Slavery and the American Revolution

The democratic ideals of the American Revolution probably caused African American slaves to hope that their status in society might improve. Slaves took part in the revolutionary movement and assumed new roles in the process. Slaves served the British and American armies and received bounties, land, or freedom in return. After the war a movement to abolish slavery began in the North. Various Northern states called for a gradual abolition of slavery so that slaves born after a certain date would be set free.

Although the American Revolution caused slaves to assume new roles and gave some their freedom, in general African Americans did not achieve the freedoms which the Declaration of Independence claimed for all men. It was one thing to limit slavery in the North, but slavery was most common in the South where it was an important part of the economic system. Plantation owners felt they needed slaves to work in the fields, and they did not want to lose their cheap labor. To southerners, the principles of liberty established in the Declaration of Independence did not apply to African Americans. Slaves were thought of as property and not as men so they could not be considered equal. Despite America’s promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, slavery remained a fact of life for most African Americans, depriving them of each of these rights.

The failure of the American Revolution to grant basic rights to African Americans was not changed by the Constitution which developed after the fighting stopped. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not attempt to abolish slavery, though some wanted to, because they knew the southern states would not accept a constitution that eliminated their labor force. Establishing a constitution that would unite the states was more important to members of the convention than African American rights. The constitution permitted Congress to limit the Atlantic slave trade in 1808, but it failed to give those slaves who were already in the U.S. any additional freedoms. The failure of the Constitutional Convention’s delegates to fully address slavery meant that African Americans would continue to struggle for equality with whites for years.

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