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Fighting for Freedom on Both Sides of the American Revolution

Alan Gilbert, University of Denver political scientist and anti-racist activist, is the author of Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence, one of the few works that examines the free and enslaved blacks who joined the American Patriots and the British during the American Revolution and the anti-racist whites who supported them.  In the account below he describes the book and why he wrote it.

Sixteen years ago, when I was doing research on the Constitution in the context of the Shays’ rebellion and the Alien and Sedition Acts, I thought I should look into racism toward slaves.  I imagined I knew the story: the Revolution pitted the colonial slave-holders against the Imperial slave-traders.  There would be a few black revolts, but not much else to sympathize with.  I looked, however, at Gary Nash’s Race and Revolution and in the third chapter, found that a "gigantic number of blacks," one which we will never know, he said, escaped from bondage and fought for the British in exchange for freedom.  In the next page and a half, he gave five reasons why gradual emancipation should have occurred throughout the United States during or immediately after the Revolution, said it hadn’t because the North wasn’t any good (those states were still in process of getting rid of slavery themselves) and abandoned the topic.  

But I was stopped by this question.  If anything like this level of black escape were true, I thought, it would change everything we think about the American Revolution.  For I had been taught by Barrington Moore, the renowned Harvard political sociologist, that the American uprising was merely a political revolution, a shift in the personnel in power, but not a social revolution like the French.  The real American revolution, Moore thought, was the Civil War which abolished slavery.  As I had now suddenly seen, however, the deeper revolution of the 1770s, one fought largely by blacks but also anti-racist whites, was one for the freedom of all.

After many years and

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