A Student of History

May 27, 2006

Slaves and the American Revolution

Filed under: New books — John Maass @ 12:54 pm

In a recent New Yorker review article, Jill Lepore has an excellent review of two new books on slaves and the American Revolution.  One is Simon Scama's Rough Crossings, the other is Cassandra Pybus’s Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty.  From Lepore's review:

No one knows how many former slaves had fled the United States by the end of the American Revolution. Not as many as wanted to, anyway. During the war, between eighty thousand and a hundred thousand (nearly one in five) left their homes, running from slavery to the freedom promised by the British, and betting on a British victory. They lost that bet. They died in battle, they died of disease, they ended up someplace else, they ended up back where they started, and worse off. (A fifteen-year-old girl captured while heading for Dunmore’s regiment was greeted by her master with a whipping of eighty lashes, after which he poured hot embers into her wounds.) When the British evacuated, fifteen thousand blacks went with them, though not necessarily to someplace better.

On the Scama book, a summary from Booklist says: "African-American history, as well as American history, is too often geographically restricted in focus and content, lacking larger global context. Schama, a much-hailed Columbia University history professor and writer, frees us from those debilitating limitations. In the American Revolution, he exposes the complex dimensions of black interests associated with both the loyalist and patriot forces. For those of slave status, the American quest for liberty had hollow virtue without its companion of freedom. The slavery issue impacted both the revolution and our nations' early formation far more than is commonly known." 

Booklist also notes that "Historian Pybus traces the paths of several former slaves, including those of George Washington, as they fled America for freedom, and she profiles famous and lesser-known figures who fought for freedom for enslaved blacks during the American Revolution. Pybus also offers a rare look at how the former slaves were received in London and how they fared in the two colonies set aside by the British for them in Sierra Leone, Africa, and Botany Bay, Australia. Along with detailing the personal challenges facing these former slaves and showing how they managed, while enslaved, to forge ideals of individual freedom, Pybus demonstrates that the Civil War and the civil rights movement have roots in the American Revolution."

For more on Simon Schama, click here.   Also–there's a review of Schama's book in the Washington Post here.

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