African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: Historic Contexts—Laws that Freed

Laws that Freed

There were small numbers of “free” Africans from the very beginning of exploration and settlement of the New World. “Free Africans” and later African progeny experienced constraints of their freedom by laws and social customs. Laws regulating their liberties and rights were part of colonial “Black Codes.” In spite of limitations on their freedoms and access to freedom, the numbers of so-called “free Negroes” increased steadily over time.

The first legislated abolition of slavery in the United States.

In the 17th century, enslaved Africans accessed freedom through earning money and purchasing their liberty. Some were indentured servants from the beginning and upon completing their indenture were freed. Others were the offspring of European fathers who freed them. Military service was a path to freedom for many men.

There were small communities of free Africans in Spanish America. There is little precise data on the number of “free Negroes” in the colonies. By the end of the colonial period “free Negroes” numbered an estimated 61, 757 dispersed among all the states and the Louisiana Territory. For Florida, Texas and California, only the totals of “Negroes” are approximated but it is known that some of these Africans were “free” (Landers 1999:7–28 McDonald 2003:35–41).

Overtime 17th century laws that promoted Africans gaining freedom had been repealed or countered with other laws. During the 18th century, increase of the “free Negro” population resulted from private manumission, gradual emancipation and in one or two colonies the abolition of slavery. The next module section on Cultural Heritage explores the various strategies enslaved and free African American Nation Founders used in pursuit of freedom.

The first written antislavery protest in British colonies came from Germantown Friends in 1688. In addition, the German Salzburgers of Georgia, the Germans of the Valley of Virginia, and the Moravians of North Carolina resisted the keeping of “Negro slaves” as long as was possible.

Basing their ideology on religious grounds, a number of prominent members of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends criticized the importation of slaves in 1696, objected to slave trading in 1754, and in 1775 determined to disown members who would not free their slaves. Throughout the 1700s, the Pennsylvania Assembly attempted to discourage the slave trade by taxing it repeatedly. Finally on the eve of the Revolutionary War, Pennsylvanians formed the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, the first of its kind in the nation. The philosophy of the natural rights of man, the premise upon which the American Revolution ultimately emerged, ignited the press for abolition of slavery in northern colonies and provoked Virginian and other southerners to advocate repeal of earlier laws that constrained private manumission of slaves (McManus 1973:161–163).

American protests that taxation by the British parliament made slaves of the American colonists were met with criticism that noted the hypocrisy of Americans “who condemned the tyranny of England’s colonial policies…while holding one-fifth of the colonial population in chains.”

Expressing similar sentiments is the “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” passed by the
Pennsylvania Assembly in 1780 (Pennsylvania State Archives 2003). It was the first such legislative enactment in America.

Another twenty years would pass before gradual emancipation was legislated in New York and New Jersey where the ratio of African to Whites was three times that of Pennsylvania. Also, significantly emancipation laws in New York and New Jersey compensated slaveholders for their property. The laws permitted slaveholders to “enjoy the services” of children born in slavery for twenty-eight years if they were male and twenty-five years if they were females. It also allowed the slave master to abandon these children. The overseer of the poor would then assign such children to a new master who would be paid by the state for their care while “enjoying” their services. In many cases, the new master would be the old one who initially abandoned the children to the state, another kind of slavery, sponsored and supported by the state (Berlin 1974:22 Ftn. 10). This kind of state sponsored and supported involuntary servitude would reemerge in the post reconstruction era under “convict labor” laws.

By the time of the first Census of the United States 649,207 “slaves” were enumerated. Virginia had the greatest number of enslaved persons, 292,627, followed by South Carolina with 107,094 and Maryland with 103, 036. Interestingly, Pennsylvania and North Carolina had the same number of enslaved persons: 100,783 (Historical Census Browser 2004). Some American-born Africans even held “slaves.” However, the movement toward abolition of the importation of Africans was underway. Emancipation of those enslaved had already begun but the demise of slavery as an institution would ultimately test the will of a new nation “conceived in liberty” to live up to the ideals African and European Americans fought for in order that it might exist.


From the very beginning of the colonial period, armed conflict marked the exploration and settlement of North America, conflict that continued throughout the era. Spanish conquest of the indigenous people in New Spain was followed by intermittent wars among the colonial powers or would-be powers. They fought with one another and with the Indians. Alliances were formed between Indians and first one European power then broken and reconfigured differently. Never was the expression “war makes strange bedfellows” so true as it was in the colonial period. Free and enslaved Africans and their progeny were early participants in all of the various conflicts that sporadically broke out between the English colonies and their Indian or European rivals in North America. In spite of colonial and national laws designed to exclude Africans and Indians from military service, inevitably when conflicts erupted Whites willingly drew upon the manpower these groups provided.

Low Country Colonies, Georgia and Spanish Florida.

Wars in Europe spilled over into the colonies. Wars in Africa fed a growing slave trade. Once the British established territorial dominance along the New World’s eastern coast, tensions increasingly heightened between the British colonies and the British monarchy. As the monarchy attempted to tighten control of the colonies, there was a concomitant increase in the number of colonists willing to participate in acts of rebellion over the issues of political representation and trade equity. These rebellious acts ultimately culminated in the Revolutionary War. All of the conflicts affected the status of Africans in the colonies, but certain wars had greater significance for influencing the course of African and subsequently African progeny’s enslavement and liberty.

The Spanish had taken advantage of Africans fighting skills for almost a hundred years by the time Chesapeake and Low Country British colonials enlisted the aid of enslaved and “free Negroes” in their conflicts with the Spanish and with Indians. Virginia laws that sought to control “Negro” access to arms were relaxed when every able-bodied man was needed to repel and launch attacks.

Indian Wars

During Indian wars, colonists were forced to enlist mostly enslaved African people in order to be successful. This was especially true in the southern colonies where enslaved African people and Indians both outnumbered Whites. There, Whites were faced with a paradox: to defeat the Indians, they must arm enslaved Africans, but to arm them gave the enslaved a much greater ability to successfully revolt. There was also the possibility that the Indians and Africans would join forces against the White population. These concerns led White colonists to pit the two groups against each other. They hired Indians to track down and return runaway “slaves”; in turn, they enlisted Africans in the militia to fight against Indians. The object was to create enmity between Indians and Africans that would reduce the likelihood of the two groups joining together to attack Whites (Fields 1998).

The laws passed by different colonies reflected the ambiguity of the White colonists over whether or not to arm “Negroes.” Because of the possibility of Indian attack, a 1652 Massachusetts law required all “Negroes,” Scotsmen, and Indians who lived with or were servants of English settlers to participate in military training. Four years later in 1656, Massachusetts prohibited “Negroes” and Indians from military service because of the Whites fears about possible uprisings.

In 1639, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed the first legislation to exclude “Negroes” from the militia. With a growing “free Negro” population, in 1705 the Virginia Assembly thought it necessary to pass further legislation preventing “Negro [es], mulatto[s], or Indian[s]” from holding civil, military or ecclesiastical office.

In South Carolina, a colony where “Negroes” out numbered Whites, the 1703 Assembly offered to free any “slave” who captured or killed any Indian considered hostile to the colony. By 1707, South Carolina law required militia captains “to enlist, traine [sic] up and bring into the field for each white, one able slave armed with a gun or lance.” The next year, Charles Town, South Carolina, employed “slave cowboys” to help protect the settlement from Indian attack, a precedent that continued when South Carolina used slaves to help fight during the Yemasee War.

In two Indian wars in the Carolinas, with the Tuscarora in North Carolina and the Yemassee in South Carolina, several Indian tribes joined together in a common goal to expel frontier settlers. Whites were not only forced to enlist help from neighboring colonies to defend themselves against the Indians but also to enlisted all available enslaved and “free Negroes.”

During this period a smaller war, almost a skirmish, erupted in 1715 between the Yemassee Indians and British colonists in North and South Carolina and Virginia. As a result of their military service during the Ease War, many slaves received their freedom. However, South Carolina soon changed this practice by providing monetary award rather than freedom (Nalty 1986:6).

Small, though the Yamasee War was, the arming of at least 400 African American men to protect the colonies was to set a precedent followed in the Revolutionary War and have repercussions over the next generation with regards to Black and White relations. Between 1702 and 1763, enslaved and free African American colonists participated in the series of wars whose outcomes would shape the social, political, and cultural characteristics of the future American nation and the social development of a national consciousness among first generation Africans and their descendant communities

Wars for Territorial Dominance

Beginning with the war of Spanish Succession, also known as Queen Anne’s War, (1702–1713), through the War of Jenkins Ear, (1739–1742) and the French-Indian War, or Seven Years War (1754–1760), that followed, the Spanish, French and English fought over their territorial boundaries in North America. During these wars armed “Negroes” and mulattos helped defend French Louisiana from Indian attacks.

During this period of conflict between the European powers for dominance on the North American mainland, Spanish and French employed Africans and American-born Africans as soldiers. Although England came to dominate the North American continent, the Spanish and French colonies left an important legacy to the United States regarding the employment of American-born Africans in the military. It was in these non-English colonies where blacks first served in segregated, all-black units, led by black non-commissioned officers. Milder slave codes, greater equality and opportunity for free blacks, and widespread miscegenation accounted for this increased tolerance to arm blacks (Donaldson 1991:6).

The British continued to use “Negroes” as needed. The 1747 South Carolina assembly provided for the use of “Negro” soldiers in the event of danger or emergency, and authorized the enlistment of 50 percent of all able-bodied slaves between the ages of 16 and 20. Ever cautious, during the French-Indian War, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a statute in 1754 exempting all servants, enslaved and indentured, from rendering military service. However, the law allowed “free Negroes” to enlist as laborers and servants. One view held at the time was that the use of “Negroes” as menials in the military was a means to free white soldiers for combat. However, in the heat of battle every able bodied person, white or black, soldier or servant had to fight. For example, as the fighting at Fort Duquesne worsened, General Braddock disobeyed the Virginia law and ordered all servants armed and placed on the front lines (Bowman 1970:59; Fields, 1998).

African participation in these wars proved significant for several reasons. First, they served in integrated units and received the same pay as whites. Second, no African was charged with either cowardice or treason (Greene 1951:124). Finally, these African American veterans set an important precedent that later influenced military policy concerning use of African troops during the American Revolution (Fields 1998).

This series of conflicts ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763 in which the realignment of colonial boundaries left France with no mainland territory. Spain retained New Spain and received Louisiana in return for giving up Florida to England. The British controlled all of the land east of the Mississippi and from the Florida Keys in the south to Hudson Bay in the north.

Colonial boundaries of British, Spanish and French before 1763.


“The Kings Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of Parliament, had, hath, and of right ought to have full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies…in all cases whatsoever…” Declaratory Act, British Parliament 1766.

Three short years after the Treaty of Paris found the American British colonies, most specifically New England, pitted against the Monarchy and Parliament over the British Empire mercantilism commercial system. That system demanded that the mainland colonies trade exclusively with the British West Indies and England. New England resisted, importing sugar and tropical produce from non- British plantations and drained the British islands of money. New England merchants sold mainland produce to the British West Indies for cash, with which they purchased cheaper tropical commodities in foreign islands. After supplying the British West Indies with supplies, the northern colonies had an annual surplus of 100,000 barrels of flour and large quantities of beef, pork and fish which they sold to Spanish and French colonies.

The British government attempted to reign in the steady momentum of mainland colonies toward economic independence through various acts between 1764 and 1773 that taxed imports, lowered duties on molasses, and imposed duties on tea, glass, paper, paints and other items. Economic resistance to dictates of imperial power thinly masked class-based discontent of some colonists with kings, nobility, aristocracy and hierarchy. The “natural rights” philosophy of John Locke, took hold in the colonies where almost half the white colonists were only a generation or two away from their lower class origins. The ideas of the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and that all men were created equal, was even more appealing to African Americans relegated to the bottom of the hierarchy by enslavement or, if free, by social custom.

Revolution was inevitable. The Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770 is the date often identified as a turning point in British-American relations. Ironically Crispus Attucks, the first man killed on that day, the first martyr of the War for Independence, was an American-born African and a formerly enslaved.

Revolutionary War

On April 19, 1775, the Battles of Lexington and Concord signaled the first major offensive military act by the British to suppress the colonists that resulted in fighting and bloodshed. Scholars generally agree that those events ignited the atmosphere of rebellion and ushered in a military and political state of war. The American and French victory at Yorktown in October 1781 ended major campaigning during the Revolutionary War, although isolated, small engagements continued through 1782. In April 1782, the British government called for its military forces to refrain from offensive action and prepare to withdraw from the American colonies. In April 1783, Congress ratified the provisional peace treaty. The signing of the Treaty of Paris finalized the peace. The end date given for the Revolutionary War, September 3, 1783, is the date on which American and British diplomats signed the Treaty of Paris (National Park Service 2000).

The War lasted 8½ years. Except for the Vietnam War, it was the longest war Americans ever fought. Of all the wars that Americans have fought, only the Civil War saw more American military deaths per 10, 000 citizens. Furthermore, it is highly probably that these numbers do not take into account the deaths of American-born African revolutionary soldiers since “Negroes” were not considered citizens. It was a war for national independence but it was also a civil war against the British.

While the nation was born of the War, it created deep schisms between Americans. Only about 40% of Americans were patriots, another 40% were neutral and 20% of Americans, the Loyalists, supported the British.

These numbers probably also do not take into account American-born African patriots and Loyalists. The War became a world war as the French, Spanish, Dutch and Hessians took sides fighting in North America and with their seafaring fleets attacking British possessions in the West Indies, Africa and India.

The Revolutionary War was never really won. The British in 1783 decided to make peace with America for political, military and economic reasons.

Finally, the Revolutionary War was a model for other subordinated peoples worldwide. The War established the validity of an underlying premise that there was a voluntary contract between government and the people allowing government to rule, that all men are created equal and that God has endowed them with certain inalienable Rights…

Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness… Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776

Concept design for the The Black Revolutionary Patriots Memorial.

From the perspective of over 5000 American-born African Patriots who fought in the war, the Articles of Confederation that gave shape to the new nation and the Constitution that was to be its charter over the coming years, fell far short of the ideal of freedom and equality for all Americans. Yet “free” and enslaved African people were to continue to work to build the new nation and press for social reality to match the idealism of America’s founding documents.

Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784) an enslaved colonial American-born African poetess captured the feelings of the American-born African patriots and those of many other African people and their descendants who participated in building the new nation when she wrote:

“In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of oppression, and pants for Deliverance. … The same Principle lives in us.” (Wheatley 1774)


Looking at historical contexts it is clear that from the inception of this nation Africans and the progeny participated in establishing the role of the United States in the world. Cultural heritage, the next section of Module I, focuses on the cultural patterns of Africans and their descendants, both enslaved and “free,” that helped to shape other dimensions of Colonial America and the New Republic that emerged from the struggles of all of the American people.

Cultural Heritage Part I examines Africans and African Americans as change agents in exploration, settlement, expansion, and development of four regions of North America from the 16th century through the 18th century: Spanish America, the Chesapeake, the Low Country and French America. Part II will continue this scrutiny of Africans and their progeny in the Northern Colonies during the 17th through the 18th century.

Cultural Heritage identifies how Africans and their descendants helped people the places that became the United States. It examines African people’s roles in developing the American economy and in transforming the environment. Cultural Heritage aims to enhance the reader’s knowledge of the expressed cultural values and social institutions created by African peoples as they participated in the founding of America. Cultural Heritage Part II: Northern Colonies, War of Independence and Founding America in development will further uncover the role of Africans and their progeny in the Revolutionary War and how “free” Africans and their progeny helped to shape the political environment of the new Nation.