Matthew Spooner

Freedom, Reenslavement, and Movement in the Revolutionary South

For no group of Americans did the Revolution mean more, and appear to offer more, than for the nearly 450,000 black men and women who lived and labored below Mason and Dixon’s line. From the earliest days of the conflict, black Southerners made clear that their loyalty lay, in Benjamin Quarles words, “not to a place nor to a people but to a principle.” Long before Lexington and Concord, slaves gathered on plantations to organize flight and armed resistance, with slaves on one Virginia plantation formally electing leaders “to conduct them when the English troops should arrive.” Black men and women appeared before royal governors and military officers, pledging their arms and their lives in exchange for freedom. And when the full force of the War for Independence moved southward in 1778, dividing white Southerners and disrupting the forms of discipline buttressing slaveholder authority, slaves asserted their claim to the Revolution’s principle of liberty with their voices, their arms, and their feet. By the end of the conflict in 1783, thousands of slaves from the Southern states had departed America’s shores to forge new lives and new communities from Nova Scotia to England to Sierra Leone.

Yet the legacy of the American Revolution, like that of all revolutions, was ambiguous and contradictory. This was especially true in the Early Republican South, where a struggle in the name of liberty in time produced the most politically powerful slaveholding class the modern world has ever seen. This paper seeks to explore the contradictory impact of the Revolution on the lives of black Southerners by interweaving the stories of three slaves with an examination of changes to post-Revolutionary legal codes. In doing so, the paper argues that the experience of black men and women during the Revolutionary period can best be understood as defined simply by movement, both across state lines and oceans and across the boundary between slavery and freedom made momentarily fluid by the chaos of war.

The countervailing currents of the Revolution can be most clearly traced by shifting focus away from well known figures like Boston King and Thomas Peters—who gained freedom after the war—and instead exploring the more common experience of slaves like Amy, who fled to Cornwallis’s army in 1781 and lived in North Carolina with her two children as a free women for seventeen years before she was reenslaved and her children were sold in 1798. The same forces that allowed men like King and Peters to obtain their freedom, and which allowed slaves unprecedented autonomy on many plantations, also produced extreme want and suffering. The chaos of war made movement easier, yet the burning of plantations, halting of agricultural production, and embargos created widespread shortages of food and clothing, with slaves invariably the first to suffer. That same disorder created conditions in which soldiers and partisans seized thousands of black men and women and sold them hundreds or thousands of miles from home, while state governments moved thousands more as they used black bodies to pay for soldiers and supplies. And although the post-war decades witnessed the emergence of a new class of free black citizens who formed the bulwark of resistance to bondage for the next eight decades, the expansion of slavery and the ravages of war dragged many more from freedom back to slavery hundreds of miles into the interior. As a result, the capacity of black Southerners for movement after the war, across space and between slavery and freedom, became the most contested site of struggle between slaves and slaveholders as each sought to impose their understanding of the Revolution’s legacy on a developing society.

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