Slavery in the Revolution

Freedom Only for the Free

Painting with Washington on right, family on left, and smiling black slaves in the middle
A fictional view of George Washington with happy enslaved people

The saddest irony of the American Revolution is that many of its leaders were fighting for their freedom while denying it to Africans, Native Americans, and their descendants held as slaves. The Founding Fathers were aware of the hypocrisy. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson wrestled privately with the issue of slavery. James Madison openly questioned the practice of offering slaves as rewards for whites to join the Continental Army. He suggested it made more sense to just recruit blacks. He added, “‘It (would) certainly be more consonant to the principles of liberty which ought never to be lost sight of in a contest for liberty…’”[1]

Photo of shackles in front of a barred window
(Credit: “slavery” by derpunk is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The British restraints the Founding Fathers complained about pale in comparison to the restraints most placed on enslaved humans. Numerous sources written at the time suggested American slaveholders were among the most violent in the world. But life as a slave was horrible even if the master was nicer than most. Slaves could not choose what job to have, where to live, or what to do most of the day. Usually they could not leave the land they were on, sometimes for their entire lives. Both males and females could be forced to have sex with people they didn’t want to. If they got married, they could be split apart, never to see their spouse again, and their children could be stolen from them forever. (Sadly, criminals around the world still enslave people this way today.)

The basics of life were worse than yours, no matter how poor you are. Most slaves received only one set of clothes per year. During the war, in 1778 New Bern, a man saw an enslaved woman “‘with nothing on her but a very ragged petticoat.’”[2] A Continental Army officer passing through North Carolina wrote in November 1781 that despite the season, their enslaved people “‘are almost Naked in General. Some of them Quite as Naked as they were born Have Come into our Camp to look for pieces (sic) of Old Clothes,—I don’t Know how they Reconcile this treatment of their Slaves with their Liberal Principles of Hospitality,—When Such a trifle of Expence would give them some Kind of Corase (sic) Clothing to Cover their Nakedness.’”[3]

Most also had to work from the time they awoke to the time they went to sleep six days a week. Servants in the master’s home had better working conditions, but effectively never got time off the entire week. At best, enslaved people were allowed one week off per year between Christmas and New Year’s. But of course they were not allowed to travel far, if at all, and had no money to do so.

Lithograph of slave held down, about to be whippedAll enslaved people suffered what today we would call “emotional abuse” daily. For many, physical and/or sexual abuse was a common experience as well. People could be hit, whipped, branded, raped, or have parts cut off of them just for standing up for themselves—or for no obvious reason. People put in charge of them, called “overseers” (usually but not always white) ranged in personality from relatively kind to sadists. Unlike the worst of managers today, they could literally torture you, and you could not quit your job to get away from them.

It was not illegal to kill a slave in North Carolina until 1774.

Most of us have a mental picture of slaves working in cotton fields, but cotton did not become a major crop in the United States until after the Revolution. In northeastern North Carolina during the war, tobacco was the main crop; to the west, wheat and corn; in the southeast, rice. Slaves were also used in harvesting “naval stores” used in shipbuilding, like tree trunks for masts, hemp for ropes, tar, pitch, and turpentine.[4] Wilmington may have been the leading exporter of naval stores in the world before the war.

House slaves filled the roles of servants anywhere, as butlers, waiters, cooks, tailors, cleaners, drivers, and personal attendants. Again, though, they were not paid, could not quit, and were subject to the same emotional and physical abuse as field workers, plus many worked longer hours.

Less understood is that many enslaved workers did highly skilled jobs, such as cooper (barrel maker), woodworker, potter, bricklayer, and blacksmith.

This is one of the many ways slavery hurt whites, too. There would have been more opportunities for whites to move into skilled positions if natives and Africans were not forced here from their home countries.

Resistance

Enslaved people resisted their kidnappers and torturers many different ways. “Theft, verbal insolence, and malingering were types of resistance that most slaves probably engaged in at one time or another in their lives.”[5] This has been documented for slaves of all races across cultures and millennia.

Many people stole from their masters, be it much-needed food for themselves or items they could sell. Masters who had stolen these peoples’ lives ironically complained about their prisoners stealing property from them. Livestock was a target, because slaves had easy access, cattle and hogs provided them food, those animals were worth a lot of money, and they were impossible to trace after slaughter. Many whites participated in the illegal trade by buying goods they knew were stolen, but authorities tried to quash the activity. The Moravians running Salem (now Winston-Salem) decided in 1774, “‘As there is much illicit buying and selling being done by negroes, to the disturbance of the Congregation… no one should buy from such a person unless he could show a permit from his master.’” They went on to discourage conversation with blacks, too, “‘as that naturally has no good result.’”[6] Moravians owned slaves.

Escape

People regularly found freedom on their own by escaping. Slavery was legal in all of the colonies. So, unlike in later years before the Civil War, they could not simply go north, and there was not yet an Underground Railroad to help. The Great Dismal Swamp in northeast North Carolina became home to entire communities. The British colony of East Florida was a frequent destination. In fact, Georgia was founded in part as a whites-only barrier where slavery was illegal, making it easier to catch slaves escaping the Carolinas as well as black agents from Spanish-owned Florida.[7]

Some runaways melded in with Native Americans, many of whom were enslaved also. The Seminole tribe in Florida was a combination of people from other small tribes driven south by competitors, and escaped African-Americans.

Murder

The most feared consequence of holding other people against their will was getting killed for it. This act could be as subtle as poisoning, easily done since slaves usually prepared and served the master’s food. In the mid-1700s, in the Province of North Carolina, poison was second only to arson as the main means of killing their oppressors.

Doctors among the slaves were sometimes “obeah-men,” or conjurers of the native African religions. Their skills with herbs and other plants for healing could be turned toward death as well, making them targets of valid white paranoia. Bristoe, an obeah-man in Johnston County, was convicted in 1779 of practicing magic, including creating concoctions to manipulate slave masters. It may reflect the court’s fear of his powers that he only received a relatively mild sentence of thirty lashes with a whip.[8]

Another N.C. slave, Jenny, did not fare as well. Convicted of trying to poison her master in 1780, she was burned at the stake like medieval witches. A man named Sanders, too, was burned to death in 1773 in Granville County after shooting a white man. In almost all of the legal executions of Africans and African-Americans for murder, the victims were white.[9]

Revolution

Rebellions by enslaved people began early in the slave trade and were far more frequent than many people realize today. By the first half of the 1700s these were exposed or occurring nearly every year, ranging from those on single plantations to regional uprisings and shipboard revolts. In Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, large groups were able to gain de facto independence in the mountains, creating constant fear among slaveowners there. Many whites fled to the mainland—only to repeat their pattern of importing more humans in bondage, creating their own problems again.

As white rebels turned to violence against Parliament in 1775, they reacted violently to a black rebellion. The Beaufort County Committee of Safety notified others of a plan for a slave uprising across the province on Saturday, July 8. The Pitt committee immediately raised a patrol of 100 men and had 40 blacks in jail by that evening. According to a letter from one member, the committee learned from prisoners it was “a deep laid Horrid Tragick (sic) Plan laid for destroying the inhabitants of this province without respect of persons, age or sex.”[a] Started in part by a man named Merrick in Bath, the plan was to burn and murder their way into the backcountry and form their own government, apparently with the help of sympathetic whites. Some of the leaders were given 80 lashes and had their ears cut off.

Landowners and slave merchants in North Carolina, as elsewhere in the colonies, greatly feared slave revolutions. State and local governments took increasingly paranoid steps to prevent them. One of the reasons given at the time for building roads in the southern colonies was to move part-time defense forces (“militias”) more quickly when rebellions arose. The Wilmington Committee of Safety passed a law against blacks having weapons, and authorized its patrols to stop-and-frisk any African or African-American. Proving they recognized enslaved people were people, they also ordered owners to allow their slaves to sign the same pledges of allegiance to the Patriot cause required of whites during the American Revolution.[10] Masters hired out people, sometimes for long periods, adding a layer of complication for authorities. Like other towns, Wilmington made it illegal for more than three blacks to gather for reasons other than work, even in homes.

European-Americans also increased the punishments on blacks resisting these further restrictions, to barbaric levels. One law in Maryland passed in the 1720s called for the offender to have a hand cut off, then be hanged, then beheaded, and then the body cut into quarters and the parts displayed in public.[11]

Despite the fact rebellions had been occurring on the mainland and the Caribbean islands for more than 100 years, owners refused to believe their mistreatment of the enslaved was the cause. Instead they blamed outside instigators. It is true the French and Spanish, who treated both enslaved and free blacks somewhat better than Colonial Americans did, attracted slaves to their territories around the English colonies. Those countries also welcomed blacks within their military ranks.

The British felt compelled to do the same in the mid-1700s for battles with those foes. The colonists strongly objected to arming blacks, free or enslaved… yet also resisted serving in the British Army themselves! Some British officers noted the contradiction, as well as their opinion that blacks fought better than those settlers who did show up. It was openly stated in the Continental Congress in 1779 that the Carolinas had trouble recruiting militia troops because of the large number of men needed close to home to protect against insurrections and escapes.[12]

The approach of the American Revolution inspired slaves to rebel and gained them leverage with the British government (see the “Wedge” panel). Africans escaped to a fort near Southport in July 1775 where the royal governor had fled from Patriots, and rebellious incidents increased in the months prior to the Declaration of Independence.[13]

19th-century poster: "It is a debt we owe the purity of religion to show that it is at variance with that law which warrants slavery! Give me liberty or give me death. (Patrick Henry of Virginia)."
Boston Public Library, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Many among the slaveholding class objected publicly to slavery, making the now-familiar religious, moral, and ethical arguments. A British cleric riding through the southern colonies in 1739 wrote, “‘I think God has a quarrel with you for your abuse of and cruelty to the poor Negroes.’” He said he was surprised there weren’t even more revolts. He found slavery especially stupid given the threat from Spain, who invited blacks into their military, just across the border in Florida. Quakers took strong public stands against slavery, as did early North Carolina Baptists.

Others made practical arguments. Some recognized that property holders were creating their own problems by bringing in more Africans. All of the colonies took steps to encourage more immigration by Europeans to maintain racial dominance. They pointed out slavery harmed poor whites by reducing employment opportunities and wages, as already mentioned. Some early economists questioned whether slavery was actually cheaper than hiring low-wage workers. They pointed out not only the direct costs of purchase and upkeep, but taxes to pay for the militia and infrastructure needed to prevent rebellions, and the low productivity of forced laborers.

Voices were loud enough by the 1770s that slave traders could not claim they had not heard them. The London writer Samuel Johnson, one of the most famous Englishmen of the day and mentioned at our Flora MacDonald stop, first raised objections in print in 1740.[14] He hated the American rebellion in part because of his hatred of the rebels’ slaveholding. The first formal call for slow abolition in England was published in 1772, a watershed year as we’ll see in the next panel.

A Scot in Boston decried in a 1773 publication “‘the crimes attending the slave trade’ and the ‘extreme cruel usage the Negroes meet with in the plantations.’”[15] Parliament discussed abolition and trial by jury for blacks the same year. The Bostonian’s comment illustrates a point often made by British abolitionists: that enslaved people were treated worse in America than in other slaveholding lands.

Many critics on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean pointed out the hypocrisy of slaveholders demanding freedom for themselves. This included the wife of Founding Father John Adams, Abigail. “‘It always seemed a most iniquitous scheme to me,” she wrote, “to fight for ourselves for what we are robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.’”[16] John opposed slavery in principle, but did not push the issue for fear of angering pro-slavery supporters of the Revolution.

Perhaps no one illustrates the split personality slavery gave to the American Revolution as well as Thomas Jefferson. Though a slaveowner himself, he was involved in an ongoing relationship with an enslaved woman—whether it was forced or truly consensual remains unknown. In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson included a complaint that the king had encouraged slavery and prevented abolition. Other Southern delegates to the Continental Congress forced him to take that line out.[17]

A Wedge Grows

Lithograph of captured Africans being forced onto boatsSlavery began to drive a wedge between Britain and its American colonies in the early 1700s. American merchants had started competing in the trade of human beings with the Royal African Company, despite it having a monopoly granted by the king. One result was exponential growth of black slaves on the mainland. For example, in Maryland the percentage of enslaved residents went up from a tiny figure to 24% in the first decade of the century.

This established a pattern that increased throughout the century. Shipowners and merchants, mostly in the North, made fortunes off rising demand, especially in (but not limited to) the South. For example, Newport, Rhode Island, still famous for its rich residents, was largely built on the slave trade. Thus Africans and African-Americans became large portions of the populace from Massachusetts to the Carolinas, far outnumbering white militia. As the ratios between enslaved people and able-bodied white men made whites ever more (rightly) paranoid, whites made ever greater demands on British governments for protection. For example, N.C. Royal Gov. Matthew Rowan begged for more troops in 1753, in part so “‘the Negroes who have lately attempted an insurrection… will have (more) to discourage them to repeat their attempts.’”[18]

Parliament balked at paying for more troops from other sources, and instead laid taxes on slaves to pay for it, which colonists resisted. But rich colonists North and South could not resist importing more humans to get richer, and the cycle steadily worsened. Slaves were nearly as numerous as whites in the Carolinas and Georgia, which eventually bowed to plantation-owner pressure to allow slavery, and outnumbered free people in the N.C. Cape Fear region by wartime.[19]

At that point, whites were blaming the British for insurrections, instead of the French and Spanish as they did earlier. A leading N.C. revolutionary, James Iredell, wrote a screed in June 1776 against Britain’s “‘diabolical purpose of exciting our own Domestics (Domestics they forced on us) to cut our throats, and involve Men, Women and Children in one universal Massacre…’”[20] The line about “forced on us” likely referred to people imported over the previous couple of years, given that Iredell chose to own slaves. The Provincial Assembly had passed a law against importing slaves in 1774, but this was an economic boycott against Parliament, not a moral statement.

As the rebellion grew, some royal governors invited the enslaved to join the cause and thereby gain freedom. Most famous, or infamous to slaveholders, was that of Lord Dunmore of Virginia. In November 1775 Dunmore, exiled to a ship off the coast of the new state, declared “‘all indented Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops as soon as may be…’”[21] Colonial leaders north and south erupted in anger. Typical was that of a Virginian who complained of Dunmore’s “‘damned, infernal diabolical proclamation declaring freedom to all our slaves who will join him.’”[22] But within a month, 300 people had joined Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, “Ethiopian” being a term applied to all blacks, and as many as 1,400 through that summer.[23] Among them was Harry Washington, using the last name of his legal owner, George Washington.[24]

N.C. Gov. Josiah Martin, also on a ship by then, was rumored to be planning a similar action. He did consider it, but hesitated until open revolution was declared: Martin and other royal officials were aware that potential Loyalists held slaves as well.[25] Note that Dunmore’s proclamation, like the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War, only freed people held by opponents of the government. Nonetheless, N.C. blacks began escaping to the British in droves. British army commander Sir Henry Clinton formed a support brigade from people fleeing to the fleet off Fort Johnston (in modern Southport) in 1776. He ordered his officers to provide good clothing and “‘treat these people with tenderness & humanity.’”[26]

The southern colonies initially lagged behind the northern ones in rebelling. One reason was that their economies were based on supplying agricultural products, which meant they did not face as many issues with Parliament around trade and manufacturing as did the North. News from one month of 1772 radicalized many Southern attitudes toward Britain, both based on slavery.

Watershed Events of 1772

Lithograph of rowboats pulling away from a burning shipTwo events in June crystallized the view among rich Americans that Great Britain was moving towards abolition. First there was a riot in Newport when a British customs ship, the Gaspee, ran aground. It had been chasing a merchant ship owned by later Continental general Nathanael Greene, which was trying to smuggle in rum without paying taxes. (Rum was part of the triangular slave trade, used to purchase manufactured goods in England that were then traded for slaves in Africa, who helped create or purchase raw materials and rum in the Americas, which were taken to England.) A crowd led by wealthy merchants rioted and burned the Gaspee.

They forced a 16-year-old slave, Aaron Briggs, to join them. Afterwards, as the whites conspired to block any prosecutions—political leaders were among the guilty—Briggs rowed out to a British ship and agreed to be a witness against them. The royal court agreed, and the fact a slave was allowed to testify against European-Americans enraged many. When Virginia created the first “Committee of Correspondence” to coordinate anti-British action with other colonies, it specifically referred to the Gaspee case.[27]

That same month, a judge in London handed down a decision in the case of an enslaved man, Somersett. Brought there from Jamaica by his slaveowner, he escaped but was captured. An abolitionist helped Somersett get a court appearance. The judge, Lord Mansfield, ruled that slavery “is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.” In other words, because slavery was not directly addressed by British law, and no one had ever been allowed to force someone into slavery within Britain, Somersett could not be re-enslaved.[28]

Although the ruling neither freed slaves in general, nor prevented future recaptures in England, Americans who owned or traded in slaves saw it as another sign of impending abolition. From London, Benjamin Franklin warned the future Founding Fathers in Virginia that Britain intended to free their slaves.[29]

The possibility of abolition, and encouragement of slave revolts, were just two of many causes of the American Revolution. But a South Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress wrote that Dunmore’s proclamation did more to finish off the connection with Britain “‘than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.’”[30]

Few general works have been written on slavery in colonial and Revolutionary North Carolina, so many of the footnoted details come from just two books. But the other information on this page was corroborated in multiple independent sources:


[1] Crow 1977.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Horne 2014.

[8] Crow.

[9] Horne.

[10] Crow

[11] Horne.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Wiegand.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Horne.

[19] Dunkerly 2012

[20] Crow.

[21] Hannum 2019.

[22] Horne.

[23] Hannum.

[24] Wiegand.

[25] Horne.

[26] Dunkerly.

[27] DeFrancesco 2020.

[28] The National Archives.

[29] Goodrich 2020.

[30] Silverstein 2019.

[a] Simpson, John, ‘Letter from John Simpson to Richard Cogdell’, Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, 1775 <https://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.php/document/csr10-0035> [accessed 24 December 2020].