Thursday, July 19, 2012

Slavery And The American Revolution

I am co-author of a new American history textbook for college students, The American Challenge: A New History of the United States. Below, in a passage I co-authored with Norwood Andrews, we discuss a last peace offering made to the British Crown by the Second Continental Congress and the role slavery played in the American Revolution.

Initially the American Second Continental Congress had been envisioned, like the First, as a kind of inter-colonial treaty conference working out a common response among the colonies to new actions by the British government.  But when delegates convened in Philadelphia in May 1775, the colonies were already in a state of undeclared war against the world’s leading imperial power.  Instead of convening for a brief, intense conference, delegates settled in for prolonged legislative debates and the difficult task of managing the war.  The ultimate objective of the colonial resistance continued to divide the delegates. During its opening months the new congress attempted, as John Adams put it, “to hold the sword in one hand, and the olive branch in the other.”

George Washington, who had commanded frontier troops and the Virginia militia during the French and Indian War, was one of a number of colonial military leaders who were eminent and politically well connected.  However, a uniformed member of the Virginia delegation – the largest colony -- to the Second Continental Congress, he appeared as an indispensable man at a critical moment.  On June 14, the Congress created the Continental Army, to be made up of new recruits from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, along with the New England militia around Boston.  Washington was selected as its commander the next day and immediately left for Massachusetts.  Washington won the trust of fierce advocates of independence and supporters of reconciliation with Britain alike. Even John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, the leading advocate of reconciliation, voted in favor of the army and Washington’s appointment.

Perhaps in return for his cooperation, Dickinson secured the delegates’ signatures to an “Olive Branch Petition” addressed to King George III, professing their loyalty as faithful subjects.  The deferential prose of the petition, which described the conflict between the colonies and Great Britain as painful and blamed the impasse on devious ministers and “artful and cruel enemies”, offers a window into the mindset of a colonial moderate:  honestly conflicted, still feeling fundamentally British as well as colonial.  In London, as Franklin, Adams, and at least a few others could see, none of it mattered.  In November, intermediaries on behalf of the colonies presented the Olive Branch Petition to George III.  The King refused to receive it.
The American Strategy:
The Invasion of Canada and the Siege of Boston

Waging war brought its own kinds of disappointments.  In late 1775 the Congress supported an ambitious effort to expel British forces from Quebec, bring the formerly French Canadians into the common struggle against London, and remove Canada as a source of likely threats to the colonies from the north and west.  The opportunity arose from an early victory at Fort Ticonderoga, on Lake Champlain in northern New York.  Ethan Allen, a legendary frontiersman, land speculator, self-styled philosopher, and commander of a backcountry militia called the Green Mountain Boys, took on the project of capturing the fort. He was joined by Benedict Arnold, a Connecticut merchant and militia leader who had conceived the same project.  Despite their differences, Allen and Arnold surprised the token British force and seized the fort without firing a shot. Having gained the main strategic point between New York and the borders of provincial Quebec, the Congress approved an expedition that was ultimately led by General Richard Montgomery.

 Arnold, passed over for command, obtained a separate commission and a detachment of men from Washington. As Montgomery invaded from New York, took Montreal, and continued down the St. Lawrence River toward the British stronghold at Quebec, Arnold led his men on an impossibly arduous two-month advance up the Maine rivers and through the north woods.  

Ultimately it was all wasted effort:  when the two forces converged near Quebec, both were drastically reduced by sickness, hunger, and expiring enlistments, and when they attacked the city in a snowstorm on December 31, the large British garrison repelled them with heavy losses. With Montgomery killed in combat, Arnold maintained a semblance of a siege with his few surviving men.  With the impoverished American forces having worn out their welcome among French-speaking colonists, the entire project gradually collapsed. Failure to develop the alliance with French Canadians would prove potentially costly later in the war, as British strategists considered the same invasion route between Canada and New York.

Washington’s own work that winter was less adventurous but much more successful.  With British forces, now under General Howe, still nursing their wounds in Boston, the Continental Army focused on instilling discipline and building basic skills among the men in its ranks.  Lacking a proper officer corps as well as proper soldiers, Washington complained, as he had in his previous military career, about their rudimentary state, but worked with the materials he was given. By early March 1776, he felt ready to act.  Through a series of careful maneuvers, he successfully occupied Dorchester Heights—like Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill, a site looking down on Boston from a short distance—without exposing his forces unduly to a possible counterattack from the city. Then, to the amazement of the British, he quickly installed artillery, captured at Fort Ticonderoga, behind portable fortifications.  Facing the guns, Howe was forced to make a choice.  He chose not to attempt another uphill attack against fortified positions.  Instead the British Army evacuated Boston, while Washington and his men watched from above.  On March 17, as the Continental Army entered the city, no British armies of occupation remained in the thirteen colonies.

A Congress which could approve, and sign, a document such as the Olive Branch Petition was clearly not yet ready to declare independence.  Part of the point of the petition was to defend the Congress against accusations of disloyalty.  The Adams cousins from volatile, radical Massachusetts continued to bide their time and avoid provoking their colleagues.  Yet, the mood in America changed quickly in the months that followed.

The experience of being at war, under attack by British soldiers supposedly sent to defend the colonies only a few years before, had a profound impact. If King George III felt the colonisst were disloyal, the colonists felt betrayed. The king’s response to the Olive Branch Petition must have made an impression as well.  In fact, during the closing months of 1775, both king and Parliament added still further insults and injuries.  In a speech to Parliament in October, George III himself charged that the colonial rebellion was “manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire.”  In December, Parliament passed one more piece of punitive legislation.  The American Prohibitory Act closed the thirteen colonies to all legal commerce and empowered the Royal Navy to confiscate not only American ships, with their cargoes, but all other ships continuing to trade with the colonies, as well.

Lord Dunmore’s Emancipation Proclamation

For white Southerners, the most serious provocation came at the hand of Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia since 1771.  After formally dissolving the Burgesses in response to its denunciations of the Intolerable Acts, Dunmore, like other royal governors in other colonies, watched helplessly as unsanctioned committees claimed legitimacy and began exercising the powers of government.  When he attempted to prevent elections for the Second Continental Congress (again in response to orders from Lord Dartmouth) his own situation became dangerous.  Before leaving for the safety of a Royal Navy frigate, he warned that if militia units threatened him, he would “declare freedom to the slaves, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to ashes.”  In fact Dunmore was himself a slaveowner, but he placed military necessity ahead of his own interests.  In May he sent Dartmouth a proposal to “arm all my own Negroes and receive all others who come to me whom I shall declare free.”  Then, in November 1775, having landed at Norfolk with two companies of loyal British troops, Dunmore reasserted his authority as Virginia’s legitimate governor and declared free all slaves who “are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper sense of their duty.”

For the Virginia planters now committed to the colonial resistance, Dunmore’s proclamation, and the military campaign that followed, could hardly have been a deeper outrage or a graver threat.   As in the days of the Stamp Act, as masters debated the defense of their own liberties, slaves listened carefully and watched for opportunities for their own freedom.  In fact, Dunmore’s initial threats against Williamsburg were not his own idea.  A group of local slaves had offered to “take up arms” against Williamsburg in the governor’s defense.  News of the British government’s offer of freedom spread widely among excited Virginia slaves.  

In the closing days of 1775, as Dunmore marched inland from Norfolk through Princess Anne County, crowds of escaped slaves, including many women and children, flocked to his standard.  With hundreds of new volunteers, Dunmore’s officers formed a new “Ethiopian Regiment.”  Their uniforms included sashes bearing the inscription “Liberty to Slaves.”  (A second, smaller regiment was composed of white volunteers.)  The Virginia “committee of safety” sent a force of militiamen and a Continental Army regiment.  In the first major battle of the war in the South, at the hamlet of Great Bridge, on December 9, Dunmore’s regular troops and volunteers attacked but failed to overrun the patriot position.  Falling back on Norfolk, they were soon forced to withdraw to Royal Navy ships in the harbor.  Dunmore attempted to maintain the Ethiopian Regiment offshore, but smallpox swept through the crowded vessels.  Ultimately the surviving members of the regiment were assigned to scattered locations, including Bermuda, Florida, and British regular forces later occupying New York.

Throughout the colonies, slaves spread word about Dunmore, the “African Hero.”  While gathered in cities or isolated on their own estates, masters active in the patriot struggle lived in fear.  In South Carolina, in August 1775, a free black fisherman and boat pilot, Thomas Jeremiah, was accused of planning a general slave insurrection, to be supported by Royal Navy ships that he would guide into Charles Town harbor. Jeremiah, who owned slaves himself, had grown rich and probably stood out to white slaveowners because of his business success, which made a mockery of the theory of white supremacy upon which slavery rested. Despite flimsy evidence, a kangaroo court quickly convicted Jeremiah, who was hanged.  Escape plots, fears of insurrection, and the threat of British forces together preoccupied white Southerners.  Even in the North, with significant concentrations of slaves in port cities and a vastly larger proportion of free black residents, rumors of slave conspiracies terrified local elites.  Yet in the seaport cities where artisans active in politics had fostered the resistance movement, free blacks were well represented in the artisanal communities.  A substantial number of black militiamen fought with distinction at Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. When Washington, an extensive owner of slaves, arrived outside Boston, he found himself in the ironic position of commanding black troops.  He worked out his own idea of a judicious policy, which the Congress later ratified:  he ordered an end to the recruitment of “Slaves and Vagabonds” into the regular army but would not expel black soldiers already serving.   In some regiments, such as in Connecticut, slaves took advantage of an offer of freedom in return for military service from the colonial authorities.  Many dropped the slave names imposed by their masters and took new last names like “Liberty” or “Freedman” or even “Washington” to celebrate their new personal independence.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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