July 2017

‘Domestic Insurrections Amongst Us’: A Critical Historiography of Slave Flight in the American Revolution

These scholars have forced historians of all persuasions to take slave flight seriously. The historical canon will be better for it.

Also this week: Lewis Eliot’s analysis of the impact of the Haitian Revolution on British Romantic poetry reveals wavering public support of egalitarian abolitionism, while Nathan Wuertenberg’s piece on the relationship of the American Revolution to race-based empire examines the embeddedness of empire in U.S. history.

by Evan Turiano

For those in the profession who are tickled by historiographical cycles and schools, the study of the American Revolution has long offered a scholarly gold mine. Progressives, Whigs, Imperials, and their “neo-“ and “neo-neo-“ descendants provide graduate students with an excellent case study in how varied historical perspectives can lead scholars to unique conclusions. However, American Revolution scholarship often provides a similarly valuable, if frustrating, case study in the ways in which historiographical and disciplinary discord can hamper scholarly progress. Political historians and social historians, Whigs and Progressives, and other disciplinary divisions have kept scholars distant from each other’s work. This proves irksome to readers who find scholars arguing past one another and failing to rely on one another’s innovative sourcing and methodologies.

These historiographical battles are prominent in the study of slave flight in the American Revolution. For over seventy years, scholars have debated and vacillated, all the while uncovering new evidence in search of the place of slave flight during the American Revolution. Scholars have debated the wartime experiences of slaves who fled, as well as the implications of slave flight to Continental and British wartime policy. The contempt between social historians and political historians of the field has muddled the terms of debate, led to quantitative impasses, and ultimately fraught scholarly progress in the field.

In 1940, a young scholar-activist named Herbert Aptheker published a pamphlet titled The Negro in the American Revolution. This short text marked the beginning of the study of black agency—actions and desires—during the Revolution, and particularly of flight and resistance during the war. In this pamphlet, Aptheker broke ground on a number of debates that would develop over the coming decades. He made use of the early published collections of the founders’ writings, as well as of southern state archives. He found that enslavers’ wartime decision-making revolved around the threat of flight and insurrection. In spite of these precautionary measures, Aptheker estimates the successful flight of “tens of thousands” of slaves to British lines.[1] This intervention established slave flight as a measurably impactful factor in the policies and outcomes of the American Revolution.

Beyond this important development, Aptheker initiated the long-running historiographical debate over the place of slave flight in British military policy. He writes that the Patriots were “very fortunate…that political and economic considerations restrained the British from actively waging an anti-slavery war.”[2] Had the British embraced an emancipatory policy, he argues, they could have attracted two to three times more black laborers to their lines—perhaps turning the tide of the conflict. Nonetheless, Aptheker concludes that the British failure to consider fuller emancipation was unsurprising, given the wealth slavery and the slave trade generated for the British Empire in West Indies and elsewhere.

Benjamin Quarles
Photo of Benjamin Quarles, one of the founders of the study of slavery and emancipation during the American Revolution. Courtesy of BlackPast.org.

Benjamin Quarles’ 1961 text The Negro and the American Revolution was the first fully formed study of black experiences and agency in the Revolution. The main, somewhat broad, premise of his argument is that African Americans made a number of decisions during the Revolution, which were based on specific opportunities available for them in order to seize freedom in any capacity. Any slave allegiances, to either the Patriot or the British cause, were, according to Quarles, based on which side “made him the quickest and best offer in terms of those ‘unalienable rights’ of which Mr. Jefferson had spoken.” The loyalty of the slave, according to Quarles, was not to either nation but to the singular goal of freedom.[3]

“Quarles argues that slaves fled to the British whenever they forged a reasonable opportunity to do so.”

In line with this thesis, Quarles argues that slaves fled to the British whenever they forged a reasonable opportunity to do so. An early chapter of the text is devoted to Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation and to his “Ethiopian Regiment.” In this chapter and others, the “nightmarish dread” of slave insurrection looms over Quarles’ narrative.[4] He claims that Dunmore’s Proclamation was broadly understood as offering an opportunity for freedom to thousands of black Virginians, and that the number was limited by disease as well as by physical barriers and propaganda campaigns that minimized flight. He finds that roughly 800 slaves reached British lines under Dunmore’s proclamation, with about 100 of them coming alongside their loyalist enslavers.[5] Quarles also acknowledges the host of practical opportunities for flight that wartime offered, and situates it as such within his larger framework that slaves constantly sought opportunities to liberate themselves. He writes, “slaves had been running away for a century and a half before the Revolution, but what in peacetime was a rivulet became in wartime a flood.”[6] In total, he concludes that the number of slaves that fled to the British throughout the war reached “into the tens of thousands.”[7]

These scholars initiated a paradigm shift by asking previously unasked questions, and thus set the terms of debate. Their work allowed the next generation of historians to ask new questions: To what extent did slave flight have a place in British military policy? What role did antislavery politics and thought in England play in shaping that policy? Moreover, new source materials and analyses on slave experience beckoned an entirely different set of inquiries: To what extent did enslaved people imbibe revolutionary rhetoric, and what sort of networks allowed for it? What informed individual decisions to flee, or to stay? And what exactly happened to slaves who made it to British lines? These two strains of thought proliferated simultaneously, and yet remained distinct and aloof from one another in meaningful ways.

Sylvia R. Frey’s 1991 Water From the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age is a foundational text in establishing the place of slave flight in British military policy. Frey argues that the Revolutionary war was “triagonal,” presenting black slaves as a third body in the conflict that made decisions based on opportunities to seize their own freedom.[8] Like Quarles, Frey identifies the centrality of insurrectionary fears among southern colonial whites, going so far as to say that those fears played notably into British military decision-making.[9] While putting slavery at the center of the Revolutionary conflict, she makes persistent efforts to avoid painting the British as being emancipatory in their aims, depicting them as reluctant, or at least strategic, emancipators.[10]

Frey finds that enslaved blacks fled, en mass, throughout the war. “When division and confusion among whites improved their chances for success, when British prospects looked good,” she writes, “they took advantage of the opportunities and escaped in great numbers.”[11] She describes the enslaved as opportunist and singularly focused on freedom, channeling Quarles’ work. Frey cites Eugene Genovese as an influential mentor, and this is borne out in her work.[12] Among his vast body of scholarship, one of Genovese’s most pivotal scholarly contributions is the central place that cultural formation must hold in our understanding of slave life and slave resistance. His 1974 Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World The Slaves Made demonstrates that slave resistance was informed by an amalgamation of African cultural conceptions, cultivated in enslaved communities. Similarly, the slave agency Frey acknowledges through flight always stems from their coalescence over shared religion and culture. Her stated aim is to examine black resistance and liberation during the Revolutionary period, and she does so through this distinguishably “Genovesean” lens, with an eye to the relationship between enslaved culture and resistance, as well as the ways its shaped British military policy.

soldiers at yorktown
This 1781 painting by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine DeVerger depicts an African American soldier from the 1st Rhode Island among the American troops at the siege of Yorktown. From the holdings of the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University. Courtesy Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Simon Schama seeks to answer the same questions as Frey in his 2006 book, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution. Schama assertively reaffirms Frey’s notion of a triagonal conflict. One important divergence from Frey, however, is his treatment of the British. Schama takes British abolitionist thought very seriously, locating emancipation in the British military psyche where Frey largely had not. He presents a British relationship to antislavery that is full of complications, one described by a reviewer as being “an alliance of convenience that sometimes became one of honor.”[13] More generally, Schama locates slavery at the center of political contestations before and during the Revolution. Slavery’s place in wartime politics centered on what he finds to be prolific slave flight, citing Sylvia Frey and estimating “between eighty thousand and one hundred thousand” runaways during the war. It is in this mass flight that Schama finds enslaved people acting as a third party in the conflict that bore significant catalytic capacities.[14]

“Pybus seems much less interested in British policy as it related to slave flight. Rather, individual experiences and black agency guide her work.”

Cassandra Pybus’ Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty is a cornerstone of the scholarship on slave experiences with flight during the Revolution. Published in 2006, the same year as Schama’s text, Pybus’ most notable intervention in the field is her global scope. Pybus’ narrative extends beyond British lines, meticulously following the stories of formerly enslaved men and women who established new lives across the globe. Like her predecessors, Pybus acknowledges the fear of insurrection that loomed over life in Revolutionary Virginia. Placed alongside Schama, Pybus seems much less interested in British policy as it related to slave flight. Rather, individual experiences and black agency guide her work.

In many ways, decades of changes and contributions on the subject of slave flight in the American Revolution have left us in the same place that Aptheker and Quarles did. Enslaved people made strategic decisions and aligned themselves in strategic ways in order to capitalize upon the emancipatory opportunities brought on by war. The fear of slave insurrection, alongside that of economic loss, loomed over the decisions that enslavers made, including during the war. In flight, enslaved people made use of networks they had created and sustained. The British army recognized the enslaved population as a point of weakness in colonial society, and capitalized upon it as such.

“Perhaps the division between scholarship on policy and scholarship on agency has stymied the field’s efforts to progress past Aptheker and Quarles.”

Perhaps the division between scholarship on policy and scholarship on agency has stymied the field’s efforts to progress past Aptheker and Quarles. Social historians and political historians remain firmly entrenched in their specialties, and thus the parallel strains of scholarship identified above remain staunchly separate. Historians of black agency critique political historians as Whiggish; historians of policy and politics too often dismiss social histories as cursory in their engagement and impact. A more rigorous cross-collaboration would allow for meaningful progress in the field. Ira Berlin and other scholars have done well to avoid these disciplinary divisions, and we can only hope more scholars will do the same.

One of the most interesting open questions in the field is that pursued by Simon Schama: does burgeoning British abolitionism hold a place in the Crown’s wartime strategy? Schama’s work was controversial in the field, particularly among those who seek to place slave experience at the center of the narrative. Sylvia Frey accused Schama of an overly “romantic perspective” on the British army, and of framing “white Britons” as the “heroes” of slave liberation.[15] Schama has described himself as a “born-again Whig;” this critique represents disciplinary allegiances and as such may fail to drive scholarship forward. Despite Frey’s criticism, Schama is on to something important. Scholars such as Edward Countryman, David Waldstreicher, Kathleen DuVal, and others have identified global and imperial perspectives as the next frontier in better understanding the American Revolution. British policies of wartime emancipation were multifaceted and rooted in context and culture.

A reality of the study of fugitive slaves is that counting those who don’t wish to be found is a difficult and sometimes tenuous pursuit. However, the lingering differences and drastic changes in estimates of how many slaves fled are still striking in the scholarship. The scholarship as it exists can be divided roughly into two camps: the “low-end” estimates, which places the number of self-emancipated anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000, and those on the other end who estimate anywhere from 80,000 to 120,000 over the course of the conflict. While scholars have done an excellent job demonstrating meaning outside of these numbers, implications of Revolutionary-era flight differ substantively depending one which estimate one takes.

I look forward to seeing how scholars incorporate slave flight into of the Revolution more broadly. In demonstrating the profound impacts of flight during the Revolution, scholars have responded to a major criticism of neo-progressive Revolutionary scholarship: that its “bottom-up” analyses don’t answer larger questions about the Revolution and its outcomes. These scholars have forced historians of all persuasions to take slave flight seriously. The historical canon will be better for it.

TurianoEvan Turiano is a Ph.D. Student at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He studies 19th Century United States History, focusing on antislavery politics, fugitive slaves, and the coming of the Civil War. Most recently, his research has focused on resistance to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law in the rural North, and its political implications during the secession crisis. Evan is the Co-Chair of the CUNY Early American Republic Seminar, and was the recipient of the 2017 Colonial Dames of America Fellowship. He lives in Queens, NY, and can be reached on Twitter @e_turiano or via email here.


[1] Herbert Aptheker, The Negro in the American Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1940) 15-6.

[2] Ibid., 20.

[3] Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961) vii.

[4] Ibid., 20.

[5] Ibid., 31.

[6] Ibid., 115.

[7] Ibid., 119.

[8] Sylvia R. Frey, Water From the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991) 108; It is important to note that the triagonal conception of the American Revolution has major limits. Most notably, it leaves out native actors, an important force in the conflict.

[9] Ibid., 56.

[10] Douglas R. Egerton, “Review: Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age by Sylvia R. Frey,” The William and Mary Quarterly 51, no. 3 (July 1994): 578–80.

[11] Sylvia R. Frey, Water From the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age, 156.

[12] Ibid., Acknowledgements.

[13] David Waldstreicher, “Review: Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty by Cassandra Pybus; Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution by Simon Schama,” The American Historical Review 111, no. 5: 1504–5.

[14] Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain the Slaves, and the American Revolution (New York: HarperCollins, 2006) 8-9.

[15] Sylvia R. Frey, “Review: Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution by Simon Schama,” The New England Quarterly Vol. 80, No. 1 (March 2007) pp.144-147.

1 comment on “‘Domestic Insurrections Amongst Us’: A Critical Historiography of Slave Flight in the American Revolution

  1. Pingback: Undeclaring Independence: White Liberals and the Erasure of American History – The Activist History Review

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