Slavery and the American Revolution: A Four-Part Course with Dr. Richard Bell - Context Travel

Slavery and the American Revolution: A Four-Part Course with Dr. Richard Bell

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The American Revolution was a transformative moment in African American history, a freedom war second only to the Civil War in significance. African Americans threw themselves into the revolutionary war effort with more enthusiasm and with more at stake than did many white colonists. The chaos of the war itself brought many enslaved men new opportunities for independence as the British Army promised freedom to those who might be willing to desert their rebel masters and join the King's regiments. But after the British surrendered and evacuated, black fortunes would diverge dramatically. In the north, patriot victory spurred the rise of the anti-slavery movement but in the south that same great victory helped entrench plantation slavery for generations to come.

This four-part course explores the American Revolution from the unfamiliar perspective of enslaved and free African Americans. We'll examine the ways that black Americans seized the unique opportunities provided by the war to declare their independence from slavery. We'll explore black activists' efforts to secure the abolition of slavery in the northern states after the Revolution and enslaved southerners' far less successful efforts to do likewise in the southern states. We'll use the provisions of the 1787 United States Constitution to reconstruct the conservative campaign to minimize further slave resistance and shore up the security of southern slave societies. In our fourth and final lecture, we'll discuss the struggles of legally free black people in northern cities like Philadelphia to build community, achieve respectability, and assert claims to citizenship, using the life of African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) minister Richard Allen as a case study.

Lecture 1: Declaring Independence

Over a long eight years of war, both the Continental Army and the British Army appealed to black Americans for manpower. This lecture argues that how African Americans responded to the call to arms and the chaos of war reveals their own declarations of independence.

Lecture 2: Claiming Legal Freedom

After the war, most northern states moved to abolish slavery. Similar proposals in the South faltered and failed, but, as this lecture demonstrates, enslaved people there took matters into their own hands and seized freedom for themselves.

Lecture 3: The Constitution’s Counter-Revolution

This lecture explores the work done by the 1787 Constitution to repair the damage to the slave system wrought during the revolutionary war. While the Constitution never used the word “slave,” it created a political system that protected and empowered enslavers.

Lecture 4: The Black Founders

This last lecture follows the struggles of Richard Allen and other first-generation free black leaders in northern cities as they built robust communities of faith and fellowship that could extend and expand the anti-racist fight beyond the legal end of slavery in the North.

Dr. Richard Bell is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and is the recipient of the National Endowment of the Humanities Public Scholar award. He has won more than a dozen teaching awards and has held major research fellowships at Yale, Cambridge, and the Library of Congress. He has published a number of books; his latest is "Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and their Astonishing Odyssey Home".

There are no required readings, but some recommended titles include:

  • Gerald Horne, The Counter Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (2014)
  • Richard S. Newman, Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers (2008)
  • Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 (2014)
  • George Van Cleve, A Slaveholders’ Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic (2011)
  • David Waldstriecher, Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (2009)

How does it work?
This is a four-part series held weekly and hosted on Zoom. Please check the schedule for the specific dates and times for each lecture.

Is there a reading list in advance?
Though the course is open to participants with no background in American Revolutionary history, there are suggested readings for further investigation. You will receive this soon after course registration.

How long are the lectures?
Each lecture is 90 minutes long with time for Q&A.

How much is the course?
The course is $140 for 4 lectures.

Is a recording available?
In general our courses are not recorded. However, if you need to miss a lecture please let us know in advance and we can arrange for a recording for that session on an individual basis.

This course is suitable for all ages.

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.