Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence by Alan Gilbert F’99, F’89, F’79 now available from the University of Chicago Press.
We commonly think of the American Revolution as simply the war for independence from British colonial rule. But, of course, that independence actually applied to only a portion of the American population—African Americans would still be bound in slavery for nearly another century. In Black Patriots and Loyalists, Alan Gilbert asks us to rethink what we know about the Revolutionary War, to realize that while white Americans were fighting for their freedom, black Americans were joining the British imperial forces to gain theirs. There were actually two wars being waged at once: a political revolution for independence from Britain and a social revolution for emancipation and equality.
Drawing upon recently discovered archival material, Gilbert traces the intense imperial and patriot rivalry over recruitment and emancipation that led both sides to depend on blacks. As well, he presents persuasive evidence that slavery could have been abolished during the Revolution itself if either side had fully pursued the military advantage of freeing slaves and pressing them into combat—as when Washington formed the all-black and Native American First Rhode Island Regimen and Lord Dunmore freed slaves and indentured servants to fight for the British. Gilbert’s extensive research reveals that free blacks on both sides played a crucial and underappreciated role in the actual fighting. Black Patriots and Loyalists contends that the struggle for emancipation was not only basic to the Revolution itself, but was a rousing force that would inspire freedom movements like the abolition societies of the North and the black loyalist pilgrimages for freedom in places such as Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.
In this thought-provoking history, Gilbert illuminates how the fight for abolition and equality—not just for the independence of the few but for the freedom and self-government of the many—has been central to the American story from its inception.