Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America

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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 the 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 figures such as Quok Walker, a Massachusetts runaway who took his master to court and thereby helped end slavery in that state; Absalom Jones, a Delaware house slave who bought his freedom and later formed the Free African Society; and Gabriel, a young Virginia artisan who was hanged for plotting to seize Richmond and hold James Monroe hostage. Egerton argues that the Founders lacked the courage to move decisively against slavery despite the real possibility of peaceful, if gradual, emancipation. Battling huge odds, African American activists and rebels succeeded in finding liberty - if never equality - only in northern states." Canvassing every colony and state, as well as incorporating the wider Atlantic world, Death or Liberty offers a lively and comprehensive account of black Americans and the Revolutionary era inAmerica.
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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.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199782253
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 5/5/2011
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 908,325
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

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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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Trials of William Lee: A Life in the Age of Revolution 3

1 Equiano's World: The British Atlantic Empire in 1763 15

2 Richard's Cup: Slavery and the Coming of the Revolution 41

3 The Transformation of Colonel Tye: Black Combatants and the War 65

4 Quok Walker's Suit: Emancipation in the North 93

5 Absalom's "Meritorious Service": Antislavery in the Upper South 122

6 Captain Vesey's Cargo: Continuity in Georgia and the Carolinas 148

7 Mum Bett Takes a Name: The Emergence of Free Black Communities 169

8 Harry Washington's Atlantic Crossings: The Migrations of Black Loyalists 194

9 A Suspicion Only: Racism in the Early Republic 222

10 Eli Whitney's Cotton Engine: Expansion and Rebellion 248

Epilogue : General Gabriel's Flag: Unsuccessful Coda to the Revolution 271

Notes 283

Index 333

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 30, 2011

    an informative and well written summary of the topic

    Some of the writing here is quite excellent. Egerton knows how to communicate with the reader and provides a useful overview of the state of historical knowledge on the subject. So while the does not break any new ground, I am ready to recommend to readers interested in the topic. My only quibble would be some inaccuracies which are perhaps inevitable in a work of synthesis (like this one).

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