Friday, August 18, 2017

Preservation of slavery a major reason Southern colonies supported American Revolution

    A little history lesson. A number of Southern states decided to join America’s civil war in order to preserve slavery. It’s a fact.
    But do understand that the terrible conflagration that occurred between 1861 and 1865 was not a civil war as most people understand the term. It was truly, as Southerners, refer to it, as a War Between the States. The Confederacy had an organized government, a legislature, a judiciary, an executive, and 11 sovereign states that also had fully organized and fully functional governments. These things do not exist in a civil war.
    America’s civil war didn’t take place from 1861-65. It took place from 1775 to 1781. We refer to it as the American Revolution, but in fact the Revolution has all of the characteristics of a civil war, among them a poorly organized government and little geographic division between opposing sides.
    Most people are under the impression that the War Between the States was fought for the purpose of freeing the slaves. Far from it. Abraham Lincoln sought the passage of the Corwin Amendment during James Buchanan’s lame duck period, which would have enshrined slavery into the Constitution forever.
    Lincoln wrote to the governors of the seceding states providing copies of the Corwin Amendment for them to consider, it being his opinion that they were still a part of they Union and therefore their legislatures could vote to ratify. The Southern states were not interested, because there were so many other conflicts with the North; the South simply did not wish to be a part of the Union, even if slavery was guaranteed. The forced abolition of slavery simply was not on the table in 1861.
    Things changed after several years of war, and Lincoln eventually signed the Emancipation Proclamation (which had no immediate effect, since it only applied to areas not under Union control), but the important thing to understand is that what is commonly called the American Civil War simply was not fought for the purpose of freeing slaves. It happened afterwards, but it was not the intention of the North at the outset.
    Enough of that. Let us go back to the American Revolution. Unlike the Northern colonies, the Southern colonies were fairly happy with relations with Great Britain. Sure, they had gripes, but most Colonists were loyalists. But they were dealing with what amounted to a massive slave rebellion.
    Word had spread among the slave population of Great Britain’s inclination to abolish slavery at some point. A British court had set free a Jamaican slave who had been brought to England in what was known as the Sommerset Decision, and although the court decision was intentionally limited, most American slaves believed – incorrectly – that if they could somehow reach British soil they would be freed. Slaves were starting to run away and there had been rebellions.
    In November 1775, with the Revolution breaking out, Virginia’s last British governor, Lord Dunsmore, offered any slave willing to fight for the crown their freedom and land to farm; he had already threatened the Colonists that he might free the slaves in April 1775 should any harm come to Williamsburg. Meanwhile, Revolutionary recruiters in Georgia and South Carolina were promising white soldiers a slave at the end of their service. Needless to say, Colonial slaves saw where their best hope for freedom lay and acted upon it.
    In South Carolina, two-thirds of slaves escaped following Dunsmore’s proclamation. Thirty thousand slaves fled Virginia. Although fewer than 1,000 former slaves actually served the British as soldiers, at least 20,000 defected or allowed themselves to be captured and many served in other capacities. By the end of the war, out of a total slave population of 450,000 in the colonies, approximately 100,000 had escaped, died, or were killed in battle.
    At the conclusion of the war Great Britain resettled approximately 12,000 of the former slaves in Nova Scotia and the West Indies. About half who settled in Nova Scotia eventually chose to resettle in Sierra Leone. However, Britain returned escaped slaves to former owners who had remained loyal to the crown.
    Near the outset of the war George Washington allowed free blacks with military experience to join the Continental Army. A year later he expanded that to include all free blacks. Soon after Congress voted to allow slaves to serve, but no Southern state agreed save for Maryland.
    Approximately 5,000 blacks, both free and slave, served in the Continental Army. Many slaves were given their freedom, but others who had been promised freedom were instead returned to slavery.
    Lord Dunsmore’s actions obviously backfired horrendously. His intention was to frighten Southerners away from joining in what was mostly a Northeastern rebellion. Instead he caused many Southerners who would otherwise be loyal to the Crown to join in the Revolution. Slaveowners joined to protect their economic interests, and the intensely Loyalist backcountry residents of Virginia and the Carolinas were frightened at the thought of tens of thousands of armed former slaves roaming the countryside and switched their allegiance to the Continental cause.
    Our high school history books don’t tell this version of events because victors like to paint themselves in the most flattering light possible. We live in a world of myth, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Perhaps most of those who joined in the American Revolution did so in pursuit of the high-minded ideals stated in the Declaration of Independence. But in the South many were motivated, at least in part, out of a fear of abolition and a desire to maintain legal slavery.
    So the bottom line is that the war many believe was fought to end slavery wasn’t; and the American Revolution, with all of its high-minded ideals, was also fought by some to preserve slavery.
    Those who insist on denouncing those who served the Confederacy while praising those who served in the Revolution need to delve a little deeper into America’s not-always-pretty history. Life is complicated.

Sources: Was the American Revolution Fought to Save Slavery?

INSTITUTE INDEX: Slavery and the American Revolution

Dunmore’s Proclamation
How fears of a slave revolt drew the South into the war—the Revolutionary War

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