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Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America
     

Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America

by Douglas R. Egerton
 

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In Death or Liberty, Douglas R. Egerton offers a sweeping chronicle of African American history stretching from Britain's 1763 victory in the Seven Years' War to the election of slaveholder Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800. While American slavery is usually identified with antebellum cotton plantations, Egerton shows that on the eve of the Revolution it

Overview

In Death or Liberty, Douglas R. Egerton offers a sweeping chronicle of African American history stretching from Britain's 1763 victory in the Seven Years' War to the election of slaveholder Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800. While American slavery is usually identified with antebellum cotton plantations, Egerton shows that on the eve of the Revolution it encompassed everything from wading in the South Carolina rice fields to carting goods around Manhattan to serving the households of Boston's elite. More important, he recaptures the drama of slaves, freed blacks, and white reformers fighting to make the young nation fulfill its republican slogans. Although this struggle often unfolded in the corridors of power, Egerton pays special attention to what black Americans did for themselves in these decades, and his narrative brims with compelling portraits of forgotten African American activists and rebels, who battled huge odds and succeeded in finding liberty--if never equality--only in northern states. Egerton concludes that despite the real possibility of peaceful, if gradual, emancipation, the Founders ultimately lacked the courage to end slavery.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Egerton (Gabriel's Rebellion) traverses the rise and the debatable inevitability of slavery in the United States between the end of the Seven Years' War (1763) and Jefferson's election (1800), arguing that the "division of the Republic into free wage labor sections and proslavery regions did not have to happen that way." But it did; in spite of the uprisings by Denmark Vesey and Gabriel echoing slogans from the fight for independence, the American Revolution "failed to fulfill its promise of freedom." If the territory seems familiar, the author approaches it on a road less traveled, surveying what the revolution meant to black contemporaries: Jefferson's servant Richard responds to the ideological arguments concerning slavery; Quok Walker's successful lawsuit merges with an account of emancipation in the states north of Delaware; Titus, who fought with the Loyalists, leads to the examination of the role of black combatants. Egerton has crammed a great deal of political, legal and social history into this dense but accessible book. He has achieved an extraordinary synthesis, while maintaining a careful attentiveness to regional, even state, differences during this period when the United States was aborning and things might have happened differently. (Jan.)

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Library Journal

Conceived as a synthesis, this work thematically updates and expands Benjamin Quarles's 1961 classic The Negro in the American Revolution. Building on prodigious scholarship, such as Sylvia R. Frey's Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age and Michael A. McDonnell's more recent The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia, Egerton (history, Le Moyne Coll.; Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries) narrates dramatic developments from the 1760s to the early 1800s that produced the U.S. republic. Probing the multifaceted, long-term independence struggle in light of prevailing white racial attitudes, Egerton plumbs the tensions among black slavery, white liberty, and trumpeted Revolutionary equality. Leading eight of his ten chapters and his epilog with individual blacks such as William Lee, Olaudah Equiano, Quok Walker, Mum Bett, Absalom Jones, and the 1800 Virginia rebel Gabriel, Egerton emphasizes the challenges posed by betrayed and disappointed blacks to the existing social order as they worked to relieve themselves and the new American nation from broad racial oppression and the crippling persistence of slavery. Reflecting broad research and reading, these musings from a mature historian of early America advance fresh perspectives that both clarify and complicate our understanding of the distinct racial dynamics and values at the nation's start. Recommended for collections on African American and U.S. history.
—Thomas J. Davis

From the Publisher
"This rich volume focuses on the 'Age of Revolution' through the experiences of enslaved and free Africans and African Americans in North America...Death or Liberty by Douglas Egerton provides an overview of the much-neglected topic of the black experience in early America." —Journal of African American History

"Reflecting broad research and reading, these musings from a mature historian of early America advance fresh perspectives that both clarify and complicate our understanding of the distinct radical dynamics and values at the nation's start."—Thomas J. Davis, Publishers Weekly

"The monumental accomplishments of Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington seem trivial in comparison to what many of their African American contemporaries achieved. Seizing the unprecedented opportunities presented by the Revolutionary War, thousands of enslaved Americans—including slaves owned by Jefferson and Washington—made their own declarations of independence and undertook the arduous and perilous journey from slave to freedom. Now, for the first time, the scores of recent investigations of black participation in the American Revolution have been synthesized into an elegant and seamless narrative. In Death or Liberty—a title taken not from Patrick Henry but from a participant in Gabriel's Rebellion in 1800—Douglas Egerton shows that African Americans not only extracted the most liberty from the Revolutionary experience but also paid the highest price for it."—Woody Holton, University of Richmond

"Slowly, American understanding of the vital Revolutionary era is becoming more open, subtle, and realistic. Douglas Egerton's suggestive book uses real lives to weave surprising new threads into this familiar old flag."—Peter H. Wood, author of Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America

"In this highly readable account Douglas Egerton weaves together the stories of black and white men and women in a seamless and deeply human telling of the American Revolutionary war. Even scholars familiar with the subject matter will find fresh and original insights on virtually every aspect of American Revolutionary history."—Sylvia R. Frey, author of Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age

"Egerton...has combined his own research with a wealth of scholarship to create a learned and persuasive synthesis." — New England Quarterly

"A brilliant synthesis of African American struggles for freedom between 1763 and 1800...Sparkles with insight." —Reviews in American History

"This book offers an engaging and persuasive view that, on balance, the American Revolution was a disillusioning failure for the Africans and African Americans who struggled to make it meaningful for themselves." —American Historical Review

"[A]n important work. ...[I]t draws together the vast body of literature on this subject and provides a coherent narrative that scholars of the revolutionary era cannot afford to ignore." —Journal of American History

"Offers new revelations to readers familiar with the field, even as it provides a lucid and informative introduction to those not deeply immersed in itEL.Learned, textured, and sobering." -Common-place

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780199743674
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Publication date:
01/13/2009
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
File size:
4 MB

Meet the Author

Douglas R. Egerton is Joseph C. Georg Professor of History at Le Moyne College. His books include Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War.

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