FREE BLACK COMMUNITIES

All in all, the Revolution had a contradictory impact on American slavery and, therefore, on American freedom. Gradual as it was, the abolition of slavery in the North drew a line across the new nation, creating the dangerous division between free and slave states. Abolition in the North, voluntary emancipation in the Upper South, and the escape of thousands from bondage created, for the first time in American history, a sizable free black population (many of whose members took new family names like Freeman or Freeland).

An engraving from a commemorative pitcher presented to the abolitionist Joseph Curtis by the New York Manumission Society in 1819 depicts Liberty releasing slaves from bondage. Curtis holds aloft a mirror reflecting the rising sun. Founded in 1785 by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and others, the Society was instrumental in the passage of New York’s 1799 Iaw providing for the gradual abolition of slavery.

Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences. This 1792 painting by Samuel Jennings is one of the few visual images of the early republic explicitly to link slavery with tyranny and liberty with abolition. The female figure offers books to newly freed slaves. Other forms of knowledge depicted include a globe, an artist’s palette, and the top of a column, evoking the republic of ancient Rome. Beneath her left foot lies a broken chain. In the background, free slaves enjoy some leisure time. Painted at the same time as the Haitian Revolution was spreading fear of a slave rebellion, the work celebrates emancipation rather than seeing it as threatening.

QUESTIONS

1. What attributes of freedom does the artist emphasize most strongly in the painting?

2. How do the figures in the painting convey ideas about race?

A tray painted by an unknown artist in the early nineteenth century portrays Lemuel Haynes, a celebrated black preacher and critic of slavery.

On the eve of independence, virtually every black person in America had been a slave. Now, free communities, with their own churches, schools, and leaders, came into existence. They formed a standing challenge to the logic of slavery, a haven for fugitives, and a springboard for further efforts at abolition. In 1776, fewer than 10,000 free blacks resided in the United States. By 1810, their numbers had grown to nearly 200,000, most of them living in Maryland and Virginia. In all the states except Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia, free black men who met taxpaying or property qualifications enjoyed the right to vote under new state constitutions. As the widespread use of the term “citizens of color” suggests, the first generation of free blacks, at least in the North, formed part of the political nation.

For many Americans, white as well as black, the existence of slavery would henceforth be recognized as a standing affront to the ideal of American freedom, a “disgrace to a free government,” as a group of New Yorkers put it. In 1792, when Samuel Jennings of Philadelphia painted Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences, he included among the symbols of freedom a slave’s broken chain, graphically illustrating how freedom had become identified not simply with political independence, but with emancipation. Nonetheless, the stark fact is that slavery survived the War of Independence and, thanks to the natural increase of the slave population, continued to grow. The national census of 1790 revealed that despite all those who had become free through state laws, voluntary emancipation, and escape, the number of slaves in the United States had grown to 700,000—200,000 more than in 1776.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!