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Organization of American Historians

Magazine of History article:

The Early Republic Vol. 14 no. 2, Winter 2000

African Americans in the Early Republic by Gary B. Nash

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UNIT 6 The New Nation

Copyright 2007

Oregon Public Broadcasting

Organization of American Historians

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Magazine of History article:

The Early Republic Vol. 14 no. 2, Winter 2000

African Americans in the Early Republic by Gary B. Nash

Any teacher using a textbook published before the 1980s would find virtually nothing on African Americans—slave or free, North or South—in the era of the American Revolution and the early republic. Though about 20 percent of the population, African Americans simply did not exist in the pre-1980s story of how the Revolution proceeded and how the search for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” affected those most deprived of these unalienable rights. Nor did textbooks take any notice of the free black churches, schools, and benevolent societies created by an emerging cadre of black leaders after the Revolution. A cursory examination of pre-1980s texts shows black history beginning when the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619 and then jumping magically over about two hundred years until the Missouri Compromise in 1820 produced heated arguments among white legislators over the spread of slavery. While older textbooks treat antebellum slavery and the rise of abolitionism after 1820 in some detail, they leave unnoticed the fast-growing free black communities of the North and upper South.

The outpouring of scholarship on African and African American history in the last third of this century, prompted by the civil rights movement and the opening up of the historical profession, has gradually remedied the astounding erasure of one-fifth of the American population in the nation’s formative years. Yet many school textbooks today still lag a decade or more behind current scholarship on African Americans. Today, most students learn something about such figures as Olaudah Equiano, Crispus Attucks, and Richard Allen and have at least some notion that slaves and free blacks fought heartily in the American Revolution, began to throw off the shackles of slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation, and resisted slavery before Nat Turner’s rebellion of 1831. Yet there is much still to be learned before the student graduating from high school can claim a basic grasp of both race relations during the nation’s formative decades and the role of free and enslaved blacks in the nation’s explosive growth. Five African American topics—some historians might add more—ought to be essential parts of the history curriculum that young Americans learn as they study the years between 1760 and 1830.
The Black American Revolution
African Americans, most born in the colonies but many in Africa, were deeply involved in the American Revolution and were deeply affected by it. The earliest black historians, wanting to stimulate racial pride and counter white hostility, focused on the few thousand blacks who fought with white Americans to gain their independence. Crispus Attucks, Salem Poor, and James Forten were typical of those who made blood sacrifices for “the glorious cause.” But now, in a latter era when we can be more realistic about the American Revolution, students will readily understand why ten to twenty times as many slaves (along with some free blacks) fought with the British as with the American patriots. While white Americans discouraged or forbade black enlistment in state militias and the Continental Army, the British promised to grant perpetual freedom to any slave (or indentured servant) who fled his or her master to join the British forces.

The wholesale flight to the British, Benjamin Quarles wrote in his mold-breaking Negro in the American Revolution, had “one common origin, one set purpose—the achievement of liberty.” This book, first published in 1961 and republished with an introduction by this author in 1996, is still the best one-volume account of the African Americans’ American Revolution. In ringing phrases, Quarles wrote of how the “major loyalty” of blacks “was not to a place nor a people, but to a principle” and “insofar as he had freedom of choice, he was likely to join the side that made him the quickest and best offer in terms of those ‘unalienable rights’ of which Mr. Jefferson had spoken.” This little secret about African American history ought to become common knowledge, without embarrassment or anger.

Much scholarship since Quarles’s book has deepened our understanding of the massive slave rebellion that occurred during the American Revolution and the effect of white rhetoric about unalienable rights and British oppression on early abolitionists, white and black. Teachers wanting to present heroic figures who stood with the Americans can bring alive figures such as James Armistead Lafayette, the double spy who helped win the climactic battle at Yorktown, and the men of Rhode Island’s black regiment. But those who struggled for freedom with the British present equally heroic stories, and their travails after the war, as they sought refuge in Nova Scotia and then returned to Africa to join the Sierra Leone experiment, are remarkable examples of endurance and unextinguishable hopes for the future. Sidney Kaplan’s Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, first published in 1976 and republished in an expanded edition with Emma Nogrady Kaplan in 1989, is a teacher’s goldmine. Little-known black figures leap off the pages of this fine book, which is studded with short primary sources suitable for classroom use and includes nearly every image of African Americans in the revolutionary generation that has come to light. In addition, part two of PBS’s new four-part television series, Africans in America, is available for classroom viewing. Accompanied by a teacher-friendly companion volume by Charles Johnson, Patricia Smith, and the WGBH Research Team, the episode is a surefire way to jumpstart classes in both middle schools and high schools (1). For teachers with advanced students who want to pursue black involvement in the American Revolution, the third section of Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone provides a comprehensive view of the revolutionary generation of African Americans, free and slave, in all parts of North America.
The Rise of Free Black Communities
One of the big stories untold in most textbooks even today concerns the rise of free black communities after the American Revolution. Blacks released from slavery, and those who made good their flight from bondage, commonly sought new lives in urban centers. In the North, they gathered especially in the seaports, with Philadelphia and New York attracting the largest black populations. They congregated also in Baltimore, Washington DC, Charleston, and smaller southern towns. In these urban places they constructed the foundations of free black life in the United States.

Especially important was the creation of free black churches, which were originally under white ecclesiastical control, but which became autonomous by 1816. Black leaders such as Absalom Jones and Richard Allen in Philadelphia; Peter Spencer in Wilmington, Delaware; and Peter Williams in New York City became not only apostles to their flocks but political spokespersons, entrepreneurs, and teachers. Many mini-biographies of these black founders are included in Kaplan and Kaplan’s Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution and in the five-volume Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, edited by Jack Salzman, et al.

Students need to study how much a generation of blacks accomplished in building free black communities organized around churches and schools. How, one might ask, could those recently emerging from slavery (which taught slaves not to think for themselves and not to think of themselves as capable) find the inner resources and external support to create new names, form families, learn to read and write, find employment, and create neighborhoods and social associations? One of the main themes of this quest for community was the notion that the only secure foundation of free black life was the construction of independent organizations embodying their sense of being a people within a people and relying on their own resources rather than on white benevolence. While coming to grips with this emerging sense of black autonomy and strength, students should recognize that mounting white hostility to free blacks complicated their struggle for family formation, work, education, respectability, civil rights, and justice before the law.

A torrent of scholarship in recent years traces how the Enlightenment ideals of the revolutionary generation crumbled by the early nineteenth century, how discrimination and violence against free blacks increased yet how the free black communities remained vibrant and enterprising. The three largest free black communities—Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore—were studied respectively by this author in Forging Freedom, by Shane White in Somewhat More Independent, and by Christopher Phillips in Freedom’s Port. Although too detailed for most students, they can be mined by teachers interested in explaining community building among free blacks. The surest way to capture the imaginations of students is to view part three of the PBS series Africans in America and read the parallel section of the companion book mentioned above.

Early Abolitionism
Most textbooks give only casual references to how the American Revolution fueled a prolonged debate over abolishing slavery. Nonetheless, this was a burning issue for the revolutionary generation and naturally a preoccupation of black American society. More than thirty years ago, Winthrop Jordan wrote, “It was perfectly clear that the principles for which Americans had fought required the complete abolition of slavery; the question was not if, but when and how” (2). Twenty-four years ago, David Brion Davis wrote brilliantly on the rise of abolitionism—and on the exhaustion of it—in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823. Both the rise and dissipation of abolitionist fervor ought to be understood in high school American history courses, and selected chapters of these two books can guide classroom discussions.

The North and upper South were the main theaters of abolitionism. Gradual legislated emancipation characterized northern attempts at eradicating chattel bondage while private (and limited) manumission characterized southern discomfort with the peculiar institution. Students need to understand how white economic interest and white abhorrence of the notion of freed slaves mingling on an equal standing with whites dashed revolutionary idealism, thus leaving the issue of slavery to another generation. This lesson of ideology facing off against economic interest and entrenched attitudes provides a weighty lesson for students to consider. The first two essays of this author’s Race and Revolution discuss this and provide documents for classroom use on the rise and decline of abolitionism.

Two aspects of abolition ought to stick in students’ minds. First, the freeing of slaves was not always benevolent, a simple case of morality transcending economic interest. Moreover, freedom came by degrees for emancipated slaves. They did not move from abject slavery to the light of freedom as if moving across the dark side of a river to the bright side. Legal emancipation did not confer full political rights, equal economic opportunity, or social recognition. All of that was denied and contested. Second, abolition was not engineered solely by high-minded whites. It was also produced, especially in the North, by slaves who made it their business to run away and perfect insolence to the point that their masters found slavery more trouble than it was worth.

Every American youngster studies the writing and ratification of the Constitution, but not all consider how the delegates to the 1787 convention in Philadelphia wrestled with the problem of slavery and the slave trade. Sparks will fly in classrooms where the teacher stages a debate pitting those who argue that the convention could—and should—have abolished slavery against those who argue that this was impossible at that point in time. The provocative essays in Paul Finkelman’s Slavery and the Founders will help teachers construct lively classroom activities. Comparisons of how Washington and Jefferson—both professing to detest slavery and hoping to see it abolished in their own lifetimes—made their own decisions regarding their slave property can also be instructive. Available from the National Center for History in the Schools is a teaching unit utilizing primary documents and lesson plans to allow students to evaluate the positions taken during the congressional debates over slavery in the First Congress (3).

The Spread of Slavery
Many opponents of slavery (and some defenders of it) believed that the slave population would gradually wither after slave importations ceased. But the first state censuses after the Revolution showed that slavery was growing in spite of a wartime hiatus in importations. When Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 gave a tremendous boost to the production of short-staple cotton, slavery acquired a powerful new lease on life. The cotton gin gave new incentives for reopening the slave trade and insured that slavery would spread rapidly into the deep South where the demand for field hands grew enormously between 1800 and 1830. Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone provides a fine account of how lawmakers in the lower South defended the expansion of slave society and how large slaveholders consolidated their power as the region’s ruling class.

The growth of slavery amidst gradual emancipation needs to be understood. From about 470,000 slaves in 1770, the population grew to about 720,000 in 1790 and 1,200,000 in 1810 (while the population of free blacks grew from about 60,000 in 1790 to 185,000 in 1810). Also notable, the coming of King Cotton led to massive interregional transfers of slaves. The cotton revolution precipitated the widespread sale of slaves from the upper to lower South—a brutal process involving a kind of new Middle Passage that sundered thousands of slave families. Students can learn about this through Toni Morrison’s poignant historical novel Beloved (which is also available in movie form).

Life under slavery is generally studied during the decades preceding the Civil War, but teachers may have time to delve into this as part of the curriculum that deals with the early republic. Some fine, accessible essays and excellent visual material are available in Edward Campbell’s edited volume Before Freedom Came.
Black Resistance in the New Nation
If Congress did not listen to petitioners who urged the end of slavery; if hard-nosed economic realities about the profitability of slavery submerged idealistic hopes for a new nation cleansed of its most important cancer; if by the early nineteenth century it became clear that the new nation was to be defined as a white man’s republic; then how would slaves and free blacks respond, and how would they carry on their lives? Several rich veins of scholarship have explored this question, and some of the new work ought to make its way into precollegiate classrooms.

One topic well worth discussing is the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, the long, slave-centered revolt against the powerful and brutal French slave regime in Saint Domingue. Textbooks hardly mention the prolonged revolution in Haiti, yet it was of signal importance. It was the first racial war to overthrow a European colonial power; the first instance of mass self-emancipation by a populous slave society; the first creation of a black republic in the Americas in the midst of the slaveholding West Indies; and the event that made the Louisiana Territory nearly useless to France, since its main importance was supplying the foodstuffs to feed the hundreds of thousands of French slaves in the Caribbean. Ironically, Jefferson’s acquisition of the Louisiana Territory vastly extended the American domain suitable for enslaved labor.

Students can also explore how the Haitian Revolution spread the spark of black rebellion to the United States and how Haiti became a beacon of freedom and an inspiration for all who hoped for the overthrow of slavery. Students can also consider how it produced a morbid fear of black insurrection while dampening white manumitting instincts. Jefferson’s personal inner conflict is illuminating. As president, he encouraged the black overthrow of slavery in Saint Domingue and applauded black independence. But he refused to recognize the black government when it came to power in 1804 and worked to quarantine or neutralize Haiti commercially in deference to the interests of southern planters.

Another part of the continuing struggle of African Americans for freedom involved open resistance. Gabriel’s Rebellion of 1800 in Virginia and Denmark Vesey’s plot in 1822 in South Carolina, both inspired in part by the Haitian Revolution, are well known; but many other smaller insurrections and plots deserve attention, particularly the flight of slaves to the British forces in the War of 1812, paralleling the Revolutionary War attempts by blacks to cash in on British offers of freedom. Much of this resistance is captured in part three of the PBS video series Africans in America and in the companion book cited above.

Another aspect of the search for liberty and equality among free and slave, in both the North and South, is the remarkable growth of Afro-Christianity in the early nineteenth century. A transformative process among African Americans living under slavery, it was a resistance movement in its own right, and it had much to do with their ability to endure captivity. Sylvia Frey and Betty Wood’s Come Shouting to Zion is a rich treatment of this topic. The book pays particular attention to the role of women in fashioning black churches. The northern chapter of this quest for spiritual autonomy and the building of black churches as citadels of social, political, and psychological strength is movingly told by Vincent Harding in chapters three and four of There is a River. Many mini-biographies of black church leaders appear in Kaplan and Kaplan’s Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution and The Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History.

One final aspect of black resistance that deserves attention involves emigrationist schemes. African Americans, led notably by the mixed-blood merchant and mariner Paul Cuffe, had toyed with immigrating to the African homelands since the 1780s and, after 1804, to Haiti and Canada. But the larger part of the story involves the launching of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1816. Historians have argued for many years about the strange mixture of northern clergy, southern slaveowners, and a few free black leaders who came together to promote the voluntary emigration of free blacks to what would become Liberia. The interest of African American leaders was centered in the belief that the rising tide of white hostility to free blacks made repatriation to Africa the only viable option. However, the mass of free blacks correctly understood that the ACS (notwithstanding the fact that some northern clergy who joined the ACS were sincere abolitionists who dwelled on the glory of African Americans returning to their homelands to Christianize black Africa) was for southern leaders a deportation scheme that would remove incendiary free blacks from the United States and provide cover for slavery’s expansion.

Most teachers will not have time to explore the mixed motives of the ACS and its limited success. However, at the least they can interest students in how the ACS’s emigrationist schemes reflected the crossroads at which the new republic stood. On the one hand, whites who were unwilling to give free blacks real equality and were eager to cleanse the country of them enthusiastically supported the ACS emigrationist efforts. On the other hand, this passion to encourage a back-to-Africa movement galvanized free black leaders who now understood that a new militance and a new inter-city league of black spokespersons were required to keep their revolutionary era hopes alive.

None of the five topics outlined above should be thought of as self-contained African American topics. Rather they are American history topics. Occupying vastly different social places, white and black Americans were linked together by a common quest for freedom, though freedom had many meanings and required various strategies to achieve. Their lives were intertwined whether on slave plantations, in cities, or on ships at sea. Their productive efforts were part of the development of the expanding nation. Great events outside the United States, such as the French and Haitian Revolutions, left imprints on everybody. While drawing attention to topics vital to the African American experience in the era of the American Revolution and the early republic, this essay is a plea for restoring to memory African American topics that are indispensable elements of the larger American story.


1. Charles Richard Johnson, et al., Africans in America: America’s Journey through Slavery (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1998); and Africans in America: America’s Journey through Slavery, produced by WGBH Educational Foundation, 270 min., PBS Video, 1998, videocassette. Teaching kits are also available through WGBH. For more information or to order, write WGBH, 125 Western Avenue, Boston, MA 02134 or call (617) 300-5400.

2. Winthrop Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), 342.
3. Copies of the teaching unit, Congress Debates Slavery, 1790-1800, are available for $12 from The National Center for History in the Schools, 6265 Bunche Hall, UCLA, 405 Hilgard Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90095.
Sources Cited
Africans in America: America’s Journey through Slavery, produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 270 min. PBS Video, 1998. Videocassette.
Beloved, produced by Harpo Films and Clinica Estetico. Directed by Jonathan Demme. 172 min. Touchstone Home Video, 1998. Videocassette.
Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Campbell, Edward D. C., Jr., ed. Before Freedom Came: African-American Life in the Antebellum South. Richmond, VA: Museum of the Confederacy, 1991.
Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.
Finkelman, Paul. Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.
Frey, Sylvia and Betty Wood. Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Harding, Vincent. There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
Johnson, Charles Richard, et al. Africans in America: America’s Journey through Slavery. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1998.
Kaplan, Sidney and Emma Nogrady Kaplan. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.
Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.
———. Race and Revolution. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1990.
Phillips, Christopher. Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. 1961. Reprint, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Salzman, Jack, et al., eds. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. 5 vols. New York: MacMillan Library Reference, 1996.
White, Shane. Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770-1810. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991.
Gary B. Nash is a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is the author of many books and articles on race, class, and society in the early republic, including Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America (1974, 4th ed. 2000). A Guggenheim Fellow, and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Urban Crucible, Nash is a former president of the Organization of American Historians (1994-1995). He served as co-chair for the National History Standards Project and currently directs UCLA’s National Center for History in the Schools.

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