The American Revolution: Slavery


Figure 1.--

The great majority of slaves transported in the Atlantic slave trade went to Brazil and the Caribbean rather than the North American colonies, but there were slaves inthe American colonies, primarily the southern colonies. After the Revolutionary war began, British Torries began asking why it was that the largest slave owners in the colonies cried the the loudest for liberty. Some colonists including Jefferson tried with little success to blame Britain for slavery. Historians in recent years have begun to address the important role blacks played in the Civil War. Still not adequately described is the roles blacks played in the Revolutionary War. Blacks including slaves fought on both sides. Washington at first was horrified with the idea of arming blacks, but changed his mind as the realties of fighting the British emerged and he observed the contribution of his black soldiers. The British tried to attract blacks to their cause. This probably backfired as many whites, including whites that may have supported the British, were horified with the idea. This was one of the reasons that the British when they launched their southern strategy failed to encounter the support they had anticipated. After the Revolution as the need for a stronger national government emerged so did the issue of slavery. At the time of the Revolution, America was still a minor force in internatiinal affairs, only about 3 million people with no real army, mostly living along the coast of a great continent. The primary importance of America and its policies on slavery would be the great power that America would grow into during the 19th century.

American Slavery

One of the most significant institution in United States history was slavery. Slavery helped build America. It is a major reason why America developed differently than Europe. It is also a major cause of the disparities that now exist among Americas (much greater than in Europe), and the roots of major social problems are rooted in slvevery. Two historians write that the legacy os slavery, "... remains in the history and heritage of the South that it shaped, in the culture of the North, where its memory was long denied, in the national economy for which it provided much of the foundation, and in the political and social system it prfoundly influenced." [Horton and Horton] Despite the importance of slavery in the Americam epoch, slavery until recently has been a subjected avoided by American historians. To the extent that slavery was addressed, it tended to be discussed in terms that accepted the southern myth of idelic plantation life and benign white masters struggling to deal with lazy, workers that had a child-like mentality. This has changed in recent years as historians produce more realistic treement of slavery. One area in which progress has been disappointing is school textbooks. The egregiously racist treatment has been removed from textboks, but for the most part school textbooks still give little attention to slavery and the discussion presented is usually not illuuminating. One problem here is the economics of school textbooks and the need to meet the editorial demands of large states. Here Texas is a particular problem. American schools have attempted to deal with the racial issue bu designating February as Black History Month. Unfortunately rarely does Black History Month address slavery. Rather it generally amounts to an innoucous effort to point out Blacks who have contributed to America which do little to explain social inequities in America. The avoidance of slavery is not just a matter of white unwillingness to address slavery, but many Black educators also seem reluctant.

Slavery and Liberty Ethos of the Revolution

After the Revolutionary war began, British Torries began asking why it was that the largest slave owners in the colonies cried the the loudest for liberty. What ever one's view of the Revolution, it was certainly a good question. Some colonists including Jefferson tried with little success to blame Britain for slavery.

Blacks in the Revolution

Historians in recent years have begun to address the important role blacks played in the Civil War. Still not adequately described is the roles blacks played in the Revolutionary War. Blacks including slaves fought on both sides, although more fought with the British. Choosing sides in the Revolution was a difficult decesion for both Blacks and Whites. Many remained passive and stayed out of the fighting. For blacks, most of whom were slaves, the key factor in deciding how to commit was their possible freedom. As the Revolutionary War waxed and wainef through the colonies, many slaves got the opportunity to join which ever side offered emancipation and personal freedom or to run away from their nasters. The British were selective, but actively recruited slaves belonging to Patriot masters. As a result, more blacks fought for the British Crown than the Patriots. Historians estimate that some 100,000 African American slaves escaped, died, or were killed during the American Revolution. This was a substantial portion of the slave population. It surely would have been much higher had the British Southern Strategy (1980-81) not have been so short lived. Washington at first was horrified with the idea of arming blacks. When he was given command of the Continental Army (1775), Washington barred the further recruitment of Black soldiers. They had been part of the Patriot forces at the inituial battles (Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill). There were, however, only limited numbers of Blacks in the northern colonies. He gradually changed his mind as the realties of fighting the British emerged and he observed the contribution of his black soldiers. Had George Washington been less ambivalent on the issue, more blacks might have joined the Continental Army. Blacks in Continental Army weregranted theu=r freedm adter the War as well as pensions. The Continental Army was of course not the only patriot force. Each of the states committed state militias and here more blacks were involved. Even some southern state miltias had blacks. And part of the compact was freedom. For the most part this compact was honored after the Revolution, although there were some exceptions in the south. This varied from state to stte. Freedom only meant the soldiers, not their families.

British Policy

The British tried to attract blacks to their cause. This probably backfired as many whites, including whites that may have supported the British, were horified with the idea. This was one of the reasons that the British when they launched their southern strategy failed to encounter the support they had anticipated. Many slaves did win their freedom. The British hinored their word as they brought the slaves in their ranks back to Britain as they evacuated america. Some even managed to bring their fmilies.

Constitutional Convention (1787)

After the Revolution as the need for a stronger national government emerged so did the issue of slavery. Under the Articles of Confederationn, slavery was not an issue because the colonies were still essentially soverign entities. Once a strong national government was created, this would change although the perogatives of the states would be a major issue both at the Constitutional Convention and in the subsequent history of the United States. Thus slavery could not be ignored as the delegated convened in Philadelphia. It could also not be addressed directly. Northern delegates would not contenence any provision institutionalizing slavery in the Constituion. And southern delegates would not not contenence abolition. Thus compromise was necessary if there was to be a Constitutiion and national government with nany authority. The answer was to ignore the issue as much as possible. The word 'slave' and 'slavery' did not appear in the final document. And the issue of slavery was left up to the states. There were, however, slave provisiions in the Constitution, both the product of intense discussion and compromise. The first was how to count the slaves when calculating representation in the House of Represenatives and thus also the Electoral College. The second was the Atlantic slave trade. The delegates did not address slavery itself, but it did address the Atlantic slave trade.

Views of Slavery

Today discussion of slavery largely focus on ethical issues. This was not absent in Philadelphia. For a nation founded on the ethos of liberty, the uidea iof human slavery was a obvuious ciontradictiion. And these issues woukld grow in strenbgth with the rise of the Abolitiinist Movement. Slavers countered with the arguments that Bkacks were uinferior and not able to handle liberty and that sklavery brought civilizatiin and Chruistuianity to the primitive people of Africa. This would be the Great Debate in the new American Republuic. Sometimes lost in the fervor of this debate is the iron hand of economics. Many of the delegates in Philadephia, including some from the South, believed that slavery would gradually disapear under its own weight, unavle to compete wuth the efficdencies of free labor. This amy have been the case had not Ely Whitney invented the cotton gin. Suddenly a major cash crop emerged that was perfect for southern growing conditions and could be profutabky grown on large plantatins with substantial slave work forces. So rather than whiter, the southern slave economy grew. Had this fevelopment occurred before the Constitutiinal Convention, it is likely that agreement on enduing the slave tradev might have been more difficult. Irinically, the export earmings from cotton would play a major role in industrializing the North. And it wiould be this industrial power that would be the key factor in defeating the Southern Confederacy in the Civil war.

Importance

At the time of the Revolution, America was still a minor force in internatiinal affairs, only about 3 million people with no real army, mostly living along the coast of a great continent. The primary importance of America and its policies on slavery would be the great power that Anmerica would grow into during the 19th century.







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Created: 1:45 PM 1/22/2014
Last updated: 1:01 PM 3/5/2016