Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Marc Steiner show: the surprising centrality of emancipation in the American Revolution



On August 1, on WEAA (NPR) in Baltimore, Marc Steiner replayed the interview he did with me last year on Black Patriots and Loyalists; Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence (Chicago: 2012; now in paperback and priced for the general reader here). Marc read the book as someone long interested in history and as a person who thinks deeply about racism. He is profoundly concerned with the struggles of blacks and native americans from below and how this shapes much of what is decent in American history. So the discussion we had about the book is on a different level from much of the conversation about it.

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For instance,the history profession has, as Gary Nash says in The Forgotten Fifth (2006), increasingly made discoveries about the role of blacks in the Revolution, but was long reluctant to discuss them, since so many fought for the British. As Nash puts it, this is the "dirty secret" of the American Revolution. The Crown freed many of the most oppressed. It took some 12-15,000 blacks to freedom in the British empire, even though Britain still tolerated bondage in the Caribbean; this was, nonetheless, as Cassandra Pybus rightly puts it, the largest act of emancipation at a single stroke in North America until Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863.

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My argument also emphasizes the gradual emancipation enacted in the Northern states during and immediately after the Revolution. This was the zenith of freedom achieved in the fight for Independence. There was a free North in the Civil War, I stress, because of the surge for emancipation, led by black and white sailors and artisans from below, in the Revolution itself.

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Yet when very able historians reviewed the book favorably, they often did not respond to its main thesis about the centrality of emancipation during the Revolution but said that in doing some 16 years of research on the topic, I had unearthed many new documents and broken down lists and provided numbers which previous historians had not (for instance, I showed that roughly 3 times as many free blacks went to Canada with the British as had previously been thought). Historians did not take up the new conclusions of the work (another one, for example, was that the South seceded from Britain to preserve bondage, a precursor to the Confederacy in the Civil War).

Put differently, in any academic field, a prevailing paradigm is likely to influence how people see - or in some central way, do not see - a work which draws different conclusions.

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In public discourse, for instance, in the New York Times, it is permissible to say finally, in an op-ed as Paul Finkelmann does in response to 2 reviews of Jon Meacham's "best-seller" on Jefferson, that the latter was "the Monster of Monticello." It is so far possible to acknowledge more black soldiers in the Revolution (6.600 as the Daughters of the American Revolution, under protest, has discovered) than had previously been thought. It is not so far possible to discuss the centrality of the struggle for emancipation in the Revolution, which was part of an international struggle, beginning with some 20 slave revolts in the Caribbean between 1760-1775, enormously influencing sailors who had been "impressed" - seized by force off the streets - to be in the British navy, who identified with the rebels and brought the word, in the early 1760s, to London and Boston. They influenced the powerful egalitarian pamphlets of J. Philmore (1760, London) and James Otis (1764, Boston).

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Listen here to my interview with Marc Steiner.

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