Launchpad: Slavery in Revolutionary Era

Taking Up Arms and the Challenge of Slavery in the Revolutionary Era

Slave Petition | Fixed Plan | Declaration and Resolves | Patrick Henry | Lexington and Concord | Taking Up Arms | Dunmore's Proclamation

Your group will analyze a series of documents that chronicle the evolution of events that culminate in Lord Dunmore's Proclamation of November, 1775. Each group should try to read all the documents, in chronological order, to enable it to see the progression of the Americans' reactions to the British actions. If there is not enough time, your teacher will decide which documents to use.

Students should use their textbook, the background readings, the sample annotations and questions, along with their prior knowledge, to answer these questions.

Slave Petition to the Governor, Council, and House of Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts, May 25, 1774

A group of enslaved African Americans in Massachusetts petition the executive and legislative branches of the colony to end slavery

  • What is (are) the key message(s) in this document?
  • How are Patriots in your colony likely to respond to this document?
  • How are Tories in your colony likely to respond to this document?
  • What local circumstances are critical to your response to this document?
  • Does the document use the imagery/rhetoric of slavery? What language does it use to connect the situation of the Americans and slavery?
  • How are free and/or enslaved African-Americans in your colony likely to respond to this document?

A Fixed Plan to Bring the Most Humiliating Bondage, June 8, 1774

The Boston Committee of Correspondence calls for united action against the Coercive Acts—lest the colonies become slaves.

...The bill for blocking up the harbour of Boston is replete with injustice and cruelty, thousands of innocent men, besides women and infants, are by it reduced to indegence and distress; and though we in this town more immediately feel this distress, yet our brethren in the other towns of this province, and all the other colonies, must see that we suffer in the common cause, and that they themselves must soon realize the sufferings under which we now labour, if no means are discovered for our relief....

Surely if we suffer these things we are the most abject slaves....

There is but one way that we can conceive of, to prevent what is to be deprecated by all good men, and ought by all possible means to be prevented, viz, The horrors that must follow an open rupture between Great Britain and her colonies; or on our part, a subjection to absolute slavery: And that is by affecting the trade and interest of Great Britain, so deeply as shall induce her to withdraw her oppressive hand. There can be no doubt of our succeeding to the utmost of our wishes if we universally come into a solemn league, not to import goods from Great Britain, and not to buy any goods that shall hereafter be imported from thence, until our grievances shall be redressed. To these, or even to the least of these shameful impositions, we trust in God, our countrymen never will submit.

We have received such assurances from our brethren in every part of the province of their readiness to adopt such measures as may be likely to save our country, that we have not the least doubt of an almost universal agreement for this purpose; in confidence of this, we have drawn up a form of a covenant to be subscribed by all adult persons of both sexes;...as we look upon this the last and only method of preserving our land from slavery without drenching it in blood, may God prosper every undertaking which tends to the salvation of his people.
  • What is (are) the key message(s) in this document?
  • How are Patriots in your colony likely to respond to this document?
  • How are Tories in your colony likely to respond to this document?
  • What local circumstances are critical to your response to this document?
  • Does the document use the imagery/rhetoric of slavery? What language does it use to connect the situation of the Americans and slavery?
  • How are free and/or enslaved African-Americans in your colony likely to respond to this document?

Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress, October 14, 1774 (Avalon Project)

The First Continental Congress explains their history of the dispute with England and the horrors of the Intolerable Acts, and then it explains the rights and resolutions of the colonies at that point.

That the inhabitants of the English colonies in North-America, by the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts, have the following RIGHTS:

Resolved, N.C.D. 1. That they are entitled to life, liberty and property: and they have never ceded to any foreign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent . . . .

Resolved, 4. That the foundation of English liberty, and of all free government, is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council: and as the English colonists are not represented, and from their local and other circumstances, cannot properly be represented in the British parliament, they are entitled to a free and exclusive power of legislation in their several provincial legislatures, where their right of representation can alone be preserved, in all cases of taxation and internal polity, subject only to the negative of their sovereign, in such manner as has been heretofore used and accustomed: . . . .

Resolved, N.C.D. 8. That they have a right peaceably to assemble, consider of their grievances, and petition the king; and that all prosecutions, prohibitory proclamations, and commitments for the same, are illegal.

Resolved, N.C.D. 9. That the keeping a standing army in these colonies, in times of peace, without the consent of the legislature of that colony, in which such army is kept, is against law . . . .

In the course of our inquiry, we find many infringements and violations of the foregoing rights . . . .which demonstrate a system formed to enslave America.

Resolved, N.C.D. That the following acts of parliament are infringements and violations of the rights of the colonists; and that the repeal of them is essentially necessary, in order to restore harmony between Great Britain and the American colonies, viz . . . .

Also the three acts passed in the last session of parliament, for stopping the port and blocking up the harbour of Boston, for altering the charter and government of Massachusetts-Bay, and that which is entitled, 'An act for the better administration of justice, etc.'

Also the act passed in the same session for establishing the Roman Catholic religion, in the province of Quebec, abolishing the equitable system of English laws, and erecting a tyranny there, to the great danger (from so total a dissimilarity of religion, law and government) of the neighboring British colonies, by the assistance of whose blood and treasure the said country was conquered from France.

Also the act passed in the same session, for the better providing suitable quarters for officers and soldiers in his majesty's service, in North-America.

Also, that the keeping a standing army in several of these colonies, in time of peace, without the consent of the legislature of that colony, in which such army is kept, is against law.

To these grievous acts and measures, Americans cannot submit, but in hopes their fellow subjects in Great Britain will, on a revision of them, restore us to that state, in which both countries found happiness and prosperity, we have for the present, only resolved to pursue the following peaceable measures: 1. To enter into a non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement or association. 2. To prepare an address to the people of Great-Britain, and a memorial to the inhabitants of British America: and 3. To prepare a loyal address to his majesty, agreeable to resolutions already entered into.
  • What is (are) the key message(s) in this document?
  • How are Patriots in your colony likely to respond to this document?
  • How are Tories in your colony likely to respond to this document?
  • What local circumstances are critical to your response to this document?
  • Does the document use the imagery/rhetoric of slavery? What language does it use to connect the situation of the Americans and slavery?
  • How are free and/or enslaved African-Americans in your colony likely to respond to this document?

Patrick Henry: Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death, March 23, 1775 (Avalon Project)

Patrick Henry explains why the Americans must fight if they want to avoid being enslaved to England, three weeks or so before Lexington and Concord

. . . I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. . . Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings. . .

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House. . . Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne! In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free—if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending—if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained—we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!

They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. The millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
  • What is (are) the key message(s) in this document?
  • How are Patriots in your colony likely to respond to this document?
  • How are Tories in your colony likely to respond to this document?
  • What local circumstances are critical to your response to this document?
  • Does the document use the imagery/rhetoric of slavery? What language does it use to connect the situation of the Americans and slavery?
  • How are free and/or enslaved African-Americans in your colony likely to respond to this document?

Accounts of the Battles of Lexington and Concord

1775 Isaac Merrill's 1775 letter about battles at Lexington and Concord.

[T]his Day I have received intelligence that the ministerial troops under the Command of general Gage did Last evening march out of Boston and marched to Lexington & there Killed a number of our American Soldiers & thence proceed[ed] to Concord Killing and Destroying our men and interest. These [orders] are therefore to Order you forthwith to Mobilize and muster as many of your under officers and Soldiers as you can possible to meet immediately to Some suitable place: and then to march of[f] forthwith to Concord or Else where as in your Discretion you shall think best to the relief of our Friend[s] and Country . . . .
  • What is (are) the key message(s) in this document?
  • How are Patriots in your colony likely to respond to this document?
  • How are Tories in your colony likely to respond to this document?
  • What local circumstances are critical to your response to this document?
  • Does the document use the imagery/rhetoric of slavery? What language does it use to connect the situation of the Americans and slavery?
  • How are free and/or enslaved African-Americans in your colony likely to respond to this document?

The Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms, July 6, 1775

The Continental Congress responds to the fighting with a statement of their position.

... a reverance for our Creator, principles of humanity, and the dictates of common sense, must convince all those who reflect upon the subject, that government was instituted to promote the welfare of mankind, and ought to be administered for the attainment of that end. The legislature of Great-Britain, however, stimulated by an inordinate passion for a power. . . . have. . . . attempted to effect their cruel and impolitic purpose of enslaving these colonies by violence, and have thereby rendered it necessary for us to close with their last appeal from reason to arms.—Yet, however blinded that assembly may be, by their intemperate rage for unlimited domination, so to sight justice and the opinion of mankind, we esteem ourselves bound by obligations of respect to the rest of the world, to make known the justice of our cause.

. . . . general Gage, who in the course of the last year had taken possession of the town of Boston, in the province of Massachusetts-Bay, and still occupied it a garrison, on the 19th day of April, sent out from that place a large detachment of his army, who made an unprovoked assault on the inhabitants of the said province, at the town of Lexington, as appears by the affidavits of a great number of persons, some of whom were officers and soldiers of that detachment, murdered eight of the inhabitants, and wounded many others. From thence the troops proceeded in warlike array to the town of Concord, where they set upon another party of the inhabitants of the same province, killing several and wounding more, until compelled to retreat by the country people suddenly assembled to repel this cruel aggression. Hostilities, thus commenced by the British troops, have been since prosecuted by them without regard to faith or reputation.

. . . . The general, further emulating his ministerial masters, by a proclamation bearing date on the 12th day of June, after venting the grossest falsehoods and calumnies against the good people of these colonies, proceeds to "declare them all, either by name or description, to be rebels and traitors, to supersede the course of the common law, and instead thereof to publish and order the use and exercise of the law martial."— His troops have butchered our countrymen, have wantonly burnt Charlestown, besides a considerable number of houses in other places; our ships and vessels are seized; the necessary supplies of provisions are intercepted, and he is exerting his utmost power to spread destruction and devastation around him.

We have received certain intelligence, that general Carelton[Carleton], the governor of Canada, is instigating the people of that province and the Indians to fall upon us;

. . . . We are reduced to the alternative of chusing an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated ministers, or resistance by force.—The latter is our choice.—We have counted the cost of this contest, and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery.—Honour, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us. We cannot endure the infamy and guilt of resigning succeeding generations to that wretchedness which inevitably awaits them, if we basely entail hereditary bondage upon them.

Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable.—We gratefully acknowledge, as signal instances of the Divine favour towards us, that his Providence would not permit us to be called into this severe controversy, until we were grown up to our present strength, had been previously exercised in warlike operation, and possessed of the means of defending ourselves. With hearts fortified with these animating reflections, we most solemnly, before God and the world, declare, that, exerting the utmost energy of those powers, which our beneficent Creator hath graciously bestowed upon us, the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perserverence, employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves.

Lest this declaration should disquiet the minds of our friends and fellow-subjects in any part of the empire, we assure them that we mean not to dissolve that union which has so long and so happily subsisted between us, and which we sincerely wish to see restored.—Necessity has not yet driven us into that desperate measure, or induced us to excite any other nation to war against them.—We have not raised armies with ambitious designs of separating from Great-Britain, and establishing independent states. . . .

In our own native land, in defence of the freedom that is our birthright, and which we ever enjoyed till the late violation of it—for the protection of our property, acquired solely by the honest industry of our fore-fathers and ourselves, against violence actually offered, we have taken up arms. We shall lay them down when hostilities shall cease on the part of the aggressors, and all danger of their being renewed shall be removed, and not before.

With an humble confidence in the mercies of the supreme and impartial Judge and Ruler of the Universe, we most devoutly implore his divine goodness to protect us happily through this great conflict, to dispose our adversaries to reconciliation on reasonable terms, and thereby to relieve the empire from the calamities of civil war.
  • What is (are) the key message(s) in this document?
  • How are Patriots in your colony likely to respond to this document?
  • How are Tories in your colony likely to respond to this document?
  • What local circumstances are critical to your response to this document?
  • Does the document use the imagery/rhetoric of slavery? What language does it use to connect the situation of the Americans and slavery?
  • How are free and/or enslaved African-Americans in your colony likely to respond to this document?

Lord Dunmore's Proclamation, 1775

The Royal Governor statement on November, 7, 1775, that slaves who fled their owners and came to fight for the British would be freed

As I have ever entertained Hopes that an Accommodation might have taken Place between GREAT-BRITAIN and this colony, without being compelled by my Duty to this most disagreeable but now absolutely necessary Step, rendered so by a Body of armed Men unlawfully assembled, bring on His MAJESTY'S [Tenders], and the formation of an Army, and that Army now on their March to attack His MAJESTY'S troops and destroy the well disposed Subjects of this Colony. To defeat such unreasonable Purposes, and that all such Traitors, and their Abetters, may be brought to Justice, and that the Peace, and good Order of this Colony may be again restored, which the ordinary Course of the Civil Law is unable to effect; I have thought fit to issue this my Proclamation, hereby declaring, that until the aforesaid good Purposes can be obtained, I do in Virtue of the Power and Authority to ME given, by His MAJESTY, determine to execute Martial Law, and cause the fame to be executed throughout this Colony: and to the end that Peace and good Order may the sooner be [effected], I do require every Person capable of bearing Arms, to [resort] to His MAJESTY'S STANDARD, or be looked upon as Traitors to His MAJESTY'S Crown and Government, and thereby become liable to the Penalty the Law inflicts upon such Offenses; such as forfeiture of Life, confiscation of Lands, etc. etc. And I do hereby further declare all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His MAJESTY'S Troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper Sense of their Duty, to His MAJESTY'S Leige Subjects, to retain their [Qui?rents], or any other Taxes due or that may become due, in their own Custody, till such Time as Peace may be again restored to this at present most unhappy Country, or demanded of them for their former salutary Purposes, by Officers properly authorised to receive the fame.
  • What is (are) the key message(s) in this document?
  • How are Patriots in your colony likely to respond to this document?
  • How are Tories in your colony likely to respond to this document?
  • What local circumstances are critical to your response to this document?
  • Does the document use the imagery/rhetoric of slavery? What language does it use to connect the situation of the Americans and slavery?
  • How are free and/or enslaved African-Americans in your colony likely to respond to this document?