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James Forten was just 15 years old when he served as a gunpowder handler on Stephen Decatur’s 22-gun privateer, the Royal Louis, during the American Revolution. A free Black whose great-grandfather had been one of the first slaves in Pennsylvania to purchase his freedom, Forten had attended a school led by the pioneering Quaker abolitionist Anthony Bénézet.

In a naval engagement with the British ship the Lawrence, Forten was the only survivor at his gun station. On his next voyage, the British captured his ship, and Forten expected to be sold into slavery in the West Indies. However, the British captain’s son befriended him, and persuaded his father to offer the young man passage to England. According to Forten’s account, he replied “No, No! I am here a prisoner for the liberties of my country; I never, NEVER, shall prove a traitor to her interests.”

The British captain then consigned Forten to the prison ship the Jersey anchored in New York harbor, where about 11,000 sailors died of disease and malnutrition during three years of the Revolutionary War. Forten spent seven months on the ship before he was set free in a prisoner exchange.

In later life, Forten would become a master sailmaker and almost certainly the wealthiest Black person in early 19th century America. The leader of Philadelphia’s Black community, he served as vice president of the American Anti-Slavery Society and lent William Lloyd Garrison the money to start his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator.

When we think of the era of the American Revolution, we typically conjure up images of agitators and propagandists, like Sam Adams and Thomas Paine, or leading political figures like John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin, or generals, like George Washington, or traitors like Benedict Arnold. But what of Blacks, who made up 20 percent of the colonies’ population? I suspect that even those who are well-read can only come up with of a couple of names, the poet Phillis Wheatley and the astronomer and almanac maker Benjamin Banneker.

That should no longer be the case, thanks to a new collection of documents edited by James G. Basker, a Barnard College professor and president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. “A major act of historical recovery,” Black Writers of the Founding Era presents a radically new perspective on the Revolution, moving Black voices from the margins to center stage.

As Professor Basker makes clear, Black Americans of the Revolutionary era were the victims of historical erasure, a process that systematically minimized or omitted their contributions and experiences from historical narratives. By overlooking Blacks’ significant role in the Revolutionary war, the dominant narratives skewed the public’s understanding of the era. As a result, generations of students learned an incomplete and biased version of history.

The challenge that Professor Basker faced was to recover Black voices that were hidden away. But those voices existed in conversion testimonies, court records, editorials, essays, journal entries, memoirs, orations, pamphlets, personal letters, public petitions, poems and sermons, and even accounts of dreams. His volume includes writings by 16 Black Revolutionary war veterans, 10 slave narratives, and texts by 19 Black women. The authors range from ministers to barbers, business owners, coachmen, convicted criminals, and tradesmen, and include the first Black poet, Jupiter Hammon; the founder of the first Black fraternal organization, Prince Hall; the first ordained Black minister, Lemuel Haynes; and the founders of the first Black churches, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones.;

The authors’ diversity is extraordinary. The writers represent all of the original 13 colonies and the future states of Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Vermont. They lived in urban, rural, inland and coastal settings and included Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, Congregationalists, Moravians, Methodists and Quakers. Their politics ranged from Tory to Whig, and loyalist to patriot.

The texts encompass the first petition for freedom presented by enslaved Black men to a legislative body (in Massachusetts in 1773) and the first to call for equal access to education for Black children. The texts also document the first use of the term “African American” in 1782 (as opposed to words like “Africans” or “Ethiopians”); the first claim by Black Americans to be citizens (in South Carolina in 1791); the founding and functioning of first Black mutual aid societies, in Newport, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Providence; the first protest (in 1793 in South Carolina) against a discriminatory poll tax; and the first challenge (in 1797) to the original Fugitive Slave Act.

The collection documents the fateful choices that Blacks in the Founding era faced: to side with the British or the American patriots and risk their lives by enlisting as soldiers or, in the case of women, working as cooks, laundresses, and even spies and remain in the new United States after the war, or to evacuate (as an estimated 20,000 did) to Nova Scotia and, eventually, to London and Sierra Leone.

The collection does a masterful job of recovering Black agency, but be forewarned: Many of the documents are profoundly tragic, recounting episode after episode of physical and sexual abuse, family separation, chronic illness, debilitating injuries and heart-wrenching poverty. No trigger warning can cocoon a reader for the disturbing content they will confront. That’s our collective history and we need to confront it head on. Hear Felix Holbrook’s words from 1773 and feel his pain: “We have no Property! We have no Wives! No Children! We have no City! No Country!”

Most contemporary readers, I suspect, will find it challenging to grapple with this volume’s ultimate takeaway: That despite the discrimination, cruelty and injustice that the writers faced, most of these women and men somehow sustained a faith in America’s promise. They committed themselves to asserting their rights to full citizenship.

How, readers will surely ask, did these women and men find the resources and resourcefulness to establish a host of community groups, mutual aid societies, secular and religious organizations, and the courage to assert themselves publicly in the face of intense public hostility, by petitioning courts and legislatures? The answer lies in ideas and commitments that, I fear, have lost their bite in today’s more secular and cynical society. Their arguments are rooted in religious ethics, notions of natural rights, and ideals of liberty and equality that Americans today tend to regard with skepticism.

These documents stand as a rebuke to us, who, in the face of far lesser challenges, fail to do all we can to help overcome the systemic inequalities and injustices that beset our society.

The American Revolution had profound effects on the institution of slavery. While the figures are difficult to pin down, thousands of slaves were manumitted during and after the war, while many others freed themselves by running away. In Georgia alone, 5,000 slaves, a third of the colony’s prewar total, escaped from bondage.

Both the British and the colonists believed that slaves could serve an important role during the revolution. In April 1775, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, threatened to proclaim liberty to the slaves and reduce Williamsburg to ashes if the colonists resorted to force against British authority. In November, he promised freedom to all slaves belonging to rebels who would join “His Majesty’s Troops … for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper sense of their duty …” Some eight hundred slaves joined British forces, some wearing the emblem “Liberty to the Slaves.”

The British appeal to slave unrest outraged slaveholders not only in the South but in New York’s Hudson Valley. Later, the British commander Sir Henry Clinton promised protection to all slaves who deserted from the rebels. His promise may well have contributed to the collapse of the British cause in the South. By suggesting that the Revolution was a war over slavery, he alienated many neutrals and even some loyalists.

Meanwhile, an American diplomat, Silas Deane, hatched a secret plan to incite slave insurrections in Jamaica. Two South Carolinians, John Laurens and his father Henry, persuaded Congress to unanimously approve a plan to recruit an army of 300 slaves troops in South Carolina and Georgia. The federal government would compensate the slaves’ owners and each Black would, at the end of the war, be emancipated and receive $50. However, the South Carolina legislature rejected the plan, scuttling the proposal.

In the end, however, neither side proved willing to risk a full-scale social revolution by issuing an emancipation proclamation.

Black soldiers served with valor at the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill. However, In November 1775, Congress decided to exclude Blacks from future enlistment out of a sensitivity to the opinion of slaveowners, only to reluctantly reverse its decision, fearful that Blacks might join the redcoats. By 1778, many states, including Virginia, granted freedom to Blacks who had served in the Revolutionary War. But Virginia also granted 300 acres of land and a slave to the whites who served in the state militia or Continental army.

The Revolution’s impact on slavery was mixed. On the one hand, the Revolution helped transform slavery into a moral problem by underscoring the glaring contradiction between the revolutionaries’ complaints about political oppression and the base realities of chattel slavery. This concern was evident in the Continental Congress’s agreement in 1774 to prohibit the importation of slaves; in the founding of the first antislavery society in Philadelphia in 1775; in Vermont’s decision to explicitly exclude slavery in its Constitution of 1777; and Pennsylvania’s enactment of the Western Hemisphere’s first gradual emancipation act in 1780. By 1805, every northern state had abolished slavery or adopted a gradual emancipation scheme.

I should add that the gradual emancipation laws required adult slaves to remain in bondage and only freed their children after a period of years, to compensate owners for the costs of raising them. These laws worked extremely slowly, with slavery in New York only ending in 1827, while, at the beginning of the Civil War, there were probably more slaves in New Jersey, a “free” state, than in Delaware, a slave state.

On the other hand, in the Southern states, slavery ultimately emerged stronger than before—even though a quarter of South Carolina’s Blacks and a third of those in Georgia had escaped from bondage. And the U.S. Constitution served to further strengthen slavery. Though never mentioned by name, slavery was an element in 11 of the Constitution’s 84 clauses. Among the matters that the convention debated was whether the states were obligated to return fugitive slaves; whether slaves would count in apportioning representation or taxation; whether Congress had the power to abolish the Atlantic or Caribbean slave trade or regulate the interstate slave trade; and whether Congress had the right to prohibit slavery in the Western territories. In the end, the Northern delegates’ commitment to the union proved greater than any commitment to weaken slavery.

As most school children used to know, the Three-Fifths Compromise declared that each enslaved person would be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of representation and taxation, giving Southern slaveholding states greater representation in the House of Representatives than if enslaved individuals had not been counted at all, while also reducing the potential tax burden on these states.

The Fugitive Slave Clause required that enslaved people who escaped to free states must be returned to their enslavers. It provided a constitutional guarantee that slaveholders could reclaim their property, even if the enslaved individuals had reached a state where slavery was illegal.

The structure of the Electoral College also indirectly strengthened the political power of slaveholding states. Since the number of electors each state received was based on its total number of representatives in Congress, including those counted through the Three-Fifths Compromise, slaveholding states had disproportionate influence in presidential elections, helping to sway the three most important elections of the pre-Civil War era: Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800, Andrew Jackson’s in 1828, and James Knox Polk’s in 1844.

Further, the Constitution failed to recognize Free Blacks as citizens, leaving that issue to the individual states.

In spite of repeated attempts—including The Patriot (2000), Revolution (1985), 1776 (1972), and Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)—Hollywood has never made a successful film about the Revolution. The reasons are obvious. The Revolution’s political, social and military dynamics are difficult to condense into a compelling narrative. Except for Washington and Franklin, the Revolution lacks iconic figures who might appeal to a general audience. An accurate depiction must also embrace controversies involving slavery, colonialism and the treatment of Native Americans, which popular filmmakers are reluctant to do.

The biggest challenge involves the contradictions that lie at the very heart of this country’s struggle for independence. Fought under the banner of liberty and equality, the Founding Fathers were either slaveholders or men willing to join hands with slaveowners. In addition, the revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality primarily applied to white men, with women, Native Americans and Blacks, both enslaved and free, largely excluded from these promises. Acknowledging these historical realities can complicate the narrative of a straightforward fight for freedom. Depicting complexities and ambiguities is exceedingly difficult in a popular medium that favors clear moral dichotomies.

The Revolution is the United States’ foundational story. Movies that critically examine this period risk backlash from audiences who prefer a more heroic and simplified version of events, while more sanitized treatments inevitably evoke disdain from those who regard these films as a whitewash.

But Black Writers of the Founding Era lets us imagine a very different approach that could present the themes of liberty and equality in a more historically accurate way that can speak to a contemporary audience. By foregrounding Blacks—or Native peoples or women of all backgrounds—it would be possible to strike the right balance between engaging storytelling and the faithful historical representation of complex ideas. I’m not holding my breath, and I don’t expect Hollywood to take up this challenge.

But now there’s no reason why teachers at all levels can’t tell the story of the Revolution through Black eyes using first-person accounts.

Throughout this country’s history, Black Americans have played a central role in revitalizing this society’s ideals of liberty and equality. By confronting this nation’s moral failures, challenging the nation's inconsistencies, laying bare this society’s hypocrisy, and advocating for equal rights, Black Americans have pushed this country towards greater inclusion and justice, and have expanded the meaning and scope of freedom and equality for all.

That’s a civic lesson that all students, whether in K-12 schools or college, need to learn.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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