Unit 4 Blacks in the Revolutionary Era, 1776-1789


African Americans had an appreciable presence in the Revolutionary War. In fact, the first person to die in the Boston Massacre, regarded as the first critical event in the American effort to separate from the British, was a black seaman: Crispus Attucks. Following this, blacks participated in other outbreaks of hostility between the colonists and the British before the Declaration of Independence. During June 1775, for example, they were among the Minutemen alerted by Paul Revere; they were at Lexington and Concord; and they were members of the Green Mountain Boys. Peter Salem, Salem Poor, and Prince Hall, who later founded the first black lodge of Freemasons, were among the blacks who fought at Bunker Hill in July of 1775.

Because the colonists often offset manpower shortages by using blacks to aid in their wars against native Americans, it is not surprising that blacks participated in pre-Revolutionary War skirmishes against the British. In fact, virtually all colonial militias had black participants, though they generally forbade the actual recruitment of blacks. South Carolina enlisted blacks in its militia as early as 1703, and blacks participated in the French-and-Indian War (1754-1763). Still, in July of 1775, at a council of war held by George Washington, an order was sent to recruiting officers not to enlist blacks, or vagabonds, or enemies of liberty to America. In November of 1775, however, Lord Dunmore’s Declaration was issued; it promised freedom to any slave who left his American owner and joined the British forces. One consequence of this act by the royal governor of Virginia was the decision by several thousand blacks to cast their lot with the British. One of the most notable was a fugitive slave from Shrewsbury (Monmouth County), Titus Cornelius, later known as Colonel Tye. After participating in the Battle of Monmouth (1778), he led several successful raids on the farms of Americans in Monmouth County before being killed in 1780. A second result of Dunmore’s declaration was the reversal of the American policy of excluding blacks from military service. As of December 31, 1775, free blacks could enlist, and one who did was Oliver Cromwell. Born free in Columbus (Burlington County) in 1752, he enlisted in a company attached to the Second New Jersey Regiment, an enlistment later reinforced with the passage in 1777 of the New Jersey Militia Act. Along with several blacks, including Prince Whipple, he crossed the Delaware with Washington on December 24, 1776, and he later saw action at Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, and Yorktown. His honorable discharge was signed by General George Washington on June 5, 1783. By the end of the war, he had become one of about five thousand blacks of the total of three hundred thousand who fought on the American side.

Blacks were present at all the major battles in New Jersey, such as Trenton (1776), Princeton (1777), Fort Mercer (1777), Monmouth (1778), and Springfield (1780), as well as those elsewhere, such as Saratoga (1777), Savannah (1779), and Yorktown (1781). Most black soldiers were free and from the northern colonies, but some were slaves like Samuel Sutphen of Somerset County, a participant in battles in New York and New Jersey between 1776 and 1780, Some bondsmen were freed for their war service, often for substituting for their owners. And three New Jersey slaves, all the confiscated property of Loyalists, were even manumitted by acts of the state legislature after petitioning that body: Peter Williams of Woodbridge (1784); Prime of Somerset County (1787); and Cato of Woodbridge (1789). In fact, as early as 1774, blacks, revealing a degree of acculturation reflected in the works of such early black writers as Lucy Terry and Phillis Wheatley and a willingness to use the libertarian rhetoric of the patriots to further their own interests, had begun petitioning legislative bodies for their freedom.

The Revolutionary War had a paradoxical effect on blacks, affecting them in both a positive and negative manner. On the positive side, and in the short run, it helped weaken slavery through a reduction in the slave population by about one hundred thousand. Some used the war’s chaos and confusion to flee to Canada, Florida, and to groups of native Americans. Others (possibly twenty thousand), some of whom were from New Jersey, left when the British departed between 1782 and 1783 and settled in Nova Scotia, Great Britain, and later Sierra Leone. Still others were manumitted by their owners or state legislatures because of service with the American forces. And some were manumitted by their owners in keeping with the spirit of the American Revolution’s emphasis on freedom and liberty.

Further, the American Revolution helped build abolitionist sentiment. In the North and Upper South (Virginia and Maryland), abolitionist societies were organized by those who increasingly saw a contradiction between human bondage and the ideals of the American Revolution and/or their religious beliefs. The first of these societies, formed in Philadelphia in 1775 by Quakers, helped make Pennsylvania in 1780 the first state to abolish slavery and Philadelphia a haven for fugitive slaves. By 1790, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont had all become, through legislation or court decision, part of the First Emancipation.

The anti-slavery sentiment spawned by the War of Independence is seen further in the Northwest Ordinance passed by Congress in 1787. In establishing the government for the Northwest Territory (north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River), the ordinance forbade slavery in any part of the territory.

The influence of abolitionist Quakers extended beyond Philadelphia and encompassed the Delaware Valley. Because of this, the area became known as the Cradle of Emancipation, the region in which the first massive manumission or emancipation of American slaves occurred. South Jersey was a part of this “cradle,” and, as a result, in 1790 most of its black population was free. (South Jersey counties had 851 slaves and 1,466 free blacks, while North Jersey counties had 10,572 slaves and only 1,266 free blacks.) Finally, it should be noted that the Revolution marked an important watershed in the extension of suffrage rights and that the movement toward greater popular involvement in government often included blacks. For example, the constitution adopted by New Jersey in 1776 gave the franchise to free blacks and women who met certain age, wealth, and residency requirements.

On the negative side, and in the long run, the successful waging of the war by the patriots led to the creation of a sovereign state — the United States of America — that embraced slavery. Indeed, the document that created this political entity, the U.S. Constitution, strengthened and legitimized slavery by allowing each slave to count as three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and representation (article 1, section 2, clause 3); allowing slaves to be imported for the next twenty years (article 1, section 9, clause 1); permitting the federal government to assist in apprehending fugitive slaves who crossed state lines (article 4, section 2, clause 3); and prohibiting before twenty years any amending of the clause permitting a twenty-year slave-trade period (article 5).

There was a frenzied effort on the part of some Americans, fearful that the slave trade would end in 1808, to import as many slaves as possible before that year. In fact, more slaves (approximately one hundred thousand) were brought into the United States between 1787 and 1808 than during any other twenty-year period of the American slave trade. Three states imported slaves during this period: Georgia (1787-1798); North Carolina (1790-1794); and South Carolina (1804-1808). The fact that about forty thousand of these slaves disembarked at Charleston helped it become the nation’s foremost slave-importation center.

The constitutional clause pertaining to fugitive slaves was also very important in that it served as the basis for the fugitive slave acts of 1793 and 1850. In ensuring that slaves would not become “free” by escaping to “free” northern states, these laws in effect created a federally supported, nation-wide system for apprehending runaway slaves.

In 1787, the year in which the U.S. Constitution was written, two very significant black organizations were formed. The first, established in Boston, was the first black secret fraternal order — African Lodge Number 459 (its charter number). Prince Hall, a free black, organized this body and became its Master. The Free African Society, perhaps the earliest black benevolent organization, was the other. It was established in Philadelphia, and Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and Cyrus Bustill were among its more prominent organizers. Bustill (1732-1806) is of particular interest because he was a New Jersey native. The great-great-grandfather of Paul Robeson, he was born a slave in Burlington and manumitted in 1769 by his third owner, who taught him to be a baker. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Philadelphia, where he became a leader of the black community (he baked bread for Washington’s troops at Valley Forge in 1777). Aside from his work with the Free African Society, he established and taught in one of the early free schools for blacks in Philadelphia.



Black people participated fully in the American Revolutionary War and in the political, economic, and social changes it wrought. In some ways this conflict benefited African Americans and in some ways it did not.

Materials and Preparation

Students should read either chapters 7 and 8 in The African American Experience: A History (“The American Revolution: Liberty for All?” and “Forging a New Constitution”) or chapter 10 in African American History (“Black Fighters for Freedom”).

Students should also read the sections provided from the United States Constitution and “Prime’s Petition”.

The teacher should read chapter 5 in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (“That All May Be Free”) and Frances D. Pingeon’s Blacks in the Revolutionary Era. Pingeon’s book is suitable for student use as well. It is out of print and you will have to photocopy portions of it for students to read.

Time Period

Each of the activities that follow will take one class period.



  1. Evaluate the reasons why blacks fought on the American or the British side during the Revolutionary War, and assess the appropriateness of the choices black people made.
  2. Tell the students to imagine that they were black during the time of the American Revolution. Ask them to choose which side — British or American — they would have supported. This question may be best addressed by dividing the class into two sides to contest it. Since a war is often written from the point of view of the winners, which makes the losers “wrong,” ask the students to try to forget what they know about American history since the Revolution.
  3. Ask the students whether it would have made a difference to them in their choice of which side to support if they were free black people instead of slaves. Why?
  4. Evaluation: Ask students to imagine a situation wherein Colonel Tye, Oliver Cromwell, and, if you like, one or two other people from the list of “Key Persons” in this unit, are thrown together during the Revolutionary War. Have the students write a short play wherein the characters argue about why black people ought to support the British or the Americans. As a third alternative, one of the characters may take the view that blacks should remain neutral.


  1. Compare and contrast the positive and negative effects of the Revolutionary War on blacks.
  2. After having the class read the sections of the U.S. Constitution in this unit, you should emphasize that the Revolution did not benefit everyone in America. To make this point you might discuss briefly the Revolution’s effects on Native Americans and women. For black people it had both good and bad effects. Divide the class into two groups. Ask one group to develop a list of positive effects and the other a list of negative effects. After the groups present their lists in class, ask them to decide, on balance, if the American Revolution was largely “good” or “bad” for black people.
  3. Ask students to explain two compromises found in the U.S. Constitution: ending the slave trade, but not immediately, and the three-fifths provision. Why were they necessary? What motives — social, economic, political — may have prompted them? Ask students to speculate about the political and economic consequences for the United States if slavery had been abolished in 1789. How might American history have been different, in general terms?
  4. Evaluation: Ask students to imagine themselves to be a literate African American in 1789, on the eve of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, writing a letter to President George Washington. In this letter, the writer should describe how the American Revolution benefited some blacks, but not those still enslaved. The writer should enclose with his letter his revisions of the parts of the Constitution pertaining to slavery.


  1. Analyze a historical document as a primary source of information about the experiences of a New Jersey slave during and after the Revolutionary War.
  2. Have the class read “Prime’s Petition”. Ask students to list the experiences Prime describes that they think would have been common to many slaves during the American Revolution. What relatively unique experience did he have?
  3. Ask the students if they believe Prime’s testimony. Why might some of his descriptions be untrue or exaggerated? Did he write the petition himself? Is it likely the writer (probably a white attorney) edited the petition to inject his point of view? Since Prime did not write his petition himself, how “primary” is it as a source for historians?
  4. Inform students that it was common for slave owners to give their slaves only one name: a forename. Some historians have theorized that this was done to suggest that slaves were only half persons. The fact that these names were often fanciful and pompous (for example, classical names like Caesar, Cato, and Jupiter) has also led historians to attribute a certain sarcasm to slave owners in naming their slaves. Have students discuss the name “Prime” in light of such perceptions by historians.
  5. Evaluation: To be sure the students understand what a primary source is and why historians need to be cautious in evaluating one, ask students to revise “Prime’s Petition” in ways that would make a historian mistrust it (such as enlarging his role in the Revolutionary War).

Supplemental Activities

Visit the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton. Its living history performers portray several black New Jersey personalities of the Revolutionary War period (including Oliver Cromwell).

Key Persons

Richard Allen. A founder of the Free African Society in 1787, he founded the First African Methodist Church, sometimes called “Mother Bethel,” in Philadelphia in 1794. In 1816, in the same city, he founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is the oldest black religious denomination.

Crispus Attucks. An escaped slave who worked as a seaman on a ship near Boston, he was the first person killed in the Boston Massacre and was thus the first person to die in the cause of the American Revolution.

Cyrus Bustill. A native of Burlington, and the great-great-grandfather of Paul Robeson, he baked bread for Washington’s troops at Valley Forge and later helped found the Free African Society.

Oliver Cromwell. A free black from Burlington County who served with distinction as a private in the Continental Army, he crossed the Delaware with Washington and saw action at all the major battles of the American Revolution.

Prince Hall. A free black who served in the Revolutionary War, he later founded the first black lodge of Freemasons.

Absalom Jones. A founder of the Free African Society and the founder of the First African Episcopal Church (1794 in Philadelphia).

Salem Poor. Born a free black in Massachusetts, Poor enlisted in a Massachusetts militia company and served with valor at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Prime. A slave owned by the Loyalist Absalom Bainbridge of Princeton, he escaped from his owner during the Revolutionary War, fought on the American side, and later successfully petitioned the New Jersey legislature for his freedom.

Peter Salem. Born a slave in Massachusetts, Salem was freed for participating in the French and Indian War, was one of the Minutemen who fought at Lexington and Concord, and is believed to have fired the shot that killed British Major John Pitcairn at the Battle of Bunker Hill, thus contributing to the moral victory the patriots claimed for this skirmish.

Lucy Terry. The first known black American to write a piece of literature, a short doggerel titled “Bars Fight” written in 1746 when she was sixteen years old.

Colonel Tye. Monmouth County-born slave who joined the British forces after Lord Dunmore’s Declaration and then led several successful raids against the patriots in Monmouth County.

Phillis Wheatley. One of the earliest black American writers, this native of Africa, after being granted her freedom in Boston in 1772, published nearly fifty poems before her death at approximately age thirty in 1784.

Prince Whipple. A native of Africa who served in the Revolutionary War as a bodyguard to General Abraham Whipple of New Hampshire, he is depicted in two paintings of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware.

Annotated Bibliography and Suggested Reading

Berlin, Ira and Ronald Hoffman, 1983. Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution.
A thought-provoking collection of essays from an interdisciplinary perspective that focus on the status of blacks and the relationship between the democratic rhetoric of the American Revolution and the reality of the continuation of slavery.
Davis, David Brion. 1975. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the intellectual and social origins of the international antislavery movement in England, France, and the Americas. The emphasis is on the democratizing philosophy of the enlightenment and political theories of the era of revolution in both America and Europe, which led to die eventual abolition of slavery in the western hemisphere.
George, Carol V. R. 1973. Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Rise of Independent Churches, 1760-1840.
An analysis of the creation of an early black independent church, Mother Bethel in Philadelphia, and the first black religious denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Richard Allen’s role as founder and first bishop is explored along with the influences of the revolutionary era on him and the struggle to create an institution capable of meeting the needs of oppressed northern free blacks.
Lynd, Staughton. 1967. Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution.
An examination of the roles of race and class in the formation of the Articles of Confederation and Constitution. Lynd believes that issues of race and slavery played a role in determining the structure of the new government under the Constitution.
Mellon, Matthew. 1969. Early American Views on Negro Slavery.
This slim volume contains a large amount of information about, and very interesting quotations from, the founding fathers on race and slavery. It is also suitable for class use.
Pingeon, Frances D. 1975. Blacks in the Revolutionary Era.
A small, very readable and scholarly study of New Jersey blacks during the American Revolution. The volume contains useful information about the state’s black population which should be included in any unit on the American Revolution. It is also suitable for class use.
Zilversmit, Arthur. 1967. The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North.
This work surveys abolitionism and the process of emancipation on a state-by-state basis in the North following the American Revolution. A significant amount of attention is given New Jersey, as well as neighboring New York and Pennsylvania.


Collier, James Lincoln and Christopher Collier. 1980. War Comes to Willy Freeman.
The First part of the Arabus Family Saga, a trilogy of novels. Willy Freeman is thirteen when the story begins, during the last two years of the Revolutionary War. Her father, a free man, has been killed fighting against the British, and her mother has disappeared. Willy makes her way to Fraunces Tavern in New York, her uncle Jack Arabus having told her that Sam Fraunces may be able to help her.
___Jump Ship To Freedom.
The second part of the Arabus Family Saga, this book focuses on Daniel, a slave belonging to Captain Ives. Daniel and his mother plan to buy their freedom with the soldiers’ pay notes from the American Revolution earned by Daniel’s father, who dies on a sea voyage. Mr. Ives takes the notes away from Daniel’s mother, but Daniel manages to steal them back. Captain Ives then forces Daniel onto a ship bound for the West Indies, where he will be expected to work in the cane fields.
___Who is Carrie.
The final part of the Arabus Family Saga, this story is created around a kitchen slave named Carrie. A curious young person, Carrie is always getting into mischief, partly because of her inquisitiveness about her unknown personal history. She works in Sam Fraunces’s famous tavern, which enables her to become part of the history of the post-Revolutionary War era. Eventually Carrie pieces together a plausible account of her background.
Crow, Jeffery J. 1983. The Black Experience in Revolutionary North Carolina.
Readers will find that African Americans in North Carolina during the American Revolution were active, not passive, beings who, in the face of adversity, struggled to maintain their dignity and African heritage.
Davis, Bruce. 1976. Black Heroes of the American Revolution.
While history books have long extolled the white heroes of America’s Revolutionary War, they have generally neglected to mention the black men and women who contributed enormously to the winning of this country’s independence. This book is a tribute to the nameless and countless black soldiers who fought gallantly in the hope of winning their own independence.
Diamond, Arthur. 1992. Prince Hall: Social Reformer.
Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series published by Chelsea House Publishers, with Nathan Irvin Huggins as the senior editor. The series biographies are written in a “straightforward, colorful style for young adults” and are “richly illustrated with photographs, art and documents.” Each biography contains a bibliography and complete chronology of the subject’s life.
Klots, Steve. 1991. Richard Allen: Religious Leader/Activist.
Another biography that is part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.
Quarles, Benjamin. 1961. The Negro in the American Revolution.
This work remains the best general study of the military role of blacks in the American Revolution. It thoroughly examines the policies of Britain and America on the recruitment of blacks.


Articles of the United States Constitution Pertaining to Slavery

Petition of Prime for Manumission (1786)

Digitized by Deborah Mercer and Edith Beckett of the New Jersey State Library.
Copyright 2003 by the New Jersey Historical Commission,
New Jersey Department of State.
All rights reserved.
Please direct questions and comments to Deborah Mercer.
Updated:Wednesday, April 23, 2003