The American Revolution’s Most Inspiring Patriots Include Enslaved African AmericansRoundup
tags: African American history, Revolutionary War
Ben Railton is Professor of English and American Studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. He's the author of four books, most recently History and Hope in American Literature: Models of Critical Patriotism; writes the daily AmericanStudier blog; and contributes public scholarly writing and teaching in many settings.
One of President Biden’s first actions was to disband the 1776 Commission, and its report is no longer available on the White House website. But while that propagandistic effort deserves to disappear, the broader debate over how we remember and understand the American Revolution and founding should continue. And while the report badly misrepresented both the impressive 1619 Project and the fraught, intertwined histories of slavery and the Revolution, it’s also the case that an overtly critical perspective on the founding risks missing a crucial fact: some of the period’s most inspiring patriotic figures and voices were those of enslaved African Americans.
The 1619 Project’s portrayal of the founders and their consistently fraught relationship to slavery is certainly more accurate than was the 1776 Commission’s attempted whitewashing. As I wrote in this Considering History column, George Washington spent a significant portion of his presidency devising methods to deny legal freedom to his slaves, and used his power to relentlessly pursue one escaped enslaved woman, Ona Judge. And as I wrote in this column, Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence included a paragraph that did criticize the practice of slavery but also both blamed it on the King of England and described potential slave rebellions as directly opposed to the Revolution’s goals.
But in using those and other historical details to make the case for the American Revolution as profoundly tied to, and thus the United States overtly founded upon, the horrors of slavery, the 1619 Project also reinforces collective narratives that define the founders as solely or centrally these elite, slave-owning white men. Whereas I would agree with one of the main ideas for which historian Christina Proenza-Coles argues in her vital book American Founders: How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World (2019): the most inspiring Revolutionary and founding figures were in fact enslaved African Americans. Moreover, these figures don’t just illustrate America’s Revolutionary ideals, they also model the celebratory and critical forms of American patriotism that I trace in my forthcoming book Of Thee I Sing: The Contested History of American Patriotism.
When we talk about patriotism, we often mean “celebratory patriotism,” an emphasis on the nation’s unique and inspiring greatness. One of the Revolutionary period’s most vocal celebratory patriots was Phillis Wheatley, the enslaved young woman and supremely talented poet whose 1770s publications helped shape images of the new nation. In her 1775 poem “To His Excellency George Washington,” Wheatley linked Washington to those celebratory national images, portraying him as a “great chief” fighting for “the land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!” She sent her poem to General Washington at his Cambridge headquarters, and he responded enthusiastically, sharing the poem through a mutual friend with Tom Paine who published it as an exemplary expression of Revolutionary patriotism in the April 1776 issue of his Pennsylvania Magazine.
Yet of course in Wheatley’s 1770s Massachusetts, as in every one of the Revolutionary colonies, enslaved African Americans were feeling the tyrannic sway of slavery. A series of Massachusetts enslaved people worked to highlight and challenge that situation directly, and in so doing they modeled an alternative form of patriotism, the category I define as “critical patriotism.” This form of patriotism criticizes the nation’s flaws and failures, highlighting the gaps between American ideals and realities in an effort to help move the nation closer toward a more perfect union that can live up to those ideals.
In January 1777, just six months after the Declaration of Independence, a group of Massachusetts slaves and their abolitionist allies presented a petition to the Massachusetts Legislature that embodied such critical patriotism. The enslaved petitioners called themselves “a great number of Blacks detained in a state of slavery in the bowels of a free and Christian country.” And they noted that “your petitioners cannot but express their astonishment that it has never been considered that every principle from which America has acted in the course of their unhappy difficulties with Great Britain pleads stronger than a thousand arguments in favor of your petitioners.” In appealing directly to the identity and ideals of the new United States, these enslaved petitioners linked their own desire for freedom to that of the Revolutionary nation, potently rebutting Jefferson’s description of slave rebellions as hostile to the cause.
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