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Slavery, Race and American Independence

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Rob Parkinson, a colleague from my master’s program many years ago, has a great editorial in the Times on the connections between the fear of slave revolts and American independence.

FOR more than two centuries, we have been reading the Declaration of Independence wrong. Or rather, we’ve been celebrating the Declaration as people in the 19th and 20th centuries have told us we should, but not the Declaration as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams wrote it. To them, separation from Britain was as much, if not more, about racial fear and exclusion as it was about inalienable rights.

The Declaration’s beautiful preamble distracts us from the heart of the document, the 27 accusations against King George III over which its authors wrangled and debated, trying to get the wording just right. The very last one — the ultimate deal-breaker — was the most important for them, and it is for us: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” In the context of the 18th century, “domestic insurrections” refers to rebellious slaves. “Merciless Indian savages” doesn’t need much explanation.

In fact, Jefferson had originally included an extended attack on the king for forcing slavery upon unwitting colonists. Had it stood, it would have been the patriots’ most powerful critique of slavery. The Continental Congress cut out all references to slavery as “piratical warfare” and an “assemblage of horrors,” and left only the sentiment that King George was “now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us.” The Declaration could have been what we yearn for it to be, a statement of universal rights, but it wasn’t. What became the official version was one marked by division.

Upon hearing the news that the Congress had just declared American independence, a group of people gathered in the tiny village of Huntington, N.Y., to observe the occasion by creating an effigy of King George. But before torching the tyrant, the Long Islanders did something odd, at least to us. According to a report in a New York City newspaper, first they blackened his face, and then, alongside his wooden crown, they stuck his head “full of feathers” like “savages,” wrapped his body in the Union Jack, lined it with gunpowder and then set it ablaze.

Fear of slave insurrection and Indian raids infused white American independence throughout the war, in part because slaves were fleeing to the British lines whenever they could and the British were making deals with indigenous peoples to fight against the colonists, deals that made a lot of sense to people who knew that the Proclamation of 1763 was the only thing between them and obliteration from westward expansion.

As I have said before, the creation of the United States was utterly catastrophic for African-Americans and was genocidal for Native Americans. No amount of hand-waving about Jefferson’s fancy rhetoric can avoid these facts. There was a reason the large majority of African-Americans and Native Americans (although certainly not all) who could take a side in the war sided with the British. That’s because they recognized their interests and acted upon them. That’s why I love this anecdote:

At the same time, patriot leaders had publicized so many notices attacking the November 1775 emancipation proclamation by the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, that, by year’s end, a Philadelphia newspaper reported a striking encounter on that city’s streets. A white woman was appalled when an African-American man refused to make way for her on the sidewalk, to which he responded, “Stay, you damned white bitch, till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall.”

For thousands of African-Americans, the British were liberators, not oppressors. That doesn’t mean of course that those who managed to get out lived great lives after the Revolution, especially those who ended up in cold, hostile Nova Scotia. But you know what? It wasn’t slavery. No one was whipping them, no one was selling their children, no one could kill them with impunity. And the ability to do those things was absolutely central to many of the Americans who supported the Revolution. Parkinson’s conclusion is powerful and I will close with quoting it:

This idea — that some people belong as proper Americans and others do not — has marked American history ever since. We like to excuse the founders from this, to give them a pass. After all, there is that bit about everyone being “created equal” in this, the most important text of American history and identity. And George Washington’s army was the most racially integrated army the United States would field until Vietnam, much to Washington’s chagrin.

But you wouldn’t know that from reading the newspapers. All the African-Americans and Indians who supported the revolution — and lots did — were no match against the idea that they were all “merciless savages” and “domestic insurrectionists.” Like the people of Huntington, Americans since 1776 have operated time and time again on the assumption that blacks and Indians don’t belong in this republic. This notion comes from the very founders we revere this weekend. It haunts us still.

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