil War.[xvii]
In the mid-19th Century, a broad American abolitionist movement existed. But many in it sought to create free states without blacks. In contrast, Brown saw blacks as equals. Without Brown’s leadership in 1856, abolitionism might have collapsed to pro-slavery murderousness in Kansas. Brown’s mobilization of multiracial guerillas, his raid on and capture at Harper’s Ferry, and Thoreau’s and Emerson’s celebration of him moved many to fight for emancipation.[xviii] In the North and Canada, multiracial gatherings of abolitionists honored the fallen Brown. With mortal fear, slave-owners determined on rebellion.
Bondage was going to die. Nonetheless, the claim rings false that the Civil War was necessary for abolition, guided by underlying interests, and that the American Revolution could not have brought gradual emancipation because the interests supporting slavery were too strong.[xix] Let us step back from a common contrast of underlying interests in the Civil War: those of a Northern capitalist class, which had burgeoned in 80 years and wanted industry-protective tariffs, and those of slave-owners who produced cotton for export and resisted tariffs. No doubt this conflict affected the outcome. But let us ask instead: why in the early 19th century, were abolitionists stronger in Venezuela to fight Spain, where slave-owners were a powerful obstacle but gradual emancipation prevailed, than during the American Revolution? No economic obstacle ruled out such emancipation in the latter.
In addition, John Brown’s militancy and its advocacy by Thoreau were pivotal events in the Civil War -- just as were, in the American Revolution, Governor Dunmore’s Proclamation that prompted blacks to throng to the British, and the consequent need for Patriots to recruit blacks. In the right circumstances, which aren’t often recognized at the time, the actions of a Brown, Toussaint, Robespierre or perhaps a John Laurens may crystallize an epic conflict. In other cases, similar audacities do not yield great results.[xx] Such triggering political strategies and actions arise suddenly, against the odds.[xxi] Emancipation and Independence will argue that with some intensification of the forces that propelled Northern abolition, and which were already present in the South, gradual emancipation could have occurred, following the Revolution, throughout the United States.
Among philosophers, “possible worlds” analysis is, as in the work of David Lewis or Simon Blackburn, abstract. In contrast, in semantics, one thinks of Saul Kripke’s argument about how the reference of terms to objects in this world (or universe) establishes “rigid designation.”[xxii] These philosophical ideas are either too loose to be interesting to historians (one wants the facts about what happened in this world, not possibilities in a distant universe) or too tight (rigid designation might suggest that an historical story is solely one that captures the main causal features of great events and “puts on a skin” of facts[xxiii]). Yet in history, there are near possibilities. For instance, sailors and artisans in the port cities had abolitionist spokesmen like James Otis and Thomas Paine. In both Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, Otis’s and Paine’s views achieved mass influence, but they did not become the main political leaders. In a comparative context, however, one might imagine such figures, analogous to Jacobins, leading a stronger radical push from below.
Yet in contrast to North America, the centralization and compactness of France were enormously important to its revolution.[xxiv] The decentralization of American state legislatures limited the influence of democratic radicalism.[xxv] As historian Gary Nash stresses, sailor-artisan movements were not as unified and powerful as the Montagnards became. Still, had leaders like Otis and Paine come to power in ports, including Charlestown, they, too, might have instigated gradual emancipation throughout the United States.
More important, black soldiers were vital in every Independence movement in the Hemisphere – the rising of slaves created Haiti; Bolivar relied on pardos (blacks) to fight in Venezuela; in the Civil War, the Union Army became near-majority black. Blacks were the most oppressed. If one aims to defeat Imperial or secessionist armies, who better to fight for Independence or Union than freed slaves? Similarly, who better to augment the limited number of Red-coats from England than newly emancipated blacks? Once Royal/Patriot competition was initiated, each side had strong motivations to recruit African-Americans.
To justify exploring a particular counterfactual, the comparative social history of revolutions must make an alternate outcome such as the ones sketched here causally possible, even palpable. Of these two sketches, the military-competition account, which I will stress here, came nearer to fruition.
Emancipation and Independence will reenvision the Revolution: an Imperial War of conquest over whites coupled with, as a response to the Second Revolution, emancipation and soldiering for blacks; an American movement for the Independence of Northern whites allied, in response to the Second Revolution, with a proto-secession to preserve slave-owning. The Second Revolution within the Revolution for Independence occurred among slaves who escaped to freedom, mainly on the Imperial side. Yet fear of insurrection and competition for black recruits, as well as principled efforts to expand liberty, spurred Patriot enlistment of blacks and gradual emancipation in the North.
Some might balk at the term social revolution to capture this second Revolution.[xxvi] Blacks, some might point out, staged no insurrection comparable to the one in Saint Domingue that created Haiti. They did not torch the mansions and slay the slave-owners. But this incendiary image reflects only one prototype - in this case, a stereotype - about social revolution. First, during the War, somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 blacks escaped from their owners and found freedom with the Crown. That number is roughly one-seventh to one-quarter of all slaves at the time. Second, many owners also fled, leaving blacks to remain on plantations in South Carolina and Virginia, where they ran their own lives to an unusual extent. These blacks were widely known as “Torified,” and hoped for freedom from a victorious “King.” This magnitude of revolt against bondage was a social revolution. Third, many thousands of blacks fought for the Red-coats as well as worked for them. Fourth, in competition, Patriots recruited a large number of blacks and freed many. With the Continental Congress’s passage of the Laurens proposal, the possibility dawned of gradual emancipation even in the South. Trading soldiering for freedom marked a revolutionary change in the elites, provoked by massive escape and fighting for the Crown. Blacks were no longer slaves, but in the reality of social revolution, fighters and free. The American Revolution achieved vigor, honor and consistency through relying on black soldiers. Fifth, Tory blacks appeared as leaders of multiracial and all-black guerilla bands. Captain Tye in New Jersey and the Black Dragoons in South Carolina killed plantation owners in their homes and fields. These forces incarnated armed insurrection against Patriot slave-owning. In the post-War period, these five factors propelled gradual emancipation in the North; during the War, they pushed heavily even in the South. If this was not a social revolution, what would be?
The victory of the Independence movement led to a reassertion of bondage. Memories of social rebellion were repressed on both sides of the Atlantic. A failed social revolution, however, is still a social revolution. The thirteen-year insurrection that created Haiti was, after all, the only successful slave insurrection in history. To rule out other candidates, including ones that did achieve significant freedom—for instance, gradual emancipation in the North -- seems bizarre.
Emancipation and Independence will stress two additional themes. First, the radical impact of diverse Protestantisms on Patriots and Loyalists reinforced military competition and the energy of multiracial crowds in the ports, and made emancipation likely. Before, during and after the Revolution, Quakers, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists condemned slavery as a “sin of crimson dye,” and gave the dynamic of public freedom a reinforcing spiritual dimension. For black Patriots and Tories, Protestantisms brought the Bible out of the mystery of Latin into an English they could understand. These Christian ideas fit well with an earthly republic, treating citizens fairly, black and white. In Sierra Leone, blacks who were Loyalist Protestants fought for democracy.
Second, this idea that each person has a soul furthered a contractarian insight: How would you feel, asked many authors during the Revolution, if someone kidnapped your children and placed them in bondage? How can freedom be the property of whites and not of blacks? This idea is captured in political thought by Rousseau’s conception that each of us must imagine ourselves as participants in an ideal sovereign assembly, choosing just institutions, or in John Rawls’s modern refinement in A Theory of Justice: To think morally, each of us must imagine ourselves in an original position, behind a veil of ignorance; we can know relevant social facts and theories, but not where we will end up in society. We choose principles not on the basis of class, race or gender but to forge a cooperative society, one which demonstrably benefits the least advantaged.[xxvii] Rousseau and Rawls create modern democratic theory. They suggest that each of us may test the institutions of our regime on the plausible but sharp edge of a sovereign assembly or original position: Does this practice benefit most human beings – achieve a common good - or is it corrupt, in the interests of the few? In imagination, this conception allows each of us to enter into an ideal political contract; it is a democratic contractarianism. On the one hand, this argument is straight-forward – it models what any of us do when we have a moral insight, “putting oneself in the shoes of others.”[xxviii] On the other, it is radical: It leaves little about powerful institutions unquestioned or, over time, unchallenged.
Moreover, Christianity and contractarianism are, genealogically, linked. For contractarianism emerges from core moral judgments which also, partly, shape Christianity. Such judgments are shared with other religions and many philosophies (what Rawls calls an overlapping consensus about mutual regard among persons). [xxix] Nonetheless, what is most profound and ethical in Christianity – the acknowledgment that each of us has a soul and is, in this respect, equal - spurred the Second Revolution and the creation of radical democracy in Sierra Leone. This non-alienated, public impact of Christianity contrasts with Max Weber’s famous thesis - focused on the United States in the later 19th Century - that Protestantism uniquely fosters capitalism.[xxx] Weber’s thesis captures only what he called a “theodicy of good fortune” among capitalists and leaves unaddressed his category of “theodicy of ill fortune,” which fits the emancipationist Christianity of slaves.[xxxi] Conflicting Christianities, and even the subtleties of radicalism within Christianity – Quaker abolitionism among nonetheless patronizing whites; Granville Sharp’s Protestant vision of vibrant, small-scale democracy, the democratic life of black Loyalist Protestants – will play a central role in this story.
Emancipation and Independence will unfold in three parts. Part one highlights international black rebelliousness and the threat of social revolution in conflict with Independence, as well as a broad movement for emancipation among Patriots preceding the Revolution. Part two stresses the competitive interplay of Royal and Patriot enlistment and emancipation, which nearly produced gradual abolition in the South to accompany that in the North. Part three focuses on two international and democratic seeds of freedom spread by the American Revolution – the expansion of the Philadelphia Abolition Society, with its impact in England and France, and the fight of black Loyalists for democracy in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.[xxxii] The saga of revolt against bondage before the Revolution, the intense struggle within it, and the seeds of freedom it spread illustrate Martin Luther King’s insight that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
[i] Goldfield, The Color of Politics. Gilbert, DI, ch. 9. The 2008 election of Barack Obama marks a new day and the draining of some of this poison.
[ii] Marx and Engels famously draw this contrast in The Communist Manifesto.
[iii] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, ch. 1.
[iv] As we will see in the case of New York, the British distrusted the independence of white Tories. Newly freed, blacks were more adventuresome – the role played by Captain Tye’s guerillas, for instance – and more loyal. The thousands of blacks who followed each major British force sacked wherever they could get food, including Loyalist estates.
[v] Franco Venturi, The Roots of Revolution.
[vi] As a consequence of racism, full names of slaves, especially their own names, do not survive.
[vii] Formal emancipation occurred in 1799; the acts substantively emancipated blacks only after 1827, some as late as 1848. In 1817, another act freed blacks as of 1827, though it still required apprenticeships until 1848. Patrick Rael, “The Long Death of Slavery,” p. 133.
[viii] Jill Lepore, “The Tightening Vise,” p. 67. Her figures, however, are from the turn of the 18th Century.
[ix] Ibid, p. 75.
[x] Sylvia Frey, Water from the Rock, pp. 12, 10.
[xi] Ibid, p. 11.
[xii] Ibid, pp. 9-10.
[xiii] Wood, “’The Dream Deferred,’” p. 180 names the parallel.
[xiv] Nash, Forgotten Fifth, p. 3, refers to the massive British freeing of blacks as a “dirty secret.”
[xv] For instance, Massey (2000) says Laurens accomplished little for the freedom of the slaves.
[xvi] Blackburn magisterially captures this point.
[xvii] Thoreau, “Last Days of Captain John Brown.”
[xviii] David J. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist, pp. 344-47
[xix] I partly agree with Richard Miller’s Fact and Method, ch. 2-3, esp. 123-4 and Alan Garfinkel’s Forms of Explanation’s analysis of underlying necessity. But this argument only suggests that if one pattern of political causation does not lead to a result – abolition, the triumph of fascism – another one will. The possibilities extend forward and backward in time for a considerable period. The American Revolution is not ruled out from achieving gradual emancipation any more than the revolution that created Haiti or the North’s triumph in the Civil War is, just at that time, necessitated.
[xx] The contrast of Fidel Castro in Cuba and Che Guevara in Bolivia underlines this point.
[xxi] Louis Althusser’s “Contradiction and Overdetermination” in Pour Marx (For Marx) captures this uniqueness for the Russian Revolution. But think of the Argentine dictatorship against 14 “mothers of the disappeared” on the Plazo de Mayo in Buenos Aires…
[xxii] Gilbert, DI, pp. 114, 170-72, 181.
[xxiii] I refer here to W.B. Yeats’ poem “Molly Moore.” Mourning her loss, the speaker says: “And being old, she put a skin on everything she said.” That seems to me one of the things historians do at their best.
[xxiv] As Montesquieu, De l’esprit des lois (Spirit of the Laws), livre 9 [cited hereafter as EL] and the Federalist Papers stress, the (increasing) size of the United States facilitated the isolation of protests to one or two regions.
[xxv] As the Shays’ Rebellion revealed, such legislatures were also open to democratic pressure from below.
[xxvi] Nash, Forgotten Fifth, p. 39, also uses the term “social revolution” for the black uprising in the South.
[xxvii] In what “advantage” consists is a profound question for which Rawls’s “primary goods” are merely an approximation. Self-respect, which he emphasizes, is central. Further, realizing the equal basic freedoms of the first principle, even if it means restricting whatever inequalities of wealth lead to oligarchy, ensures cooperation.
[xxviii] It is what I call in Democratic Individuality, ch. 1, a core moral standard. Any moral (or psychological) argument which permits one to recognize and incorporate the interests of others in broader proposals – that prevention of murder for all also protects the proposer from being murdered - justifies this idea.
[xxix] An overlapping consensus on mutual regard is also justified by independent philosophical argument. See Gilbert, DI, for one version of that argument.
[xxx] Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Vincent Harding, There is a River, p. 76, suggests, “major segments of white America were possessed by just such visions of divine action in their midst, saw America as a Promised Land, as a staging ground for the earthly manifestations of the coming (white) Kingdom of God. Such godly visions, built strangely on the deaths of significant portions of the nonwhite children of this Father, contributed their own peculiar busyness to the blurring of American vision.”
[xxxi] Cornel West, Democracy Matters, ch. 4. Weber’s thesis misses Martin Luther King’s Christianity. At its inception, Christianity was a movement of slaves against Rome. For a theoretical comparison of Weberian and Marxian ideas in relation to relevant evidence, see Gilbert, DI, ch. 9-11.
[xxxii] A man of diverse imagination and vivid storyteller, Simon Schama published Rough Crossings (2006) which overlaps particularly with the third section. He extends the tracing of black identity in the Revolution by other historians to British emancipation and its provocative effect in America. His book symbolically captures the tragedy of a slave named British Freedom who fights with the Crown, journeys to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, and is finally, in the suppression of the democratic uprising in Freetown, exiled to Bullom Shore. The Crown, Schama says memorably, had no taste for British Freedom. At his best, Schama is deeply concerned with the fate of individual blacks. He also portrays Granville Sharp’s activism on behalf of several slaves which instigated, against the odds, Justice Mansfield’s Somerset decision.
Yet the book is disappointing. Oddly, Schama does not empathize with the few blacks – Frederick Douglass aside - whose voices survive. As I will indicate in the notes, Thomas Jeremiah, Thomas Peters, Olaudah Equiano and Murphy Steele are, at crucial points, derided or dismissed as Schama echoes the views of slaveholders or autocratic whites like Henry Laurens and John Clarkson. In addition, Schama derides abolitionists as “gallant fools”; he even twice belittles the proposal of his hero, Granville Sharp, for black democracy in Sierra Leone as “Israelito-Saxon Frankpledge” without describing how it influenced black Loyalists to organize themselves in Africa. (pp. 195, 210) He seems to suggest that Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation makes the British cause that of freedom for blacks and provokes Southern revolt. (pp. 7-8) Yet he dismisses Dunmore as a “pink-cheeked time-server,” “a bit of a trembler.” In this other voice, he is cynical about black leaders, abolitionist activists, Lord Dunmore’s initiatives, and moral progress in history. Interestingly, he criticizes but one racist story – that of Anna Maria Falconbridge about white prostitutes being forced onto the boats from London with blacks. He rightly points out that Granville Sharp oversaw the voyages, and that poor whites and blacks could marry and have children in London. Broadly speaking, Schama does not take the possibility of emancipation seriously.