The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution/Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution/Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution/Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty

By Parkinson, Robert G. | Journal of the Early Republic, October 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution/Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution/Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution/Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty


Parkinson, Robert G., Journal of the Early Republic


The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution. By Gary B. Nash. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. Pp. 235. Cloth, $19.95.) Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution. By Alfred W. and Ruth G. Blumrosen. (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2006. Pp. 335. Cloth, $24.95; Paper, $14.95.)

Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution. By Simon Schama. (New York, NY: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2006. Pp. 475. Cloth, $29.95; Paper, $16.95.)

Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty. By Cassandra Pybus. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2007. Pp. 281. Cloth, $26.95; Paper, $16.00.)

Reviewed by Robert G. Parkinson

There is an increasing call among historians of the American Revolution to reconsider the period as the "era of Washington." Not George, mind you, but Harry. Harry Washington was considered property of the patriarch of Mount Vernon until he made his escape during the first year of the Revolutionary War. He traveled first to New York, then to Nova Scotia, and, in a touch of powerful irony, eventually found himself in Sierra Leone accused of treason against the British government twenty-four years after his former master had committed the same crime. The global story of Harry Washington and thousands of other former slaves who deserted the "founding fathers" and embraced "the tyrant" George III are the subjects of these engaging and provocative works. They compel Americans to turn their Revolution on its head, to ask why tens of thousands of African Americans ran away from the Declaration of Independence, and to inquire into the consequences for those who stayed behind. At bottom, these works together encourage us to reevaluate just how much "American" and "freedom" have really ever been connected.

This interpretation, of course, is not brand new. Since the 1960s historians have called the triumphant narrative of the Revolution into question by spotlighting the chasm between rhetoric and reality. Among the vanguard of these historians has been Gary B. Nash, who follows last year's efforts to increase American awareness of the "unknown" American Revolution with The Forgotten Fifth, a series of three concise essays originally delivered as the Nathan I. Huggins lectures at Harvard University in 2004. The first essay, "The Black Americans' Revolution," slices through thorny historiographical issues with clear and simple prose. For example, when describing the complex shift toward an emergent, new form of racism, Nash puts it neatly: "as the war wound down the dominant theoreticians of republican ideology . . . began to view black people themselves rather than the institution of slavery as corrosive to 'the great republican experiment' " (58). For Nash-and for Cassandra Pybus and Simon Schama-there are certainly "founding fathers" to celebrate during the Revolution, but not Jefferson or Adams. Nash argues that the "still largely unappreciated black founding fathers" faced far more daunting challenges to securing their freedom than their white counterparts (48). And, Nash points out, they are not just black fathers, but black founding mothers, too, because as many as one-third of all runaway slaves during the Revolutionary War were women, a number far greater than previous patterns. Nash's second essay, "Could Slavery Have Been Abolished," updates an argument he raised more than a decade ago in Race and Revolution.1 Nash believes that several factors converged in the aftermath of the war for independence that made the abolition of slavery in the new United States possible-if effective and principled leadership could only have been found. He pins the blame squarely on the North for not having statesmen who could capitalize on southern weakness, antislavery fervor in the North, the human rights impulses of the Revolution, and the possibilities of the trans-Appalachian territory as a reserve for emancipated slaves. …

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The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution/Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution/Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution/Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty
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