Agents for Their Own Liberation: An Historiography of Slave Resistance, Racial Identity, and the American Revolution

By Matthew Taylor

           In 2019, the New York Times published the 1619 Project. The project aimed to place slavery and Black experiences at the center of American history, and included the controversial claim that “colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain . . . because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” This decision, according to the project’s contributing author Nikole Hannah-Jones, was “conveniently left out of our founding mythology.”[1] For many Americans, the 1619 Project was their first exposure to a narrative about the nation’s founding that identified the preservation of slavery as a cause of the Revolution.  Critics of the 1619 project, including politicians and pundits, argued that the 1619 Project was an attempt to cancel the founding fathers. Historians, such as Sean Wilentz, James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes, flatly rejected the claims of the 1619 Project, particularly the claim that colonists who became Americans fought in the American Revolution to preserve slavery.[2]

Figure 1 Artwork by Adam Pendleton, used in the 1619 Project. Exploring “The Idea of America.”


            While the feud over the 1619 Project has played out on the internet, on cable news, and in public conversations, historians researching the American Revolution and slavery have engaged in an evolving discourse about the relationship between slavery and the American Revolution for some time. Historians ignored the influence of slavery in the Revolution for nearly two centuries. Beginning in the 1940s, and accelerating in the 1960s and 1970s, historians explored slaves’ agency, and the relationship of slaves to the causes and course of the American Revolution.[3] Historians’ understanding of the relationship between the American Revolution and slavery has continued to evolve. In recent years they have been analyzing the causal relationship between slavery and the War for Independence.[4]

            Historians began exploring the relationship between slavery and the American Revolution nearly eighty years ago. They have developed the historiographical field in three major waves which occurred in the 1940s, the 1960s through the 1980s, and from 1991 to the present. A common trend in the scholarship is that enslaved people were not passive—they were historical actors who reacted to the context they lived in and acted as they could to shape the world around them. This stance suggests Marxist thinking likely influenced the positions of historians of all three waves.[5] The most significant change in how historians have written about slavery and the American Revolution is the extent to which they connected the actions of White patriots in 1776 to their fear of enslaved Black people. Historians’ interpretations of the relationship between slavery and the founding of the United States have evolved alongside changes in how Americans understand race and racism—from the Jim Crow Era to the modern day. Each wave of historians built upon the work of previous historians to arrive at positions that assign greater agency to enslaved people, and which ultimately cast the institution of slavery as a contributing factor to the causes of the American Revolution.

The First Wave: Bring Your Guns to “Worship the Prince of Peace”

            When Herbert Aptheker wrote American Negro Slave Revolts, published in 1943, he suggested that historians and the general public accepted the myth that enslaved people were content with a life of bondage. Aptheker established his purpose as trying to shed light on the extent to which the enslaved resisted their condition by acknowledging that “no thorough, documented study” of this facet of American slavery existed. Thus, he set out to provide such a study.[6] Not only did no detailed study of this topic exist, historians instead adopted the narrative of social memory by portraying enslaved people as docile, and generally content in slavery. Aptheker stated that historians assumed that slaves’ dominant traits were “meekness or docility.”[7] Historians of the early twentieth century promoted the same myths about enslaved people as enslavers had during the antebellum period. When one considers the context of 1943—Jim Crow laws and the persistence of sharecropping—it seems plausible that this version of social memory was accepted in order to support the social order that existed in the United States prior to the Civil Rights movement.

            Aptheker challenged the assumptions of historians by establishing three key themes that historians in the second and third waves explored further. The first is slaves’ agency and resistance; the second is the reaction of white colonists to slave resistance; and the third is racial hierarchy. An anecdote from Aptheker’s work demonstrates his treatment of the first and second themes. He cites an eighteenth-century source that details how enslaved people had spread rumors that the newly appointed Colonial Governor in Virginia had been given orders by the king to free all enslaved Christians. The slaves planned an insurrection believing their enslavers had kept them in bondage against the new Governor’s orders. The authorities executed four slaves, and declared that because the insurrection was to occur during Sunday church services white men would carry guns when they “went to worship the Prince of Peace.”[8] While previous historians viewed slave resistance as both rare and generally inconsequential, Aptheker provided numerous stories like the aforementioned that demonstrates that enslaved people did resist their condition:  They listened to news and rumors, they kept abreast of political change, and they took action as they could to alter their condition. Not only were acts of resistance more frequent than previous historians had thought, but also they were more significant. In this instance, Aptheker demonstrates that slave resistance prompted a reaction from the colonists of Virginia—a decree, based on a fear of enslaved people, to carry guns to church. To suggest that slaves possessed agency and that their agency affected colonial society was a bold claim to make in 1943.

            Elsewhere in his work Aptheker examined the origins of racial hierarchies in America, which he attributed to slavery—another bold claim at a time when many Americans attributed racial inequality to “survival of the fittest” or divine decree or happenstance. In order to maintain the system of slavery, Aptheker notes that the “slaveocracy” encouraged a belief in Black inferiority and instituted strict legal codes to control slaves.[9] Later historians would further build upon Aptheker’s work, but he had established the viewpoint that colonial society’s elites developed a racial hierarchy and legal structures to control enslaved people. His evidence implies that White society felt a need to control the enslaved population because enslavers feared the agency of the people they enslaved. By suggesting that slave resistance was both common and significant, Aptheker’s examination of enslaved people’s resistance laid the foundation for later historians to examine the relationship between slave resistance and the American Revolution more explicitly.

The Second Wave: The American Revolution as Inspiration for Resistance

            Historians of the second wave built upon Aptheker’s work in examining slave resistance, reaction to resistance, and the construction of racial hierarchies. They also focused on two themes Aptheker was silent on. The first theme is the relationship between black people and the American Revolution. The second is a progress narrative that emphasized how the rhetoric of the Revolutionary period (1765-1789) provided the burgeoning anti-slavery movement in the colonies and the early years of the United States with the rhetoric to speak against slavery.[10] Historians of the second wave continued along the controversial line of inquiry that Aptheker established, but also presented a more patriotic narrative than he had.

            Slave resistance and agency remained a key theme in the work of second wave historians. In 1961, Benjamin Quarles discussed Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation of 1775, which offered freedom to slaves willing to serve the Royal British military.[11] Quarles notes that many slaves in response took up the offer and acted for their own liberation by seeking to join the British. Gerald Mullin, in his 1972 work, Flight and Rebellion, also examined Dunmore’s rationale behind the Proclamation. Mullin notes that in 1772, Dunmore reported to London that in the event of a war with Spain, the British should expect the Spaniards to attempt to turn enslaved people against their masters. The Spanish, Dunmore speculated, would find an eager audience among the enslaved population.[12] In their examinations of Dunmore’s Proclamation, both Quarles and Mullin built upon the theme of enslaved peoples’ agency established by Aptheker—they viewed slaves as actively responding to the political climate in which they lived, and that their resistance even shaped British policy during the war in the form of Dunmore’s proclamation.

            In his seminal 1968 work, White Over Black, Winthrop Jordan explored a similar phenomenon by investigating how White colonists responded to slave resistance. Much of Jordan’s contribution to the discourse centers on how he placed slave resistance in the context of the fear that it created amongst colonists. He described revolts by enslaved people as occurring with just enough frequency to remind society that they happened and that the next one was likely not far away.[13] This persistent fear shaped the mentalité of the colonial and revolutionary periods. Jordan’s emphasis on the angst that many White colonists lived with adds credence to later historians who asserted that a fear of enslaved people contributed to the causes of the Revolution, although Jordan did not make this claim himself.

            Jordan further probed the mentalité of colonists by analyzing how they responded to enslaved people who had escaped with new slave codes intended to control enslaved people and White colonists themselves. Jordan states that, “Getting the slaves to work efficiently was the owner’s problem, but runaways affected the safety of everyone … and the very discipline upon which slavery rested.”[14] In response to the threat of runaways, and other slave resistance, colonists developed slave codes—a fact acknowledged by Aptheker in 1943; yet Jordan interpreted the slave codes in a new light. “While the colonial slave codes seem at first sight to have been intended to discipline Negroes,” Jordan states, “a slight shift in perspective shows the codes in a different light…. Principally, the law told the white man, not the Negro, what he must do; the codes were for the eyes and ears of slave owners…. It was the white man who was required to punish his runaways.”[15] This passage gives important insight into the mentalité of enslavers—the legal structure created to perpetuate the system of slavery not only created a hierarchy, it relied on White citizens acting to enforce that hierarchy. Jordan added nuance to the ways that historians thought about slave resistance by emphasizing the fact that the legal structure helped to cement a widespread fear of black people.

            While historians of the second wave expanded upon Aptheker’s arguments about racial hierarchies, slave resistance, and responses of Whites to said resistance, they also explored different facets of the relationship between America’s founding and the institution of slavery. Quarles’ analysis of the relationship between slaves’ sense of agency and the American Revolution in his 1961 work, The Negro in the American Revolution, set the tone for other historians’ analyses in the second wave. He emphasized the rhetoric of the Revolution by noting that Thomas Jefferson’s language in the Declaration of Independence “held a great appeal for those who considered themselves oppressed.”[16] Elsewhere he noted that Revolutionary ideals led to a decline in the importation of slaves and movements for emancipation.[17] He concluded his work with a sentiment that is typical of historians’ writing at the time by stating that, “Ultimately the colored people of America benefited from the irreversible commitment of the new nation to the principles of liberty and equality.”[18] He echoed his own arguments in a 1983 essay entitled, “The American Revolution as a Black Declaration of Independence.” In this essay he argues that the rhetoric of the Revolution “inevitably appealed to a group such as the blacks,”[19] and concludes stating that, “the Revolutionary War can be termed a black Declaration of Independence in the sense that it spurred black Americans to seek freedom and equality.”[20] The crux of his argument is that slaves were inspired to resist their condition by a revolution that claimed liberty and equality as two of its core tenets. Mullin reiterated the points made by Quarles with his focus on what the revolutionary movement meant to the enslaved. In his analysis, Mullin suggested that the “assimilateds” (slaves born in the colonies, rather than Africa) were better able to challenge “their masters’… sense of security” than African born slaves. He suggested this was because the “assimilateds” had a deeper understanding of colonial society and the American Revolution.[21] Mullin, like Quarles, attributes the revolutionary spirit of 1776 with infecting and inspiring even the enslaved in a manner that led them to resist their oppression. Like Aptheker, Quarles and Mullin assigned agency to slaves. They contended, however, that the actions of their oppressors were ultimately the key factor in shaping their agency.

              Jordan presented a rather different interpretation of the relationship between revolutionary rhetoric and the eventual end of slavery, yet his analysis was still rooted in a patriotic narrative. He notes that in the buildup to and in the course of the Revolution, Quakers (Society of Friends) developed a strong anti-slavery movement that resulted in Pennsylvania’s gradual end of slavery.[22]  Elsewhere he asserted that the spirit of the Revolution influenced the national conscience to the point that even conservatives believed that slavery should be abolished and notes that during the Revolution “no one in the South stood up in public to endorse Negro slavery.”[23] The work of later historians would demonstrate the absurdity of Jordan’s claim that the American Revolution created a uniform abolitionist spirit across the colonies. Furthermore, it is ironic that Jordan portrayed the same colonial Whites who created institutional racism as willing to allow the Revolution to challenge their support for slavery.

            Duncan MacLeod’s 1974 work entitled, Slavery, Race and the American Revolution, arrived at an ambivalent conclusion regarding the relationship between the American Revolution and its importance for enslaved people. Concluding his work, he argues that the Revolution represented the “first great onslaught” against slavery, while also noting that for enslaved people the American Revolution denied them rights and led to the development of “positive racism.”[24] When MacLeod used the term “positive racism,” he was describing a system of racial hierarchy and White privilege that benefited Whites at the expense of Blacks. MacLeod argued this point most clearly in his introduction while analyzing what Jordan wrote in White Over Black. MacLeod counters that Jordan downplayed the impact that the Revolution had in cementing slavery and racism in the United States. MacLeod argued that in order to justify the rhetoric of the Revolution while continuing the institution of slavery, Americans needed either to adopt an anti-slavery position or to develop a belief system that justified slavery.[25]  Whereas Jordan had extolled the virtue of slave owners who had ceased to publicly defend slavery during the Revolution, MacLeod argued that their silence was accompanied by a change in their mentalité. Slaveholders would now need to rely more firmly on racist justifications for the preservation of slavery.[26] The primary difference between MacLeod and his contemporaries is that he recognized the regional character of the American Revolution and its relationship to slavery. The Revolution, according to MacLeod, resulted in two diverging perspectives on slavery that aligned closely with the regional dependence on it.

            David Brion Davis served as a link between the trends that defined the second and third waves of this historiographical field in his 1983 essay, “American Slavery and the American Revolution.”[27] Davis argued that the character of the Revolution may have accelerated the pace of abolition. Because the Revolution was based on a “wholly unprecedented ideology,” it enabled slaves to do more than simply resist their oppression. By arming them with the Revolution’s rhetoric, he suggests that the Revolution allowed slaves to challenge “the general principles justifying slavery.”[28] Davis extended his argument that the Revolution possessed anti-slavery characteristics, which enabled the enslaved to eventually abolish the institution. However, he introduced into the historiography a consideration that slavery possibly continued for a longer duration than it did if Britain had retained control of the Atlantic seaboard of North America. By introducing this view, Davis served as a bridge between the historians of the second and third waves, which I distinguish by the radically different interpretation that historians writing after the 1980s would offer regarding slavery and the American Revolution.

The Third Wave: Expanding Interpretations and the Slave Republic

            Silvia Frey’s 1991 history titled, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age, is the first work in this historiographical field to conclude that there was a direct link between the possibility of emancipation and the causes of the American Revolution. In her analysis of Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, she examined sources that demonstrated how Virginians responded to the proclamation. She claimed that the Continental Congress itself declared that Dunmore’s Proclamation was an attack on civil society in Virginia and recommended that the colony form a new government.[29] According to Frey, Dunmore’s decision to issue the Proclamation was heavily influenced by slave resistance which gave him grounds to believe that his offer would induce further slave opposition. Likewise, she suggested that the slave resistance that “both preceded and accompanied” Seemingly Dunmore’s decision drove many colonists to become American revolutionaries.[30]  In her conclusion Frey noted that, “Neither British policy nor practice involved actual emancipation, but it raised the specter of emancipation and … became a critical variable in propelling white southerners toward independence.”[31] Frey pointed to the colonists’ reactions to Dunmore’s Proclamation, particularly those in the South, as proof that they were motivated to revolution by a fear of emancipation. More importantly, Frey argued that Dunmore’s Proclamation would not have been proclaimed without slave resistance that made the policy of granting freedom to runaway slaves a realistic option for Dunmore and the British. According to Frey, if the American colonists’ reaction to Dunmore’s proclamations were ripples in a pond, then slave resistance was the rock that created them. Frey contended, contrary to the perspectives of second wave historians, that enslaved people showed a propensity to act in their own interest without taking inspiration from the rhetoric of the American Revolution.

            Betty Wood’s arguments in her 2005 work, Slavery in Colonial America, 1619-1776, marked a departure from the interpretation of second wave historians in two important ways. First, her work distinguishes the third wave historians from second wave historians who attributed a primarily anti-slavery spirit to the Revolution. In her chapter, “Resistance and Rebellion,” she concluded that slave resistance increased during the American Revolution in all of its forms, including running away and defiance, because slaves viewed the Revolution as “their best chance yet of securing their permanent freedom from bondage.”[32] According to Wood, the chaos of the Revolution provided better opportunity for enslaved people to escape bondage than the political or rhetorical achievements of the American Revolution.

            Second, Wood expanded upon MacLeod’s assertion that Americans’ attitudes toward slavery varied by region, to include the suggestion that regional dependence on slavery was the primary motive of many slaveholders to join the Revolution. In her chapter, “Critiques and Defenses of Slavery,” she acknowledges that even in Virginia where slavery was firmly entrenched, some degree of anti-slavery sentiment existed amongst some of the most politically influential men, including Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and George Mason.[33] In the southernmost colonies—Georgia and South Carolina—Wood argued that the moral ambiguity with which other colonists viewed slavery did not exist and that the political elite of Georgia and South Carolina made their support for the Revolution contingent upon their demands to preserve slavery.[34] Wood suggested that the American Revolution was similar to the Civil War in that the slaveholding elite (at least in Georgia and South Carolina) committed to the war in order to retain the freedom to own people.

            Beginning in the 1990s, historians had advanced an increasingly critical view of the American Revolution. Nevertheless, Alan Gilbert’s 2007 work, Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence, balanced the patriotic interpretations of the 1960s-1980s with the more critical ones advanced by Frey and Wood. Gilbert expanded upon the dominant narrative of the second wave of historians in this field with an analysis of two factors that gave the Revolutionary War an anti-slavery character: first, the writings of American patriots that argued for extending the blessings of liberty to the enslaved; second, George Washington’s decision to offer liberty to the enslaved in exchange for military service.[35]  He concluded his analysis asserting that “pragmatism conspired with principle to advance the causes of both independence and emancipation.”[36] However, the dominant interpretation in Gilbert’s work corresponds more closely with that of Frey and Wood. On the subject of slave revolts Gilbert quoted Jordan who stated that, “only the blind could be free from fear,” and he connected the fear that white colonists faced directly to the “unmistakable movement on the part of the British government toward the abolition of slavery.”[37] Furthermore, Gilbert argues that two revolutions existed during the war between Britain and its former American colonies—the first was the Patriots’ Revolution and War for Independence, and the second was the slaves’ Revolution for Emancipation.[38] The first was in part inspired by the second, according to Gilbert, who, in accordance with Wood, suggested that Dunmore’s Proclamation and the slave resistance associated with it had caused a shift in the loyalty of the once “Loyalist southern elite toward the Patriots.”[39] Gilbert advanced the argument that the Revolution relied on the support of former colonists who joined it because of fear of enslaved people, their resistance, and the possibility that they would be liberated.

            Gerald Horne arrived at conclusions that, among academic historians, line up most closely with the critical perspectives put forth in the 1619 Project. Horne asserted in his 2014 work, The Counter-Revolution of 1776:  Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, that American independence was neither “inevitable” nor was it “a positive development for Africans … most particularly.”[40] As a further challenge to patriotic narratives, Horne stated that historians need to reconsider the American “creation myth” which he suggested was actually the story of the world’s first “apartheid state.”[41] By invoking the terms apartheid and counter-revolution, Horne argued that the American Revolution and its aftermath produced an explicitly racist society designed to protect the right of White Americans to profit from the labor and oppression of enslaved people.

            Horne has argued that the slave trade and its proliferation following the Glorious Revolution in 1688 enabled enhanced economic growth and also expanded trade networks that made independence feasible.[42] His explication took the arguments advanced by Frey, Wood, and Gilbert, which suggested that some Americans were motivated to rebel against Britain based on their views of slavery, and added to them the perspective that the economics of slavery formed the basis of the entire Revolution. Shifting from social and political history to economic history, Straughton Lynd and David Waldstreicher argued in 2011 that economic factors were the primary causes of the Revolution. Horne’s argument echoed their assertion that the expanded colonial economy made independence possible.[43] Taken together, these two viewpoints suggest that not only have historians narrowly attributed too much influence to ideological political freedom as the driving force behind the Revolution, but also that political freedoms were desirable because they could lead to control of an economic system based on the enslavement of Black people.

            Horne continued the discussion of racial identities that both Aptheker and Jordan had explored in their earlier works. He stated that “the settler population could be clinically diagnosed with an advanced state of paranoia. But, as the saying goes,” he continued, “paranoids can have real enemies too; and such was the case for mainland settlers confronted by rebellious Africans determined to overturn the system they had been dragooned to build.” In such a paranoid state, “the equivalence between African and slave and African and foe continued to build, a sobering development and not a predictor of racial harmony on the mainland.”[44] Horne’s contention extended previous arguments about the development of racial identities by maintaining that racial hierarchy, and the fear of Black people, drove White American revolutionaries to declare independence.  The theme of racial hierarchy has been present in the historiography since Aptheker’s work in 1943, and for third wave historians it presents a crucial outlook in examining how a fear of slaves may have motivated the American Revolution.

            Since Quarles work in 1961, most historians discussed both Dunmore’s Proclamation and the Somerset decision in their work. Somerset was a court case in Britain which declared any slave who reached British soil was free.[45] In his analysis of Somerset and Dunmore’s Proclamation, Horne argued that for colonists to take the drastic step of rebellion “against the Crown required a pervasively profound threat to the colonists’ status quo.”[46]  He further suggested that slaves seeking liberation perceived a far greater chance of gaining it by siding with the British in a potential conflict. Thus, there were Black Loyalists, many of them former slaves, who served in the British Army with dedication. Furthermore, Horne added that through the actions of slaves in “Manhattan 1712, Antigua 1736, Stono 1739, Manhattan 1741, Florida Maroons, Jamaican Maroons, “and the countless other instances of resistance, slaves represented a threat to the colonial status quo.[47] Horne suggested that the American Revolution was an effort to protect colonists who had become Americans from slaves’ liberation or even its eventual possibility, let alone inevitability, funded with profits earned by exploiting enslaved laborers, with the purpose of continuing this system in perpetuity. In short, 1776 marked the beginning of a counter-revolution aimed at preserving the social and economic order, more than it marked the beginnings of democratic revolution. This argument is the latest in this stream of historical inquiry, but it would not be possible to make without the contributions of previous historians who had established the agency of slaves as actors for their own liberation and certainly as more than a footnote in the American Revolution.


            The cultural context in which historians write has a significant impact on the arguments that they made about the relationship between slavery and the American Revolution. Each generation of historians writing about this relationship has pushed society’s boundaries to allow for increasingly critical arguments about the Revolution and for arguments that are more inclusive of the role of Black people and their role in the struggle for independence.

            Aptheker openly acknowledged that he challenged the dominant mode of thinking concerning the status of slaves in his book.[48] In 1943—during the era of Jim Crow laws in which some Americans born at the end of the Civil War and during Reconstruction were still alive and wielding power in America—the social memory which preached that slaves were docile and content in slavery was a powerful force in shaping Americans’ views of the institution. By writing a thoroughly researched history of slave rebellions in the buildup to the Revolution, Aptheker presented a challenge to the traditional beliefs that some Americans held and used in order to suppress Black peoples’ rights.

            Historians’ work in the second wave would not have been possible without Aptheker’s research that opened the door for further inquiry into the relationship between the actions of slaves and the American Revolution. Historians of the second wave confined their arguments to suggesting that slave resistance in the American Revolution was a continuation of the spirit of liberty that originated with Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington. Considered in the context of the Civil Rights movement their interpretation affirms the political action that many Black Americans were taking at the time. In the spirit of liberty inspired by the American Revolution, Black people were claiming and using the rights guaranteed to them by said Revolution to advance the causes of liberty and equality. It seems fitting that in such a context, historians viewed slave resistance in the American Revolution through a similar lens.

            Historians of the third wave writing between 1991 and the present have written interpretations of the relationship between slavery and the American Revolution that would have been impossible a generation earlier. I argue that this is because of the nature of the Civil Rights movement in which the general trend was for Civil Rights groups and leaders to appeal to the shared history of Black and White Americans, in which the commonly accepted narrative of the Revolutionary experience was an inspiration for people desiring liberty and equality before the law. With the Civil Rights movement having simultaneously succeeded in granting increased political freedom for Black people, yet failing to produce a society in which opportunity existed equally for people of all races, the narrative of America’s benevolent founding came into question. Horne acknowledges this when he argues that continuing discrimination “stems in no small part from [enslaved Africans] consistent and staunch opposition to the capacious plans of slaveholding rebel … elites.”[49] For Horne, the oppression that Black Americans face is not an example of hypocrisy that betrays America’s core Revolutionary values—it is an expression of those values, which historians need to interrogate and challenge in a modern, diverse society.

            Rethinking the past is important for the functioning of a democratic society, and the historiographical field concerned with slavery and the American Revolution is steeped in a tradition of challenging conventional narratives. Aptheker challenged cultural perceptions of Black people in his work; the second wave historians reconsidered the relationship between slaves and the Revolution; and the third wave historians have now reconsidered the nature of the entire Revolution. A national discourse on this historiography will not solve all the problems that historians examine, consider, present, and evaluate on this matter. Nevertheless, a critical discussion of the role that a fear of black people and a desire to profit from their forced labor played in creating the United States could help shine a light on the lingering effects of racism in American democracy and society.

            The public discourse concerning the relationship between the American Revolution and slavery has continued to evolve since the publication of the 1619 Project. Historian Sean Wilentz objected to the claims made by Hannah-Jones in the 1619 Project that on the eve of the Revolution British elites were beginning to turn toward abolition, and that the Somerset case and Dunmore’s Proclamation were evidence that they would soon end slavery in their North American Atlantic seaboard colonies. Yet in an article published in The Atlantic, Wilentz states that Dunmore’s Proclamation likely “stiffened the resolve for independence among … rebel patriots,” and that some Loyalists may have been motivated to switch sides. This acknowledgement suggests that Wilentz might be somewhat in agreement with historians like Horne and Gilbert and the authors of the 1619 Project, in that how Americans viewed the future of slavery was at least a factor in the Revolution.  However, Wilentz maintains that the evidence provided by the 1619 Project does not support Hannah-Jones’ claim that, “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” The historiography regarding slavery and the American Revolution demonstrates that there is room for reasonable disagreement about the relationship between slavery and the American Revolution amongst academic historians.[50]

            For far too long historians ignored the influence of slavery on the American Revolution. Such is no longer the case in recent historiography as slave resistance and racial identity during the War for Independence are significant matters historians consider. Some have done so now for more than half a century. By examining the relationship between slavery and the Revolutionary period, historians explored ways in which enslaved people demonstrated agency. There is increased focus on the interrelationships of slavery to the causes and course of the American War for Independence. Thus, in research in the historiographical fields of the American Revolution and Slavery, greater attention is now given to those enslaved people who became agents for their own liberation.


[1] Nicole Hannah-Jones, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” Nicole Hannah-Jones (ed.), Mary Elliott, Jazmine Hughes, and Jake Silverstein. The 1619 Project: New York Times Magazine, August 18, 2019,  Accessed 3/15/2021.

[2] Victoria Bynum, James M. McPherson, James Oakes, Sean Wilentz, Gordon S. Wood.  “Letter to the Editor.”  The New York Times Magazine, December 20, 2019, Accessed 3/15/2021.  Accessed 3/15/2021.

[3] For histories exploring the relationship between slavery and the American Revolution in the 1940s through the 1970s see Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1943); Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1961); Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1968); Gerald W. Mullin, Flight and Rebellion:  Slave Resistance in Eighteenth Century Virginia (New York, Oxford University Press, 1972); and Duncan J. MacLeod, Slavery, Race and the American Revolution (London:   Cambridge University Press, 1974).

[4] For histories exploring the relationship between slavery and the American Revolution in the Twenty-first Century see Silvia R. Frey, Water From the Rock:  Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1991); Betty Wood, Slavery in Colonial America, 1619-1776 (Lanham, Maryland:  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005); Alan Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists:  Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2012); and Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (New York:  New York University Press, 2014).

[5] John H. Arnold, History:  A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 85. Arnold discusses Marx’s influence on historians, and notes Marx’s sentiment that people are shaped by their context, and simultaneously shape their context. Historians of all three waves within the historiographical field in question include some perspective on how slaves were shaped by their context and how they also transformed the times in which they lived, which reveals Marxist influence on their interpretations of the past.

[6] Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, 16-17.

[7] Aptheker, 16.

[8]  Aptheker, 79-80.

[9] Aptheker, 53 and 71.

[10] Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1961); Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1968); and Gerald W. Mullin, Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth Century Virginia (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1972). Each of the historians listed can be categorized as advancing a progress narrative regarding the relationship between slavery and the American Revolution.

[11] See Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1961), 19-32.

[12] Gerald W. Mullin, Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth Century Virginia (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1972), 131.

[13] Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1968), 112.

[14] Jordan, 107.

[15] Jordan, 108.

[16] Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution, 43.

[17] Quarles, 42 and 50.

[18] Quarles, 200.

[19] Benjamin Quarles, “The Revolutionary War as a Black Declaration of Independence.” In Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution, eds. Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman (Charlottesville:  The University Press of Virginia, 1983), 290.

[20] Quarles, 301.

[21] Mullin, Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth Century Virginia, 163.

[22] Jordan, White Over Black, 271-276.

[23] Jordan, White Over Black, 304.

[24] Duncan J. MacLeod, Slavery, Race and the American Revolution (London:  Cambridge University Press, 1974), 184.

[25] MacLeod, 8.

[26] Jordan. White Over Black, 304.

[27] David Brion Davis, “American Slavery and the American Revolution.” In Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution, eds. Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman (Charlottesville:  The University Press of Virginia, 1983), 262.

[28] Davis, 276.

[29] Silvia R. Frey, Water From the Rock:  Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991), 64.

[30] Frey, 80.

[31] Frey, 326.

[32] Betty Wood, Slavery in Colonial America, 1619-1776 (Lanham, Maryland:  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), 69.

[33] Wood, 81-82.

[34] Wood, 85.

[35] Alan Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2012), 46-65.

[36] Gilbert, 65.

[37] Gilbert, 5.

[38] Gilbert, 257.

[39] Gilbert, 39.

[40] Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776, 3.

[41] Horne, 4 and 20.

[42] Horne, 62.

[43]Staughton Lynd and David Waldstreicher, “Free Trade, Sovereignty, and Slavery: Toward an Economic Interpretation of American Independence.” The William and Mary Quarterly 68, no. 4 (2011): 597-630. Doi: 10.5309/willmaryquar.68.4.0597.(Accessed September 21, 2017).

[44] Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776, 107.

[45] Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution, 37; Mullin. Flight and Rebellion, 131; and MacLeod, Slavery, Race and the American Revolution, 122. Each of the three historians listed examined the Somerset case in their work, but to a very limited extent relative to Horne, who uses this case throughout his work and as one of his primary pieces of evidence to support his argument.

[46] Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776, 233.

[47] Horne, 229.

[48] Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, 16.

[49] Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776, 229.

[50] Sean Wilentz, “A Matter of Facts.” The Atlantic Magazine, January 22, 2020. Accessed March 24, 2021.


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