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The American Revolution’s Rhetoric Of Freedom And The Reality Of Slavery

It is impossible for me to fathom the amount of courage it took back in 1774 for Caesar Sarter, a former slave, to publish his anti-slavery essay in The Essex Journal and Merrimack Packet as the American colonists began to agitate for their freedom from England.

“I need not point out the absurdity of your exertions for liberty, while you have slaves in your houses, for one minute’s reflection is, methinks, sufficient for that purpose.–You who are deterred from liberating your slaves, by the consideration of the ill consequences to yourselves must remember, that we were not the cause of our being brought here. If the compelling us, against our wills, to come here was a sin; to retain us, without our consent, now we are here, is, I think, equally culpable let ever so great inconvenience arising therefrom, accrue to you. Not to trespass too much on your patience; would you unite in this generous, this noble purpose of granting us liberty;”

former slave Caesar Sarter

On July 4th, a day when many of us gather to hear speeches about the founding of the United States of America, it is hard for me not to think about the 500,000 enslaved Africans who made up twenty percent of the population, or the estimated 50,000 free blacks and runaway slaves like Sarter who were fighting their own revolution within a revolution on behalf of their fellow Africans.  

“Let me, who have now no less than eleven relatives suffering in bondage beseech you good people, to attend to the request of a poor African, and consider the evil consequences, and gross heinousness of reducing to, and retaining in slavery a free people. Would you desire the preservation of your own liberty? As the first step let the oppressed Africans be liberated; then, and not till then, may you with confidence and consistency of conduct, look to Heaven for a blessing on your endeavours to knock the shackles with which your task masters are hampering you, from your own feet.”

former slave Caesar Sarter

As David Waldstreicher, noted historian at Temple University has observed, “no one was quicker to perceive the tensions between the Revolution’s rhetoric of freedom and the reality of slavery than the slaves, ex-slaves, and kin of slaves themselves.”

“Your fore fathers, as I have been often informed, left their native country, together with many dear friends, and came into this country, then a howling wilderness inhabited, only, by savages, rather choosing, under the protection of their God, to risk their lives, among those merciless wretches, than submit to tyranny at home: While, therefore, this conduct gives you their exalted sense of the worth of Liberty, at the same time, it shews their utmost abhorrence of that Curse of Curses, Slavery.”

former slave Caesar Sarter


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