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Resistance and Revolution, The Revolution: Winners and Losers
hungry farmers, slave rebellions, Lord Dunmore, Cherokee people, Virginia slave
Colonial elites—large landholders and plantation masters—benefited most from American independence: They continued to rule at home without outside interference. Below them, property–holding white men who became full citizens of the American republic enjoyed the “life, liberty, and property” for which they had fought. White women remained excluded from public life, as did most white men without property. But the Americans for whom the legacy of revolution proved disastrous—or at best ambiguous—were Native Americans and African American slaves.
In 1760 the British defeated the French in North America, and Native Americans lost the French alliance that had helped protect and strengthen them for 150 years. In the Revolution, they tended to side with the British or to remain neutral, knowing that an independent republic of land–hungry farmers posed a serious threat. The six Iroquois nations divided on this question, splitting a powerful confederacy that had lasted more than 200 years. When some Iroquois raided colonial settlements, Americans responded by invading and destroying the whole Iroquois homeland in 1779. Further south, the Cherokee people sided with the British and lost heavily. Up and down the frontier, Native Americans and backcountry militia kept up unsettling and sporadic fighting throughout the war. After the British ceded territory on both sides of the Appalachians to the Americans in 1783, Native Americans—who had not been defeated—ignored maps drawn by whites and continued to fight through the 1790s. Native American military power east of the Mississippi was not broken until 1815. The key to that defeat was the fact that the independent American republic was now expanding without opposition from either France or Britain.
The results of the American Revolution for American slaves were ambiguous. Early in the war, the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, had promised freedom to any Virginia slave who joined the British army. Thousands took the offer, and many more thousands seized wartime opportunities to disappear. (When Colonel Banastre Tarleton raided Charlottesville, Virginia, many of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves cheered the British as liberators.) On the other hand, thousands of blacks (primarily in the North) fought on the patriot side.
American independence had differing effects on blacks. On the one hand, it created an independent nation in which slaveholders wielded real power—something that slaves would remember in the 1830s, when Parliament freed slaves in the British Caribbean without asking the planters. On the other hand, the ideology of natural rights that was fundamental to the Revolution was difficult to contain. Many whites, particularly in the North, came to see emancipation as a logical outcome of the Revolution. Vermont outlawed slavery in its constitution, and in the 1780s and 1790s most Northern states took steps to emancipate their slaves. Even Chesapeake planters flirted seriously with emancipation. Perhaps most important, slaves themselves absorbed revolutionary notions of natural rights. Following the Revolution, slave protests and slave rebellions were drenched in the rhetoric of revolutionary republicanism. Thus American independence was a short–term disaster for the slaves, but at the same time, it set in motion a chain of events that would destroy American slavery.
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