1775The American Revolution
Enslaved and free Black people used the American Revolution to pursue their own freedom. They chose strategically to side with either the British Loyalists or American colonist Patriots. Colonists fought in the American Revolution, a war for freedom from Britain, yet they maintained enslavement in all 13 colonies.
Although free Black men were part of colonial militias prior to the Revolutionary War and also a critical part of the Continental Army, George Washington initially forbade their recruitment, fearing it would challenge ideas of white manhood and encourage armed insurrection against enslavers. After the British offered freedom to Black men in exchange for service, Washington wrote, “We must use the Negroes or run the risk of losing the war.” In February 1778, the Rhode Island Assembly voted to allow non-white men to enlist, who would be “immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely free.”
Enslaved Africans joined the British after Dunmore’s Proclamation in November 1775, which promised freedom for those enslaved by “revolutionaries.” The Proclamation bolstered British forces, but also attempted to incite rebellion among the enslaved and force the colonists to abandon their efforts. Between 800 and 2,000 enslaved black people found freedom with the 1779 Philipsburg Proclamation, which freed all enslaved people owned by revolutionaries. More enslaved people found freedom through these Proclamations than through any other means until the Civil War.