U.S. history in black and white

H.D.S. Greenway – The Boston Globe

Copyright The Boston Globe
BOSTON Last year in Britain I went to hear Simon Schama of Columbia University lecture about his book, “Rough Crossings,” which has just been published in the United States. The British-born professor’s tale was music to British ears, but could make an American a little uncomfortable.
His story is the story of thousands of blacks in the 13 American Colonies who rallied to the British lines during the Revolutionary War because they believed that is where freedom lay. It is a tale not often told in the United States, where, if blacks are mentioned at all, it has most often been in the context of blacks and whites together fighting against the tyranny of King George.
In America, Crispus Attucks, who fell to British bullets in the Boston Massacre of 1770, is celebrated here while Newton Prince, a Boston barber who testified on behalf of the British soldiers who shot Attucks, is not. The “redcoats” were acquitted, with the help of their lawyer, John Adams. Prince, however, was tarred and feathered by indignant Bostonians.
When the war came, Prince, not surprisingly, joined the British side. Later, when the British began to actively recruit blacks by promising them freedom, thousands followed Prince into the king’s service – not only slaves, but freed men too.
The Continental Congress was ambiguous about blacks on the American side, even though many African-Americans had died for the American cause at Bunker Hill and in Rhode Island. General Washington said he needed all the men he could get, but in 1776 Congress told him that although he could keep the freed blacks he already had, he could not recruit any more. Slaves were to be excluded altogether.
Although it was mostly in the slave economies of the South that whites objected to black soldiers fighting on their side, Northerners were not much better. New Hampshire excluded “lunatics, idiots, and Negroes” from their militias. In contrast, the British offered unambiguous freedom. As a result, hundreds of American blacks fought to keep America British.
While the Patriots’ rhetoric railed against the sins of George III, many American blacks decided that the English king, as Schama put it, was their “enemy’s enemy, and thus their friend, emancipator, and guardian.” For blacks, our “vaunted war for liberty was… a war for the perpetuation of servitude,” Schama said.
One can say that the offer of freedom was a cynical move to undercut the American cause, and that slavery still existed elsewhere in the British Empire. But when the British lost the war, and the Americans demanded their slaves back, the British lived up to their obligations and evacuated the black men, women, and children who had rallied to their side – along with white loyalists – to resettle them in Canada. One black man even changed his name to “British Freedom.” But the blacks who sailed away with the American “Tories” didn’t find the promised land in Canada.
Later, the British would take many of those who wanted to resettle in Africa to Sierra Leone, where their descendants live to this day.
The Founding Fathers of the United States knew well the double standard embedded in the liberty they preached. Patrick “give-me-liberty-or-give-me- death” Henry admitted that he might be against holding slaves in principle, but “I’m drawn along by the general inconveniency of living without them.”
Schama wondered aloud how his book would be received in America. For although there are plenty of books critical about this or that aspect of American history, by in large the Founding Fathers have been deified in this country. Schama joked that he would not look good in an orange Guant·namo jumpsuit.
Do we Americans glorify our Founding Fathers too uncritically? Certainly, a great many biographies have been worshipful. Thucydides and Herodotus, the fathers of history, did not “whitewash the past,” Schama said. The story of the Peloponnesian wars “is the story of a cock-up,” he said.
Do we, as a nation of immigrants, need whitewashed founding legends to unite us? Do Americans, in these morally ambiguous times of Abu Ghraib, Guant·namo, and the secret prisons into which our prisoners disappear without trial or hope, long for heroes and heroic times? Perhaps Americans feel a need to hang on to the glory days of our national youth, when all our leaders were brilliant, brave, and beyond reproach, even if it is not always entirely true.
(H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in The Boston Globe.)


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