By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
Americans cherish freedom. When I ask my students what they think of, or what they think others think of, when they hear the word ‘America’, ‘Freedom’ is almost invariably the first answer given. From a young age, we are taught that freedom is the life-blood of America, and hence, of American history. Our founding stories are the beginning, and heart of this narrative.
National foundations have the habit to intertwine history and mythology; the American tale is no different. From our Republic’s earliest days, the hagiography of the founders was central. Some of this was self-created by the founders themselves, such as Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Autobiography'; some was conjured by the second generation of Americans who just missed the romance of the Revolution. As the Revolutionary generation began to die off, the younger men and women of post-Revolutionary America lionized the lives and accomplishments of their forebears. Most famously, in the decade after the death of Washington in 1799, the little known Parson Weems produced a heroic biography of our first President that depicted the man as moral exemplar and ethical sage. Weems’ book became an American ‘bestseller’.
Today, Americans are generally less naive about the founders. Washington did not ever say ‘I cannot tell a lie,’ and he most definitely is not a moral model for the 21st century. Most realize that Washington, and many other founders, were slave-owners. This paradox encapsulates American history. As the founders crafted our Constitution, their worldview was crafted by their slave society. Jefferson, Madison, Monroe: denizens of freedom; owners of human beings. Conversely, John Adams did not own any slaves. But, American slave society did not draw distinctions between slave-drivers and those who simply lived along side. When Adams was in Philadelphia in 1776, calling for revolutionary independence, his wife Abigail wrote him to ‘remind him’ about the possibility of women’s rights. Sounding like a 21st century woman, Abigail wrote ” I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.”
But, Abigail was living in the 18th century, and her husband was an 18th century man. He wrote back in response that her concern for women’s rights made him ‘laugh’. He said he had been warned that the American,
‘Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient — that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent — that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. — This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.’
Here Adams was stating the Revolution was really only for a few. Women, Indians, children and, of course, Negroes need not apply.
But, Adams was blind. Even as his revolution was rocking the world, his world was being rocked by those ‘insolent negroes.’ They were making their own freedom.
How can we understand what most African-Americans thought about the American Revolution and the new American government? Since most African-Americans were in bondage in 1776, their thoughts and words have been lost to the ages. However, their actions were recorded and these actions proved these people were revolutionaries in their own right. Thousands of men, women and children rebelled by grabbing freedom with their own hands. For these African-American revolutionaries, the British did not mean oppression; the British were a tool for liberty. In his 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, the historian Alan Taylor pointed out that African-Americans repeatedly fled for freedom in the early Republic. In 1812, when the United States declared war on Great Britain for a second time, slaves from the south fled to British ships, and British lines, yet again. In other words, the slaves were not helpless victims. Like the patriots who fought for freedom against the British in 1776, these enslaved Americans were fighting a revolution for their own freedom.
The War of 1812 ended in 1815, and with it, British presence in America. Slaves now had few options for freedom. They could rise up with violence; or they could run away to a gradually emancipating north. Neither of these options held great promise. Northern states were by no means the land of freedom for African-Americans. Whereas in the South, the unjust system of American slavery was becoming more entrenched, and more caustic as the years went by. After Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, the world of the slave was obsessively monitored by white society. Freedom was curtailed more and more as the Civil War drew nearer. What was needed in these dark days was a clarion call for freedom that illustrated American hypocrisy. The little remembered David Walker was the man who took the necessary stand. He would be one our nation’s most important moral voices. In 1829, he published his ‘Appeal’ and that work would inspire later radical abolitionists such as Garrison, the Grimke sisters and Frederick Douglass. In incredibly upfront language for 1829, Walker’s ‘Appeal’ accused white Americans of the greatest, most horrific hypocrisy. He wrote,
‘See your Declaration Americans! ! ! Do you understand your own language? Hear your languages, proclaimed to the world, July 4th, 1776 — “We hold these truths to be self evident — that ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL! ! that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! !” Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us — men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation’
Because of such truthtelling, Walker became public enemy number 1 in the south. He was not much liked in the north either. In 1830, as Walker’s ‘Appeal’ was being burned in effigy, Walker was found dead in Boston of Tuberculous. It was a tragic end of an under appreciated American freedom fighter. But, Walker had opened eyes. He helped those who followed him see that slavery would not go quietly. In April 1861, all of America came to the same realization.
The Civil War has largely been understood through the actions and memorializations of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln has been portrayed as an American martyr for freedom; the wiseman that America needed to save the union and end slavery. For most Americans, he is the Great Emancipator. Steven Spielberg’s saccrahine biopic of ol’ Abe does nothing to dispel this notion. Ken Burns famous Civil War documentaries lionized the railsplitter as a stirring genius. But, the story of the Civil War, Lincoln, slavery and emancipation is more complicated than people like Spielberg or Burns lead us to believe.
As most serious historians now agree, African-Americans, and slaves specifically, were constantly forcing Abe’s hand, pushing him in a more radical direction than he hoped, or planned, on going. As soon as the war started, and as soon as Union troops invaded the south, slaves fled to Union lines. These enslaved American men, women and children wanted freedom, and just like the English army and navy in 1776 and 1812, the Union military provided an obvious opportunity. For some racist Union leaders, these runaways were simply annoyances that should have been returned to their ‘rightful owners.’ But, for the savvier officers, the slaves were crucial to defeating the Confederacy. Not only would the runaways help the Union war effort as laborers, they simultaneously crippled the rebels fighting ability. African Americans had created the south; they produced the wealth, the food and the identity of Dixie. Without them, the rebels would find that the war would be much harder to win on the battlefield and the homefront. Lincoln was not on board initially, and was troubled regarding these people who were taking freedom for themselves. In 1861, he said, ‘I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists…I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” However, as the trickle of African Americans taking their freedom became a flood, and as it became clear that these men and women would not be turned away, Lincoln finally took pragmatic action. By 1863, he was ready to proclaim that the war was being fought for a ‘new birth of freedom.’ African-Americans understood this long before he did.
In 1776, 1812, 1829, 1831, 1861, and many other years in-between and after, African-Americans changed the way America understood freedom. Thousands of forgotten, and quite literally nameless men and women took revolutionary action for ideals Americans hold sacred. The freedom they fought for, and died for, should be bigger than one day in July, or one month each winter. Their actions should be celebrated all year long.