Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (review)
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African Americans, slavery, abolitionism

Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America. By Douglas R. Egerton. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. 281. Cloth, $29.95.)

William D. Pierson, the author of Black Yankees (Amherst, MA, 1988), once likened research in eighteenth-century history to fishing. Those studying eighteenth-century African Americans have to fry whatever fish they catch, while those writing about white elites "may disdain all but the trophy-sized hunkers" (ix). Indeed, researchers of early African Americans work tirelessly to find the occasional mention of their subjects in laws, court records, and family letter collections. Douglas Egerton pays tribute to a number of those scholars and their revolutionary-era subjects by synthesizing this impressive body of research in his latest book.

This study fittingly begins with an enslaved man, William Lee, whose lifelong service to George Washington resulted in his "freedom," but left him an old, impoverished alcoholic. Egerton speculates that from Lee's perspective, the efforts of the revolutionary generation fell far short. In marked contrast to historians like Gordon Wood, who claim that the Founding Fathers should be praised for laying the groundwork for the future liberation of the oppressed, Egerton sees the revolutionary enterprise as a disappointment. Could the Founding Fathers have done more, or were they men of their time who had done enough? Egerton leans [End Page 324] toward the former as he claims that the perspective that counts most is that of black people, like William Lee, who lived in the period between 1763 and 1800.

In addition to allowing African American voices to guide the reader through the book, Egerton emphasizes their efforts to liberate themselves, whether through the courts, through military service, or through planned insurrections whose ideals paralleled the Revolution of '76. Each chapter, therefore, begins with a life story of a person of color that serves as a point of departure for a discussion of the wider world in which he or she struggled. The trans-Atlantic peregrinations of Olaudah Equiano, for example, permit the reader to visit the British colonies of North America from Canada to the Caribbean, and even London, in order to discover the obstacles that blacks confronted before the Revolution. The book's only chapter on the war years features a New Jersey slave named Titus who became Colonel Tye, a much feared Loyalist commander who freed himself through military service. Thousands of other black men saw their best chance of freedom with the British, who were much more generous on that score than the American Patriots. Egerton reminds us that enslaved men and women walked off the plantations of revolutionary luminaries like George Washington, Thomas Pinckney, and Francis Marion. Others ran away hoping to lose themselves in America's cities. One Massachusetts woman, Mum Bett (Elizabeth Freeman), pursued her court case in the middle of the war, which resulted in the abolition of slavery in her home state.

The war's end did not bring equality for the African American community, so people of color continued to push in the courtroom. They also wrote petitions, started churches, and bought themselves and family members out of slavery. To be sure, they had white allies as well, but this valuable cohort often exhibited thoroughly racist tendencies. As Egerton notes, Benjamin Rush, a committed abolitionist, was of the opinion that black people's "unnatural" skin color was a result of leprosy. It was not until the year 1805 that New York's most prominent abolition society demanded that its members free their slaves. If the supporters of abolition harbored such notions, it is not a giant leap to imagine what the rest of the population thought of black people. Herein lies the sobering end of Egerton's story—a country where a black human being was equated with three-fifths of a person and where racist notions received pseudoscientific backing. This "counterrevolution" (247) found further backing [End Page 325] from the cotton gin, although Egerton makes the point that this invention did not revive a dying institution in the South. To the contrary, southern slavery was strong in the 1790s, and it was spreading when Eli...


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