The Declaration of Independence’s debt to Black America

When African Americans allied themselves with the British, the Patriots were enraged, and they acted.

"Head of a Negro" (1777 or 1778), by John Singleton Copley (Founders Society Purchase, Gibbs-Williams Fund/Detroit Institute of Arts)

In his famous Independence Day oration of 1852, Frederick Douglass asked, “What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?” If we turn that around and ask, “What to the Fourth of July were African Americans?,” we can only answer: “A lot.”

African Americans played a crucial, if often overlooked, role in their White owners’ and neighbors’ decision to declare independence from Britain.

Starting in November 1774 — five months before the Battles of Lexington and Concord — Blacks in the Virginia Piedmont gathered to assess how to use the impending conflict between colonists and crown to gain their own freedom. Over the next 12 months, African Americans all over the South made essentially this pitch to beleaguered royal officials: You are outnumbered, you need us — and we will fight for you if you will free us. At first the British refused, but eventually Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, began quietly welcoming African Americans to what he called his “Ethiopian Regiment.” On Nov. 15, 1775, Dunmore’s Black troops defeated a Patriot militia force, with the Patriot commander being captured by one of his own former enslaved men. Later that day, the governor issued an emancipation proclamation, promising freedom to rebels’ enslaved people who served in his army. With less fanfare, other colonial officials, especially Royal Navy captains, also accepted Black volunteers.

Until 1775, most White Americans had resisted parliamentary innovations like the Stamp Act and the tea tax but had shown little interest in independence. Yet when they heard that Blacks had forged an informal alliance with the British, Whites were furious. John H. Norton of Virginia denounced Dunmore’s “Damned, infernal, Diabolical proclamation declaring Freedom to all our Slaves who will join him.” Thomas Paine pronounced the Anglo-African alliance “hellish.” “Our Devil of a Governor goes on at a Devil of a rate indeed,” wrote Virginian Benjamin Harrison, who would later sign the Declaration of Independence.

Whites’ fury at the British for casting their lot with enslaved people drove many to the fateful step of endorsing independence. In his rough draft of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson listed 25 grievances against George III but devoted three times as many words to one of those grievances as to any other. This was his claim that the king had first imposed enslaved Africans on White Americans and was now encouraging those same enslaved people “to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them.”

Soon after the adoption of the Declaration, Black freedom fighters set about transforming its meaning.

The Second Continental Congress’s most urgent motivation for declaring independence was to pave the way for a military alliance with France. That explains why the Declaration briefly mentions human rights but focuses on states’ (nations’) rights, specifically the right of entities like the 13 colonies to break away from their mother countries. And in the Declaration’s early years, as the literary scholar Eric Slauter has discovered, most Whites who quoted it went straight to its secessionist clauses, especially Congress’s pronouncement that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.”

Some who discussed the Declaration drew attention to a different section, as Slauter also notes: the part where Jefferson insists upon human equality and unalienable rights. These clauses proved useful to Congress’s critics as proof of the hypocrisy of Sons of Liberty who were also enslavers.

But other Americans drew inspiration from these same passages. Only a few months after July 4, 1776, Lemuel Haynes, a free Black soldier serving in the Continental Army, wrote an essay he called “Liberty Further Extended.” He opened it by quoting Jefferson’s insistence that “all men are created equal” and possess “certain unalienable rights.”

Soon, other abolitionists were spotlighting the Declaration’s equality and rights clauses. These passages also drew attention from 19th-century women’s rights advocates. The South Carolina-born abolitionist and feminist Sarah Grimké insisted in an 1837 essay that “Men and women were CREATED EQUAL.” And Elizabeth Cady Stanton patterned her Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments” on the Declaration of Independence.

Congress’s Declaration did not achieve its goal of a military alliance with France. It would be nearly two more years before the first French battleships sailed into American waters. But by shifting the focus of the Declaration of Independence from states’ rights to human rights, abolitionists and feminists made it one of the most successful freedom documents ever composed.

Fighting alongside the British

By the time the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, hundreds of enslaved Americans had escaped to the British army, and thousands more would follow. This John Singleton Copley painting depicts an actual event: a British officer’s servant fighting the French in the January 1781 Battle of Jersey, just off the French coast.

Lord Dunmore, object of hope or villainy

Dunmore’s emancipation proclamation enraged Whites. “Men of all ranks resent the pointing a dagger to their Throats thru the hands of their Slaves,” wrote Archibald Cary, a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses. The proclamation would tend “more effectually to work an eternal separation between Great Britain and the Colonies,— than any other expedient, which could possibly have been thought of,” said Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, who became the Declaration’s youngest signer. On the other hand, a Black Philadelphian was accused of telling a White woman who wanted him to take the street side of the sidewalk: “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.”

Family ties and the end of slavery in Britain

One of White Americans’ many grievances against Britain was Lord Mansfield’s Somerset decision of 1772, widely interpreted as abolishing slavery in the mother country. Enslavers in North America and the Caribbean worried that their human property would steal off and stow away aboard ships sailing for England, where they could claim their freedom. A scholar found references to Somerset in six Southern newspapers. Enslavers denounced Mansfield’s decision, both privately and in print. The Black Britons benefiting from Somerset included Dido Elizabeth, Mansfield’s grandniece, adoptive daughter and frequent amanuensis. Having a beloved Black child in his household may have influenced Mansfield in enslaved people’s favor.

Free and resettled in Nova Scotia

British officers kept their promise to free African Americans who escaped to their lines during the Revolutionary War. Starting in 1783, the year of the Anglo-American peace treaty, more than 3,000 formerly enslaved Blacks — including Rose Fortune, depicted here — resettled in Nova Scotia. Many of the freed people found work in the province’s thriving logging industry, but they suffered continuous abuse from Whites, and in 1792, more than 1,200 of them accepted a British offer to resettle once again, this time in the new British colony of Sierra Leone on the West African coast.

Black abolitionists’ influence

The Declaration focused on justifying the 13 colonies’ secession from Britain. But before the year 1776 was out, Lemuel Haynes, who later became the first Black man in the United States ordained a minister by a mainstream U.S. denomination, had written an essay that opened with Jefferson’s insistence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Haynes thus set in motion a shift in the essential focus of the Declaration: from states’ rights to human rights. Other abolitionists, Black and White, carried on his campaign to highlight the Declaration’s insistence upon equality and rights. In a 1791 letter to Thomas Jefferson, who was then secretary of state, Benjamin Banneker reminded him what he had said in 1776. “This Sir, was a time in which you clearly saw into the injustice of a State of Slavery,” Banneker told Jefferson, before upbraiding him for “detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression.” In the 19th century, feminists as well as abolitionists would focus the nation’s attention on the Declaration’s allusions to equality and unalienable rights.