David Nichols's Reviews > Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America

Death or Liberty by Douglas R. Egerton
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Apr 15, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: reviewed, american-revolution, slavery-old-south

That the American revolutionaries were inconsistent in their application of theory to practice was clearly evident in the case of slavery, an institution the rebels accused Britain of wanting to impose on them, but which they in turn inflicted on African slaves before, during, and after the Revolution. "How is it," Samuel Johnson consequently asked, "that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?"

In this 2009 monograph, Douglas Egerton does not dispute Johnson's underlying point: that the American Revolution's promise of liberty remained unfulfilled for most African-Americans.  The revolutionaries took only a few half-measures against slavery, banning it through slow and "grudging" emancipation laws in the Northern states, and permitting a minority of Southern masters voluntarily to manumit their bondsmen.  This movement toward partial abolition was accompanied by "counter-revolutionary" laws banning militia service, voting, and intermarriage for free blacks, and placing new restrictions on slaves in the upper South.   The reaction was more or less complete by 1800, when Virginia crushed an attempted rebellion by slaves espousing the ideals of 1776.

African-Americans generally experienced the Revolution as an era of "dashed hopes" (13).  Some 20,000 ran away to fight for the British army or for Loyalist militias, but many died of wounds or illness, and the survivors often became paupers and exiles (or were re-enslaved after the war).  Slaves in the United States saw their numbers increase to 900,000 by 1800, and their families were broken up by sale as masters moved southwest during the first cotton boom.  Freedmen, who numbered over 100,000 in 1800, enjoyed slightly better prospects, working for wages in cities and larger towns and establishing their own churches and benevolent societies.  However, they commonly used the institutional label "African" to acknowledge the separate identity whites had forced them to assume.

Egerton's story is old news to professional historians, but he tells it clearly and cogently; I wish I had had this book in grad school.  A caveat, though: one can make too much of the apparent disconnect between Revolutionary rhetoric and white Americans' willingness to own slaves.  It is more useful to note that there were almost no North American critics of slavery (apart from slaves themselves) in 1760, and that just two decades later the institution had come into disrepute throughout the new United States, almost certainly because Revolutionaries who accused Britain of trying to enslave them had made the very concept of slavery much more odious than before.  Words sometimes do matter.  
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