Black Heroes and Founders of the Great American Revolution.
Posted by iusbvision on January 24, 2011
By The Founders:
For many years the actions of black men, women, and children in our nation’s founding has been largely ignored. The enslavement of black Americans was prominent, not their contributions. We read about those slaves who joined the British Army to gain their freedom. But what of the thousands of blacks who served this country in her hour of need? Their deeds were no less important than those of their white neighbors. They fought and died on the battlefields. They road the countryside as couriers. They held office. The wrote in support of independence. The led their communities.
Below are some short biographies of some of these Black Founders and Patriots. This list is by no means exhaustive, and quotes and pictures are not always available. However, these people and the service they rendered this country do not deserve to be forgotten.
Many black men served as soldiers in the American Revolution. The number is between 12,000 and 15,000. Some were slaves fighting for the promise of freedom. Others were free blacks fighting for their country’s liberty. They served in an integrated army, the last one until the Korean War. By 1779, 15% of the Continental Army was black. These men fought in the very first Battles of Lexington and Concord all the way to the final major battle at Yorktown. They saw action in every major engagement including Ticonderoga, Monmouth, and Princeton. They suffered at Valley Forge and crossed the Delaware with Washington. Every colony except South Carolina and Georgia sent black men with the white men to fight.
In addition to the integrated units, there were also three all black units that served: the Rhode Island First regiment, who fought with distinction at Newport, Monmouth and Yorktown; the Black Bucks of America, a Massachusetts regiment whose banner is still on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society; and the Volunteer Chasseurs, a regiment from Haiti brought over by our French allies. The latter unit took the ideas of liberty back to Haiti with them. Those ideas were used to overthrow their French masters and create the second republic in the Americas.
Abbot was a servant to the family of Nathaniel Abbot of Andover, Massachusetts. When Nathaniel Abbot’s men were called to the Battle of Bunker Hill, Phillip Abbot fought and died along side them.
Jack Arabus was a slave of a wealthy Connecticut merchant. As was common in those days, a person could pay someone to take their place in the military. Arabus’ owner offered him his freedom if he would fight in the place of the merchant’s son. Arabus accepted the offer and found in the American Revolution. Sadly, upon his return from war, his master changed his mind.
Arabus decided to take matters into his own hand and ran away. He was not free for long. He was captured the next day and put in jail in New Haven. His master sued for his return, but Arabus had a defender. The Yale educated lawyer, Chauncey Goodrich, took on his case. He won. The judge ruled that Arabus was free the moment he went to fight. The agreement did not matter. This case enabled hundred of enslaved black patriots to win their own freedom as they had won their country’s
Augustus was the last colonist wounded in the Battle of Lexington. He was from Dorchester, Massachusetts.
Bowles was born in Boston in 1761. He was mixed race, his father was an African and his mother was the daughter of Colonel Morgan. At the age of 14, Bowles enlisted in the Continental Army. Her served during the entire length of the war. His first two years he spent in the service of an officer, but then reenlisted to fight. After the war, he moved to New Hampshire and became a farmer. There is a story that he had been a slave to a Tory family, but that would not be correct if his mother was white. He might have been a servant.
Seymour Burr, also spelled Seymore, was the slave of the brother of Colonel Aaron Burr, also named Seymour. Burr was from the colony of Connecticut. During the American Revolution, Burr ran away to join the British Army who was promising freedom to slaves who enlisted. Burr was found by his master before he could enlist. His master offered him his freedom if he would enlist in the Continental Army instead. Burr enlisted in the Massachusetts Seventh Regiment, led by Colonel John Brooks. He served at the siege of Fort Catskill, suffering cold and starvation.
Cyrus Bustill was born in Burlington in 1732. His father was an English lawyer and his mother a slave. Because the status of the child follows the status of the mother, this meant that Bustill was a slave. He was trained to be a baker by a Thomas Prior, who was a Quaker. At the age of 36, Bustill got his freedom. During the American Revolutiion he helped the army with something it had a great need for, bread. He was commended for this service and received a silver piece for General George Washington.
After the war, Bustill and his wife, who also mixed race – the daughter of an Englishman and a Delaware Indian, moved to Philadelphia. There they and their eight children attended Quaker meetings. Bustill was also an early member of the Free African Society which began in 1787. This is the society established by black Founders Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. When Bustill retired as a baker, he opened a school. He dies in 1806.
Oliver Cromwell was born in the colony of New Jersey, near Burlington. There seems to be some confusion on his birth date. One source has it as May 24, 1753, while another puts it in 1752. He was light skinned, a farmer, and was raised by the family of John Hutchin. It is possible that he was born a free black.
He served in the second New Jersey regiment under Captain Lowery and and Colonel Israel Shreve. He served in the battles of Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, Monmouth, and Yorktown. He made the famous crossing of the Delaware on December 25, 1776.
George Washington personally signed Cromwell’s discharge papers at the end of the war. Washington also designed a medal which was presented to Cromwell. He later applied for a pension as a veteran. He could not read or write, but he was very well liked in the community of Burlington. Local lawyers, judges, and politicians helped him to get the pension of $96 a year. Cromwell purchased a 100 acre farm, fathered 14 children, and moved into Burlington in his later years. He outlived 8 of his children, and died when he was 100 years old. He is buried in the Methodist churchyard in Burlington, where some of his descendants still live.
Prince Easterbrooks was also known as Estabrook. In the very first battle of the American Revolution, the Battle of Lexington, there were no fewer than ten black patriots. Easterbrooks was one of them. He served under Captain John Parker, the first to engage in the war. He was wounded when the British forces fired upon the citizens of the town. He was mentioned in the Salem Gazette or Newberry and Marblehead Advertiser for April 21, 1775, as a “Negro man” who was “wounded (Lexington) .”
Samuel and Elizabeth “Phoebe” Fraunces
Samuel Fraunces was a mulatto, a person with one whie and one black parent, from Jamaica. His was most likely born in 1734, though it could have been as early at 1722. At some point in his life he immigrated to the colonies and settled in New York City, eventually becoming the owner of a tavern. It was rumored that during the Revolutionary War, his tavern was used as a meeting place for Patriots. On December 4, 1783, George Washington delivered his farewell to his officers at Fraunce’s Tavern. Apparently Washington and Fraunces had a personal and business relationship. The two dined together at the Old 76 House in Tappan, New York, and Fraunces cooked for Washington at the DeWint House, which is also in Tappan. Fraunces also served a steward to President Washington in New York City, and in Philadelphia from 1791 to 1794. George Washington Parke Custis, Martha’s grandson, remarked on Fraunces at a state dinner, “Fraunces in snow-white apron, silk shorts and stockings, and hair in full powder, placed the first dish on the table, the clock being on the stroke of four, ‘the labors of Hercules’ ceased.”
Fraunces is also known to have helped feed the 13,000 American prisoners of war kept around New York City, including those kept on the notorious prison ships.
Fraunces and his wife, Elizabeth Dailey, had seven children, one by the name of Elizabeth, but called Phoebe. During the Revolution, Washington came to stay at a place called Mortier House in New York Cith. He wrote to ask Fraunces to find for him a housekeeper. Fraunces sent his daughter Phoebe. It is possible that he sent her because he had heard a rumor that an attempt was to be made on Washington’s life, or it may be that Phoebe discovered this plot while working at Mortier House. Either way, one of Washington’s body guards, Thomas Hickey, was executed for attempting to poison the general. Phoebe and her father are credited with discovering the plot, and Fraunces is credited with removing the poisoned peas intended for Washington’s dinner. Phoebe was ten years old at the time of Hickey’s execution in June of 1776.
Jordan Freeman and Lambert Latham
In 1781, at the Battle of Groton Heights near New London, Connecticut, 185 Patriots, black and white, tried to hold off the 1,700 British led by that turncoat, Benedict Arnold. So heavily outnumbered, the Americans had no chance for victory, but refused to just surrender. They retreated to nearby Fort Griswold. The British stormed the fort. The Patriots ran out of ammunition and began fighting with bayonets, the butts of their muskets, and pikes. During this last stand, Jordan Freeman speared Major Montgomery who was leading the bayonet charge on the fort. About the same time, Lambert Latham picked up the American flag which had been shot off of its poll, and held it above his head.
Finally, the British were able to capture the fort. A British captain asked who was in charge of the fort. Colonel William Ledyard answered, “I did once. You do now.” As he stepped forward he offered his sword to the British officer, a sign of surrender. The officer took Ledyard’s sword and thrust it into his body to the hilt. “Lambert . . . retaliated upon the [British] officer by thrusting his bayonet through his body. Lambert, in return, received from the enemy thirty-three bayonet wounds, and thus fell, nobly avenging the death of his commander.”
The British response to the death of their captain and other officers was to slaughter every man, including Freeman. A plaque at the fort honors these men for their bravery.
Freeman had been the slave of Ledyard, but had been freed. Freeman stayed living near his former master, married, and enlisted when the fighting began, serving side-by-side with his former master.
Hall was the son of Prince Hall, the founder of the Masonic lodge that bares his name. He was born in 1756. Primus Hall served as the servant of Colonel Pickering. Pickering and Washington were friends and this brought Hall and Washington together. A story goes that after one visit, Washington decided it was too late for him to return to his own camp. He asked Hall if there was enough straw and blankets to make him up a bed for the night. Hall answered that there was. When the officers retired for the night, Hall busied himself until they were asleep. Then he sat himself down upon a stool and slept. During the night, Washington awoke and realized that Hall had given up his own bed. Washington then assisted that Hall join him for the rest of the night. Hall resisted, but Washington won out. Note, it was not unusual during this period for men to share a bed while traveling.
Prince Hall was born in 1735 in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the slave of William Hall. He father his son Primus by Delia, who was the servant of another Boston family. In 1762, when he was 27, he joined the Congregationalist Church. He also married a slave by the name of Sarah Ritchie. When Sarah died eight years later, Hall married again, this time to Flora Gibbs of Gloucester.
A month after the Boston Massacre, Hall was freed by his master, his certificate of manumission stating he was “no longer Reckoned a slave, but [had] always accounted as a free man.” Hall then worked as a peddler, caterer and leather dresser. He was even listed as a voter and a taxpayer. He owned a small house and leather workshop in Boston.
Did he fight? There were six men in Massachusetts named Prince Hall, but it is believed that he was the Prince Hall that served in the Battle of Bunker Hill. He also supplied leather drum heads to the Continental Army, as a bill he sent to Colonel Crafts in April of 1777 shows.
Before the war began, Hall and 14 other free black men had joined the British Army Lodge of Masons. When the British retreated from Boston, these men formed their own lodge, the African Lodge #1, which was later renamed in Hall’s honor. it took 12 years to get the official charter. Hall was the first Grand Master. This lodge was the first ever black lodge.
Hall became one of Boston’s most prominent citizens and a leader in the black community. He spoke out against slavery and the denial of the rights of blacks. After years of complaining of the lack of schools for black children, he set one up in his own home. In his last published speech, at the lodge in 1797, he spoke out against violence.
“Patience, I say; for were we not possessed of a great measure of it, we could not bear up under the daily insults we meet with in the streets of Boston, much more on public days of recreation. How, at such times, are we shamefully abused, and that to such a degree, that we may truly be said to carry our lives in our hands, and the arrows of death are flying about our heads….tis not for want of courage in you, for they know that they dare not face you man for man, but in a mob, which we despise…”
He died in 1807. It was a year after his death that the lodge he founded decided to honor him by renaming itself The Prince Hall Grand Lodge.
Haynes was born a free black in 1753 in West Hartford Connecticut. He was abandoned by his parents who were “a white woman of respectable ancestry” and a black man. At the age of five months, he was indentured to a David Rose of Middle Granville, Massachussets. His indenture was until the age of 21. According to Haynes, “He [David Rose] was a man of singular piety. I was taught the principles of religion. His wife . . . treated me as though I was her own child.” Part of the agreement for his indenture was that he would receive an education, which he did. “I had the advantage of attending a common school equal with the other children. I was early taught to read.” He developed a passion for reading, especially theology and the Bible. While just a teenager, he began giving sermons in the town parrish.
When his indenture ended in 1774, Haynes enlisted as a “Minuteman” in his local militia. Though he did not fight in the Battle of Lexington, he did write a ballad-sermon about it. The poem dicussed the conflict between slavery and freedom but did not address black slavery. He took part in the Siege of Boston and the expedition to Fort Ticonderoga led by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys.
After the war, Haynes had an opportunity to study at Dartmouth College. He turned it down. Instead he took up the study of Latin and Greek with a Connecticut clergyman. By 1780, he was able to receive his license to preach. His first congregation was a white one in Middle Granville. He eventually presided over white and mixed congregations in four different states, including New York and Massachusetts. Later he married a white school teacher by the name of Elizabeth Babbitt. He was ordained in the Congregationalist Church in 1785, the first black to be so by a mainstream protestant church.
For more than 30 years, Haynes presided over a mostly white church in Rutland, Vermont. During his time there, he developed an international reputation as a preacher and a writer. In 1801, he published a track called “The Nature and Importance of True Republicanism.” This contained his only published statement on race and slavery. He did argue for the abolition of slavery by arguing that it denied black men their rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He also said, “Liberty is equally as precious to a black man, as it is to a white one, and bondage as equally as intolerable to the one as it is to the other”. In 1804, he became the first black man in America to receive a masters degree, earning it from Middlebury College. He was also a friend and counselor to the presidents of Harvard and Yale universities.
Haynes left Rutland in 1818 due to conflicts over politics, Haynes was a fervent Federalist, and style. Sadly, after living and working with the people of Rutland for 30 years, there was speculation that the departure was due to his race.
Haynes final appointment to a church was in Manchester, Vermont. There he counseled two men who were condemned to death for murder. Their convictions were overturned when their victim reappeared quite alive. Haynes wrote a best seller about the seven year ordeal. The book stayed a best seller for a decade.
During the last decade of his life, Haynes ministered to a church in New York. He died in 1833, at the age of 80. His tombstone read,
“Here lies the dust of a poor hell deserving sinner, who ventured into eternity trusting wholly on the merits of Christ for salvation. In the full belief of the great doctrines he preached while on earth, he invites his children, and all who read this, to trust their eternal interest on the same foundation.”
Haynes was a great admirer of George Washington. He was a member of the Washington Benevolent Society, and every year he would preach a special sermon on Washington’s birthday.
Benjamin Scott Mayes
Benjamin Mayes, nicknamed Daddy Ben, was a royal prince in Africa. He was brought to America and sold to a Colonel Scott. During the Revolution, the British wanted to find Colonel Scott. They could not find him, but they did capture Mayes. In an attempt to get him to reveal the whereabouts of Scott, the British hung Mayes and cut him down before he was dead. They did this not once, not twice, but three times. Despite this torture, Mayes refused to divulge his master’s hiding place. For his bravery and loyalty, Mayes was awarded a gold medal and the admiration of the people of what is now Maury County, Tennessee. He died in 1829.
George Middleton and the Bucks of America
George Middleton was a Colonel in the Continental Army. He lead one of only three all black units in the Continental Army. His unit, the Bucks of America, was based out of Boston. The dates that the Bucks were formed and disbanded and their record of service have been lost. However, their actions during the war earned them recognition from one of the leading citizens of Boston, John Hancock, who presented the unit with a special silk flag. The flag resides at the Massachusetts Historical Society. He was also a member of the Prince Hall Freemasonry Lodge, as it is believed were many members of the Bucks. He was appointed Grand Master in 18809. After the war he founded African Benevolent Society in 1796. He was also instrumental in quelling a riot in Boston. He was also a master at breaking horses, worked as a coachmen, and played the violin.
“Freedom is desirable, if not, would men sacrifice their time, their property and finally their lives in the pursuit of this?” ~ 1808
Jordan B. Noble
Jordan Noble was born in Georgia around 1800, so he did not serve in the American Revolution, at least not the first one. He moved to Louisiana, whether on his own or not is unknown. At the age of just 13 he served as a drummer boy during the War of 1812, sometimes called our second revolution. He served under General Andrew Jackson with the Seventh Louisiana Regiment. During this time, musicians were a vital part of the military. They would communicate commands with their instruments. Noble beat his drums in many famous battles and events.
Noble also served in the Seminole War in Florida in 1836. He also was one of the few blacks to serve in the Mexican American War.
Salem Poor was born in the 1740s. He had purchased his freedom in 1769 for 27 pounds, which was a year’s salary for a working man. He married a free black woman by the name of Nancy. Before the war began, they had a son. When the war began, he left behind his family to serve the Patriot cause.
Poor fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill in Colonel Frye’s Regiment and is credited with shooting British Lt. Col. James Abercrombie. He conducted himself so well during the battle, that no less that 14 officers, including Colonel William Prescott himself, petitioned the legislature of Massachusetts declaring that Poor had behaved like an experienced officer and brave soldier and “a reward was due to so great and distinguished a character.” Of all the men who served in the battle, Poor was the only one singled out for such an honor. What he did specifically to earn such praise is unknown, as the petition states, “to set forth the particulars of his conduct would be tedious.” Some historians think this indicates that Poor’s acts of bravery were too numerous to lay out.
Poor also fought in the Battle of Saratoga, which was the turning point of the war, and at the Battle of Monmouth.
He was honored with a U.S. postage stamp.
John Redman served in the First Virginia Regiment of Light Dragoons. A dragoon is a mounted soldier who fights with sabers, pistols, and carbines. Not much else is known about Redman, except that on June 11, 1823, he applied for a veteran’s pension as a veteran of the American Revolution. He was awarded his pension one week later. He was one of the few black men to be a member of a cavalry unit.
Rhode Island First Regiment
During the harsh winter at Valley Forge, a new regiment was created, the Rhode Island First. They were an all black regiment of 125 men, some free and some enslaved. There first engagement was at the Battle of Newport in 1778. At that battle, the Continental Army was forced to retreat. The Rhode Island First put itself between the retreating Americans and the British. They were able to hold the line against no less thant three British attacks. In these, the British suffered heavy casualties. There bravery saved lives and led to the transfer of a Hessian officer. After the battle the officer requested this transfer because he feared for his life. He thought his own men would kill him because of the heavy losses they took.
Again in 1781, the Rhode Island First came to the rescue. At the Battle of Croton River, their commander, Colonel Greene was mortally injured. William Nell, who published a book in 1855 about the black Patriots, wrote,
“Colonel Greene, the commander of the regiment, was cut down and mortally wounded: but the sabres of the enemy only reached him through the bodies of his faithful guard of blacks, who hovered over him, and every one of whom was killed.”
Even though there the wound was fatal, some of the men of the Rhode Island First formed a barrier around him, choosing to die with their commander rather than abandon him to the enemy. The rest of the unit continued the fight and the war. A remnant of the original regiment was present with Washington at the Surrender at Yorktown.
Salem is at the far right
Salem was a slave and a celebrated marksman. After the Battles of Lexington and Concord soldiers from all over Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island assembled outside of Boston to confront the 5,000 British troops stationed there. That confrontation, the Battle of Bunker Hill, began well for the Americans until they began to run out of ammunition. At that point, Major John Pitcairn, who had lead troops at the Battle of Lexington, mounted the hill and called “The day is ours!” The day may have been a victory for the British, but it came at a dear price. Salem raised his musket and shot Pitcairn, throwing the British into confusion.
Salem did not serve alone in this battle. Salem Poor, Prince Hall, and Philip Abbott also distinguished themselves in this battle. Salem is considered one of the heroes of Bunker Hill. He had 14 accommodations that day for his acts of bravery and was acknowledge as a great leader of men. He received his honors before Washington himself.
“A negro man belonging to Groton, took aim at Major Pitcairn, as he was rallying the dispersed British Troops, and shot him through the head, he was brought over to Boston and died as he was landing on the ferry ways. It has long been known that Pitcairn was killed by a negro, but this is the first time perhaps that he has ever been connected to Groton.”
~ Groton Historical Series by Dr. Samuel A. Green, Vol IV, 1899, p. 259
Salem joined the Fifth Massachusetts Regiment and served in the battles of Concord and Saratoga. He served for seven years, a length of time few other soldiers could match. Though a slave at the beginning of his service, he was a free man by the end. At the end of the war, in 1783, he married.
In honor of his service, Salem was given a wool bounty coat.
Prince Sisson and the Commandos
In December of 1776, Washington’s second in command, General Charles Lee was captured by the British. The only hope of getting him back was a prisoner exchange. But the Americans did not have a British prioner that was equal to Lee. Lt. Colonel William Barton formed a plan. He would take some men, slip past the British pickets at Newport, Rhode Island and capture General Richard Prescott.
Barton selected 40 of his best men, black and white, for the mission. He warned them of the danger and asked for volunteers. Every man stepped forward.
The group waited until the middle of the night before climbing into rowboats. They wrapped fabric around the oars to muffle the sound and rowed right past the British gunboats anchored in the harbor. When they reached the shore near the generals’ head quarters, they quickly over powered his guards and entered his house. His door was locked.
At that moment, one of Barton’s men, Prince Sisson, threw himself at the door, hitting it with his head. Sisson was a large and powerful man. The door gave and Sisson entered the room and grabbed the general. Barton’s men quickly made their escape with their prisoner. Prescott was subsequently exchanged for General Lee.
Prince Whipple may have been a member of a royal family in his native Africa. He was from a rich family. When he was ten years old, his family sent him to America to get an education. But rather than arriving in America to attend school. he was sold by the captain of the ship into slavery in Baltimore. He was then bought by the Founder William Whipple of New Hampshire, who was also happened to be a ship’s captain.
William Nell, in the 1852 book The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution said,
“As was customary, Prince took the surname of his owner, William Whipple, who would later represent New Hampshire by signing the Declaration of Independence. . . . When William Whipple joined the revolution as a captain, Prince accompanied him and was in attendance to General Washington on Christmas night 1776 for the legendary and arduous crossing of the Delaware. The surprise attack following the crossing was a badly needed victory for America and for Washington’s sagging military reputation. In 1777, [William Whipple was] promoted to Brigadier General and [was] ordered to drive British General Burgoyne out of Vermont.”
An 1824 work provides details of what occurred after General Whipple’s promotion:
“On [his] way to the army, he told his servant [Prince] that if they should be called into action, he expected that he would behave like a man of courage and fight bravely for his country. Prince replied, “Sir, I have no inducement to fight, but if I had my liberty, I would endeavor to defend it to the last drop of my blood.” The general manumitted [freed] him on the spot.”
True to his word, Whipple enlisted as a soldier in the Continental Army. Besides serving during the famous crossing of the Delaware on Christmas in 1776, where he has been depicted as an oarsman for Washington’s boat, he also fought in the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 and the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. He also served as a high ranking aide on Washington’s general staff.
Peter Williams was a clergyman living in New York City. When the British invaded New York, Williams moved to the town of New Brunswick in New Jersey. After the war, his son wrote of Williams actions against the British,
“In the Revolutionary War, my father was decidedly an advocate of American Independence, and his life was repeatedly jeopardized in its cause…He was living in the State of [New] Jersey, and Parson Chapman, a champion of American liberty of great influence throughout that part of the country, was sought after by the British troops. My father immediately mounted a horse and rode round his parishioners to notify them of his danger, and to call on them to help in removing him and his goods to a place of safety.”
Black Rights and the Constitution
”When the Constitution of the United States was framed, colored men voted in a majority of these States; they voted in the State of New York, in Pennsylvania, in Massachusetts, in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware and North Carolina; and long after the adoption of the Constitution, they continued to vote in North Carolina and Tennessee also. The Constitution of the United States makes no distinction of color.”
~ The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution by Wm Cooper Neil & Harriet Beecher Stowe 1855
In fact, a number of state constitutions protected voting rights for blacks. The state constitutions of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania (all 1776), New York (1777), Massachusetts (1780), and New Hampshire (1784) included black suffrage. In 1874, Robert Brown Elliot, a member of the House of Representatives from South Carolina and a black man, stated “When did Massachusetts sully her proud record by placing on her statute-book any law which admitted to the ballot the white man and shut out the black man? She has never done it; she will not do it.”
However, no state allowed slaves to vote and in South Carolina no free blacks could vote. When it was brought to the state for ratification, our Constitution was voted on by white and black citizens. In Baltimore, Maryland, more blacks voted than whites. Besides the right to vote, blacks in many of the states could hold office as did Wentworth Cheswell. The blacks used their votes well, working along side white abolitionists to end slavery in several states. These included Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York.
It has also been suggested that the Constitution was a proslavery document. Is it? There are only three references to the institution of slavery in the Constitution. The first is in Enumeration Clause in Article 1, Section 3. This is the famous 3/5 clause which some have pointed to as proof that the Founders viewed blacks as less than white. That may be true of some individuals, but not of the clause or the ideas behind the Constitution. Some delegates to the Constitution, especially those that were against slavery, argued that since slaves were considered property, they should not counted at all. The southern states wished them to be counted as a full person since their large slave populations would give those states greater representation and more power in Congress. A compromise was reached, the 3/5 clause. The effect of that clause was to reduce the number of representatives in the House for states with large slave populations and thereby reduce their power. This makes the clause antislavery.
The second mention is in Article 1, Section 9. In this section a date was set to end the importation of slaves. This was another compromise. It allowed the slave trade to continue for a period of twenty years, but then end it. It would be difficult to consider the ending of the slave trade as a proslavery clause.
The final mention of slavery is in Article 4, Section 2. This is the Fugitive Slave clause. That section of the Constitution deals with the states, their citizens, and extradition from one state to another. It holds that people who are bound in service in one state, cannot be excused from it because of the laws of another state. This is the most proslavery section of the Constitution since it allows owners to retrieve runaway slaves from other states, even those that outlawed slavery, but it alone does not make the Constitution proslavery.
Federal efforts against slavery did not end with the Constitution. In 1789, Congress passed a law which banned slavery in all federal territories. Five years later, in 1784, another antislavery law was passed. This one forbade exporting slaves from any state.
Sadly, this progress did not continue. As many of the generation of the Revolution passed away, so did many of their ideals. Beginning in the early 1800s, new laws were passed that limited the rights of blacks and women. This was in part, a political move by one party to limit the influence of the other, but it also reflected a loss of the revolutionary ideals. In 1809, Maryland disenfranchised black voters. Other states followed suit, such as North Carolina in 1835. Even before they were formally denied the vote, many blacks and women were prevented from voting by their white neighbors. This foreshadowed the treatment blacks would receive following the end of Reconstruction.
In 1820, with the passage of the Missouri Compromise, the few remaining Founders began to fear that slavery would destroy the country. Elias Boudinot said it woud be “an end to the happiness of the United States.” John Adams went further by saying that removing the prohibition against slavery in the territories would bring an end to the United States. Thomas Jefferson lamented,
“I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers, or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore from which I am not distant. But this momentous question, like a firebell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.”
At this time, Congress also enacted the Fugitive Slave Law which allowed slave owners to enter free states to find their runaways. It also enabled the kidnapping and enslavement of many free blacks by claiming they were runaways. The Kansas-Nebraska Act pushed the country farther along the road that would take us to war, where finally, the slavery question would be settled.