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The Specter of Emancipation and the Road to Revolution: A Rejoinder to Richard Brown et. al.

Editor's Note: HNN recently reposted an excerpt of a Medium post authored by Carol Berkin, Richard D. Brown, Jane E. Calvert, Joseph J. Ellis, Jack N. Rakove, and Gordon S. Wood. That post took the form of an open letter of critique of remarks made by Dr. Woody Holton in the Washington Post addressing the significance of Lord Dunmore's proclamation promising emancipation to enslaved Virginians who took up arms on the side of the Crown in 1775, and of the broader significance of the preservation of slavery as a motive for American independence.

HNN has offered Dr. Holton the opportunity to publish a rejoinder, which he has accepted. 

I am flattered that six distinguished professors of the American Revolution have taken an interest in my work—or least its potential impact. Just one index of these scholars’ significance is that I cite all six of them in my reappraisal of the founding era, Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution. It is due out next month.

But it saddens me that these senior professors have chosen to deny the obvious fact that the informal alliance between enslaved African Americans and British imperial officials infuriated white colonists and helped push them toward independence.  Surely the professors know that the Continental Congress chose as the capstone for its twenty-six charges against King George III the claim that the king (actually his representatives in America) had “excited domestic insurrections”—slave revolts—“amongst us.”

Congress’s accusation culminated more than a year’s worth of colonial denunciations of the British for recruiting African Americans as soldiers and even—allegedly—encouraging them to slit their masters’ throats (as writers in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina all expressed it). Indeed, the six professors’ timing is perfect. Others having also doubted this claim, especially in reaction to the New York Times’s “1619 Project,” I last month began a project of my own. Every day I tweet out one quotation from a white American of 1774-1776 who denounced Britain’s cooperation with African Americans, along with an image of the quoted document.

I will end the series after seventy-six days, but I have collected sufficient evidence to go on and on.

I am in no position to lecture these distinguished professors, who count three Pulitzer prizes among them, but since they have criticized my work, I have no choice but to speak plain: I think their critique betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Declaration of Independence came about.

It happened in stages. In 1762, most colonial freemen were, all in all, satisfied with their place in the British empire. Indeed, as Prof. Wood’s former student Brendan McConville emphasizes in The King’s Three Faces, they loved their new king. The initiative for changing the imperial relationship came not from the colonies but from Parliament. From 1763 through late 1774, Parliament sought more from the provincials, especially in the areas I like to summarize as the 4 Ts: taxes, territory, trade, and treasury notes (paper money). And all the free colonists wanted was . . . none of those changes. Until late in 1774, they strenuously resisted Parliament’s initiatives, but most of them would have been perfectly happy to return to the status quo of 1762. They did not seek revolution but (to use another loaded word from English history) restoration.

The grand question then becomes, “What converted the colonists from simply wanting to turn back the clock—their view from 1763 to 1774—to desiring, by spring 1776, to exit the empire?” Many things: the bloodshed at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill; the news that the administration of Lord North was going to send German (“Hessian”) mercenaries against them, the publication in January 1776 of Common Sense, and much, much more.

All I argued in the essay that the professors criticize is that one of these factors that turned these white restorationists into advocates for independence was the mother country’s cooperation with their slaves. It was not the reason, but it was a reason. And that is important, because it means that African Americans, who of course were excluded from the provincial assemblies and Continental Congress, nonetheless had a figurative seat at the table.

Nor was Blacks’ role passive. Congress depicted them as incited to action by the emancipation proclamation issued by Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, and the professors adopt that same formulation. But here again, the timeline is crucial. Whites began recording African American overtures to the British in the fall of 1774. At first British officials turned them away, but they kept coming, right up until Dunmore finally published his emancipation proclamation on November 15, 1775, four score and seven years before Lincoln’s.

The professors claim that white colonists were already headed toward independence in fall 1774, when these African American initiatives began. But in this they indulge in counterfactual history—assuming they know what would have happened. It seems clear to me that, even that late, had Parliament chosen to repeal all of its colonial legislation since 1762, it could have kept its American empire intact. What we are looking for are the bells that could not be unrung. Especially in the south, one of the British aggressions that foreclosed the possibility of reconciliation was the governors’ and naval officers’ decision to cooperate with the colonists’ slaves (as well as with Native Americans—the Declaration of Independence’s “merciless Indian Savages”—but that is another story).

In Liberty is Sweet, I supply much more evidence for my stadial (stages-based) view of the road to independence. I compare it to a mouse’s escape from a maze, since it was the product not of a grand design but of a series of discrete choices at intersections, from none of which the next was visible. Would that the distinguished professors had waited to judge my reinterpretation by my 700-page book rather than the 700-word Washington Post article I wrote to promote it!

The professors may be correct that we would still get independence even if we removed one of its main ingredients, like Dunmore’s Proclamation . . . or the Battle of Lexington and Concord, which I teach as not only the first battle of the revolution but also, for many, especially in New England, the final argument for independence. But I would never take that remote possibility as a reason to write a history of the American Revolution that omitted Lexington and Concord. And by the same token, I hope the professors would never omit the Anglo-African alliance.

I agree with the professors that it would be a disservice to pretend that enslaved Americans played a significant role in the origins of the American Revolution if there was no evidence that they did. But the evidence is overwhelming, and I invite you to sample it on Twitter at @woodyholtonusc. If we heed the professors’ call to ignore the influence of the enslaved people of the founding era, we will dishonor not only those heroic Americans but our own search for truth.