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

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The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution

by Gary Nash
A Book Review by Izona J. Burgess

March 2009

In The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution, historian Gary Nash argues that African Americans in both the North and the South used the Revolution to foster the cause of black freedom. “Freedom was the name of the game and they played it however they could.” In fact, Gary Nash’s narrative has been described by some historians as a “corrective to historical amnesia.” According to Ray Raphael in his book, Founding Myth, he says that “more slaves fled from the South during the American Revolution than in the years preceding the Civil War” which was the height of the Underground Railroad. According to historian Nash, black flight during the American Revolution represents “the largest slave uprising in our history,” which is the reverse of the proportions told in our history books. It is against this backdrop that author Nash provides a compelling and convincing argument that the War for Independence not only whetted the slaves’ thirst for freedom, but that American may well have avoided a Civil War had our founding fathers’ actions matched their ideals.
In the introduction to the book, Gary Nash says that his “goal in writing history has not been to destabilize (it) but rather to bring attention to those forgotten Americans who have inarguably been part of constructing our society and our nation.” This book, borne out of a series of Nathan I. Huggins Lectures he gave in 2004 at Harvard University, and as is stated on the jacket cover, a full fifth of the country’s population was African American, yet their experiences have largely been ignored. Nash divides his story into three “provocative” essays based on these lectures beginning with the Black Americans’ Revolution proceeding to “Could Slavery Have Been Abolished,” and ending with “Race and Citizenship in the Early Republic.” Many of his arguments highlight the paradox of American slavery and American freedom.

Nash begins his book with very compelling arguments from its opening pages highlighting the importance of the American Revolution as marking the first mass slave rebellion in American history, the first civil rights movement, as well as bringing forth the first written testimonies from African Americans who wanted the world to hear their stories. Nash cites Boston historian William C. Nell as one who attempted to chronicle the black revolutionary experiences in the 1850’s though his attempts were not always welcomed. In the year 2009, with the United States having just experienced the inauguration of its first African American president, these stories of resistance and bravery on the part of many black slaves, as well as support for freedom on the part of many white abolitionists, makes for a very parallel experience in the election of President Barack Obama. It also reminds us of just how history-making the election really was!

One of the most intriguing arguments in the first part of the book has to do with how blacks used the Revolutionary War. In a war between whites, slaves sided with whichever side offered the best hope of emancipation. Ralph Raphael argues that they acted strategically in their own best interests, not from any prior commitment to the Americans or the British. In the North where the British were weak and where the Patriots were looking for soldiers, they cast their lots with the Americans. In the South where the British offered them freedom, they cast their lot with England. Of course we know how the war ended. Although the British did not prevail, according to Nash’s account, their treatment of black loyalists, following the war, far exceeded the treatment accorded them by the Americans, or the founding fathers as representatives of America. It fell to them to carry on the dual struggle to end slavery and create the social networks and institutional framework of free black life and Nash refers to them as the “largely unappreciated black founding fathers.”
The most fascinating aspect of historian Nash’s depiction of the forgotten fifth has to do with the contrast of the boldness on the part of the black founding fathers with the political cowardice on the part of our founding (white) fathers. Some of the ideas set forth by Nash would be hard to accept for those who may still harbor the notion of our founding fathers as “all wise and noble.” One of the most eye-opening stories Nash tells is that of Ona Judge, an enslaved seamstress of George and Martha Washington, who runs away at age sixteen when she finds out in 1790 that Martha planned to gift her to their granddaughter as a wedding present. The Washington’s response to this episode depicts them as totally clueless about the true feelings that blacks had toward slavery. In an effort not to give anything away, I encourage the reader to come his own conclusion after reading the account. I still find it incredulous and wonder how someone who has come to be known as the “father of our country” could be so naïve. This account, highlighted in the second part of the book, “Could Slavery Have Been Abolished?”” puts forth some of the more compelling arguments from blacks and abolitionists and only seems to heighten the cowardice of the Founding Fathers. On pages 90-91 of the text, Nash argues that the problem was neither a lack of energy among advocates of abolitionism, but rather the missing element was strong leadership on a crucial issue. Nash cites examples on the part of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison, as well as other founding fathers. Rather the unsung heroes are names of those with courage man of whom never appear in our history textbooks. On page 117, Nash cites a quote attributed to Henry Adams, a grandson of John Adams, about Jefferson: “His yearning for sympathy”—that is, sympathy from white Virginia men of wealth and power—“was almost feminine.” His effort to avoid conflict with white friends, coupled with the most recent revelations about his relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings, which resulted in offspring, makes him the most pitiful hypocrite of our founding fathers. And, when coupled with the words credited to him in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence about the equality of all men, makes one wonder how his portrayal in our history texts could be so skewed.
Throughout the book, Nash completely disavows the notion espoused by so many history texts that ending slavery meant disunion, and instead weaves a very engaging narrative with new heroes and anti-heroes. This corrective of this period in American history is not only timely, it also encourages a desire to do a more thorough research of the past and an even greater desire to visit Boston with our fellow AHTC “fellows” to trod our own collective footprint in examining the beginnings of our nation’s history!

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