King George] has waged cruel war on human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.
- removed from the final version of the Declaration of Independence
By the 1760s, the American colonists began to wage a war of words and resistance against the British colonial government. The language of the dissenting colonists soon became the language of African Americans as well in their fight for personal freedom. Their poems, letters, and petitions used the rhetoric of the age to appeal for slavery's abolition in the rhetoric of the age.
To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth
Letter to Reverend Samson Occum
A few white colonists, publicly noted the paradox between the patriots' demands for liberty and the widespread acceptance of slavery. James Otis called the slave trade "the most shocking violation of the law of nature" and posed a series of rhetorical questions which challenged the logic of enslaving blacks because of their physical characteristics. In The Watchman's Alarm John Allen questioned the values of his fellow colonists, chiding them for "enslaving [their] fellow creatures. . . . What is a trifling three-penny duty on tea compared to inestimable blessings of liberty to one captive?"
During the escalating conflicts with the British army, some African Americans, like Crispus Attucks, displayed their devotion to the patriot cause. In 1770 Crispus Attucks became the first man to fall in the struggle with the British. His life was representative of the free blacks of his era -- a runaway, he worked for 20 years at various trades, including rope-making and sailing.
The Boston Massacre
In April 1776, representatives of the thirteen rebellious colonies meeting in the Continental Congress voted to halt the slave trade. Their resolve to shut down British trade, not revolutionary idealism, prompted their action.
Three months later, in July, the Continental Congress grappled with slavery again. In his first version of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote a scathing indictment of King George for promoting slavery in the New World. The other delegates eventually removed this language, but the final version still accused the king of stirring up domestic insurrections -- namely the acts of slave rebellion instigated by Lord Dunmore's Proclamation (described in the following section). The Declaration of Independence immediately became the world's foremost manifesto celebrating human rights and personal freedom, yet when he wrote it, Thomas Jefferson owned over 200 slaves.
Rough draft of the Declaration of Independence
Massachusetts, where the first skirmishes of the Revolution had occurred in 1775, also became a battleground over the status of African Americans. Free blacks frequently submitted petitions seeking an end to slavery, but the legislature tabled each one. Noting how each previous petition had been ignored, the 1777 petition signed by Prince Hall was the most impatient in tone.
The petition of A Great Number of Blackes detained in a State of slavery in the bowels of a free & Christian County Humbly sheweth that your Petitioners apprehend that they have in Common with all other men a Natural and Unalienable Right to that freedom which the Gr[e]at Parent of the Universe that Bestowed equally on all menkind...
- January 13, 1777
Next: The Revolutionary War
Part 2 Narrative:
Map: The Revolutionary Era
Freedom and Bondage in the Colonial Era
Slavery and Religion
Declarations of Independence
The Revolutionary War
The Constitution and The New Nation
Part 2: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide
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