The Forgotten Fifth - African Americans in the Age of Revolution

By Pinnen, Christian | Southern Quarterly, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

The Forgotten Fifth - African Americans in the Age of Revolution


Pinnen, Christian, Southern Quarterly


The Forgotten Fifth - African Americans in the Age of Revolution. By Gary B. Nash. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006. 256 pp. Cloth: $19.95. ISBN: 978-0674021938).

Gary B. Nash's recent book is an attempt to clarify the ongoing discussion among historians as to whether slavery could have been abolished after the American Revolution. Currently, most historians believe that slavery was so firmly entrenched in southern life that any possibility of emancipating the slaves in the new Constitution was overturned by political pressure from the southern states. Nash offers a radically different and intriguing interpretation of this issue. During the post-revolutionary period, Nash argues, there was a possibility to emancipate the nation's slaves and dismantle the venerable institution of southern slavery. This unconventional argument is presented in the second and most important chapter of this short but eloquently written book. While Nash uses a number of primary sources to anchor his hypothesis, his main argument is based chiefly on secondary literature - a weakness when trying to overturn an established historical thesis.

The book's first chapter covers well-established historiographical content by describing the African American cause during the Revolution. Nash evaluates the amount of fighting black soldiers, both free and slave, did in the war and how black communities, both free and slave, responded to the political rhetoric of the time. He also discusses how white society reacted to African American soldiers and how they were integrated into the Continental Army. Nash often bases his conclusions on secondary works, including classics in the field as well as the latest scholarship. However, one important difference from most of these works is his argument that the massive number of slaves who joined the British Army in the South were in fact joining in the largest slave rebellion in United States history. This view is unique among historians. For instance, Eugene Genovese 's well-known analysis of slave rebellions does not agree with Nash's analysis on this point; Genovese believes that flight alone was not sufficient to declare such an act a slave insurrection.1

The second chapter offers an even more explosive argument. Nash sets out to prove that slavery could have been abolished under the 1 787 Constitution. After setting the stage with a description of the main constitutional debates, Nash offers a political interpretation of the backstage negotiations over slavery during the Constitutional Convention. He makes a strong argument that although the southern states, especially Georgia and South Carolina, insisted that slavery should not be challenged in the document, they were not operating from a position of strength. He points out that these states had suffered intense fighting between patriots and loyalists during the Revolution, and that their economies were largely destroyed. In addition, Indians, backed by the Spanish in Florida, remained a continuing threat to these frontier societies. Nash states "Georgia and South Carolina were precariously situated in 1787 and needed a strong federal government far more than the rest of the states needed them" (80). Thus, according to Nash, the southern States should not have had much power in the Constitutional negotiations concerning slavery and should not have been able to dictate policy to the other states.

While this line of argument is easy to follow and Nash uses wellknown sources to support it, he does not use enough primary sources to build a completely convincing argument. A few of his conclusions are not supported in his footnotes. For example, he argues that South Carolina and Georgia were basically bankrupt and offered nothing valuable for the Union, but he does not offer much evidence of this important claim.

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