By Chris Tucker l Wakefield, NH
As the American Revolution seemed imminent, the state legislature of New Hampshire was met with questions regarding the enlistment of black soldiers. New Hampshire blacks-- both slave and free-- took it upon themselves to seek increased freedom. The dawn of the Revolutionary period and the pressing matter of forming state militias brought treatment of blacks to the forefront of colonial society. As early as the Battle of Bunker Hill in July of 1775 there were examples of soldiers of color joining colonial regiments, including several from New Hampshire. In September, three New Hampshire blacks joined the regiment of Colonel John Nixon at Winter Hill, Massachusetts, joined later in the year by another regiment, which included two blacks. Within a year of the outbreak of the War, however, state legislatures began to discuss enlistment restrictions. After an October of 1775 meeting between the legislatures of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, it was agreed that all blacks, free or slave, were to be banned from the Patriot militia. When George Washington resisted the removal of black soldiers, Congress decided in February of 1776 that black militiamen were permitted to remain in service, but further enlistment was banned. In April, the New Hampshire Committee of Safety “requested all males above twenty-one to sign a declaration pledging themselves” to the Patriot cause; however, “lunatics, idiots, and negroes were excluded from its militia.”
Nevertheless, when Congress enacted troop quotas for the state militias, the support of colored troops was widely supported, or at least treated indifferently. According to Quarles, “enlistment of Negroes aroused little controversy or concern in New Hampshire,” and both free and enslaved blacks “unobtrusively filtered into the state levies, generally signing up for three years” for equal pay with white soldiers. Indeed, towns in the state formed hiring committees to enlist black soldiers from towns such as Newmarket, Epping, Exeter, and Durham, among others. In the town of Barrington, five blacks enlisted for a twenty-pound bounty and a “mileage allowance.”
Despite the relatively small number of slaves in the New Hampshire colony, the issue of emancipation and manumission were present in the early years of the Revolution, and slaves themselves were active in promoting abolition. In 1775, there were reportedly 479 slaves; in 1779, there were 674 slaves in the colony , and the state politicians offered varied opinions on the matter. Although the drafters of the state’s constitution included “a preamble… proclaiming that ‘all men are born equal and independent,’” a state supreme court judge ruled that slavery’s “Custom and Practice in this state” was to be unhindered. While the number of slaves residing in the state decreased dramatically with each passing year, it was not until 1857 that slavery was finally and officially abolished in the state of New Hampshire.
One of the more famous New Hampshire slaves was immortalized in Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, which featured an African rowing at the front of the ship. This man was Prince Whipple, the slave of New Hampshire’s William Whipple, who served with Washington during the Revolution. According to Egerton, Prince secured his freedom by telling his owner early in the Revolution, “[Y]ou are going to fight for your liberty, but I have none to fight for.” There has been some speculation as to whether this actually happened; it has been argued that the incident was fabricated, as Prince was not officially freed until several years following the War. Despite this, in 1779 Prince appealed to the New Hampshire state assembly to abolish the institution, citing the “humanity, and the rights of mankind.” Also in 1779, nineteen slaves appealed to the state legislature for their freedom, citing their removal from Africa and immoral bondage, stating “that the God of nature gave them life and freedom upon the terms of most perfect equality with other men; That freedom is an inherent right of the human species.” Despite these pleas, their petitions were in 1780 postponed until “a more convenient opportunity,” only to be ignored by the state legislature and the aforementioned state judge Samuel Olcott.
Despite the relatively small number of blacks residing within the state, the ideals of freedom, equality, and liberty of all men was fresh in the minds of both the residents of color, as well as the members of the state assembly. Similar issues were raised in Massachusetts, where more blacks resided; many of these blacks actively petitioned for freedom, even when, time and time again, their petitions were neglected.
Massachusetts: Seeking Freedom in the Birthplace of the Revolution
Bernard Bailyn has stated that during the early years of the American Revolution, “identification between the cause of the colonies and the cause of the Negroes bound in chattel slavery-- an identification built into the language of politics-- became inescapable.” By the time of the Revolution, there were roughly 2000 slaves living in Massachusetts, nearly half within Boston city limits. The first battle of the Revolution was fought in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, and as a result the causes of the Revolution have been appropriately coupled with the colony of Massachusetts Bay. Colonists of color also saw the dichotomy between race and the Revolution, and the narrative of black colonists in Massachusetts is rich with individuals and groups of individuals attempting to promote the causes of the local black community in the midst of a national renaissance.
Five years prior to the first battle of the War, on March 5, 1770, British soldiers took the life of a man who has been described at the first African American casualty of the Revolution. A fugitive slave from Framingham, Massachusetts, Crispus Attucks was described as “a mulatto fellow, about 27 years of age… well set, 6 foot 2 inches high, short curl’d hair, knees nearer together than common.” After his flight from his master William Brown, he worked on a whaling ship before eventually returning to Boston. By 1770 Attucks, like other Bostonians, experienced firsthand the “unwanted presence” of British troops “who symbolized the colonists’ worst fears of royal oppression,” not to mention the economic competition between colonists and the soldiers, who often worked part-time jobs for less pay.
The economic competition and increased military presence fostered a spirit of protest in the city, and Attucks became one of the more determined activists. Writing a letter to Governor Thomas Hutchinson, Attucks claimed that the legislature of Massachusetts was “chargeable before God and man, with our blood;” Attucks further warned, “You will hear from us hereafter.” Attucks may not have had a specific date in mind when he threatened the governor, but it was on March 5 of 1770 when Attucks led several-- perhaps has many as thirty-- “boys, negroes, mulattoes,” as well as Irishman and laborers to confront a British guard. Insults were exchanged, snowballs were thrown, and both the British and colonial mobs increased in number. Attucks, the de facto leader of the colonists, was the first to die when he was met with two bullets. While Attucks left behind no known family, his presence in Massachusetts and his murder in the city of Boston at the hands of British forces left an undeniable legacy and important glimpse into the condition of Massachusetts’ black community. In the aftermath of the incident, as Horton and Horton have summarized, “interracial alliances of the eighteenth century became more difficult to maintain, and race became the most important divider of Americans, even those at the bottom of society.”
Similar to the experiences of blacks in New Hampshire, Massachusetts blacks were also aware of the irony of the Revolution-- that is, the desire for freedom and equality of all men, while blacks in each of the colonies were enslaved against their will. Thus, in Massachusetts, several blacks took it upon themselves to petition for freedom over a period of several years, while others seemed determined to take their personal liberty into their own hands. Indeed, at the start of the Revolution, the fear among Massachusetts whites was the threat of slave rebellion. While Lord Dunmore’s proclamation of November 1775 offered to free any slaves who fought for the crown, more than a year prior, Boston slaves considered rebelling against their masters. As the presence of British troops in Boston increased, the Massachusetts legislature was effectively shut-down, which, Nash explains, “foreclos[ed] that avenue of ending slavery.” Boston’s slave population became restless. “There has been in town a conspiracy of the Negroes,” Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, who was away in Philadelphia, explaining that those same slaves “petition[ed Governor Thomas Gage] telling him they would fight for him provided he would arm them and engage to liberate them if he conquered.”
As foreboding as the rumors of slave revolts may have been, there was an active interest in the enlistment and arming of Massachusetts blacks to aid in the War. In May of 1775, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety passed a resolution allowing the enlistment of blacks into state regiments, but barred slaves from enlisting, while General George Washington supported the enlistment of blacks and permitted “the recruiting officers to entertain them.” In 1777, the Massachusetts legislature “passed two resolutions exempting none but Quakers from military service,” allowing for the recruitment and drafting of blacks; by April of the following year, the state “legally sanction[ed] the enlistment of Negroes,” including slaves who would be rewarded their freedom for enlisting. In Lancaster, fourteen blacks enlisted, one dying in service. In Plymouth, six black recruits served for three years each. In Medford, a black recruit enlisted and was paid “a bounty of $100 currency in two installments,” while in Andover a black soldier was awarded “his freedom in three years” as a bounty. As Quarles estimates, “New England states… probably furnished more colored troops than any other section,” citing a 1777 report that “a lot of Negroes” were present in Massachusetts regiments. Similarly, in the state of Connecticut “practically no town of any size failed to supply” blacks to the Continental army, while the Rhode Island First Regiment had a presence of approximately 200 blacks.
Lemuel Haynes, an emancipated slave who later became a poet and well-known minister, “demonstrated his freedom, in part, by joining the ‘sacred cause of liberty’ as a minuteman like his former classmates and neighbors.” Haynes, perhaps representative of other Massachusetts blacks, “saw himself as a colonist in the very throes of fighting for his political life.” As Roberts suggests, the case of Lemuel Haynes, while being just one individual example, can also be attributed to the greater black Bostonian community. “Haynes, like most blacks, could not ignore the contradictions of slavekeeping within a society that persistently underscored principles of freedom and equality,” Roberts concludes. This recognition Revolution-era whites’ hypocrisy was felt by all Massachusetts blacks, in Boston and in smaller cities and towns throughout the state. They protested this contradiction by petitioning for their freedom, enlisting in the colonial armed forces, and some even considered armed rebellion against their oppressors. What the examples of Haynes, Crispus Attucks, the petitioners, and the numerous nameless black soldiers prove is that while the Revolutionary War was not only birthed in Massachusetts, but its ambitions and ideals were fostered in the state, by both white and black residents. The spirit of the Revolution contributed to black citizens’ desire for emancipation, and their primary methods were initially based on slavery’s moral injustice.