A Paradox of Patriots: Freedom and Slavery on the 4th of July

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”–Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776.

That peculiar passage in the Declaration of Independence always drew me when I was younger. I found it disconcerting that a document in which white men were listing their grievances against an English king they saw as despotic, they at the same time could make such disparaging comments about the indigenous population whose lands they now held. It was one of my first understandings of the great American paradox of liberty and freedom.

But it was not until I was much older that I understood the first part: “He has excited domestic insurrection amongst us.” Who had the king of England “excited?” What “domestic” rebellion did Jefferson and the colonists so fear could erupt in their midst? It turned out that my earlier history classes had omitted something from the American Revolution, key players whose significance was enough to warrant mention and concern in the fledgling nation’s premiere document–slaves.

This isn’t alternate history.

People of African descent had been part of the English colonies since the early 17th century. Though their status was not clearly defined early on, where they often shared a similar state with white indentured servants, by the late 18th century colonial laws had firmly established slavery on the basis of skin color and race. When the American Revolution erupted, a good number of free black men and women (and an even much larger number of slaves) watched as colonies and empires turned on each other, wondering where they would fit into the grand scheme of things. Some were swept up by the currents of upheaval; others would attempt to shape it to their ends. Their actions would have a profound effect on the course of the revolution and the very meanings of terms like “liberty” and “freedom,” as they decided where they would stand in the conflict.

Blacks involved in the events of the American Revolution are not unknown. The first shot heard around the world may have actually been buried into Crispus Attucks‘ chest, a runaway slave born to an African father and a Natwick Nantucket Indian mother. He, along with what later Founding Father John Adams would derisively refer to as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and mullatoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs,” confronted a British guard at the local customs house of Boston–the climax to ongoing tensions between sailors and soldiers competing for work. In an ensuing melee British soldiers marched on the group of thirty, firing directly into the crowd and killing Attucks. Patriot activists such as the Sons of Liberty would whitewash the actors in this deadly confrontation, making it more palatable to colonists, and dub it The Boston Massacre of 1770–a key symbol of British repression.

When the Revolutionary war finally broke out numerous blacks joined the ranks of the Continental Army. Free blacks like Cuff Smith and Cesar Prince enlisted to fight the British. The founder of African-American freemasonry, Barbadian-born Prince Hall, is himself listed in military records of the Revolution. And it is said he fought at Bunker Hill. Pictures also show free black infantrymen in the first Rhode Island Regiment or speak of them among other troops. A great deal of these free blacks enlisted in the Continental army hoping their service would help the newly forming nation live up to its creed of freedom, and grant it to their black brethren held in bondage.


1780 drawing of American soldiers from the Yorktown campaign. To the far left is a black infantryman
from the Rhode Island Regiment.


Many enslaved blacks also attempted to join the Continental army, some of them successful and others of them returned to their masters. Quite a few offered to fight for the colonists, if they would be ensured freedom for themselves and their family in return. A common practice among some white slave owners was to in fact substitute a slave for military service rather than enlisting themselves. A British officer observed: “The Negro can take the field instead of his master, and therefore no regiment is to be seen in which there are not Negroes in abundance, and among them are able-bodied and strong fellows.”

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MCU Contributor Phenderson Djèlí Clark is a writer, historian and media critic who blogs at The Disgruntled Haradrim on African, African American and Science Fiction topics.

Follow his Twitter rants at @pdjeliclark.

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