The American Revolutionary War cannot be discussed without an elephant hanging in the room. The words penned by Thomas Jefferson and voted in favor of in the Declaration of Independence contained the phrase, “All Men Are Created Equal.” This begs the question about why the slave owner penned these words as an argument for equality when Jefferson practiced the “sin” of slavery. He owned human beings and considered them property and is believed to have had sexual relations with Sally Hemmings. Whether it be a myth or truth it is fact that Hemmings was the property of Jefferson.
The American Revolution did not occur during the American Revolutionary War. The American Revolution occurred during the Civil War when all men were free and slavery was abolished. While it took time to release America from its racist past the Civil War did remove the tag of property from a human being. In theory, slaves were now permitted to work where they chose and marry whom they wished. In the past slaves had been put to work where their master sought fit and were bred like horses, but received worse treatment than animals.
Slavery is a stark contrast to liberty and one of the great failures of the founding fathers. In order to create a union slavery was omitted from the Declaration of Independence and kept in the background. These great men who spoke of British tyranny and a taxation without representation saw no problem in sleeping with their slaves nor selling their children for a profit. It was a grotesque practice that one cannot understand without delving into the mind of an 18th century planter. What caused this great exception? In order to answer that question one must look into origins of English slavery and the arguments made for its acceptance.
Slavery in England
By the 15th century West Africans were already being enslaved by the Portuguese and Spanish for use in their domestic economies and were to be used when the two competing empires began to colonize. Christopher Columbus, Hernan Cortes, Francisco Pizarro, and other Spanish Conquistadors enslaved many West Africans through the slave trade, but also many of the natives that they came in contact with. This system of slavery was largely predicated on the belief that to the victor go the spoils and the spoils included the conquered people. Slaves played an integral part in developing the New World.
Spain and Portugal had these models of slavery, but England did not have this model and it did not play a role in the English economy. However, when they began to colonize the New World there became a greater need for forced labor to support their global empires. It was here that one can see their concept of slavery and freedom and where it came from.
Bondage was not a foreign concept to the English. For centuries England was a feudal society that included serfdom. Serfs had served the English economy for centuries, but had largely died out by the time of the 16th century, but serfs were not slaves. Slaves were viewed as property with no legal rights. They could be bought, sold, beaten, bred, killed, and were not allowed to own property that was not the case for serfs. Serfs had limited rights and were allowed to own some property. English common law applied to them, but not to slaves. Slavery was defined in 16th century England as the loss of liberty.
While it is hard to understand the mindset that justified slavery and there are many theories we can find where English slavery began and it has more to do with economic need than racism. Though racism did play a part.
Slavery during the American Revolutionary War
By the time of the American Revolutionary War slavery in the New England Colonies had ended and there were many freed slaves that resided in the colonies. The first death of the American Revolutionary War was Crispus Attucks who died in the Boston Massacre. There were a few freed slaves that served courageously during the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Battles of Bunker Hill, and participated in the Siege of Boston. These men owned their own land and fired with their own muskets.
One of the first things that George Washington did when he became commander-in-chief of the Continental Army was to purge the army of its colored soldiers. There was political pressure from the southern delegates in the Continental Congress to rid the army of these soldiers fearing that their presence would incite the slaves to rise up in the south.
In response to this action the British began to recruit black soldiers and promised them freedom if they served in the British Army. Slaves responded to the call and began to take up arms for the British. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and many other influential southern planters lost many of their slaves to this British proclamation.
This forced the hand of the Americans to allow colored men to fight in the Continental Army. Soon there would be entire units of colored men fighting for their country’s freedom.
Although the British had dealt with slavery in their own country, they were unable to handle the situation in the colonies. They mishandled the runaways that came to the British ranks to fight for their freedom. Instead they placed them in less important roles and many never saw a battlefield.