The Declaration of Independence’s debt to Black America
When African Americans allied themselves with the British, the Patriots were enraged, and they acted.
By Woody Holton
Woody Holton, the McCausland professor of history at the University of South Carolina, is the author of “Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution.”
July 2, 2021 at 9:13 a.m. EDT
In his famous Independence Day oration of 1852, Frederick Douglass asked, “What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?” If we turn that around and ask, “What to the Fourth of July were African Americans?,” we can only answer: “A lot.”
African Americans played a crucial, if often overlooked, role in their White owners’ and neighbors’ decision to declare independence from Britain.
in November 1774 — five months before the Battles of Lexington and Concord — Blacks in the Virginia Piedmont gathered to assess how to use the impending conflict between colonists and crown to gain their own freedom. Over the next 12 months, African Americans all over the South made essentially this pitch to beleaguered royal officials: You are outnumbered, you need us — and we will fight for you if you will free us. At first the British refused, but eventually Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, began quietly welcoming African Americans to what he called his “Ethiopian Regiment.” On Nov. 15, 1775, Dunmore’s Black troops defeated a Patriot militia force, with the Patriot commander being captured by one of his own former enslaved men. Later that day, the governor issued an emancipation proclamation, promising freedom to rebels’ enslaved people who served in his army. With less fanfare, other colonial officials, especially Royal Navy captains, also accepted Black volunteers.
1775, most White Americans had resisted parliamentary innovations like the Stamp Act and the tea tax but had shown little interest in independence. Yet when they heard that Blacks had forged an informal alliance with the British, Whites were furious. John H. Norton of Virginia denounced Dunmore’s “Damned, infernal, Diabolical proclamation declaring Freedom to all our Slaves who will join him.” Thomas Paine pronounced the Anglo-African alliance “hellish.”
“Our Devil of a Governor goes on at a Devil of a rate indeed,” wrote Virginian Benjamin Harrison, who would later sign the Declaration of Independence.
fury at the British for casting their lot with enslaved people drove many to the fateful step of endorsing independence. In his rough draft of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson listed 25 grievances against George III but devoted three times as many words to one of those grievances as to any other. This was his claim that the king had first imposed enslaved Africans on White Americans and was now encouraging those same enslaved people “to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them.”
Soon after the adoption of the Declaration, Black freedom fighters set about transforming its meaning.
The Second Continental Congress’s most urgent motivation for declaring independence was to pave the way for a military alliance with France. That explains why the Declaration briefly mentions human rights but focuses on states’ (nations’) rights, specifically the right of entities like the 13 colonies to break away from their mother countries. And in the Declaration’s early years, as the literary scholar Eric Slauter has discovered, most Whites who quoted it went straight to its secessionist clauses, especially Congress’s pronouncement that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.”