- Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution by Judith L. Van Buskirk
Since the 1961 publication of Benjamin Quarles's seminal work The Negro in the American Revolution, historians have painstakingly documented and analyzed the African American experience during the American Revolution.1 And though it continues to shock undergraduates, their findings reveal that for most African Americans in those tumultuous times, freedom wore a red coat.2 Motivated by strategic factors rather than humanitarian concerns, the British army promised freedom to slaves who fled their patriot masters. Although historians disagree on the total numbers, at least twenty thousand enslaved people seized this opportunity.3 The Continental Congress made no comparable offer, as fear of the "internal enemy" and economic dependence upon the institution of slavery precluded any large-scale effort by the revolutionaries to arm slaves.4 Nevertheless, more than five thousand African Americans bore arms in the Continental forces, in state militias, or on board privateers. It is their story that Judith L. Van Buskirk unravels in Standing in Their Own Light.
Van Buskirk's exhaustively researched and convincingly argued monograph is no mere revamp of Quarles's classic study; she draws on an impressive trove of fresh archival material to herald "the stories of many individuals [End Page 806] whose petitions, protest, and service in the cause of American independence changed the world in which they lived" (4). The book's central claim is that the American Revolution was a transformative event for people of color that enabled them to envision previously unimaginable futures. While not denying that the revolution's promise of liberty and equality went unfulfilled for the vast majority of African Americans, she posits that "twenty years of talking about natural rights, equality, and freedom had made it such that the institution of slavery would never more be a part of the monotonous course of daily life" (4). Emboldened by the service and sacrifice of black veterans, she argues, African Americans in the North crafted a cohesive community that allowed them to challenge not only the institution of slavery itself but also nineteenth-century America's systemic racial inequalities. Black patriots' wartime experiences became "a weapon in their fight for basic rights" (237). This is a bold claim, but one that Van Buskirk sustains throughout the book by carefully mining the experiences and postwar reflections of those soldiers and their families.
Standing in Their Own Light's greatest strength is its source base. Van Buskirk has unearthed more than five hundred pension applications filed by men of color under the congressional pension acts of 1818 and 1832—roughly 10 percent of the African Americans who served in the Continental army. These pension applications are a rich and underappreciated window on the revolution. In them, veterans carefully—if at times erroneously or exaggeratedly—described their military service in the hope of receiving a government annuity. Van Buskirk uses these sources in two ways. First, they allow her to locate these black patriots within the army itself. Second, she mines them for evidence of how black soldiers used their wartime experiences to envision their role in the fledgling nation.
Van Buskirk begins by surveying the legal and economic foundations of slavery throughout the colonies from South Carolina to Massachusetts. She maintains that slavery as a legal institution "went unquestioned by all but a few before the revolution" (24), emphasizing the uniform racial inequality legally embedded into late colonial society. Specialists may find this chapter oversimplified, but it helps explain why the revolutionary leadership was so reluctant to arm people of color at the outset of hostilities in 1775. Her subsequent treatment of the war shows that the conflict—for all its dislocation, disease, and death—also offered opportunities for people of color. On the one hand, the proclamation of John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, made the British army a haven for runaway slaves. On the other, some free blacks enlisted with the revolutionaries...