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Black Patriots and Loyalists

Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence

We commonly think of the American Revolution as simply the war for independence from British colonial rule. But, of course, that independence actually applied to only a portion of the American population—African Americans would still be bound in slavery for nearly another century. Alan Gilbert asks us to rethink what we know about the Revolutionary War, to realize that while white Americans were fighting for their freedom, many black Americans were joining the British imperial forces to gain theirs. Further, a movement led by sailors—both black and white—pushed strongly for emancipation on the American side. There were actually two wars being waged at once: a political revolution for independence from Britain and a social revolution for emancipation and equality.

Gilbert presents persuasive evidence that slavery could have been abolished during the Revolution itself if either side had fully pursued the military advantage of freeing slaves and pressing them into combat, and his extensive research also reveals that free blacks on both sides played a crucial and underappreciated role in the actual fighting. Black Patriots and Loyalists contends that the struggle for emancipation was not only basic to the Revolution itself, but was a rousing force that would inspire freedom movements like the abolition societies of the North and the black loyalist pilgrimages for freedom in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.

Read the Introduction.

392 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Black Studies

History: American History

Political Science: Race and Politics


“Most of us think we know the story of the American Revolution, but after reading Alan Gilbert’s amazing book I realize that what most of us know is less than half of the story. Gilbert’s account rests on years of careful research, and on the ability to keep track of events whose actors were moved by complex and often contradictory motives. Gilbert shows that there were two revolutions going on in the American colonies at the same time: the revolution for independence, that succeeded, and a black revolution for emancipation whose goal was not achieved until decades later. And Gilbert shows how the consequences of the “forgotten” black revolution extended far beyond those years, and beyond American shores, to Canada, to Sierra Leone in Africa, as well as to the liberation of Haiti from France, and reinforced the struggle for abolition of slavery in the British Empire that was to succeed in 1833. This is an important book as well as an attractively written example of significant and morally engaged scholarship.”

Hilary Putnam, Harvard University

“Alan Gilbert has written an important book on the ‘revolution within the revolution.’ In his stirring narrative of the black freedom struggle, history from below meets intellectual history, and African-American workers emerge as agents, not only in the American Revolution, but in an Atlantic movement for democracy and equality in the Age of Revolution.”

Marcus Rediker, University of Pittsburgh

“Alan Gilbert has deftly welded together the white American political revolution for independence with the black American social revolution for freedom from slavery. In exploiting a wide range of primary sources, he has given voice to the thousands of enslaved (and sometimes free) blacks who sought ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ with the British. Gilbert’s signal contribution to the fraught question of how many blacks fled to the British compels the attention of every student of the American Revolution.”

Gary Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America

“A first generation of historians of the American Revolution ‘from the bottom up’ wrote about poor people who were mostly white, such as artisans, sailors, and tenant farmers.  In this eloquent book Alan Gilbert exemplifies a second group of scholars who direct our attention to more oppressed and vulnerable groups, namely Native Americans and slaves.  Writing with unprecedented detail, Gilbert demolishes the myth that it is ‘anachronistic’ to insist that the Founding Fathers should have applied the preamble of the Declaration of Independence to the bondage of approximately 600,000 African Americans.  Their failure to rise to that challenge led to the deaths of more than 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers before this great wrong was righted by civil war.”

Staughton Lynd, author of Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism

“Drawing on first-person accounts and other primary sources, Gilbert tells an often inspiring but ultimately sad story, since American slavery endured and even expanded after the revolution. Still, the personal stories of those who fought on the patriots’ side in an all-black regiment and on the loyalist side in exchange for a promise of freedom are fascinating and informative. Gilbert convincingly asserts that their example eventually helped inspire other liberation movements in the Western Hemisphere.”


"Gilbert’s book melds political, military, and intellectual history to provide a well-rounded depiction of this issue. . . . Recommended."


“An elegant and passionate writer, Alan Gilbert pulls no punches, and not surprisingly a number of white founders attract his censure. Jefferson’s enmity toward the rebels in Saint-Domingue is here chronicled, as is James Madison’s curious theory that arming blacks would not cripple slavery on the grounds that ‘a freedman immediately loses all attachment and sympathy with his former fellowslaves.’”


Table of Contents


Fear, Hope, and the Two Revolutions in America
Chapter 1
Lord Dunmore, Black Insurrection, and the Independence Movement in  Virginia and South Carolina
Chapter 2
Emancipation and Revolution: The Conjunction of Pragmatism and Principle
Chapter 3
The Laurens Family and Emancipation
Chapter 4
Black Fighters for Freedom: Patriot Recruitment and the Two Revolutions
Chapter 5
Black Fighters for Freedom: British Recruitment and the Two Revolutions
Chapter 6
Black Fighters in the Two Revolutions
Chapter 7
Honor in Defeat
Chapter 8
Postwar Black Emigrations: The Search for Freedom and Self-Government
Chapter 9
Democratic Internationalism and the Seeds of Freedom



Before Columbus Foundation: American Book Award

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