The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution / Edition 1

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Overview

As the United States gained independence, a full fifth of the country's population was African American. The experiences of these men and women have been largely ignored in the accounts of the colonies' glorious quest for freedom. In this compact volume, Gary B. Nash reorients our understanding of early America, and reveals the perilous choices of the founding fathers that shaped the nation's future.

Nash tells of revolutionary fervor arousing a struggle for freedom that spiraled into the largest slave rebellion in American history, as blacks fled servitude to fight for the British, who promised freedom in exchange for military service. The Revolutionary Army never matched the British offer, and most histories of the period have ignored this remarkable story. The conventional wisdom says that abolition was impossible in the fragile new republic. Nash, however, argues that an unusual convergence of factors immediately after the war created a unique opportunity to dismantle slavery. The founding fathers' failure to commit to freedom led to the waning of abolitionism just as it had reached its peak. In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, as Nash demonstrates, their decision enabled the ideology of white supremacy to take root, and with it the beginnings of an irreparable national fissure. The moral failure of the Revolution was paid for in the 1860s with the lives of the 600,000 Americans killed in the Civil War.

The Forgotten Fifth is a powerful story of the nation's multiple, and painful, paths to freedom.

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Editorial Reviews

USA Today

During the American Revolution, one in every five Americans was black. The British offered freedom in return for joining the fight against the rebels. The Continental Army did not. In a slim but well-researched narrative, historian Nash questions the idea that slavery was an issue best deferred in the early days of the Republic.
— Bob Minzesheimer

American Historical Review

A book to stimulate robust debate, this one is well worth the read.
— Frank Lampert

Washington Times

Gary Nash shows that the African slaves hardly stood by impassively as Revolution approached and that at least part of their plight when their fate was considered at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was that so many of them had made a daring political choice—but a disastrous one as it turned out...Nash illuminates a largely overlooked chapter in black history, the flight of thousands of slaves to the side of the British during the War for Independence...Required reading for anyone who ponders the impact of slavery on our lives today.
— James Srodes

Washington Post Book World

Thoughtful...The modest but forceful reassessment by Nash...evoke[s] colonial and post-colonial greed as fully as the arbitrary and unforgiving boundaries on the map of contemporary Africa. No matter which side won in America, the black population lost.
— Stanley Weintraub

New York Review of Books

Historians have generally assumed that the postwar flurry of antislavery sentiment and action was superficial and doomed to failure. Nash boldly suggests otherwise, arguing that the movement came very close to success and failed only because of a lack of astute and effective leadership on the part of those who were in a position to make a difference, namely the Founding Fathers...Nash's argument is original and suggestive.
— George M. Fredrickson

The Historian

The Revolutionary generation in America did not end slavery—that is a fact...Moreover, enslaved black Americans were not idle bystanders; they launched a resistance movement, which the author claims identifies them as black founding fathers. But this is not the lesson school children learn; they are taught what the slaveholding minority believed: that ending slavery meant disunion. This is the story eloquently told by Gary B. Nash in this book. Nash does not intend to “destabilize history”; rather, he wants to portray a more diverse picture of the United States (vii)...This skillful historian provides many examples of how African-Americans and their supporters engaged the fight for liberty to include all the people...His elegant prose makes the book accessible virtually to anyone interested in historical literature.
— Stephen Middleton

James Oliver Horton And Lois E. Horton
In this wonderfully detailed narrative, Gary Nash tells the dramatic and engaging story of African American people and the issues of race and slavery at a critical moment in American history. Marshaling compelling evidence, he illuminates the post-Revolutionary debates over slavery and abolition. Had the founders' actions matched their ideals of freedom, we might well have avoided a Civil War. An important book that offers profound insights into the foundations of the history of all Americans.
Richard S. Newman
Gary Nash is one of America's most distinguished historians and he has done as much as anyone to bring 'The Forgotten Fifth' to life. With this incisive and engaging book, he compels Americans to learn more about a remarkable generation of black founders--men and women who helped shape the meaning of liberty and justice for all as surely as their better known counterparts, Jefferson, Washington and Madison. A fine book.
Peter Wood
Gary Nash has long inspired all those still laboring to bring a missing portion of American history to light. In The Forgotten Fifth, Nash sketches a complex and gripping tale of a road not taken toward true equality at the time of our nation's founding. This veteran historian has placed squarely on the table the largest missing piece in the puzzle of our extraordinary revolution. Now the soul-searching debate about what this complex story means for all Americans can begin.
USA Today - Bob Minzesheimer
During the American Revolution, one in every five Americans was black. The British offered freedom in return for joining the fight against the rebels. The Continental Army did not. In a slim but well-researched narrative, historian Nash questions the idea that slavery was an issue best deferred in the early days of the Republic.
American Historical Review - Frank Lampert
A book to stimulate robust debate, this one is well worth the read.
Washington Times - James Srodes
Gary Nash shows that the African slaves hardly stood by impassively as Revolution approached and that at least part of their plight when their fate was considered at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was that so many of them had made a daring political choice--but a disastrous one as it turned out...Nash illuminates a largely overlooked chapter in black history, the flight of thousands of slaves to the side of the British during the War for Independence...Required reading for anyone who ponders the impact of slavery on our lives today.
Washington Post Book World - Stanley Weintraub
Thoughtful...The modest but forceful reassessment by Nash...evoke[s] colonial and post-colonial greed as fully as the arbitrary and unforgiving boundaries on the map of contemporary Africa. No matter which side won in America, the black population lost.
New York Review of Books - George M. Fredrickson
Historians have generally assumed that the postwar flurry of antislavery sentiment and action was superficial and doomed to failure. Nash boldly suggests otherwise, arguing that the movement came very close to success and failed only because of a lack of astute and effective leadership on the part of those who were in a position to make a difference, namely the Founding Fathers...Nash's argument is original and suggestive.
The Historian - Stephen Middleton
The Revolutionary generation in America did not end slavery—that is a fact...Moreover, enslaved black Americans were not idle bystanders; they launched a resistance movement, which the author claims identifies them as black founding fathers. But this is not the lesson school children learn; they are taught what the slaveholding minority believed: that ending slavery meant disunion. This is the story eloquently told by Gary B. Nash in this book. Nash does not intend to “destabilize history”; rather, he wants to portray a more diverse picture of the United States (vii)...This skillful historian provides many examples of how African-Americans and their supporters engaged the fight for liberty to include all the people...His elegant prose makes the book accessible virtually to anyone interested in historical literature.
Publishers Weekly
Nash's reminder that African-Americans made up a fifth of the population during the Revolutionary era exemplifies the purpose of this lively, accessible "corrective to historical amnesia," comprising three discrete chapters based on lectures he delivered at Harvard in 2004. The wide-ranging first chapter, "The Black Americans' Revolution," illustrates how the War for Independence whetted slaves' thirst for freedom. Nash chronicles slave defection to the British (for whom many more blacks fought than for the Americans) and sketches vivid portraits of individuals who sued for their freedom in the courts. The impassioned second chapter asks, "Could Slavery Have Been Abolished?" and argues the affirmative-that ending slavery during the postrevolutionary period was not only possible but would have unified rather than split the nation. Nash traces broad political and economic conditions (e.g., widespread abolitionist sentiment) to support his argument, and blames the nation's leaders and founding fathers for their lack of political courage. The concluding essay explores questions of citizenship and national identity through the early 19th-century writings of two contemporary Philadelphians, the African-American businessman James Forten and Tench Coxe, a white political economist. Nash (The Unknown American Revolution) exhibits gracefully assertive scholarship in this brief but meaty synthesis. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This short book features three provocative essays based on the author's 2004 Nathan Huggins Lectures at Harvard. In characteristic style, Nash (history, emeritus, UCLA; The Unknown American Revolution) challenges historical assumptions about African Americans during the revolutionary period. His first essay examines the erroneous assumption that African Americans either supported the war or remained neutral. Instead, evidence shows that the Revolutionary War represented the first great slave revolt, wherein thousands of slaves fought for the British, who offered them freedom. The second essay argues that the period immediately following the war was the opportune time to abolish slavery. Nash convincingly shows that the arguments against abolition were flawed and that blame for the failure to abolish slavery rests squarely on poor leadership by Northern leaders. The final essay looks at the issue of race and citizenship in early America. Here Nash pays particular attention to the movement in the North to deny full citizenship rights to free blacks and the efforts of the American Colonization Society to remove them to Africa. Well researched, engaging, and thought-provoking, this book is recommended for larger public and academic libraries.-Robert Flatley, Kutztown Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This well-written, compact book by a master historian presents the appalling story of the denial of political and human rights for black Americans after they had fought during the Revolutionary War. More infuriating, this rejection came despite the era's grand rhetoric, "all men are created equal." In three chapters, readers learn of the heroism and tenacity of black patriots, and also of blacks who fought for the British; the near success of efforts to abolish slavery following the war; and the sad story of the first decades of the 19th century, when blacks in the North and South were deprived of civil liberties. In the process, Thomas Jefferson's hypocrisy in racial matters is delineated. Readers are also shown that, going back many generations, commercial interests of many politicians have trumped ideals. Nash supplies accessible accounts of important American black leaders too often left out of textbooks, such as businessman and pamphleteer James Forten, surveyor Benjamin Banneker, poet Phillis Wheatley, and others. A must-buy.-Alan Gropman, National Defense University, Washington, DC Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674021938
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2006
  • Series: Nathan I. Huggins Lectures Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 700,533
  • Product dimensions: 4.80 (w) x 7.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Gary B. Nash is Professor of History Emeritus, UCLA and Professor and Director, National Center for History in the Schools.
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Table of Contents

Preface

1. The Black Americans' Revolution

2. Could Slavery Have Been Abolished?

3. Race and Citizenship in the Early Republic

Notes

Index

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2008

    The Real Story

    It is awakening to read what actually occured for African Americans during the days of revolution and the birth of our nation.It is disgraceful to know that the Founding Fathers perpetuated the notion of white supremacy instead of equality for all regardless of skin tone.

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