How did the Revolution impact slavery and abolition in America, and what was the role of African Americans in seeking freedom?

Referenced text: Eric Foner's "Give Me Liberty!", primarily Chapter 6.

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It might be difficult to understand today that “freedom” did not include all peoples residing in the Americas, but the Founding Fathers generally took the position that emancipation would have to come later, if at all. The relationship between liberty and slavery is a fundamental contradiction of the American independence movement. It was much debated at the time is still discussed today as a tremendous contradiction between ideals and reality. The notion that “all men are created equal” was clearly not played out in the practices that the patriots followed, and many Founding Fathers did not believe that the principles applied to enslaved people. Furthermore, many early patriots resided in the South, and the first state representatives and even the first president were all slave owners.

The economic bases of slavery were used to argue against abolishing slavery at the time of independence, as the low cost of slave labor supported the economy. Without that financial advantage, some patriots argued, white colonists could not afford to establish the infrastructure of a new nation or, once that nation was established, to carry out the physical labor required, including agriculture and trades.

As early as 1700, however, abolitionists were actively publishing in the American colonies, like Samuel Sewall in his essay “The Selling of Joseph.” By the 1770s, Benjamin Rush was arguing that slavery was a "national crime" and should have future repercussions of a "national punishment." Enslaved persons were active in campaigning for individual as well as collective freedom. In New England, they began to file "freedom petitions" in New England. Widespread disappointment was expressed when blacks realized that whites would not include emancipation in the foundational documents of America.

British critics at the time called out the Americans for hypocrisy and aimed to convince African-heritage colonists that the British monarchy did a better job of protecting their interests. During the Revolution, it is estimated that 100,000 black men who had been slaves to colonists fled and fought on Crown’s side; still other formerly enslaved people left the country with white British subjects, headed for Canada or Africa. Others found themselves enslaved once again.

Within the original colonies that declared for independence, many owners voluntarily freed slaves. More generally, abolition became a running theme in all the northern colonies. By 1804, all northern colonies had initiated some legal efforts toward emancipation. For example, children of enslaved women were declared born free in many states. Leaders of African descent took on increasing roles of community responsibility—establishing churches and schools, for example.

These official steps are often thought to pale, however, in relation to the number of communities formed by self-emancipated people (“runaways” or “maroons”), who refused the yoke of tyranny and collectively settled land that was not privately owned. This often meant marginal areas such as forests or swamps. Over time, these became recognized villages and towns, and much later, they gained legal and civic representation.

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