"Impatient of Oppression"

Magazine cover with painting of young Black girl in turban and apron standing in a doorway

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. XII No. 6, "Liberating Our Past." Find more from that issue here.

In February, 1774, 20-year-old Phyllis Wheatley, the African-born slave-turned-author living in Boston, shared with another non-white, the Indian minister Samson Occom, his belief that "in every human Breast, God had implanted a Principle, which we call love of freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverence; and by the leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us." Among roughly half a million Afro-Americans living in the 13 colonies, few were in a position to record their feelings so clearly for posterity. But for nearly a decade thousands of blacks, particularly in the Southern colonies, had been feeling and demonstrating a growing impatience with the "modern Egyptians" who held such sway over their lives. 

On the eve of white independence, blacks constituted a larger portion of the population than they would at any subsequent time. Nine of every 10 Afro-Americans lived in the South, primarily in the coastal areas that produced tobacco, rice, and indigo, and nearly all were ensnared in the dominant labor system of hereditary race slavery. Since the adoption of that coercive institution in England's mainland provinces more than a century earlier, acts of individual resistance had been commonplace, and occasionally groups of enslaved colonists had risked more organized rebellion efforts. As historian Herbert Aptheker suggested more than 40 years ago, the plots came in waves, and these cycles of increased resistance continued intermittently in different forms until the end of the slave regime almost a century later. 

Often these surges occurred during periods when the white community was distracted by external affairs or divided by internal controversy. So it is not entirely surprising to discover that just such a wave gradually built momentum during the years of colonial disquiet following the Stamp Act controversy of 1765 and crested a decade later in the eventful months before the Declaration of Independence. Yet scholars of black history, often studying a single colony or state, and historians of the American Revolution, traditionally preoccupied with the splits emerging in the white populace during these years, have never acknowledged the swell of hope and discontent that rippled through the slave communities between 1765 and 1776. 

This wave of rebellious activity deserves attention, for it touched every major slave colony and was closely related to — and influential upon — the political unrest that gripped many white subjects during these years. Indeed, the familiar story of "Tories" and "Whigs" squaring off in a two-sided struggle drastically oversimplifies the tensions of the time. Besides the merchants and planters who directed the emerging "patriot" cause and the English functionaries and "loyalist" sympathizers who opposed them, other groups had equally large stakes in the turbulent course of events. 

Near the beginning of this century the "progressive" historians stressed that the American Revolution actually involved two struggles. One was the first successful anti-colonial movement against European imperialism — the battle for independence from Britain. But this contest for "home rule," led by the colonial merchant-planter elite, was entwined with another contest along social class lines over "who should rule at home." The latter revolution was for the most part unsuccessful, and postwar "consensus" historians have done their best to downplay its importance and even deny its existence altogether. But in the past decade scholars have taken a renewed look at these domestic struggles, coinciding with the better-known independence movement, and they are finding them to have been more complicated, varied, and significant than even the progressive historians had understood. 

In the 1760s, after England's triumph in the French and Indian War, longstanding power relationships came under new strains in Britain's American colonies. Tensions between provincial leaders and imperial officials were only one element in a web with many interlacing strands. Urban workers, backcountry farmers, and Indian nations living beyond the frontier all applied pressure on occasion to protect their interests and exert their influence in an increasingly volatile political situation. 

No group had less formal power, or a larger potential interest in the unraveling of established social relationships, than Afro-Americans confined on Southern plantations. Though virtually powerless under the prevailing system of law, these enslaved blacks still represented a crucial force in the overall political equation, for their numbers were great, their situation seemed desperate, and their detachment from the niceties of the imperial debate was considerable. Attentive leaders in the black communities, like their Native American and white working class counterparts, realized they represented key constituencies that could conceivably sway events in one direction or another with results that would be of lasting consequence to themselves and others. 


Phase I Groundswell 

In the 1760s thousands of Africans were being sold every year into "Babylonian Captivity" in the American colonies. But these "saltwater" slaves from across the Atlantic (such as Alex Haley's famous ancestor, Kunte Kinte, who arrived at Annapolis during this decade) found themselves surrounded by a far greater number of "country-born" blacks whose heritage already blended African and European elements. Phase One of the pre-revolutionary wave of resistance, which began in the mid-1760s and stretched to the emergence of armed violence between whites at Concord Bridge in April 1775, inevitably reflected and built upon this emerging Afro-American culture. 

For example, among an increasingly Christian slave population, itinerant preaching developed rapidly and incurred mounting planter resentment. Jupiter, a tall man in his middle thirties also known as Gibb, who belonged to George Noble of Prince George County, Virginia, bore the scars of previous whippings when detained in Sussex County in 1767. Arrested with his mother and brother, he was whipped again "for stirring up the Negroes to an insurrection, being a great New Light preacher." Soon such preaching was outlawed by whites in Virginia and elsewhere as apolitical liability. In 1772 slaveholders on the Committee for Religion of the Virginia House of Burgesses drafted a Toleration Bill intended to define the limits of dissenting worship among Baptists, who frequently included blacks in their meetings. The law not only prohibited slaves from attending church without their masters' permission; it also forbade any night services. 

In music, black songs often became political and threatening to authorities, much as reggae can be today. By the mid-70s we find reports of slaves playing the African gourd-guitar and singing "in a very satirical stile and manner" about the treatment they have received. Stories of secret night meetings involving "deep and solemn" deliberations by "private committees" raised anxiety among whites. So did the large numbers of slave runaways and their suspected motives. In 1773, shortly after word reached Virginia that slavery had been ruled illegal in England in the Somerset Case, a planter stated he had lost a slave couple who were heading for England "where they imagine they will be free (a Notion now too prevalent among the Negroes, greatly to the Vexation and Prejudice of their Masters)." By the following summer the news had reached the Virginia backcountry, where a slave named Bacchus absconded from Augusta County and set out "to board a vessel for Great Britain . . . from the knowledge he had of the late determination of Somerset's Case." 

Occasionally, especially in the coastal towns where the divisions among whites were most apparent, groups of blacks moved openly to exploit these rifts to their own advantage, often using tactics drawn from the white independence struggle. In the fall of 1765 Christopher Gadsden's white Sons of Liberty took to the streets of Charleston to protest the Stamp Act, chanting "Liberty, Liberty" and carrying a British flag with the word spelled across it. During the New Year holiday, according to Henry Laurens, Charleston blacks began "crying out 'Liberty'" on their own, and the whites "all were Soldiers in Arms for more than a Week," while "patrols were riding day and night" throughout the province. 

Such occurrences did not escape the notice of British officials formulating contingency plans; they realized that thousands of discontented slave workers made the Southern colonies highly vulnerable. "The great Disproportion, there is between White men and Negroes in South Carolina," an agent reminded the Lords of Trade in 1770, rendered the colony "less formidable to a foreign or an Indian Enemy, in Case of Hostilities." Conversely, the British knew that armed and loyal blacks could be a major asset. In 1771 the English governor of West Florida prepared an assessment of Spanish strength at New Orleans, noting that their forces included "upwards of four thousand Negroes upon whom they have great dependence being all used to Muskets and the Woods." 

In 1772 Virginia's Governor Dunmore summarized these perceptions when he described conditions in the southern tidewater region. "At present," he said, "the Negroes are double the number of white people in this colony, which by natural increase, and the great addition of new imported ones every year is sufficient to alarm not only this colony but all the Colonies of America." Dunmore, who would give further attention to this subject in the years ahead, observed that in case of war, the white colonist "with great reason, trembled at the facility that an enemy would find in procuring Such a body of men, attached by no tye to their Masters or to the Country." Indeed, he added, "it is natural to Suppose that their Condition must inspire them with an aversion to both, and therefore are ready to join the first that would encourage them to revenge themselves by which means a conquest of this Country would inevitably be effected in a very Short time." 

Dunmore's planter opposition also sought to assess the relative strength and restiveness of the slave population and speculated about Britain's willingness to exploit it. "If America & Britain should come to a hostile rupture I am afraid an Insurrection among the slaves may and will be promoted," wrote young James Madison, beginning his political career as a member of the Committee on Public Safety for Orange County. In a letter to printer William Bradford in Philadelphia late in 1774, he reported: "In one of our Counties lately a few of those unhappy wretches met together and chose a leader who was to conduct them when the English troops should arrive — which they foolishly thought would be very soon and that by revolting to them they should be rewarded with their freedom. Their intentions were soon discovered and the proper precautions taken to prevent the Infection. It is prudent," Madison reminded the printer, that "such attempts should be concealed as well as suppressed." 

Six weeks later Bradford replied, "Your fear with regard to an insurrection being excited among the slaves seems too well founded." The Philadelphian informed Madison that "a letter from a Gentleman in England was read yesterday in the Coffee-house, which mentioned the design of [the] administration to pass an act (in case of rupture) declaring 'all Slaves & Servants free that would take arms against the Americans.' By this," Bradford concluded, "you see such a scheme is thought on and talked of; but I cannot believe the Spirit of the English would ever allow them publically to adopt so slavish a way of Conquering." 

As the prospects for insurrectionary acts improved and the anxiety of white patriots grew, the frequency and harshness of punishments increased, and the rate of slave executions seems to have risen. "The most significant exceptions to the rule of moderacy," writes historian Pauline Maier, "lay with those accused of inciting slave insurrections in the South." In October 1773 a North Carolina slave charged with murder was burned at the stake by the sheriff of Granville County. The next fall two Georgia blacks accused of arson and poisoning were burned alive on the Savannah Common, and in December several more slaves were "taken and burnt" for leading an uprising in nearby St. Andrew's Parish that killed four whites and wounded others. 

Significantly, some white colonists, through a blend of religious scruples, ideological consistency, and strategic necessity, reacted to these mounting tensions with thoughts other than harsh reprisal. Weeks after the murders and executions in St. Andrew's Parish, Georgia, for example, a group of Scottish parishioners met at Darien. On January 12, 1775, they adopted a resolution saying that slavery was an "unnatural practice . . . founded in injustice and cruelty, and highly dangerous to our liberties, (as well as lives), debasing part of our fellow-creatures below men, and corrupting the virtues and morals of the rest." Slavery's existence, they asserted, "is laying the basis of that liberty we contend for . . . upon a very wrong foundation," and they pledged to work for the manumission of Georgia slaves. 

Another immigrant expressed similar sentiments. On March 8, 1775, Thomas Paine, using the pen name "Humanus," published his first article, three months after reaching Philadelphia. His essay in the Pennsylvania Journal and Local Advertiser was entitled "African Slavery in America," and it pointed out that blacks had been "industrious farmers" who "lived quietly" in Africa before "Europeans debauched them with liquors" and brought them to the New World. Paine reminded white colonists that because they had "enslaved multitudes, and shed much innocent blood in doing it," the Lord might balance the scales by allowing England to enslave them. To avoid such retribution and give greater consistency to the patriot cause, "Humanus" urged the abolition of slavery and suggested (in terms which resurfaced later in the year) that freed Negroes be given land in the West to support themselves, where they might "form useful settlements on the frontiers. Thus they may become interested in the public welfare, and assist in promoting it; instead of being dangerous as now they are, should any enemy promise them a better condition." 


Phase II: Resistance and Reprisals 

During the spring of 1775, even as Paine wrote, the interlocking struggles of Tories, Patriots, and blacks intensified. In this second phase, as talk of rebellion grew, the issue of who controlled supplies of powder and shot took on central importance, and Loyalists charged white radicals with spreading rumors of slave unrest. "In the beginning of 1775," Thomas Knox Gordon of South Carolina recalled, "the Malecontents being very anxious to have some plausible pretence for arming with great industry propogated a Report that the Negroes were meditating an Insurrection." 

Patriots, in turn, claimed authorities were prepared to enlist black strength if necessary to quell white dissent. The Committee of Safety for New Bern, North Carolina, announced in a circular letter that "there is much reason to fear, in these Times of General Tumult and Confusion, that the Slaves may be instigated and encouraged by our inveterate Enemies to an Insurrection, which in our present defenseless State might have the most dreadful Consequences." The Committee advised "Detachments to patrol and search the Negro Houses, and . . . to seize all Arms and Ammunition found in their Possession." 

Black activists sought to capitalize on white divisions in their plans for freedom fully as much as white factions tried to implicate half a million blacks in their political designs. Whatever the schemes of Patriot and Tory leaders during 1775, local slave leaders were attentive and active participants rather than ignorant and passive objects. Consider a report from backcountry New York that was being publicized and discussed as far away as Virginia by mid-March. In Ulster County one Johannes Schoonmaker caught part of a conversation between two of his slaves, discussing the powder needed and support available to carry out a plot which included burning houses and executing slave-owning families as they tried to escape. This organized liberation plan involved blacks from the villages of Kingston, Hurly, Keysereck, and Marbletown, and the 20 persons who were taken into custody had considerable powder and shot in their possession. In addition, rumor had it that these blacks were to be joined in their freedom struggle by five or six hundred Indians. 

Because we have studied both slavery and the Revolution on a colony-by-colony basis, we have failed to appreciate the full extent of the black freedom struggle in the summer of 1775. In every Southern colony, from Maryland to Georgia, slaves threatened armed revolt. Their local leaders engaged in desperate high-stakes calculations as to when to assert themselves and gain liberation with the help of outside forces. In this they were perhaps not unlike the Jews and other resistance fighters who awaited allied aid during World War II; premature action in each instance was suicidal. Enough weapons were confiscated during the year so that even if one takes into account the fact that many of these incidents were probably frameups, the extent of the rebellious wave is still considerable when we look at each colony in turn. 

In Virginia in mid-April, Governor Dunmore ordered the barrels of gunpowder in the Williamsburg magazine removed to a ship under cover of night. The local mayor immediately submitted a petition claiming that widespread rumors of a slave revolt made internal security a crucial matter, and news reached the capital of irate citizens coming from the west to reclaim the powder by force. Word spread that Dunmore was fortifying the Governor's Palace and had issued arms to his servants; a physician testified that the governor had sworn to him "by the living God that he would declare Freedom to the slaves and reduce the City of Williamsburg to Ashes" if disorder continued. Hearing this, several blacks presented themselves at the Palace to offer their services but were turned away. On April 29, a special supplement of the Virginia Gazette reported that two Negroes had been sentenced to death in nearby Norfolk "for being concerned in a conspiracy to raise an insurrection in that town." 

Word of Lord Dunmore's threat quickly reached Thomas Gage, the British general serving as Governor of Massachusetts. "We hear," he wrote in mid-May, "that a Declaration his Lordship has made, of proclaiming all the Negroes free, who should join him, has Startled the Insurgents." And on June 12, 1775, a week before the disastrous engagement at Bunker Hill which was to cost him his command, Gage wrote to his friend Lord Barrington, "You will have heard of the boldness of the rebels, in surprising Ticonderoga; and making executions to the frontiers of Montreal; but I hope such hostilities, will justify General Carleton in raising all the Canadians and Indians in his power to attack them in his turn." Steeling the secretary of war for such tactics, Gage continued, "You may be tender of using Indians, but the rebels have shown us the example, and brought all they could down upon us here. Things are come to that crisis, that we must avail ourselves of every resource, even to raise the Negros, in our cause." 

Two weeks later Dunmore himself observed regarding Virginia's planter elite: "My declaration that I would arm and set free such Slaves as should assist me if I was attacked has stirred up fears in them which cannot easily subside." The Virginia Gazette proclaimed that the governor planned "to take the field as generalissimo at the head of the Africans." James Madison, like other planter rebels versed in classical literature, realized that slavery constituted their Achilles' heel; "if we should be subdued," he wrote, "we shall fall like Achilles by the hand of one that knows that secret." Weeks later Dunmore was at work on a secret plan with John Connelly of Fort Pitt to add the threat of an Indian attack on the backcountry to the prospect of slave insurrections. 

In Maryland in late April planters pressured Governor Robert Eden into issuing arms and ammunition to guard against rumored insurrections, though the governor feared their acts "were only going to accelerate the evil they dreaded from their servants and slaves." In May John Simmons, a wheelwright in Dorchester County, refused to attend a militia muster, saying "he understood that the gentlemen were intending to make us all fight for their land and negroes, and then said damn them (meaning the gentlemen) if I had a few more white people to join me I could get all the Negroes in the county to back us, and they would do more good in the night than the white people could do in the day." According to James Mullineux, Simmons told him "that if all gentlemen were killed we should have the best of the land to tend and besides could get money enough while they were about it as they have got all the money in their hands." Mullineux told the grand jury "that the said Simmons appeared to be in earnest and desirous that the negroes should get the better of the white people." Simmons was later tarred, feathered, and banished on the charge of fomenting a slave insurrection. 

In August a Maryland minister — a strict believer in the "outside agitator" creed — protested that "the governor of Virginia, the captains of the men of war, and mariners, have been tampering with our Negroes; and have held nightly meetings with them; and all for the glorious purpose of enticing them to cut their masters' throats while they are asleep. Gracious God!" he exclaimed, "that men noble by birth and fortune should descend to such ignoble base servility." By fall the Dorchester County Committee of Inspection reported, "The insolence of the Negroes in this county is come to such a height, that we are under a necessity of disarming them which we affected on Saturday last. We took about eighty guns, some bayonets, swords, etc." 

In North Carolina the black freedom struggle during the summer of 1775 was even more intense. "Every man is in arms and the patroles going thro' all the town, and searching every Negro's house, to see they are all at home by nine at night," wrote Janet Schaw, an English visitor to Wilmington. "My hypothesis is," she said, "that the Negroes will revolt." Her view was confirmed when a massive uprising in the Tar River area of northeastern North Carolina was revealed just before it was to begin, on the night of July 8. Scores of blacks were rounded up and brought before Pitt County's Committee of Safety, which "ordered several to be severely whipt and sentenced several to receive 80 lashes each [and] to have [their] Ears crapd [cropped], which was executed in the presence of the Committee and a great number of spectators." 

Colonel John Simpson reported that "in disarming the negroes we found considerable ammunition" and added: "We keep taking up, examining and scourging more or less every day." According to Simpson, "from whichever part of the County they come they all confess nearly the same thing, vizt that they were one and all on the night of the 8th inst to fall on and destroy the family where they lived, then to proceed from House to House (Burning as they went) until they arrived in the Back Country where they were to be received with open arms by a number of Persons there appointed and armed by [the] Government for their Protection, and as a further reward they were to be settled in a free government of their own." 

In South Carolina, meanwhile, the impending arrival of a new royal governor fueled mounting speculation among both blacks and whites. Josiah Smith, Jr. wrote that "our Province at present is in a ticklish Situation, on account of our numerous Domesticks, who have been deluded by some villanous Persons into the notion of being all set free" on the arrival of the new governor, Lord William Campbell. According to the Charleston merchant, this rumor and consequent hope of freedom "is their common Talk throughout the Province, and has occasioned impertinent behaviour in many of them, insomuch that our Provincial Congress now sitting hath voted the immediate raising of Two Thousand Men Horse and food, to keep those mistaken creatures in awe, as well as to oppose any Troops that may be sent among us with coercive Orders." 

When Campbell arrived he found a story circulating that the "Ministry had in agitation not only to bring down the Indians on the Inhabitants of this province, but also to instigate, and encourage an insurrection amongst the Slaves. It was also reported, and universally believed," Campbell stated, "that to effect this plan 14,000 Stand of Arms were actually on board the Scorpion, the Sloop of War I came out in. Words, I am told, cannot express the flame that this occasion'd amongst all ranks and degrees, the cruelty and savage barbarity of the scheme was the conversation of all Companies." A free black pilot named Thomas Jeremiah was jailed on charges of being in contact with the British navy and seeking to distribute arms. Black witnesses for the prosecution testified that Jeremiah had alerted them to the impending war and informed them that it could well mean freedom for blacks. Jeremiah was publicly hanged and burned in Charleston on the afternoon of August 18. 

The situation in Georgia was scarcely different, as John Adams learned through a discussion with several other delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. "In the evening," Adams wrote on September 24, "two gentlemen from Georgia, came into my room [and] gave a melancholy account of the State of Georgia and South Carolina. They say that if one thousand regular troops should land in Georgia, and their commander be provided with arms and clothes enough, and proclaim freedom to all the negroes who would join his camp, twenty thousand negroes would join it from the two Provinces in a fortnight." The New Englander continued, "They say their only security is this; that all the king's friends, and tools of government, have large plantations and property in negroes; so that the slaves of the Tories would be lost, as well as those of the Whigs." 

Adams included in his diary entry the observation, no doubt shared by the two Georgia slaveowners, that "the negroes have a wonderful art of communicating intelligence among themselves; it will run several hundreds of miles in a week or fortnight." This acknowledgment of the effective oral network that kept blacks informed is rare indeed among the print-oriented leaders of the anticolonial Independence movement. But such a grapevine clearly existed, and it would be stretched and strengthened in the months ahead, as the triangular freedom struggle entered a third and climactic phase. 


Phase III: The Dream Deferred 

In Virginia Governor Dunmore, who had retreated from Williamsburg to the safety of a British ship, was preparing to use the desperate card he had threatened to play, and perhaps should have played, six months earlier. When his marines raided a printing office in Norfolk in September, 1775, they were joined by cheering blacks. During October he continued to conduct raids and to remove slaves to British naval vessels via small sloops and cutters as he had been doing for months. "Lord Dunmore," charged the Committee of Safety in Williamsburg on October 21, "not contented with . . . inciting an insurrection of our slaves, hath lately, in conjunction with the officers of the navy, proceeded to commence hostilities against his Majesty's peaceable subjects in the town and neighborhood of Norfolk; captivated many, and seized the property of others, particularly slaves, who are detained from the owners." "Lord Dunmore sails up and down the river," a Norfolk resident wrote to London the following week; "where he finds a defenseless place he lands, plunders the plantation and carries off the negroes." 

Edmund Pendleton estimated in early November that perhaps fewer than 100 slaves had taken refuge with Dunmore, but the situation changed drastically on November 14 when the governor's forces won a skirmish at Kemp's Landing. Dunmore capitalized on this small victory in two ways. First, he sent off John Connelly toward Detroit with secret orders approved by Gage to return to Virginia with Indian troops, seize Alexandria, and await forces from the coast. Secondly, Dunmore used the occasion to publish the less-than-sweeping proclamation he had drawn up the week before, emancipating any servants or slaves of the opposition faction who would come serve in his army. It read in part, "I do hereby further declare all indented servants, negroes, and 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." 

Connelly was soon captured, but the proclamation had its intended effect. "Letters mention that slaves flock to him in abundance," Pendleton wrote to Richard Henry Lee at the end of the month, "but I hope it magnified." Landon Carter also hoped it was not true. When 14 enslaved workers on his plantation responded to Dunmore's call, he had a dream that they came back, looking "most wretchedly meager and wan," and pleaded for his assistance. "Whoever considers well the meaning of the word Rebel," stated a white resident of Williamsburg, "will discover that the author of the Proclamation is now himself in actual rebellion, having armed our slaves against us and having excited them to an insurrection." He added, in a line reminiscent of Patrick Henry, "there is a treason against the State, for which such men as Lord Dunmore, and even Kings, have lost their heads." 

Since it ultimately failed from both the British and the black vantage points, there is a tendency to minimize the combined initiative of the months following November 15. But at the time, these events in Virginia had enormous potential significance for blacks and whites alike. On December 14 a Philadelphia newspaper related that a gentlewoman walking near Christ Church had been "insulted" by a Negro, who remained near the wall on the narrow sidewalk, refusing to step off into the muddy street as expected. When she reprimanded him he replied, according to the report, "Stay, you d——d white bitch, till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall." 

That same day George Washington urged Congress "to Dispossess Lord Dunmore of his hold in Virginia" as soon as possible. In repeated letters the planter-general stressed that "the fate of America a good deal depends on his being obliged to evacuate Norfolk this winter." Washington spelled out his fears to Richard Henry Lee on December 26: "If my dear Sir, that man is not crushed before spring, he will become the most formidable enemy America has; his strength will increase as a snow ball by rolling; and faster, if some expedient cannot be hit upon to convince the slaves and servants of the impotency of his designs." 

Reports from the Chesapeake southward after Dunmore's proclamation are suggestive of the events surrounding Lincoln's emancipation order. With the prospect of freedom at hand, flight became the logical form of rebellion, and along the coast hundreds of blacks took direct action despite terrible odds. The newspapers told of "boatloads of slaves" seeking out British ships, not always successfully. Seven men and two women from Maryland "who had been endeavouring to get to Norfolk in an open boat" were apprehended near Point Comfort. Three blacks who boarded a Virginia boat that they mistakenly took to be a British vessel were only "undeceived" after they had openly "declared their resolution to spend the last drop of their blood in Lord Dunmore's service." Though perhaps more than a thousand reached Dunmore's ships safely, an outbreak of smallpox among the refugees the next spring reduced their numbers and discouraged others from following. If it had "not been for this horrid disorder," he wrote, "I should have had two thousand blacks; with whom I should have had no doubt of penetrating into the heart of this Colony." 

News that black freedom had been sanctioned in Virginia must have reached South Carolina by early December. On Sullivan's Island at the mouth of Charleston harbor, fugitives hopeful of escaping slavery were gathering near the "pest house," the small structure beside the water supervised by a black named Robinson and used to quarantine the sick off of incoming ships from Africa and the Caribbean. From here, some runaways had already joined the British fleet and begun to participate in raiding parties to liberate their comrades. On December 5 Captain Jacob Milligan of the sloop Hetty reached Charleston with a cargo of rum and sugar, but not before he had been seized and searched by Captain Tollemache of the H.MS. Scorpion. The next day Milligan informed the Council of Safety "that there were considerable number of slaves upon Sullivan's Island," and that he had learned "huts" were being built to shelter them "in the woods." 

The next day the Council of Safety promptly ordered Colonel William Moultrie to dispatch a force of 200 men to Sullivan's Island that night "to seize and apprehend a number of negroes, who are said to have deserted to the enemy." According to Josiah Smith, Jr., Moultrie moved against the encampment at night with a force of 50 or 60 men and "early in the Morning sett Fire to the Pest house, took some Negroes and Sailors Prisoners, killed 50 of the former that would not be taken, and unfortunately lost near 20 that were unseen by them till taken off the Beach by the Men [of] Warrs Boats." When a local citizen spoke with officers of the Scorpion several days later, he reported that Captain Tollemache "did not deny having some of our negroes on board, but said thay came as freemen, and demanding protection; that he could have had near five hundred, who had offered. . . ."

Within weeks similar conditions prevailed in Georgia. On March 13 Stephen Bull wrote to Henry Laurens from Savannah to report that 200 enslaved workers (nearly 50 from Arthur Middleton's plantation alone) had deserted and were on Tybee Island, apparently in contact with the British ships frequenting the coast. The next day, at the end of a dictated letter to Colonel Laurens, Bull added an extraordinary handwritten note regarding a matter of utmost secrecy. "The matter is this: It is far better for the public and the owners, if the deserted negroes . . . , who are on Tybee Island, be shot, if they cannot be taken, [even] if the public is obliged to pay for them; for if they are carried away, and converted into money, which is the sinew of war, it will only enable an enemy to fight us with our own money and property." Since members of the local Council of Safety were too "timid" to agree to such a brutal mission, Bull sought authorization from his own home colony of South Carolina for dispatching a party of Indian allies to capture or kill the runaways. He told Laurens that "all who cannot be taken, had better be shot by the Creek Indians, as it, perhaps, may deter other negroes from deserting, and will establish a hatred or aversion between the Indians and negroes." 

Laurens, as the president of South Carolina's revolutionary Council of Safety, had already dealt with such a situation in the search-and-destroy mission to Sullivan's Island. So he chose his words discreetly in responding to Bull's request for permission to act. "Now for the grand we may say awful business contained in your letter," he responded on March 16; "it is an awful business notwithstanding it has the sanction of the Law, to put even fugitives and Rebellious Slaves to death — the prospect is horrible — But then, without hesitation, he continued, "We think the Council of Safety in Georgia ought to give that encouragement which is necessary to induce proper persons to seize and if nothing else will do to destroy all those Rebellious Negroes upon Tybee Island or wherever they may be found." Apparently Bull left Savannah before this letter arrived and received word of it while on his way back to Charleston. "Could I have heard from you but twelve hours sooner," he wrote Laurens, "I should not have left Savannah as soon as I have done, as there is one piece of service which I wanted to have put into execution, which I did not think myself properly authorised to do." The fate of the 200 "fugitives and Rebellious Slaves" on Tybee Island remains unknown. 

A great deal had changed in the year since Tom Paine had advocated emancipation and western resettlement. The British had coopted these ideas and used them to their own advantage, capitalizing on the slaves' aspirations for freedom and tipping black hopes decidedly toward the loyalist position with the carrot of emancipation. When Dunmore's proclamation gave public substance to this stance, the planter elite viewed the threat to their property as a compelling argument for independence, just as their grandchildren would more than four score years later. Patriot opinion had solidified around the notion that the freedom struggles of enslaved Africans were a liability rather than an asset. When Paine's Common Sense first appeared on January 9, 1776, it spoke of the British as barbarous and hellish agitators and of Indians and blacks as brutal and destructive enemies. 

Preoccupied with imperial misrule and prejudiced from the start against members of another class and different race, colonial leaders were unable to acknowledge accurately (or perhaps even to perceive) the nature of the struggle for liberation which was being waged passionately around them. When this struggle was diverted, postponed, crushed in its early stages — as is the way with most such difficult liberation movements — the whites could hardly sense the full weight of the despair or measure the full extent of the contradictions. Rather than elaborate upon the difficult triangular struggle, acknowledging the shifts and compromises of their own course and the strength of the opposition from below as well as from abroad, they instead adopted the hypocritical view that outside agitators had been at work, unsuccessfully, among passive and anonymous victims of enslavement. 

By relying upon their persuasive and partisan words, we have been largely blinded for two centuries to a major factor in the turmoil leading up to the Revolution. Hemmed in by our categories of color, we have failed to recognize a significant chapter in the story of worker and artisan political unrest. We have underestimated the complexity and importance of this little-known wave of struggle within the crosscurrents of revolution. It concerned nothing less than the proper boundaries of American freedom.