15 Introduction

African Americans and the American Revolution

Module Introduction

“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Samuel Johnson, the great English writer and dictionary maker, posed this question in 1775, the year the American Revolutionary War broke out. He was among the first, but certainly not the last, to contrast the noble aims of the American Revolution with the presence of 450,000 enslaved black men, women, and children in the 13 colonies. (4)In America, the freedom of some, it seemed, was inextricably linked to the enslavement of others. The creation of a system of racial slavery not only generated wealth for plantation owners, merchants, and traders, it secured the freedom and liberty of whites colonists. The presence of slavery created a common bond among white colonists regardless of their origin and class. As European indentured servitude declined in America during the eighteenth century, whites, regardless of their socio-economic status, shared a racial identity that guaranteed their freedom and legal superiority over black people. Whiteness became associated with freedom and liberty, including independence from being a slave or a servant. Blackness became associated with dependence, bondage, and racial inferiority. White freedom was thus dependent on black slavery. (1)

During the Revolutionary era in America (1765–1783), black people, both slave and free, questioned and resisted the logic and legality of slavery and racial inequality. They understood and harnessed the language of natural rights, including those “yelps for liberty” that whites used in their revolt against British colonial rule. Black people made claims to these rights by petitioning courts for their freedom, by joining or forming anti-slavery societies, by running away from their masters, and by fighting for their freedom in both the British and American armies during the Revolutionary War. The Revolution was a war for freedom and equality for African Americans rather than simply independence from Great Britain. Their actions forced Americans to debate the morality and legality of slavery, and its compatibility with revolutionary ideals. America’s social and economic investment in racial slavery was too deeply rooted to remove, however. Slavery not only survived the Revolution but continued to thrive and spread like a virus into new lands in the west and the Deep South in the ensuing years and decades. (1)

Learning Outcomes

This module addresses the following Course Learning Outcomes listed in the Syllabus for this course:

  • To provide students with a general understanding of the history of African Americans within the context of American History
  • To motivate students to become interested and active in African American history by comparing current events with historical information

Additional learning outcomes associated with this module are:

  • The student will be able to discuss the origins, evolution, and spread of racial slavery.
  • The student will be able to describe the creation of a distinct African-American culture and how that culture became part of the broader American culture.
  • The student will be able to describe how African-Americans, during times of war, have forced America to live up to its promise of freedom and equality. (1)

Module Objectives

Upon completion of this module, the student will be able to:

Use primary historical documents to explain why and how black people used the language of revolution and natural rights in petition for freedoma nd the abolition of slavery. (1)

Readings and Resources

  • Learning Unit: African Americans and the American Revolution (see below) (1)
  • Primary Historical Documents
    • Petition of Slaves in Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay by Felix
    • Freedom Petition of Prince Hall


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