African Americans In The American Revolution
Since the first explorers found, explored, claimed, and cultivated the North American continent, black and native people have been considered inferior to whites and enslaved. Columbus began the Atlantic slave trade and enslaved thousands of natives who he beat, tortured and killed, and then proceeded to capture slaves from Africa, which introduced blacks to America, where they would continue to be enslaved until the Civil War, and even then would fall into over a century of segregation, with stereotypes continuing even longer, even to present day.
During the 18th century, blacks were still enslaved and treated poorly, but as the tides changed and the conflict between the colonies and the Mother Country arose, the black population found themselves playing new roles that showed their capabilities and skills that were equal to the white man’s. Some would gain their freedom and some recognition, while others are forgotten and ignored both at the time and in the books, but their contributions of bravery, patriotism, and even their lives should never be forgotten by every citizen of the United States.
The American Revolution is one of the most important events of American history. It signifies the beginning of the prosperous and powerful nation that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, although from 1765 to 1783 it was composed of thirteen colonies belonging to the Mother Country of Great Britain. To most, the American Revolution is the birth of a new, independent, self-governing nation that fought for independence from Britain’s unfair taxes and imperialistic moves. But there is an important piece missing from the puzzle; the thousands of African Americans who played major roles in the colonies’ victory. They were not as appreciated at the time of the war, but they are still have not received adequate recognition and acknowledgment even today. At the onset of the American Revolution, black people were completely excluded from the conflict by prominent American leaders, but as the war ensued they were gradually accepted by first the British and eventually the Americans to work various jobs ranging from cooks, soldiers, spies, musicians, and wagon masters; their overall fortitude and courage ultimately assisted both armies, whether they were fighting for their promised personal freedom, or for the freedom of the country, all despite hardships, poor treatment, and lack of rights and appreciation.
Although overlooked by most, blacks were employed in various jobs and grew to be extremely important to both sides because as the conflict brewed, both American and British militias were desperate to grow their armies and began to look to African Americans. Blacks held jobs including cooks, musicians, wagon masters, laborers, spies, and even soldiers on the front line and contributed to their side by performing these tasks. A black man with the name of the bill was even a hangman when rebel spy Nathan Hale was executed in New York City in 1776. It was a common belief by many that blacks were unloyal and untrustworthy, and this is partly the reason many were not immediately permitted to be a part of the army in the attack, but rather given odd jobs around camp.
The truth was quite the contrary, as blacks proved to be valiant and string soldiers who fought with both the British and Americans in countless battles. Salem Poor fought during Battle of Bunker Hill, along with a number of black men, and a petition sent to the Massachusetts state Legislature by fourteen officers present at the battle wrote that poor was an ‘excellent soldier’ and that “ a reward was due to so great and distinguished a character” (Prescott). Another similar petition from the Massachusetts militia states that in the Battle at Charlestown a black man from Colonel Frye’s regiment “behaved like an experienced officer” and “centers a brave and gallant soldier”. oth American and British militias were struggling to fill their quotas, and although they did not permit blacks to enlist at first, they eventually were forced to in order to keep the size of the army up. “July 10, 1775, Washington’s orders through General Horatio Gates, “you are not to enlist any deserter from the Ministerial [British] Army, nor any stroller Negros, or vagabond, or person suspected of being an enemy to the liberty of America.” (Washington) (MORE ABOUT WASHINGTONS VIEWS HERE) Washington was originally very against blacks being part of the army, but along with others who doubted the capabilities or morals of blacks being involved began to gradually change their view of blacks and their loyalty as the war went on and began to cease seeing them as the enemy and instead as a valuable resource. October 12, 1775, Washington declares, ‘Neither Negroes, boys unable to bear arms, nor old men unfit to endure the fatigues of the campaign, are to be enlisted”(Washington)Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginal issued a proclamation in 1775, known as Dunmore’s Proclamation that began the flow of blacks to enlist as it offered the first large-scale emancipation of slaves. “…all indentured servants (appertaining to Rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear Arms, they are joining his Majesty’s Troops…” (Murray)
Although there was some support, many did not support the Proclamation and it created fear and unrest in the Virginal resulting in a division of both blacks and whites in Virginia. The Virginia Gazette wrote in an attempt to dissuade slaves from following the proclamation because of the fear of a black rebellion “Be not then, ye Negroes, tempted by this proclamation to ruin your selves…” Patrick Henry opposed the Proclamation calling it “fatal to the public safety” and “early and unremitting Attention to the Government of Slaves” (Henry) Virginia Congress issued Virginian Declaration that proclaimed that Dunmore was filling slaves with false hope and threatened death penalty to runaway slaves “We think it proper to declare that all slaves who have been, or shall be seduced, by his lordship’s proclamation, or other arts, to desert their masters’ service, and take up arms against the inhabitants of this colony, shall be liable to such punishment as shall hereafter be directed by the General Convention”
Throughout the Revolution, blacks began to experience some societal change in the ways they were treated due to the growing ideals of a Constitution and the proof that they were as capable as white soldiers. Some began to see the strength and bravery of blacks in the military and appreciated or acknowledged their contributions, including prominent leaders of the time. Massachusetts Petition states that “late Battle at Charlestown” a man from colonel Frye’s Regiment “behaved like an experienced officer’ and ‘centers a brave and gallant soldier” Blacks showed their courage and patriotism by fighting valiantly for their side and putting their own lives at risk for the goal of liberty, and General Washington recognizes his personal slave and his help throughout the war. Thus I give him a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.” (Washington) Granting slaves their freedom through wills was not uncommon, and after the war ended a fair amount of slaves were emancipated in this way. “I emancipate and set free my servant, DAVID RICH, and direct my executors to give him one hundred dollars…he has been trusted to every extent, and in every respect…I know no man who has fewer faults or more excellences, than he.” (Upsher) It is ironic how blacks were believed by most to be unloyal and cowardly, but they were depicted in the propaganda of the time in an attempt to sway colonists to a side or depict an event. Paul Revere engraved his famous engraving titled ‘the Bloody Massacre’ just three weeks after the actual conflict and includes in his depiction Crisps Attucks, a black martyr who was killed. (Revere) John Trumbull, known as the “Patriot painter” also included two enlisted African American men in his painting of the death of general Warren showing the significance of blacks in the event. (Trumbull)
The war brought new opportunities for blacks and others who opposed the treatment of blacks to speak out against their enslavement. Blacks began to protest their bondage and some even asked their masters for their freedom. “And now my virtuous fellow citizens, let me entreat you, that after you have rid yourselves of the British yoke, that you will also emancipate those who have been all their lifetime subject to bondage.”(Bradford) “it always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as food a right to freedom as we have.” (Adams) “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” (Johnson) After the war ended and the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the issue of forming a Constitution arose, and the issue of slavery was one of the main arguments, which is a continuous pattern in American politics/government all the way to the civil war.
The constitution set aside the issue of slavery and did not solve it, after much argument by the Three Fifths Compromise. “…adding to the whole number of free persons, including these bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons.” “It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished…to contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others involves an inconsistency not to be excused.”(Jay) The Treaty of Paris called for the removal of all British property, which included slaves, who were sent to Novia Scotia where they were used as a source of cheap labor. “All prisoners on both sides shall be set at liberty, and his Britannic Majesty shall with all convenient speed, and without causing any Destruction, or carrying away any Negroes or other property of the American inhabitants, withdraw all his Armies, Garrisons & Fleets from the said United States”
Conclusion: The general population of African Americans as a whole during the American Revolution was unfortunately not granted equality or freedom, and only a small number were recognized, compensated, and freed due to their superior efforts in the cause The majority of the were enslaved and the newly birthed country would be a slaveholding nation for nearly one hundred more years. Although blacks were overlooked at the begging of the war, they eventually began to be viewed as valuable and without their assistance, the American Revolution may have turned it differently. It is true that many African Americans used the conflict as a chance for their own freedom, and were swayed to either side because of it, but the numerous examples of African American heroes who served for their country and displayed their patriotism and pride show the true strength and bravery of them and why they should be acknowledged. Nothing in history is inevitable, and the
Views throughout different historiographies throughout history all hold a similar view that blacks are overlooked in their impact on the Revolution. Nell’s “The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution”, published in 1855, holds excerpts from multiple documents supporting the rights and bravery of African Americans who were involved in the Revolution and how they were viewed by important figures. “God wills us free, MAN wills us, slaves…Death, the grand tyrant, gave him his final emancipation…”(Bliss)Nell firmly believed that slavery was not moral and thus included many different excerpts supporting this.
“And why is it, that the colored inhabitants of our nation born in this country, and entitled to all the rights as freemen are held in slavery? Why, but because they are black?” (Harris) “The colored Patriots of the American Revolution have been generally considered by their enemies, & sometimes even their friends, as deficient in energy and courage. Their virtues have been supposed to be principally negative ones…” (Nell) In Ira Berlin’s “Generations of Captivity”, he mentions the ways that the Revolution allowed slaves to speak out against white superiority and the opportunities that emerged because of the Revolution, and that many blacks began to speak out about their treatment, and questioned Americans justification of fighting for liberty and denying liberty to them.
“…challenge the institution of chattel bondage and the allied structures of white supremacy…” (Berlin) Lanning states that because of the denied right to an education for blacks, most all letters, journals, or narratives written by blacks are rare or unrecorded, and white historians during the period and for years after the war ignored the blacks’ servitude in the war. Lanning believes that the prejudices were instilled so deeply into whites that it did not even occur to them to record any of the black heroes of the war, and because some found it difficult to defend why the United States kept thousands of people enslaved while fighting for freedom. “The author’s hope is that the following chapters will give credit where it is due and fill in the pages about African-American contributions to the Revolutionary War previously left blank.”
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