Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America

Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America

Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America

Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America

Synopsis

In Death or Liberty, Douglas R. Egerton offers a sweeping chronicle of African American history stretching from Britain's 1763 victory in the Seven Years' War to the election of slaveholder Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800.
While American slavery is usually identified with the cotton plantations, Egerton shows that on the eve of the Revolution it encompassed everything from wading in the South Carolina rice fields to carting goods around Manhattan to serving the households of Boston's elite. More important, he recaptures the drama of slaves, freed blacks, and white reformers fighting to make the young nation fulfill its republican slogans. Although this struggle often unfolded in the corridors of power, Egerton pays special attention to what black Americans did for themselves in these decades, and his narrative brims with compelling portraits of forgotten figures such as Quok Walker, a Massachusetts runaway who took his master to court and thereby helped end slavery in that state; Absalom Jones, a Delaware house slave who bought his freedom and later formed the Free African Society; and Gabriel, a young Virginia artisan who was hanged for plotting to seize Richmond and hold James Monroe hostage. Egerton argues that the Founders lacked the courage to move decisively against slavery despite the real possibility of peaceful, if gradual, emancipation. Battling ouge odds, African American activists and rebels succeeded in finding liberty--if never equality--only in northern states.
Canvassing every colony and state, as well as incorporating the wider Atlantic world,Death or Libertyoffers a lively and comprehensive account of black Americans and the Revolutionary era in America.

Excerpt

Thanks to the portraitists John Trumball and Edward Savage, he became one of the two most recognizable slaves of the late-eighteenthcentury Atlantic world. But if, unlike most enslaved Americans in the age of revolution, William Lee was captured on canvas, he was typical of bondmen in other ways. Lee lacks both a precise birth date and birth year. He first appeared in the public record in 1768, when his new master, George Washington, recorded the purchase of a teenage boy, “Mulatto Will,” from Mary Lee, for the sum of £61. In recent years, a memorial erected at Mount Vernon that marks Lee’s burial plot announces that he was born “circa 1750,” which means that he was about eighteen when he first walked through the gates of Washington’s plantation. Lee himself may not have known the date, just as he may not have known the name of his (obviously white) father. Mary was the widow of Colonel John Lee of Westmoreland County, and if she sold Will to erase a living, breathing reminder of her husband’s nocturnal visits to the slave quarters, she would not have been the first Virginia widow to do so. But certainly nothing speaks more eloquently about the dehumanizing nature of slavery than the fact that the single most recognized slave in Revolutionary America lacks an identifiable birth date and recognized parentage.

The young officer who purchased William, fresh from his successes during the Seven Years’ War (known in the colonies as the French and Indian War), was riding through his home county of Westmoreland. Washington either heard of the estate sale at a roadside tavern or read a handbill. The ambitious planter, busily acquiring laborers for his estates, noted four slaves for sale. Two of the young men, Will and Frank, were mixed-race brothers, but the . . .

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