The Forgotten Fifth: African-Americans in the Age of Revolution by Gary B. Nash

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The Forgotten Fifth: African-Americans in the Age of Revolution

by Gary B. Nash

A Book Review by Jennifer Varvel

March 2009

This paper will provide a historical review of the book The Forgotten Fifth: African-Americans in the Age of Revolution by Gary B. Nash. Mr. Nash did a splendid job informing individuals about overlooked situations of the past. This historical book review will debate the author’s thesis and will evaluate his sources. There will be dialogue about the organization of the book and a brief discussion about other works of the author. Finally, there will be a conversation about how this book informed the author of this paper in regards to the Boston area. In addition, there will be dialogue about how this information can support classroom instruction and if this book is a fine recommendation for others to read.

As stated by the title, Mr. Nash’s book is centered on the discussion of African-Americans and the Revolutionary War. Many individuals are not aware of the involvement of African-Americans during the Revolutionary War. As declared by Mr. Nash in his preface, “My goal in writing history has not been to destabilize history but rather to bring attention to those forgotten Americans who have inarguably been part of constructing our society and our nation.” (preface, 2006) This thought is seen throughout Nash’s book as he asserts many overlooked events from the Colonial times. For example, he talks about the 150 African-Americans who fought at Bunker Hill. (p 8, 2006) He speaks of African-Americans who sued to have their freedom. Also, he talks about an African-American who was the spiritual leader of an all white congregation. (p 59, 2006) The author’s approach is a combination of social and political history. He argues how slavery was viewed by many of the founding fathers. Yet, the social and political issues of the times prevented these founding fathers from acting to liberate African-Americans from enslavement. He speaks frankly about how John Adam tried hard to restrain the topic of antislavery from reaching the Massachusetts legislature. (p 93, 2006) He discusses how Washington talked about the abolishment of slavery. Yet, when presented with opportunities to act on his words, he did not take the necessary steps. (p 98-101, 2006) All of these modest facts are not well discussed in our modern area. In fact, collectively, these facts are beyond diminutive.

Mr. Nash makes use of a combination of historical sources. He utilizes secondary sources, primary sources, and artifacts. Of the historical sources used, the majority appears to be secondary sources. At a glance, the secondary sources look as if they are from scholarly journals. There are some citing of primary sources such as a pamphlet on antislavery and diaries. In addition, the book contains several paintings from the time. The considerable amount of secondary sources is probably appropriate for the intended audience. Mr. Nash’s style of writing is extremely easy to read. This makes the author of this paper believe the intended audience is for the general public or college students as opposed to scholars in the field of colonial history. Surely, historians would be aware of African-Americans’ involvement in the Revolutionary War. Yet, the author of this paper is certain scholars will enjoy reading this book. Mr. Nash makes use of approximately 200 sources. Mr. Nash repeatedly uses the 200 sources to support any claims presented in his book. This is fitting since Mr. Nash discusses some controversial issues such as Washington not fully support the abolishment of slavery.( p 98-101, 2006) Therefore, if any college student wanted to verify Mr. Nash’s claims, they can do this by referring to the note section of his book. However, his book would be better if he cited more primary sources as opposed to secondary. In doing this, he can add validity to the controversial issues presented in his book. Again, his notes section is purposeful. Along with the previously mention idea of verify claims, the notes section gives students and readers an opportunity to find other sources on the issue of African-Americans and the Revolutionary War.

Mr. Nash organizes his book in an exceedingly logical manner. He chooses to organize his book in a chronological manner. The chronological organization is a fitting way to present historical issues yet not an exhausted way. It makes the book effortless to follow. It can also make it painless to check the validity of claims if the dates are in chronological manner. Mr. Nash starts the book by discussing African-American’s involvement during the Revolutionary War. There are many interesting events which happened during this time. At one point in time, the British had more African-Americans fighting on their side. This is because the British were the first to offer freedom from slavery in exchange for military service. Due to this offer, Washington decided it was best to offer the same. As a result, many African-Americans served willingly under Washington’s command. The next section discusses the possibility of abolishing slavery. This is a terrific topic to argue at this point in the book. Washington had offered to end slavery during the Revolutionary War. However, this did not happen. Therefore, it is fitting for Mr. Nash to go into a discussion as to the feasibility of actually ending slavery. Mr. Nash looks at the pros and cons of ending slavery at this point. He debates South Carolina’s and Virginia’s claim to leave the union if slavery was ended. He talks about the ability of these states to even leave the union at that point in history. Lastly, Mr. Nash goes into a conversation about what life was like for African-Americans during the early 1800s. Though African-Americans fought during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, they were still viewed as inferior citizens. Some colonists even went as far as supporting their argument of inferiority with medical and social observations. After reading through this chapter of Mr. Nash’s book, it is clear life was extremely difficult for African-Americans during colonial times.

Mr. Nash is an historian. He is a Professor of History Emeritus at UCLA. Also, he is the director of the National Center for History in the Schools. He has been an invited guest to speak to the Institute for African-American Research at Harvard University. He has authored or co-authored several books on colonial history. Some of his books include The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America, Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath, and Struggle for Freedom: A History of African Americans. Mr. Nash has an incredibly comprehensive background in colonial history. This is evident from the objective manner in which he present the issues brought up in his book The Forgotten Fifth.

This book helps to add the author of this paper general knowledge and understanding of what life was like for African Americans in Massachusetts. The author of this paper was familiar with some of the events which involved African Americans in the Boston area. African Americans were exceedingly active in Boston to provide freedom from slavery. As a group, African Americans saw the value of working collectively to alleviate the pains of slavery. The first African American Free Mason organization was established in Boston. There were many homes which partook in the Underground Railroad. Yet, Mr. Nash referenced several key events which happened in the Massachusetts area which the author of this paper was not acquainted. For example, he discusses Agrippa Hull of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Mr. Hull was an African American who served in the Continental Army. Another African American who fought during the Revolutionary War is Barzillai Lew of Dracut, Massachusetts. Other notables include Jenny Slew and Mum Bett of Massachusetts. Both women endured litigations in order to gain their freedom from slavery.

The Forgotten Fifth can assist any elementary teacher’s classroom instruction. Many elementary teachers must teach about colonial life and the fact that there was a Revolutionary War. Many new curriculums have included many different perspectives as compared to previous teaching. Classroom instruction on colonial life includes the life of the colonists and those who interacted with them. The most noted group is Native Americans. Adding the perspective of African Americans is also important because they also interacted with the colonist and participated in the Revolutionary War. For upper elementary, there is much information on the issue of slavery and the ability to abolish this abomination. Therefore, this book is practical for many of the author of this paper colleague. Lastly as previously mention, this book enhances the general knowledge of the author of this paper.

This book is highly recommended. It is trouble-free to read and the many unknown facts mention in the text makes the book exceptionally interesting to read. Mr. Nash has done an impressive job informing the public about the many overlooked lives of African Americans during the colonial times. The author employs many secondary sources. However, the notes section is very comprehensive and an individual can easily verify the many claims in Mr. Nash’s book. The book is organized chronologically which makes it uncomplicated to follow as compared to if the book was arranged solely on topic alone. Lastly, Mr. Nash is well versed on this topic of African Americans’ lives during the colonial times. If an instructor reads this book, he or she would be better prepared to teach the many perspectives of differing groups during colonial times.


Nash, Gary.(2006). The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard Press.IstoryHHiHjjjjj
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