The American Revolution reinvigorated longstanding debates throughout the Anglo-American Atlantic world about Black liberty and the abolition of slavery. Before, during, and after the war, Black Americans, both enslaved and free, seized upon this moment to argue against the institution of slavery, and in the case of the enslaved, to advocate for their own freedom—often with reference to the revolutionaries’ assertion “that all men are created equal” and entitled to the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These petitions and writings were critical in undermining the institution of slavery, which was deeply embedded in the economies, households, and politics of the new nation. This kit allows you to explore Black freedom suits from the revolutionary era, as well as the writings of prominent Black intellectuals and thinkers from the years surrounding the American Revolution, as Black Americans sought to expand the conception of liberty and claim freedom for themselves, their families, and their communities. –Prof. Lauren Duval
Please note: the links in these kits go to either a source on the web, an OU Libraries’ resource, requiring you to login with your OUNetID (4×4), or a companion Canvas page, requiring you to enroll here before you can access the document. The links open in a new window/tab. Report link problems to email@example.com.
Primary Sources: Original Documents from the Time
“Phillis Wheatley’s Poem on Tyranny and Slavery in the Colonies, 1772.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
Bogin, Ruth. “‘Liberty Further Extended’: A 1776 Antislavery Manuscript by Lemuel Haynes.” The William and Mary Quarterly 40, no. 1 (1983): 85–105.
“‘Natural and Inalienable Right to Freedom’: Slaves’ Petition for Freedom to the Massachusetts Legislature, 1777.” History Matters. George Mason University.
“Pennsylvania – An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, 1780.” The Avalon Project. Yale Law School.
“‘Having Tasted the Sweets of Freedom‘: Cato Petitions the Pennsylvania Legislature to Remain Free.” 1781. History Matters. George Mason University.
“Belinda Sutton Petition, 1783.” The Royall House and Slave Quarters.
(Background information: “Belinda Sutton and Her Petitions.” The Royall House and Slave Quarters.)
“Charge of Chief Justice Cushing in the Quock Walker Case (1783).” Africans in America. PBS.
(Background information: Africans in America. PBS.)
“James Petitioned the General Assembly, November 30, 1786.” Library of Virginia.
(Background information: Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities.)
“Petition of 1788 by Slaves of New Haven for the Abolition of Slavery in Connecticut.” World History Archives.
Washington, George. “Letter to Tobias Lear.” April 12, 1791. Founds Online. National Archives and Records Administration.
“‘I Began to Feel the Happiness, Liberty, of which I Knew Nothing Before’: Boston King Chooses Freedom and the Loyalists during the War for Independence (1798).” History Matters. George Mason University.
“Washington’s Runaway Slave,” The Liberator (August 22, 1845) [Orig. Pub: Rev. T. H. Adams, “Washington’s Runaway Slave and How Portsmouth Freed Her,” The Granite Freeman (Concord, New Hampshire), May 22, 1845]. Encyclopedia Virginia.
Sedgewick, Catherine Maria. “Slavery in New England.” 1853. Sedgwick Stories: The Periodical Writings of Catharine Maria Sedgwick.
Secondary Sources: What Historians Have Written
Blanck, Emily. “Seventeen Eighty-Three: The Turning Point in the Law of Slavery and Freedom in Massachusetts.” The New England Quarterly 75, no. 1 (2002): 24–51.
Carden, Allen. “Stumbling Forward: Emancipation Proceeds in New England and Pennsylvania.” In Freedom’s Delay: America’s Struggle for Emancipation, 1776-1865, 45–60. Chicago: University of Tennessee Press, 2014. (Notes to this chapter, scroll down.)
Dunbar, Erica Armstrong. “‘I Knew That If I Went Back to Virginia, I Should Never Get My Liberty’: Ona Judge Staines, the President’s Runaway Slave.” In Women in Early America, 225–45. New York: NYU Press, 2015. (Companion Canvas page.)
Finkenbine, Roy E. “Belinda’s Petition: Reparations for Slavery in Revolutionary Massachusetts.” The William and Mary Quarterly 64, no. 1 (2007): 95–104.
Frey, Sylvia R. “The British and the Black: A New Perspective.” The Historian 38, no. 2 (1976): 225–38.
King, LaGarrett J., and Jason Williamson. “The African Americans’ Revolution: Black Patriots, Black Founders, and the Concept of Interest Convergence.” Black History Bulletin 82, no. 1 (2019): 10–14.
Nash, Gary B. “Could Slavery Have Been Abolished?” In The Forgotten Fifth, 69–122. Harvard University Press, 2006. (Companion Canvas page.)
Newman, Richard S., and Roy E. Finkenbine. “Black Founders in the New Republic: Introduction.” The William and Mary Quarterly 64, no. 1 (2007): 83–94.
Schweninger, Loren. “Freedom Suits, African American Women, and the Genealogy of Slavery.” The William and Mary Quarterly 71, no. 1 (2014): 35–62.
Waldstreicher, David. “The Wheatleyan Moment.” Early American Studies 9, no. 3 (2011): 522–51.
Zilversmit, Arthur. “Quok Walker, Mumbet, and the Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts.” The William and Mary Quarterly 25, no. 4 (1968): 614–24.