Race in the American South: From Slavery to Civil Rights

By David Brown; Clive Webb | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

SLAVERY, RACE AND
THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

When Samuel Johnson asked 'How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?', he not only provided one of the most frequently quoted lines in American history, he also put the problem of the American Revolution squarely in focus. For Edmund S. Morgan, 'the central paradox of American history' was the simultaneous rise of slavery and freedom.1 As the ink dried on Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence in July 1776, pronouncing the split from Great Britain, approximately half a million slaves worked in the thirteen colonies, the majority in six southern colonies: Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Given the vocal rallying cry of the revolutionaries attacking British tyranny for treating the colonists like slaves, this might seem a curious anomaly. No less a figure than George Washington, like Jefferson a Virginian slaveholder, wrote of 'a struggle which was begun and has been continued for the purpose of rescuing America from impending Slavery'. And yet, viewed in the context of republican ideas of virtue and citizenship, the contradiction between slavery and freedom was not as great as it might first appear. In order to be worthy of freedom, men had to act honourably and courageously and, above all, resist enslavement. Republican ideology blamed the weak for allowing themselves to exist in bondage, encouraging the view that some were naturally stronger than others.2

The revolutionary era proved a major watershed. Slavery came under the national spotlight for the first time as the British colonies eventually became the United States. An anti-slavery strain of thinking emerged, hastening slavery's extinction in the North and briefly threatening its place in the South as well. The southern states hoped to return to normal when the war ended in 1783, but master–slave relations had changed in significant ways, as had the attitudes of many whites toward slavery. The revolutionary generation of slaves utilised wartime chaos to reclaim rights taken away from them by the plantation system and, contrary to the republican critique of black character, showed

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