The Revolution inspired widespread hopes that slavery could be removed from American life. Most dramatically, slaves themselves appreciated that by defining freedom as a universal right, the leaders of the Revolution had devised a weapon that could be used against their own bondage. The language of liberty echoed in slave communities, North and South. Living amid freedom but denied its benefits, slaves appropriated the patriotic ideology for their own purposes. The most insistent advocates of freedom as a universal entitlement were African-Americans, who demanded that the leaders of the struggle for independence live up to their self-proclaimed creed. As early as 1766, white Charlestonians had been shocked when their opposition to the Stamp Act inspired a group of blacks to parade about the city crying “Liberty.” Nine years later, the Provincial Congress of South Carolina felt compelled to investigate the “high notions of liberty” the struggle against Britain had inspired among the slaves.
The first concrete steps toward emancipation in revolutionary America were “freedom petitions”—arguments for liberty presented to New England’s courts and legislatures in the early 1770s by enslaved African-Americans. How, one such petition asked, could America “seek release from English tyranny and not seek the same for disadvantaged Africans in her midst?” Some slaves sued in court for being “illegally detained in slavery.” The turmoil of war offered other avenues to freedom. Many slaves ran away from their masters and tried to pass as freeborn. The number of fugitive slave advertisements in colonial newspapers rose dramatically in the 1770s and 1780s. As one owner put it in accounting for his slave Jim’s escape, “I believe he has nothing in view but freedom.”
In 1776, the year of American independence, Lemuel Haynes, a black member of the Massachusetts militia and later a celebrated minister, urged that Americans “extend” their conception of freedom. If liberty were truly “an innate principle” for all mankind, Haynes insisted, “even an African [had] as equally good a right to his liberty in common with Englishmen.” Throughout the revolutionary period, petitions, pamphlets, and sermons by blacks expressed “astonishment” that white patriots failed to realize that “every principle from which America has acted” demanded emancipation. Blacks sought to make white Americans understand slavery as a concrete reality—the denial of all the essential elements of freedom—not merely as a metaphor for the loss of political self-determination. Petitioning for their freedom in 1773, a group of New England slaves exclaimed, “We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country!”
A portrait of the poet Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784).
Most slaves of the revolutionary era were only one or two generations removed from Africa. They did not need the ideology of the Revolution to persuade them that freedom was a birthright—the experience of their parents and grandparents suggested as much. “My love of freedom,” wrote the black poet Phillis Wheatley in 1783, arose from the “cruel fate” of being “snatch’d from Afric’s” shore. Brought as a slave to Boston in 1761, Wheatley learned to read and published her first poem in a New England newspaper in 1765, when she was around twelve years old. The fact that a volume of her poems had to be printed with a testimonial from prominent citizens, including patriot leader John Hancock, affirming that she was in fact the author, illustrates that many whites found it difficult to accept the idea of blacks’ intellectual ability. Yet by invoking the Revolution’s ideology of liberty to demand their own rights and by defining freedom as a universal entitlement, blacks demonstrated how American they had become, even as they sought to redefine what American freedom in fact represented.