Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Black Patriots at Yorktown: a story that, ironically, the Times will not yet acknowledge


Some historians of the American Revolution suggest that the reason black soldiering is not widely known is that the British freed the most slaves and took them to freedom in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. In her influential article on "Jefferson's Faulty Math" in the William and Mary Quarterly here, Cassandra Pybus, an Australian historian of the American Revolution and a Loyalist, has rightly emphasized that the British were the most sweeping liberators of slaves up to the Civil War. Gary Nash, who has written brilliantly about the experience of blacks, whites and native americans, presents black fighting for the British as revolution's "dirty secret." He also treats the issue as one of an ignored constituency, The Forgotten Fifth, in the title of a recent book.

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But curiously, there is also a hidden story of international uprisings against bondage shaping the American Revolution, a second revolution within the first. Moreover, the fight for emancipation is the fight for freedom; it renders the American Revolution consistent as a revolution for freedom and answers Samuel Johnson's apt quip: "how come we hear the greatest yelps for liberty from the drivers of slaves?"

Independence was driven by slaves, former slaves and poor whites who were the bulk of every revolutionary crowd.

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The moral and journalistic/scholarly obligation to recognize the driving role of blacks as well as poor whites who cared about democracy and freedom - not mainly the founding slave-owners of American Myth, let alone, the unintentionally ironic celebration of the Constitution as a document of freedom though it was, in fact, a slave-owners' document (until the 13th Amendment) - see here and here - is perhaps what frightens off the New York Times from mentioning this story or allowing debate on it.

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I thought naively that Gary must be right. But ironically and quite surprisingly to me, it is the less well known story of black recruitment and soldiering on the American side - a force that drove the Revolution, was decisive at Yorktown and has been long "whited out" - which seems to be motivating the exclusion.

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Even with the reelection of Obama and the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation - suddenly at last in the news - the story of black Patriots is not one that the Times can yet hear.

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The Times even prints a secession-leaning op-ed by Jim Downs deriding Lincoln for "creating a humanitarian crisis" in responding to abolitionist and military pressure for emancipation and issuing the Proclamation - see here - and publicizes a new book on this theme. But the op-ed page will not yet mention the shaping of the American Revolution by a fight against bondage which was central to the American founding...

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If one wants a marker of the perversity of continuing racism in the Times, this turns out to be a surprising one.

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I wrote a draft op-ed on this subject, figuring that if the Times can print an op-ed about the bleakness of Civil War emancipation, perhaps they could correct the longstanding silence about the role of abolitionists, black and white, in the American Revolution itself.

No such luck...

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Here is the draft op-ed:

The Fight for Emancipation in the American Revolution

We are often told that Thomas Jefferson and some other founding slave-owners were under no pressure to free their own slaves. It is anachronistic, some biographers say, to indict their cruelties because really no one fought to change things. There is some absurdity in this apology. As Lincoln once said, “Although volume upon volume has been written to prove the good of slavery, I have yet to meet the man who wants to take the good of it by becoming a slave himself.” Ask the descendants of Sally Hemings if no one was discontent…

But there is a deeper story of black and poor white resistance here, fairly well known among historians of the Revolution, but not more widely. This is partly because in 1772, Royal Governor Dunmore of Virginia declared to the “proud rebels” that if they took up arms, he would recruit slaves and indentured servants, “sow destruction wherever I can reach and raze your mansions to the ground.” He repeated this for 3 years. The South, led by Virginia, seceded from Britain, in an analogy to the Confederacy, largely to preserve bondage. As Gary Nash, a great historian writes, this is “the dirty secret” of the American Revolution, one which many patriotic historians have feared to state too bluntly.

But to win the Revolution, the Patriots also had to rely on black soldiers. And there was a movement against bondage from below inspired by some 20 revolts, in the Caribbean between 1750 and 1770. The Imperial Navy seized people off the streets of North America with press-gangs. Sailors, black and white, often felt themselves enslaved and identified with blacks who fought back. They brought the word to London in 1760 – J. Philmore’s Two Dialogues Concerning the Man-Trade – and Boston in 1764 – James Otis’s The Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved. Otis proclaimed “the natural rights of every man, black as well as white.”

Such views were discussed by sailors and artisans in every working class tavern for 11 years before the Revolution. Abolitionism was as widespread then as popular discontent with the Iraq war in 2004.

Everyone has heard of the Boston Tea Party. But along with the taxes on stamped paper and tea, the single most important source of demonstrations against British rule were the press gangs. Most of the revolutionary crowds were abolitionists. And others were motivated by Christian denunciations of bondage as a “sin of crimson dye” as Samuel Hopkins, a New Light minister in Newport, Rhode Island, rightly put it.

In the Revolution, Rhode Island had too few white volunteers. With Washington’s approval, in 1778, the state purchased the freedom of and recruited the First Rhode Island Regiment composed of blacks and Narragansett Indians. The Regiment fought heroically throughout the war, and along with a Connecticut and a Massachusetts black regiment, provided the main troops at Yorktown. These were a quarter of the men, according to Baron von Closen, Washington’s military advisor, and sent to take key British strongholds.

After the battle, Georg Daniel Flohr, a German private fighting with the Patriots, walked around the field. The majority of the dead, he wrote, on both sides, were “Mohren” (Moors, blacks). I have yet to meet the person who learned this fact in an American or English public school…

In its 1777 constitution, Vermont outlawed bondage. The great abolitionist movement from below and the role of blacks soldiers led to gradual emancipation in Pennsylvania in 1780, Massachusetts in 1782, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784, New York – as large a slave-owning state as South Carolina or Virginia – in 1799, and New Jersey in 1804. Yet few know of these great American achievements of freedom.

For emancipation was not only in the interest of slaves. It was the realization of the freedom for which the American independence movement was waged. “How come we hear the greatest yelps for liberty from the drivers of slaves?” Samuel Johnson, the British essayist, quipped aptly of the first Continental Congress. These emancipations were America’s answer.

Even the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment “four-score and seven” years later have not been widely taught in American schools. The movie “Lincoln” tells this admirable story – one that made the Constitution, initially a document of slave-owners in which blacks counted as 3/5th human to advance the voting power of their masters, a consistent legalization of freedom.

Many of us are just learning about the enormous fight from below of 200,000 black soldiers and sailors who brought down the Confederacy. Lincoln referred aptly to being swept along by the abolitionist movement from below.

But the fight in the American Revolution, for freedom – the fight which made the North free and challenged bondage in the South - is still hidden. It deserves to be known.



Alan Gilbert is John Evans Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence (University of Chicago Press, May 2012).

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