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Black Americans in the Revolutionary Era A Brief History with Documents



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Bedford/St. Martin's
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In this fresh look at liberty and freedom in the Revolutionary era from the perspective of black Americans, Woody Holton recounts the experiences of slaves who seized freedom by joining the British as well as those slave and free who served in Patriot military forces. Holton's introduction examines the conditions of black American life on the eve of colonial independence and the ways in which Revolutionary rhetoric about liberty provided African Americans with the language and inspiration for advancing their cause. Despite the rhetoric, however, most black Americans remained enslaved after the Revolution. The introduction outlines ways African Americans influenced the course of the Revolution and continued to be affected by its aftermath. Amplifying these themes are nearly forty documents including personal narratives, petitions, letters, poems, advertisements, pension applications, and images that testify to the diverse goals and actions of African Americans during the Revolutionary era. Document headnotes and annotations, a chronology, questions for consideration, a selected bibliography, and index offer additional pedagogical support.

Author Biography

Woody Holton (Ph.D., Duke University) is an associate professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, where he teaches classes on African Americans, Native America, early American women, the origins of the Constitution, Abigail Adams, and the era of the American Revolution. He is especially interested in studying the impact of ordinary citizens on grand political events. He is the author of Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (1999), which won the Organization of American Historians Merle Curti Social History Award, and Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (2007), which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Table of Contents



PART ONE: Introduction
Black Americans on the Eve of White Independence

Black Americans and the Coming of the American Revolution

African Americans in the Revolutionary War

Challenging Slavery

Revolutionary Legacies

PART TWO: The Documents

Chapter 1: Black Americans and the Coming of the American Revolution, 1750–1775

  1. Fugitive Slave Advertisements, 1750–1774

  2. Briton Hammon, A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprising Deliverance, of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man, 1760

  3. James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, 1764

  4. Landon Carter, Plantation Diary, March 22, 1770

  5. "Felix," Petition to Governor, Council, and House of Representatives of Massachusetts, January 6, 1773

  6. Massachusetts African Americans, Petition to Local Representatives, April 20, 1773

  7. Patrick Henry, Letter to Robert Pleasants, January 18, 1773

  8. Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773

    On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield

    On Being Brought from Africa to America

  9. Phillis Wheatley, Letter to Samsom Occom, February 11, 1774

    Chapter 2: African Americans in the Revolutionary War, 1775–1783

  10. Andrew Estave, Letter in the Virginia Gazette, July 20, 1775

  11. John Murray, Lord Dunmore, A Proclamation, November 7, 1775

  12. Wartime Fugitive Slave Advertisements, 1776–1782

  13. Extract of a Letter from Monmouth County, June 21, 1780

  14. Sergeant Murphy Steele, Deposition Reporting a Supernatural Encounter, August 16, 1781

  15. John Trumbull, Battle of Bunker’s Hill, 1786

  16. Jacob Francis, Revolutionary War Pension Application, 1836

    Chapter 3: Challenging Slavery, 1776–1787

  17. Thomas Jefferson, Original Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, 1776

  18. New Hampshire Slaves, Freedom Petition, November 12, 1779

  19. Free Blacks in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, Petition against Taxation without Representation, February 10, 1780

  20. William Cushing, Charge to the Jury in the Case of Quok Walker, 1783

  21. Susan Sedgwick, Elizabeth Freeman, 1811

    Chapter 4: Revolutionary Legacies, 1785–1855

  22. John Marrant, Narrative, July 18, 1785

  23. Citizens of Halifax County, Virginia, Petition Defending Slavery, November 10, 1785

  24. Prince Hall and Other "African Blacks," Petition to the Massachusetts Legislature for Return to Africa, January 4, 1787

  25. Free African Society, Charter, April 12, 1787

  26. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1788

  27. Rose Fortune, 1780s?

  28. Benjamin Banneker and Thomas Jefferson, Exchange of Letters, August 19 and 30, 1791

  29. Saul, Petition to the Virginia State Legislature, October 9, 1792

  30. David George, An Account of the Life of Mr. David George from Sierra Leone, Africa, Given by Himself, 1793

  31. Boston King, Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, A Black Preachers, Written by Himself, July 4, 1796

  32. Freemen from North Carolina, Petition to Congress, January 23, 1797

  33. Prosser’s Ben, Mr. Price’s John, and Ben Woolfolk, Testimony against Gabriel, October 6, 1800

  34. Raphaelle Peale, Absalom Jones, 1810

  35. Paul Cuffee, Memoir of Captain Paul Cuffee, October 1811

  36. William C. Nell, Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, 1855


A Chronology of Black Americans in the Revolutionary Era

Questions for Consideration

Selected Bibliography


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