African Americans and the American Revolution

Subject: History
Pages: 5
Words: 1526
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Study level: College


African Americans were both participants and symbols in the American Revolution since they were active on the battlefronts and behind the lines. They participated in the American Revolution for one specific goal, not for the place or the people. Their main goal was the freedom of choice, and they were likely to join the side that presented them with the best and quickest way to attain this goal. Their participation depended on several primary factors, one being the need to help the existing army in the field. Blacks would be employed into ranks by the Continental and the British for this reason. African Americans played a significant role in the American Revolution and were mostly motivated to join the war to eventually attain freedom.

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Winning Freedom in a Revolutionary Age

The motivation of African Americans in joining the American Revolution was to gain their freedom of choice. Thousands of the blacks who sought freedom from the British may have died in combat or disease, mainly smallpox, and the fates of those that survived to different paths. Above 20,000 blacks left the British, mostly the slaves of Loyalists as well as the ones that had earned their freedom and mostly resisted American demands for their runaways (Holton, 2021). Shortly after the 1783 peace treaty, some blacks continued to fight with the British in the Bahamas. Approximately 15,000 sailed from New York, Charleston, and Savannah to Jamaica, England, Nassau, and Nova Scotia. The majority of the freemen went to Canada, while most enslaved people were taken to the Caribbean.

The British armies were much less concerned with the manumission of enslaved people than with military success. Even Lord Dunmore had his limits despite his radical willingness to arm the enslaved people. He forced many enslaved people to return to their owners when he failed to accommodate all the slaves (Geake & Spears, 2016). The slaves that belonged to Loyalists were the only ones that were returned, indicating a political tactic instead of humanitarian concern to offer slaves freedom. This is most evident in the framing of the constitution and the declaration of independence, none of which eradicate slavery or offer concessions to the enslaved and free black populations.

However, numerous notable blacks came forward during the Revolutionary era despite the many obstacles and challenged white racial theories. The Revolution increased the abolitionist sentiment, mainly in the North. However, even many southern states weakened their laws shielding against manumissions (Van Buskirk, 2017). Virginia passed a law allowing manumissions in 1782, provided the former owners continued being responsible for the ones unable to support themselves. A thousand slaves were emancipated in that state during the next decade. However, the assembly approved a bill during this time condemning the owners who were against their solemn promises and principles of justice.

Slavery and Emancipation in the Age of the Revolution

The primary role of the African Americans was that they were recruited into armies as soldiers but were mostly taken in as slaves. In the Revolution, slavery was very prominent in various areas. In the Chesapeake, approximately a third of the families had slaves by the revolution, and the whites mainly were outnumbered by the slaves in the low country (Woelfle & Christie, 2016). There developed two types of slavery in the south depending on the staple crop in the region. In the Chesapeake, they developed patriarchal plantation management and a gang labor system since they grew tobacco mostly. It was a task system on the rice coast, and the slaves never interacted as intimately with their white masters. Although the white and black southerners were part of separate cultures as much as they interacted. The white elites strengthened the significance of the courthouse, the plantation house, and the church, which were the main components of their social domination system.

The brutality of legal punishments aimed towards slaves increased with an increase in their populations, and different judicial processes were generated for slaves, embodied in the slave code. For example, in 1639, the House of Burgesses in Virginia declared that only white Virginians could arm themselves. Slaves and free blacks were not excluded from serving the Virginia militia or carrying arms previous to this time (Holton, 2021). However, in 1676 both sides promised slaves freedom in exchange for military service during Bacon’s Rebellion, similar to what would come to pass over hundred years later. Free blacks were explicitly denied equal status with the whites in the services and refused slaves to serve in the military by the slave code of 1705. The codes 1723and 1748 permitted free blacks to do as drummers or trumpeters only.

There also existed similar or even stricter codes in other states. Even if a slave did not resist, the 1740 slave code made it legal to kill any slave that was away from the plantation or house. Fifteen years later, Georgina’s code came, which encouraged the murder of runaways, offering a reward for a dead male slave twice as much as that of a female captured alive (Van Buskirk, 2017). The white colonists increasingly restricted slave actions and movements in fear of slave insurrection. The slave unrest was very high during the two decades before the war; their fears were justified. However, people were willing to compromise their sense of security in crisis to ensure that they win the way.

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Anxiety was building in places such as Boston in addition to tensions between whites and their slaves since the 1760s after a series of events such as the public uproar against stamp acts and sugar. British soldiers posted there as well as in other cities took jobs from sailors and other working-class people among whom blacks were represented (Geake & Spears, 2016). On King Street in Boston, 1710 British soldiers fired into a violent mob assembled outside the Custom House on March 5th. One of many seaman and dock workers present at the conflict was Crispus Attucks, a runaway ex-slave of Natick Indian and African origins. He was the first of five Americans killed by the British soldiers at the Boston massacre. The freedom many blacks were expecting was rarely realized as much as they could give service to the war.

African Americans as Soldiers

A Lexington slave named Prince Easterbrooks was among the first persons shot at Concord Bridge on April 19th, 1775. However, he survived and continued to fight in almost every major campaign of the Revolution. Enslaved and free blacks fought together with white patriots in the early battles at Bunker Hill, Concord, and Lexington (Van Buskirk, 2017). However, blacks increasingly became excluded after these battles. The safety community decided that only free men could join the army by late May. A delegate from South Carolina presented a resolution in September to the continental congress urging the dismissal of all blacks from the military. It was not approved, yet several officers followed their policies, excluding all blacks from serving in the army.

The patriots also took measures to eliminate any chance of their slaves escaping to the British. For example, some slaves in Virginia who were suspected of attempting escapes in the future were sent to work in lead mines in remote areas of the state, while others were incarcerated (Woelfle & Christie, 2016). The British were not as willing to reject this potential workforce pool as the patriots were. The British saw possibility in the revolutionary fervor of numerous rebellious blacks. The British hoped that the threat of the rebellion would appease the colonists instead of channeling this enthusiasm for rebellion. The actual desertion of slaves would cause significant economic hardship.

John Murray, the last royal governor of Virginia and the fourth Earl of Dunmore, threatened to reduce Williamsburg to ashes and proclaim liberty to the slaves if the colonists opted to push against British authority (Geake & Spears, 2016). He announced that he welcomed men irrespective of race by the summer of 1775 when he found his ranks reduced to 300 men and promised freedom to all slaves that would join his troops. By the fall, 100 black runaways joined Dunmore, during which period he was leading the spoiling operations along the waterways of Virginia. While onboard the William, Dunmore declared martial law on November 7th and issued his famous proclamation.


In conclusion, the American Revolution had a significant impact on the institution of slavery. The African Americans participated in the American Revolution solely to gain their freedom. By serving both sides of the war, several thousands of slaves gained their independence. A surprising number of slaves were emancipated due to the Revolution as others freed themselves by running away. In addition, the British and the colonists both believed that slaves could significantly contribute to the Revolution. They would recruit African Americans into their armies, not for their emancipation but to grow their numbers to participate in the war comfortably.


Geake, R., & Spears, L. (2016). From slaves to soldiers (1st ed.). Westholme Publishing.

Holton, W. (2021). Liberty is sweet. Simon & Schuster.

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Van Buskirk, J. (2017). Standing in their own light. University of Oklahoma Press.

Woelfle, G., & Christie, R. (2016). Answering the cry for freedom. Calkins Creek.