Monday, May 22, 2006


The colored expatriates of the American Revolution

I'm a little behind the curve in linking to this, but Harvard historian Jill Lepore had an interesting review in the New Yorker earlier this month. The two books under review, by Simon Schama and Cassandra Pybus, document the lives of the thousands of enslaved Americans who fled behind British lines during the Revolutionary War. Both books sound well worth the read; I flipped through the Pybus volume at a bookstore recently and would like to read more, especially after Evan's recommendation of Pybus's other work.

An early paragraph in Lepore's review also caught my eye. Lepore argues that those slaves who left American shores with the British "also left American history. Or, rather, they have been left out of it. Theirs is not an undocumented story ... it’s just one that has rarely been told, for a raft of interesting, if opposing, reasons."

Lepore somewhat overstates her historiographical case here. Sylvia Frey's important book on slave resistance during the Revolutionary War is now 15 years old, and the works of Benjamin Quarles and Herbert Aptheker on the same subject are even older. (Judging from my quick scan, Pybus acknowledges this long tradition of scholarship even as she revises earlier estimates about how many slaves escaped to British lines.)

But Lepore's claim is even more of an overstatement if she intended to say that amnesia about those slaves who joined the British had already set in during the Revolutionary generation. The earliest generations of Americans had the stories of those slaves very much in mind. This was because, in the first place, debates about whether American slaveowners would be compensated for their losses during the War loomed large in the early diplomatic history of the United States. But white Americans also lost plenty of sleep in the early nineteenth century because of the example of flight that Revolutionary slaves had set: perennial fears of war with Britain were always compounded in the antebellum period by fears that such a war would inspire a general slave revolt or a sudden surge of runaways. Twenty-first century Americans may forget about the colored expatriates of the American Revolution, but nineteenth-century Americans could not.

But I think what Lepore means is that the story of these expatriates has not, until now, been told in a way that appreciates their dramatic heroism. The reason she gives for this oversight, though, is curious:
A major [reason the expatriates' story has not been told] is that nineteenth-century African-American abolitionists decided that they would do better by telling the story of the many blacks who fought on the patriot side during the Revolution, and had therefore earned for their race the right to freedom and full citizenship and an end to Jim Crow. “Not a few of our fathers suffered and bled” in the cause of American independence, Peter Williams, Jr., declared in a Fourth of July oration in New York in 1830. (Williams’s own father, who had joined American troops in defiance of his Loyalist master, later managed to purchase his freedom and went on to help found the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.) When the Boston abolitionist William Cooper Nell published “The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution,” in 1855, Harriet Beecher Stowe supplied an introduction:

"The colored race have been generally considered by their enemies, and sometimes even by their friends, as deficient in energy and courage. Their virtues have been supposed to be principally negative ones. This little collection of interesting incidents, made by a colored man, will redeem the character of the race from this misconception."

Best not to mention those who fled to the British. Having abandoned the United States, they not only were of no use in redeeming “the character of the race”; they had failed to earn the “passport” to citizenship that Nell believed patriot service conferred.
Lepore is right to call attention here to the ways that African American writers often used the patriotic service of black Revolutionary soldiers as arguments for full citizenship. But those arguments should be placed in a larger context. One reason writers like Peter Williams, Jr., needed to stress their loyalty to the United States was because, in the 1820s and 1830s, many ostensibly antislavery Americans were also colonizationists, who wanted to expatriate free African Americans to Liberia or some other distant colony. In the battle with colonizationism, the example of voluntary expatriates during the Revolution was a dangerous card to play. For the same reason, black emigrationists in the 1830s were often excoriated by other African American writers for deserting the pursuit of American citizenship by moving to Africa or elsewhere. (Consider the case of John Brown Russwurm.)

The influence of colonizationism in the early antislavery movement needs to be remembered here, if only because it indicates that African American historians did not make their choices about what to emphasize in a social vacuum. Their polemical choices were constrained in part by the arguments they were arrayed against. If it was "best not to mention those who fled to the British," it was less because writers like Nell thought that such flight disqualified black persons from full American citizenship and more because it might conceivably strengthen the hand of those who wanted to remove all black people from American shores.

What's striking, though, is that even with the liabilities that writers like Nell faced, many African American writers did mention those slaves who fled to the British, despite Lepore's claims to the contrary. In fact, even William Cooper Nell, in his famous "Colored Patriots of the American Revolution," mentioned the colored expatriates too. If you scroll down to page 298 of Nell's work, you'll find an extended discussion of the subject:
Many of the slaves who engaged in the battle [of New Orleans, during the War of 1812,] were induced to do so from promises of freedom; but the sequel proved that a false hope had been held out to them, numbers being ordered to the cotton-fields to resume their unrequited toil, for the benefit of those for whom their own lives had been jeoparded on the bloody field of battle. The British took advantage of these violated pledges, and induced many colored Americans, panting for the freedom which, theirs as a birthright, had been confirmed by deeds of valor and patriotism, to accept free homes under the banner of England.

ANTHONY GILL was one of the soldiers remanded to work again for his master, when he was accosted by General Packenham, who, learning that he was a slave, told him to put down his hoe, follow him, and become a free man. He did so; and is now undisputed owner of fifty-two acres of free soil, in St. Johns, N. B. His son resides in Boston, Mass.

This is but one of numerous instances, of which there are abundant testimonies.

"When the British evacuated Charleston, in 1782, (says Ramsay, in his History of South Carolina,) Governor Matthews demanded the restoration of some thousands of negroes who were within their lines. These, however, were but a small part of the whole taken away at the evacuation, but that number is very inconsiderable when compared with the thousands that were lost from the first to the last of the war. It has been computed by good judges, that, between the years 1775 and 1783, the State of South Carolina lost TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND NEGROES." [At least a fifth part of all the slaves in the State at the beginning of the war.]

... And the same candid historian, describing the invasion of next year says:--"The slaves a second time flocked to the British Army."

Dr. Ramsay, being a native and resident of Charleston, enjoyed every facility for ascertaining the facts in the case; but his testimony does not stand alone; Col. Lee, of Virginia, in his "Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department," confirms the statement.

"Lord Dunmore, Governor of Virginia, (says Burke, in his History of Virginia,) after escaping from Williamsburg, in 1775, to a vessel in James River, offered liberty to those slaves who would join him. It appears, from the history, that one hundred of them were soon after enumerated among his forces. How many more joined him does not appear."

Mr. Jefferson, then Secretary of State, in a letter to Hammond, Minister of Great Britain, dated Philadelphia, December 15, 1791, says:--"On withdrawing the troops from New York, a large embarkation of negroes, the property of the inhabitants of the United States, took place. A very great number was carried off in private vessels, without admitting the inspection of the American Commissioners."

... The same important admission was made in debate, on the floor of Congress, 30th March, 1790, some time after the war, by Mr. Burke, a Representative from South Carolina. "There is not a gentleman," said he, "on this floor, who is a stranger to the feeble situation of our State, when we entered into the war to oppose the British power. We were not only without money, without an army or military stores, but were few in number, and likely to be entangled with our domestics, in case the enemy invaded us."

Similar testimony to the weakness engendered by slavery was also borne by Mr. Madison, in debate in Congress. "Every addition," said that distinguished gentleman, "they (Georgia and South Carolina) receive to their number of slaves, tends to weaken them, and render them less capable of self-defence."
These passages from Nell's work do double duty: in the first place, they demonstrate the inability of Founding Fathers like Jefferson and Madison to elide the flight of slaves to British lines from the historical record, and in the second place, they belie Lepore's claim that Nell thought it best not to even mention the example of these expatriates. As the context around these passages shows, Nell could use their example to the same argumentative ends for which he used the examples of colored patriots: to highlight the hypocrisy of an American nation that claimed to be a land of freedom while also being a land of slavery. Nell also played on popular fears of slave insurrections and slave disloyalty by warning that slavery was a military liability for the Southern states.

To be fair, Lepore is right that these references to the colored expatriates of the American Revolution were probably rarer in the works of black abolitionists than references to the colored patriots. But that discrepancy, I think, deserves some closer examination. To date, historiography on African American abolitionists has tended to erect a false binary: either they claimed the mantle of the American Revolution or they cast it off. The subtler historical story, which still needs to be told, is that black writers alternately identified themselves with the Revolution and rejected it, depending on the argument at hand. David Walker's Appeal, for instance, ends by quoting the Declaration of Independence at length and by staking a claim to its promises. At the same time, though, earlier parts of the Appeal implied that British promises of freedom were more authentic than American ones:
The English are the best friends the coloured people have upon earth. Though they have oppressed us a little and have colonies now in the West Indies, which oppress us sorely.--Yet notwithstanding they (the English) have done one hundred times more for the melioration of our condition, than all the other nations of the earth put together. The blacks cannot but respect the English as a nation, notwithstanding they have treated us a little cruel.

There is no intelligent black man who knows any thing, but esteems a real Englishman, let him see him in what part of the world he will--for they are the greatest benefactors we have upon earth. We have here and there, in other nations, good friends. But as a nation, the English are our friends. (Appeal, p. 47)
So Lepore's review has gotten me thinking. I think we still need a better understanding than we currently have of the way that African American abolitionists thought about the American Revolution. It is clear, at least, that their thinking was not monolithic or unchanging, but was instead complex and flexible. When it suited their purposes to praise the English as their "greatest benefactors," they did so, while they also emphasized their loyalty to America when it served other purposes (like refuting the arguments of colonizationists). At least in many cases, it seems evident that the first loyalty of writers like Walker and Nell was to the "coloured people." And their portrayals of both the patriots and the expatriates of the Revolution were defined, if not always singularly determined, by that priority.

Collective Improvisation:
No deep thoughts, just a couple of observations.

1) Along with Walker, Frederick Douglass has to be at the center of this issue, evidence-wise, for so many reasons: a) his attempt to do for American anti-slavery forces in his 1845 Narrative what Equiano did for English ones in the 18th C; b) his response to Garrison's frankly secessionist version and Stowe's frankly colonizationist versions of abolition in the 1850s, through such classics as "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" and "The Heroic Slave" (which ought to be read alongside the more transnationally-oriented Blake, or the Huts of America [Delany] and "Benito Cereno" [Melville], as well); c) his work with the U.S government during and after the Civil War.

2) Black abolitionists' appeals to American nationalism in the 19th C ought to be juxtaposed not only with praise of the British, particularly after their abolition of slavery in their colonies in the 1830s, but also with the kind of transnational history of resistance to slavery that Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker uncover in The Many-Headed Hydra, particularly their attention to the ways that radical Protestantism, radical politics, and radical economics were conjoined in the previous centuries.

Do with them what you will....

Posted by Blogger The Constructivist on 5/23/2006 02:46:00 AM : Permalink  

Thanks for the comments, C. I think both are very relevant.

It would be interesting to find out whether Douglass or Delany ever talked about Dunmore's proclamation or the escape of slaves behind British lines during the Revolution. I suspect Douglass's speeches during his first British tour might be one place to look, since he often used those speeches as occasions to praise the freedom of "monarchical" Britain as opposed to the slavery of "republican" America.

Delany epitomizes, I think, the flexibility of many African American abolitionists in the nineteenth century. He shows why it's impossible to fit most abolitionists within rigid categories of "pro-" or "anti-" American, or "assimilationists" or "emigrationists." On the one hand, he spent many years of his life arguing and organizing on behalf of voluntary black emigration from the United States to some African or Latin American state. On the other hand, he ended up fighting for the Union and working for the Freedman's Bureau. On the other other hand, he left the Republican Party after Reconstruction and actually stumped for Wade Hampton. A basic belief in the solidarity of all people of color (which most commentators go so far as to call a prototypical black nationalism) remained constant throughout all these changes, but Delany's attitude toward the United States shifted when necessary.

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 5/24/2006 09:14:00 AM : Permalink  

you may visit to get additional information about the life of william cooper nell

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/20/2006 09:49:00 PM : Permalink  

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