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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · June 30, 2020

Dreams of a Revolution Deferred

Ben Franklin's World 24 min read

FrontispieceWalker’s Appeal, with a Brief Sketch of His Life by Henry Highland Garnet and also Garnet’s Address to the Slaves of the United States of America. (New York: J.H. Tobitt, 1848). Library of Congress.

By Derrick R. Spires

For Black citizens of the early United States, the Fourth of July was a yearly reminder of a revolution deferred—the always-not-yet nature of Black freedom in a “pseudo-republic.”[1] Such was the case even at the moment the Declaration of Independence was circulating. The July 15, 1776, issue of the New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, for instance, featured the Declaration’s text and news about its being read before the New York regiment of the Continental Army, led by General George Washington. The paper also printed two freedom notices of a different sort: one originating from Flatbush featuring 21-year-old Prince, who was “supposed to have gone towards Rye [NY] or entered the Army”; and the other featuring brothers, Nathaniel and Jacob, who absconded from separate enslavers near Long Island. In my mind’s eye, I imagine Prince, Nathaniel, and Jacob hearing the Declaration read somewhere in New York. What would they have been thinking in an audience that might have included the enslavers who had offered rewards for their return to enslavement?

After the war, Black intellectuals simultaneously laid claim to the Revolution and registered increasing disappointment, frustration, and anger at white Americans who believed that its results applied only to themselves. Across the nineteenth century, Black citizens leveraged language from the Declaration of Independence and tropes from the revolutionary era to claim citizenship and press for emancipation. The delegates of the 1853 Colored National Convention, for instance, addressed themselves to their “Fellow-Citizens,” claiming, 

By birth, we are American citizens; by the principles of the Declaration of Independence, we are American citizens; within the meaning of the United States Constitution, we are American citizens; by the facts of history, and the admissions of American statesmen, we are American citizens; by the hardships and trials endured; by the courage and fidelity displayed by our ancestors in defending the liberties and in achieving the independence of our land, we are American citizens.

This avalanche of claims was not purely rhetorical; rather, Black citizens could count themselves among the nation’s founders—its soldiers and institution builders—and did the work of citizenship through conventions, newspapers, civic organizations, and other venues, often despite hostile state and federal legislation.

When they did observe the Fourth, Black citizens confronted a national double-speak in which many white Americans celebrated their freedom from political oppression while continuing to support and participate in the enslavement of African-descended people. Frederick Douglass famously made this tension between citizenship and national belonging the backbone of his July 5, 1852, oration before the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Society, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”. He addressed his largely white audience as “fellow citizens,” even as he asked them, “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence” when that “high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us?” Martin R. Delany similarly described Black citizens as a “nation within a nation” in his Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People in the United States (1852); yet, he dedicated the volume “to the American People, North and South. By Their Most Devout, and Patriotic Fellow Citizen, the Author.” For both Douglass and Delany, the “fellow citizen” invoked an imperative and an indictment: an imperative to the United States to recognize their share in the project of self-governance and an indictment of their white fellow citizens’ refusal to abide by their own professed creeds.

In addition to the Fourth of July, Black citizens celebrated other days and other revolutions, including the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade (January 1, 1808, observed on July 14 in Boston), New York Emancipation Day (July 5, 1827, often observed on July 5) and British emancipation (August 1, 1834). In the early nineteenth-century, Black collectives celebrated January 1, 1808, as one step towards universal emancipation and republican citizenship, a promise certified by God, but as yet unfulfilled. “Let the first of January,” Absalom Jones proclaimed before his congregation at St. Thomas’s African Episcopal Church in 1808, “be set apart in every year, as a day of publick thanksgiving for that mercy.” Jones, one of the founders of the Free African Society (1787), a precursor to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, knew well that the abolition of the transatlantic trade was but a start, yet he expressed thanks to white supporters and hope that the nation was turning towards abolition.[2]

Even as the larger nation was still defining the parameters of citizenship, Black organizers seized on these celebrations to define for themselves what U.S. citizenship would become and to use public displays of black organizing and print as vectors for impressing that vision onto the public eye. Speaking in 1809 before the Wilberforce Philanthropic Association of New York City, Joseph Sidney would address himself to “Friends, Countrymen, and Fellow Citizens,” beg their “pardon for intruding on your joy” to speak about ongoing enslavement, and make an impassioned argument that “among the most valuable of our newly acquired rights, is that of suffrage.” Sidney’s appeal went past promoting voting as an abstract good. He called on Black citizens to reject Thomas Jefferson and his party in favor of the Federalists, who, he argued, set “the standard of liberty.” Black citizens were not begging for inclusion; and while they acknowledged the work of white abolitionists and the New York Manumission Society, they would not concede to assumptions that their rights were a matter of white sufferance. They were members of the body politic who, as Jones would argue in a 1799 petition to the “President, Senate, and House of Representatives,” were “guardians of our rights, and patriots of equal and national liberties.” Sidney’s speech, the description of the day’s parade and other festivities, and commentary on the crowds were printed and distributed as a pamphlet, both marking the moment in history and amplifying it as a public practice of Black citizenship.[3]

Black citizens also attached new meaning to the Fourth, especially in New York, where the state’s gradual emancipation act, first enacted on July 4, 1799, finally took full effect in 1827. Speaking at the African Zion Church on July 4, 1827, William Hamilton aligned the event with “the victory obtained by the principles of liberty, such as are broadly and indelibly laid down by the glorious sons of ’76.” Hamilton, however, excluded Jefferson (“an ambidexter philosopher”), George Washington, and other enslavers from these “sons.” Their names, he told listeners, “should not be pronounced in the hearing of your children, until they could clearly and distinctly pronounce the names” of John Jay, John Murray, Alexander Hamilton, and other members of the New York Manumission Society. Only then would children have the proper context for understanding that the new nation could have chosen and could still choose a different path. Peter Williams would echo this sentiment three years later, reminding his audience that “nearly three million” enslaved Africans “are deprived of their unalienable rights, by the very men who so loudly rejoice in the declaration, that ‘all men are born free and equal.’”[4] That same year the third edition of David Walker’s Appeal (1830) demanded even more forcefully that white Americans, “Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us–men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation!!!!!!” Any gains Black citizens might achieve in “free” states would always be connected to and attenuated by enslavement in the south. That same enslavement would always give the lie to U.S. claims to liberty and equality.

“A Bold Stroke for Freedom” engraving in William Still. The Underground Rail Road (Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1872). Library of Congress.

Hamilton, Williams, and others demonstrated that the Spirit of ’76 might have animated a white American nation, but Black citizens would require other revolutionaries and other revolutions as they sought worthy objects of admiration. Of the revolutionary generation, Crispus Attucks gained increasing currency over the 1850s, in part because William C. Nell’s touchstone histories, Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812 (1851) and Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855), brought him back into the Black print consciousness. Attucks’s status as “first martyr of the American Revolution” placed Black patriots at the center of America’s founding moment, and he became an especially potent figure for annual celebrations in Boston and for Black militias across the country. Black citizens in Cincinnati, for instance, organized one of several independent “Attucks Blues” regiments, because the state of Ohio would not sanction them. The militia was a visible protest against the state’s regressive constitution, a show of Black community pride, and, given the city’s history of white violence, a practical bulwark against retaliation. The men drilled with weapons and marched during August 1 celebrations in the late 1850s. Black women supported the company financially and helped produce their banner and uniforms.

Even more widespread than Attucks imagery were appeals to Atlantic world rebellions from Brazil and Haiti to Jamaica and the United States as sources of pride and models for emulation. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, for instance, used fiction and poetry in the Anglo-African Magazine (1859-1860) to present Quilombo dos Palmares, a seventeenth-century quilombo republic in Brazil, as a model of revolutionary citizenship. She called on readers to look to Margaret Garner, Denmark Vesey, “Aunt Sally,” Toussaint L’Ouverture, John Brown, and others for lessons about what it would take to free themselves and their enslaved brothers and sisters. At the same time, anniversary of abolition in the British West Indies on August 1, 1834, became a medium through which Black activists excoriated U.S. policy and drew even more heavily on examples of anti-slavery violence as articulations of what James McCune Smith would call “the philosophy of force.” Douglass made the connection between anti-slavery violence and abolition explicit in 1857: “What Wilberforce was endeavoring to win from the British Senate by his magic eloquence, the Slaves themselves were endeavoring to gain by outbreaks and violence. The combined action of one and the other wrought out the final result. While one showed that slavery was wrong, the other showed that it was dangerous as well as wrong.”[5] Harper, Smith, Douglass, and others framed this violence as citizenship practices that the Declaration of Independence and principles of republican self-governance supported. In his “Address to the Slaves of the United States” (1848/1865), Henry Highland Garnet went so far as to recognize enslaved Africans as citizens with a right to stage a general strike and to defend themselves if their enslavers reacted with violence. 

Though Black activists would continually discourage provoking violence, they also understood that no matter how “respectable” their activities were, they would be subject to white ridicule and attack. Ten years after Jones delivered his 1808 Thanksgiving sermon, an entire genre of racist literature, the “Bobalition Broadsides,” emerged out of Boston and elsewhere as a way to denigrate Black public activities, Black Boston’s July 14 commemorations of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in particular. In 1841, an armed white mob attacked Cincinnati’s Black business district during 1 August celebrations in what historians have described as “the most severe urban outbreak against Blacks in pre-Civil War America,” and a similar series of events played out in Philadelphia the next year. Robert Purvis described the violence as “one of the most ferocious and bloody spirited mobs, that ever cursed a Christian Community.” The destruction was so jarring, and the lack of public support so stark that Purvis, who had already been disenfranchised through Pennsylvania’s 1838 constitution, lamented, “I am convinced of our utter and complete nothingness in public estimation.” In rapid succession the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), and the Dred Scott vs. Sandford decision (1857), among other moments gave Black citizens the very real sense that the United States was not only not heading towards abolition; it was likely heading towards spreading enslavement.[6]

And yet, Black citizens maintained faith in themselves and a sense of justice, if not their white fellow citizens. For despite the many setbacks, these celebrations offered moments of joy and fellowship through which Black communities could affirm themselves in the face of anti-blackness by reminding themselves and those around them of where they’d been, who they were, and where they were determined go. Black joy had and continues to have power. As the delegates to the 1849 State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio proclaimed on behalf of their Black fellow citizens: “we are coming—coming for our rights—coming through the Constitution of our common country—coming through the law—and relying upon God and the justice of our cause, pledge ourselves never to cease our resistance to tyranny, whether it be in the iron manacles of the slave, or in the unjust written manacles for the free.”

Derrick R. Spires is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University and author of The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

For Further Reading

Alexander, Leslie. African or American? Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784–1861. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

Bonner, Christopher James. Remaking the Republic: Black Politics and the Creation of American Citizenship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020.

Colored Conventions Project: Bringing Nineteenth-Century Black Activism to Digital Life

Harris, Leslie M. In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626–1863. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Jackson, Kellie Carter. Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.

Jones, Douglas A. The Captive Stage: Performance and the Proslavery Imagination of the Antebellum North. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014.

Jones, Martha S. Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Kachun, Mitch. “From Forgotten Founder to Indispensable Icon: Crispus Attucks, Black Citizenship, and Collective Memory, 1770–1865.” Journal of the Early Republic 29, no. 2 (2009): 249–86.

Kantrowitz, Stephen. More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889. New York: Penguin, 2013.

McDaniel, W. Caleb. “The Fourth and the First: Abolitionist Holidays, Respectability, and Radical Interracial Reform.” American Quarterly 57, no. 1 (March 2005): 129–151.

Nash, Gary. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720–1840. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Nyong’o, Tavia. The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruse of Memory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Pease, Jane H., and William H. Pease. They Who Would Be Free: Blacks’ Search for Freedom, 1830–1861. New York: Athenaeum, 1974.

Peterson, Carla. Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011.

Porter, Dorothy, ed. Early Negro Writing, 1760–1837. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1995.

Quarles, Benjamin. “Antebellum Free Blacks and the ‘Spirit of ‘76.’” Journal of Negro History 61, no. 3 (July 1976): 229–242.

Rael, Patrick. Black Identity & Black Protest in the Antebellum North. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 

Rezek, Joseph. “The Orations on the Abolition of the Slave Trade and the Uses of Print in the Early Black Atlantic.” Early American Literature 45, no. 3 (2010): 655–82.

Sinha, Manisha. The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2016.

White, Shane. “‘It Was a Proud Day’: African Americans, Festivals, and Parades in the North, 1741–1834.” Journal of American History 81, no. 1 (June 1994): 13–50.

[1] “Samuel Ringgold Ward to Nathaniel P. Rogers,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, 2 July 1840.

[2] Absalom Jones, “A Thanksgiving Sermon…on Account of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade,” 1 January 1808, in Dorothy Porter, Early Negro Writings, 340. Porter’s volume and work as chief architect of Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center has been indespensible to my understanding of early Black print and activism.

[3] Sidney, “An Oration Commemorative of the Abolition of the Slave Trade,” 2 January 1809, in Porter, Early Negro Writings, 358-359; Jones, “The Petition of the People of Colour,” in Porter, Early Negro Writings, 331.

[4] Williams, “A Discourse Delivered in St. Philip’s Church,” 4 July 1830, in Porter, Early Negro Writings, 295.

[5] Douglass, “West India Emancipation,” in Selected Speeches and Writings, 368.

[6] William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65(Champaign: University of Illinois. Press, 1989), 65; “Robert Purvis to Henry Clarke Wright.” Liberator, 19 August 1842 in The Black Abolitionist Papers, vol. 3, 389.


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