In July 1775, George Washington, a Virginian and a slave owner, feared guns in the hands of blacks, particularly those enslaved, believing that armed slaves might foment a rebellion.
Slave owners also feared that by placing enslaved persons in the army, there would be an expectation that they would be freed based on their service. Therefore he specifically prohibited bringing blacks into the army’s ranks initially.
In November 1775, however, Virginia’s British Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation that he would free any slave who left his master to serve alongside British forces.
Within a month 300 had joined what Dunmore dubbed his “Ethiopian Regiment.” This terrified Patriot slaveholders, and Congress and Washington decided to reverse themselves in response, permitting enlisted free blacks to remain in the army and recruitment of free blacks opened up.
Between 3,000 and 4,000 runaway slaves signed their name in his ledger. Some freed blacks fought with the Tories, colonists loyal to the king, as well. It is estimated that around 10,000 slaves escaped or died during the war.
After the British lost the war, Lord Dunmore followed through on his promise. Those whose names were signed into the ledger, now referred to as “The Book of Negroes,” were relocated to Jamaica, Nova Scotia, and Britain.
In America, most of the slaves returned to their former lives and most slave-owners went back to pre-revolution habits after the war.
I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.
The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.
You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?
If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin!“What to a slave is the 4th of July?” – Frederick Douglass