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Dirty Little Secret

To see the Revolutionary war through the eyes of slaves is to better understand why so many of them fought for the crown

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By contrast, the proclamation of John Murray, Lord Dunmore, the last Colonial governor of Virginia, from HMS William on November 7, 1775, unequivocally promised outright liberty to all slaves escaping from Rebel plantations, reaching British lines and serving in some capacity with the army. The promise was made from military rather than humanitarian motives, and for every British Freedom who lived to see it kept, there were many more who would be unconscionably betrayed. Yet from opportunist tactics, some good might still arise. Dunmore’s words, sanctioned by the British government and reiterated by Generals William Howe and Henry Clinton (who extended the definition of those entitled to liberty to black women and children), took wing in the world of the slaves, and they themselves took off, in their tens of thousands, shortly after.

Seeing the Revolutionary War through the eyes of enslaved blacks turns its meaning upside down. In Georgia, the Carolinas and much of Virginia, the vaunted war for liberty was, from the spring of 1775 to the late summer of 1776, a war for the perpetuation of servitude. The contortions of logic were so perverse, yet so habitual, that George Washington could describe Dunmore as “that arch traitor to the rights of humanity” for promising to free slaves and indentured servants.

Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, a Pennsylvania Lutheran pastor, knew what he was talking about when he wrote that the black population “secretly wished the British army might win, for then all Negro slaves will gain their freedom. It is said that this sentiment is universal among all the Negroes in America.” And every so often truth broke through the armor of Patriot casuistry. In December 1775, Lund Washington wrote to his cousin George of both blacks and indentured servants, who were departing from the Washington properties at speed, that “there is not a man of them but would leave us if they believ’d they could make there [sic] escape.... Liberty is sweet.”

The founding fathers were themselves candid about the extent of the disappearance of their slaves, not least because so many of them experienced serious personal losses. Thomas Jefferson, who had seen his own attempt to incorporate a paragraph attacking slavery in the Declaration of Independence stricken out by Congress, lost 30 of his own during the few weeks in the spring of 1781, when Lord Cornwallis’ troops were not far from his home, Monticello. He believed—and the judgment of most modern historians concurs—that at least 30,000 slaves had escaped from Virginia plantations in attempts to reach the British lines. The same went for the rest of the South.

The story of this mass flight, aptly characterized by historian Gary Nash as the Revolutionary War’s “dirty little secret,” is shocking in the best sense, in that it forces an honest and overdue rethinking of the war as involving, at its core, a third party. This third party of African-Americans, moreover, accounted for 20 percent of the entire population of 2.5 million Colonists, rising in Virginia to as much as 40 percent. When it came to the blacks caught up in their struggle, neither side, British nor American, behaved very well. But in the end, as British Freedom and multitudes like him appreciated, it was the royal, rather than the republican, road that seemed to offer a surer chance of liberty. Although the history that unfolded from the entanglement between black desperation and British paternalism would often prove to be bitterly tragic, it was, nonetheless, a formative moment in the history of African-American freedom.

It was among the Loyalist Africans that some of the earliest free Baptist and Methodist churches were created in and near Shelburne, Nova Scotia; there too that the first whites to be converted by a black preacher were baptized in those red rivers by the charismatic minister David George. The first schools expressly for free black children were opened in the Loyalist diaspora of Nova Scotia, where they were taught by black teachers like Catherine Abernathy in Preston and Stephen Blucke in Birchtown. In Sierra Leone, where more than a thousand of the “Nova Scotians” ended up after journeying back across the Atlantic, this time as persons not property, the American blacks experienced for the first time (and all too ephemerally) a meaningful degree of local law and self-government. It was another first when an elected black constable, the ex-slave Simon Proof, administered a flogging to a white sailor found guilty of dereliction of duty.

The history of black loyalism, however, is much more than a catalog of “firsts.” The story also gives the lie to the stereotype of the Africans as passive, credulous pawns of American or British strategy. Whether they opted for the Patriot or for the Loyalist side, many of the blacks, illiterate or not, knew exactly what they were doing, even if they could never have anticipated the magnitude of the perils, misfortunes and deceits that would result from their decision. Often, their choice was determined by a judgment of whether, sooner or later, a free America would be forced to honor the Declaration of Independence’s principle that the birthright of all men was liberty and equality; or whether (in the South especially), with the spectacle of runaways being hunted down and sent to labor in lead mines or saltpeter works, fine-sounding promises were likely to be indefinitely deferred. It was not a good sign when enlistment incentives offered to white recruits in Georgia and South Carolina included a bounty of a free slave at the end of the war.

Throughout 1773 and 1774 the tempo of reported runaways gathered ominous momentum from New York to Georgia. Escapes were now imagined to be the prelude to a concerted rising. In New York concern about illicit “assemblies” of Negroes was so serious that instructions were issued to apprehend any blacks appearing in any sort of numbers after dark. To the jumpier Americans it did not bear contemplating what might happen should the slaves, especially in the Southern plantation Colonies, take it into their head that the vaunted liberties of Old England somehow applied to them. In the Virginia Gazette, one of many advertisements offering rewards for the recapture of runaways mentioned a Gabriel Jones and his wife, said to be on their way to the coast to board a ship for England, “where they imagine they will be free (a Notion now prevalent among the Negroes greatly to the vexation and prejudice of their Masters).”

Now where could slaves get such absurd ideas? Another advertisement supplies the answer. One Bacchus, it seems, in Augusta County, Georgia, ran away, leading his master to believe that he too might head for a port, there “to board a vessel for Great Britain from the knowledge he has of the late determination of the Somerset case.”

What was this? Did slaves read law reports? How could it be that a judgment rendered in June 1772 by Lord Chief Justice Mansfield in the court of the King’s Bench in the case of a runaway African, James Somerset, recaptured by his master, could light a fire in the plantations?

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