A Paradox of Patriots: Freedom and Slavery on the 4th of July

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”–Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776.

That peculiar passage in the Declaration of Independence always drew me when I was younger. I found it disconcerting that a document in which white men were listing their grievances against an English king they saw as despotic, they at the same time could make such disparaging comments about the indigenous population whose lands they now held. It was one of my first understandings of the great American paradox of liberty and freedom. But it was not until I was much older that I understood the first part: “He has excited domestic insurrection amongst us.” Who had the king of England “excited?” What “domestic” rebellion did Jefferson and the colonists so fear could erupt in their midst? It turned out that my earlier history classes had omitted something from the American Revolution, key players whose significance was enough to warrant mention and concern in the fledgling nation’s premiere document–slaves.

This isn’t alternate history.

People of African descent had been part of the English colonies since the early 17th century. Though their status was not clearly defined early on, where they often shared a similar state with white indentured servants, by the late 18th century colonial laws had firmly established slavery on the basis of skin color and race. When the American Revolution erupted, a good number of free black men and women (and an even much larger number of slaves) watched as colonies and empires turned on each other, wondering where they would fit into the grand scheme of things. Some were swept up by the currents of upheaval; others would attempt to shape it to their ends. Their actions would have a profound effect on the course of the revolution and the very meanings of terms like “liberty” and “freedom,” as they decided where they would stand in the conflict.

Blacks involved in the events of the American Revolution are not unknown. The first shot heard around the world may have actually been buried into Crispus Attucks‘ chest, a runaway slave born to an African father and a Natwick Nantucket Indian mother. He, along with what later Founding Father John Adams would derisively refer to as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and mullatoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs,” confronted a British guard at the local customs house of Boston–the climax to ongoing tensions between sailors and soldiers competing for work. In an ensuing melee British soldiers marched on the group of thirty, firing directly into the crowd and killing Attucks. Patriot activists such as the Sons of Liberty would whitewash the actors in this deadly confrontation, making it more palatable to colonists, and dub it The Boston Massacre of 1770–a key symbol of British repression.

When the Revolutionary war finally broke out numerous blacks joined the ranks of the Continental Army. Free blacks like Cuff Smith and Cesar Prince enlisted to fight the British. The founder of African-American freemasonry, Barbadian-born Prince Hall, is himself listed in military records of the Revolution. And it is said he fought at Bunker Hill. Pictures also show free black infantrymen in the first Rhode Island Regiment or speak of them among other troops. A great deal of these free blacks enlisted in the Continental army hoping their service would help the newly forming nation live up to its creed of freedom, and grant it to their black brethren held in bondage. Many enslaved blacks also attempted to join the Continental army, some of them successful and others of them returned to their masters. Quite a few offered to fight for the colonists, if they would be ensured freedom for themselves and their family in return. A common practice among some white slave owners was to in fact substitute a slave for military service rather than enlisting themselves. A British officer observed: “The Negro can take the field instead of his master, and therefore no regiment is to be seen in which there are not Negroes in abundance, and among them are able-bodied and strong fellows.”


1780 drawing of American soldiers from the Yorktown campaign. To the far left is a black infantryman from the Rhode Island Regiment.

Of particular interest were the regiments of free men of color from Haiti. About 750 Haitian freemen, then the French colony of Saint-Domingue, fought alongside colonial troops against the British in the Siege of Savannah on Oct. 9, 1779. Later Haitian revolutionary and ruler Henri Christophe–at the time only 12 yrs old–is also thought to have served with French forces on the side of the American colonists. Where blacks probably figured the greatest in the Continental forces was within the navy, where sailors were not as rigidly restricted by color or race. The Continental Navy openly recruited both free and enslaved blacks, mostly sought after for their prior experiences on merchant and British military vessels. Numerous blacks, many of them slaves seeking escape and freedom, sought refuge in the navy where they served in battles against the British.

Taking on tasks such as pilots, laborers and more these blacks earned an impressive reputation for their invaluable skills. The later famed abolitionist and businessman James Forten, born into a free black Philadelphia community, enlisted as a powder boy on the colonial privateer Royal Louis. Altogether, it is believed some 5,000 black patriots (a good number of them slaves promised their liberty) served in the armies and navies of the Continental forces. However the majority of blacks who remained enslaved in the 13 colonies did not fight for their masters; they instead chose the other side–which brings us back to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence.

The original draft of the declaration mentions slavery much more specifically, charging the British King for the immoral crime of the slave trade:

he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation…. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold.

This passage, excised from the final draft, was written by Thomas Jefferson as well–a life long slave owner till his death. It was part of a tit-for-tat war of morality, waged by the British and their rebellious colonies, who blamed *each other* for the forced necessity of the slave trade. Jefferson goes on to claim that the colonists would end slavery–if only the oppressive British would let them–and then charges the English King with inciting these same slaves to rebellion:

he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

It was a bizarre bit of propaganda, on both sides, that in the end did very little for the enslaved themselves–who would eventually take matters into their own hands.

Slave insurrections were not uncommon in the colonies, and had erupted in the Stono Rebellion of South Carolina and in numerous plots that saw New York in flames in the early 18th century. Fears of slave rebellion had caused colonists to pass laws calling for white men to be armed, for free blacks to be dispersed when congregating in groups and to depend upon the reliance of British garrisons to keep their property in line. Even still, colonists were always wary–and with good reason, as slaves looked for any domestic opportunity or disaster to strike for freedom. Many would find that in the social upheavals unleashed in the American Revolution.

As colonial revolutionary rhetoric grew louder, the British made several veiled threats of “arming slaves” against its rebellious colonies–instilling mass fear and panic that slave owners like Thomas Jefferson would later find useful in unifying disparate white colonists.These fears became reality when in 1775 the Royal Governor of Virginia Lord Dunmore, under siege by an encroaching colonial militia (spurred on in great part by rumors the governor was indeed arming the slaves and disarming the white populace), issued in desperation his famous proclamation granting freedom to those slaves who would rally to his side.

“…I do require every Person capable of bearing Arms, to resort to His MAJESTY’S STANDARD, or be looked upon as Traitors to His MAJESTY’S Crown and Government, and thereby become liable to the Penalty the Law inflicts upon such Offenses; such as forfeiture of Life, confiscation of Lands, &. &. And I do hereby further declare all indented Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His MAJESTY’S Troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper Sense of their Duty, to His MAJESTY’S Crown and Dignity.”–Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, Nov 7 1775.

Many slaves, weighing their options between their masters and their masters’ enemies, chose the latter. In truth, Dunmore’s hand had in a way been pushed by the slaves themselves. Earlier, when first making the threats he thought would cow the colonists, Dunmore was surprised when several slaves appeared at the Royal Governor’s mansion, eager and ready to take up arms. Alarmed that he had perhaps overplayed his hand, Dunmore quickly sent the slaves away. However the news of Dunmore’s intent spread rapidly among the slave populace, and when the actual call was made, hundreds came to his aid, securing his escape at one point and routing the colonial militia. As tales of Dunmore’s proclamation spread, the institution of slavery in the colonies was thrown into tumult.

During the war an estimated 100,000 slaves took advantage of the disruption to run away, many of them heading directly to join British forces. Others fled to Canada, Florida, or Native American lands. Thomas Jefferson estimated that Virginia lost 30,000 slaves in just one year. Fugitive slave Boston King was one of these individuals, risking punishment or death to flee from bondage. He endured numerous harrowing adventures during his escape, finally making it to the British forces stationed in New York where most black runaways were gathered.

Some of these runaways joined the British armies and navies outright, becoming fighters who wreaked havoc on American forces. It was said that among the feared German Hessian mercenaries of the British, black slaves were enlisted into nearly every rank. One of the most well-known of these black fighters was Colonel Tye, an escaped slave who joined the British as a guerrilla fighter. In 1778 at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, Tye captured a captain of the American militia, earning a reputation and name among the British. Comprised of enslaved blacks and lower class whites loyalists, Colonel Tye’s rag-tag band became known as “cow-boys”. They carried out daring militia attacks throughout New Jersey, often attacking military outposts, former masters’ plantations and other Americans in rebellion against the British.

Detail from “The Death of Major Pierson,” 1782-84, oil painting by John Singleton Copley depicting a black soldier fighting for the British during the American Revolution. Black soldiers in Dunmore’s Royal Ethiopian Regiment had “Liberty to Slaves” embroidered on their uniforms.-Tate Gallery.

During the brutal winter of 1779, Tye was among an elite group of twenty-four black Loyalists, known as the Black Brigade, who joined with the Queen’s Rangers: a British guerrilla unit charged with protecting British held New York City and carrying out raids for supplies. By 1780 Tye and his band were feared by white members of the American forces: capturing and killing Continental militia members, destroying their military equipment and more.

As news of Colonel Tye’s feats reached an excited slave community, the American governor of New Jersey in a desperate move invoked martial law – hoping to stop many slaves from going over to the British. Tye’s end came in the Autumn of 1780 after a minor wound in a skirmish turned fatal. But his military exploits would become the stuff of legends.

And not only enslaved blacks joined the British forces. Some free blacks, believing the British would guarantee a better freedom for their black brethren in bondage, urged blacks to join the redcoats as well. In 1775, Jeremiah Thomas, a pilot, fisherman, “and Free Negroe of considerable property”, was hanged and burned in Charleston in an insurrection plot in which he enticed free and enslaved blacks to join the Royal British navy.

Treatment by the British however was not often better than that of the Continental army. Many blacks found themselves placed in slave-like conditions in disease-ridden British camps, to perform menial tasks and hard labor to support white troops. Others were forcibly returned to their Loyalist owners. And some were even captured and traded as prizes of war by British soldiers and officers.

With the end of the Revolutionary War and the defeat of the British, many blacks who had allied with the British found themselves in a dangerous predicament. Fearing punishment and death if captured by American militiamen, many fled to New York and sought refuge with the British forces gathered there. They were joined by thousands of runaways–men, women and children. But part of the treaty signed with the colonies demanded the return of slave property, whose owners came looking for them. Heart-wrenching stories tell of slaves jumping in the water after departing British ships, whose sailors hacked away at their grabbing arms with cutlasses.

Some British attempted to keep their word. General Guy Carelton, calling the British agreement to return slaves a “breach of faith,” drew up a list of some 3,000 blacks–the Book of Negroes–that would be rescued. Many were resettled in Nova Scotia–where they eventually faced poverty, starvation and neglect, some leaving for the African colony of Sierra Leone. Some of the unfortunate blacks that escaped to Savannah and Charleston were allowed to evacuate with their British allies as well, who promptly resold many of them back into bondage in the Caribbean. Most of however were returned as “stolen property” to their colonial American owners

There were those blacks who refused to return to slavery, waging guerrilla campaigns of their own even long after the Revolution had ended. Some had received prior training from the British, but opted to seek freedom on their own rather than be re-enslaved on the American mainland or the Caribbean. In one such instance, in Georgia, a large group of men and women erected twenty-one houses and planted rice fields in a clearing near the Savannah River. The site was estimated to measure 700 yards long and 120 yards wide, and was protected by a four-foot high log-and-cane barrier. From this base in the swamps two escaped slaves dubbed “Captain Cudjoe” and “Captain Lewis” led an armed group of 100 men who called themselves “the King of England’s Soldiers” in punishing guerrilla attacks on plantations and state troops. They posed such a threat that in 1785 a joint Georgia and South Carolina military expedition was sent after them. Lewis was captured, tried and hanged – his head placed on a pole and displayed as a warning.

In the North, other blacks used the rhetoric of the American Revolution to their benefit, writing petitions to local magistrates, appealing their freedom or rights on ideals of liberty. One slave, Elizabeth Freeman (also known as Mum Bett), even successfully sued for her freedom in a Massachusetts Court in 1780. And these struggles would result in a gradual abolition of slavery in many Northern states over the next few decades.

Still, the American Revolution, and that passage of the Declaration of Independence read on July 4th, remains part of the American paradox. And figures such as Colonel Tye are as much a part of our past as Crispus Attucks. I know this is a break from the usual theme of this blog, dedicated to science fiction. But for all its lack of presence in our larger popular national memory, I wouldn’t be surprised if some mistook it for alternate history.

References & Further Reading:

George F. Jones. “The Black Hessians: Negroes Recruited by the Hessians in South Carolina and other Colonies,” South Carolina Historical Magazine, 83 (October 1982): 287-302.

Sylvia R. Frey. Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in the Revolutionary Age. (1993)

Woody Holton. Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia. (1999)

Benjamin Quarles. The Negro in the American Revolution. (1961)

Africans in America- PBS- American Revolution

5 thoughts on “A Paradox of Patriots: Freedom and Slavery on the 4th of July

  1. James Forten — perhaps an ancestor of Charlotte Forten, of Civil War fame? And I’ve heard of Elizabeth Freeman, and General Carelton, though not of Colonel Tye *makes notes*
    And, as usual, thank you for the ‘furtjer readings’!

  2. Pingback: A Paradox of Patriots: Freedom and Slavery on the 4th of July | MCU Media

  3. Colonel Tye–as much if not more a “hero” than Attucks, freeing many slaves in his raids on rebelling colonist slave-holder plantations. I’ve always wondered tho what his feelings were as he rode past loyal slave-holders plantations on the way to raiding rebelling colonists slave holders.

    My understanding of the role of Blacks in the american war of independence, and please correct me if I am wrong:
    Washington never matched Dunmore/British offer of freedom to slaves who joined the loyalist forces. He did eventually agree to allow free blacks to join the continental army–but not slaves. Any slaves who fought on side of colonists were at the initiative of the individual colonies/states, such as the rhode island regiment.

    • I’m sure the existence of a runaway slave fighting for the British against slave owning rebels, while knowing the British were the most powerful brokers in the slave trade, was inherently “complicated.” But this story was one of complications for people in bondage. And agreed, I know of nothing equivalent among the Patriots like Lord Dunmore’s proclamation. This would explain in part the limited number of blacks, particularly slaves, among the patriots. Thanks for reading!

  4. Pingback: Shaking Things Up in Sleepy Hollow | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

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