BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Slaves’ Gamble’

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By Gene Allen Smith
Palgrave Macmillan, $27.99, 257 pages

The question often arises at book talks, especially those given to student groups, why the Founding Fathers could speak such high-sounding words about equality and liberty and then ignore the oppressions visited on slaves and Indian tribes.

There are clues of course. The fabled Declaration of Independence was a 29-count bill of indictment against King George III. One of the hints comes in the 27th count, which charges:

“[King George III] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured (sic) to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

Little noted is when Thomas Jefferson produced the first draft of the Declaration, there was a 30th count that was dropped at the demand of convention delegates from the Southern colonies. It accused the Crown of forcing the use of slave labor in the early colonies and then blandishing the promise of liberty to those slaves if they would rise up against their masters, a threat equally as frightening as the Indian counterinsurgencies.

The proximate cause of Jefferson’s 30th accusation was outrage. Virginia’s Royal Governor Lord Dunmore in 1775 had recruited and armed an “Ethiopian Regiment” of escaped slaves. When the British began to withdraw after Yorktown, hundreds of fortunate black allies were taken along and resettled in Nova Scotia and other colonies.

This thoroughly researched and readable book focuses, as its title suggests, on the identical choice blacks in bondage had to make again nearly 30 years after the War of Independence when war erupted once more in 1812 with Britain.

Since we are well into the bicentenary of that war, Texas-based historian Gene Allen Smith’s tale is timely. It also fills in some much-needed background to the complicated relations that vexed white Americans and their black bondsmen a vexation that mixed racism, fear and anger on one side with a unquenchable yearning for freedom on the other.

Mr. Smith’s point is that to a greater extent in 1812 than in our Revolutionary War, blacks faced a conscious choice of which side they would fight for. Then they fought with a valor and enthusiasm that impressed their white commanders, especially the resolutely snobbish Brits.

On the American side, the undeniable success of the patched-together naval force of U.S. cruisers and privateers was a result of achieving an early critical mass of ships and guns that would have been problematical especially in the Lake Erie campaigns without the influx of skilled black mariners from the New England fishing fleets.

As for the strategists in London, their reading of the Revolutionary struggle convinced them that they could sow discord among white Americans and build an entire army of slaves that would sweep the Madison government away. Part of this was wishful thinking. Recall that Britain had, starting in 1803, been stretched to its military limits by a series of wars with Napoleon’s France that would not end until 1815. President Madison’s declaration of war with Britain in 1812 put the king’s planners in a bind fighting a war both in the Atlantic and on two continents, so the lure of a homegrown black allied force was too enticing to pass up.

This forced a delicate calculation on American blacks, both free and enslaved. The first test came in the deepest regions of the South, where escaped slaves from Georgia and elsewhere in the Florida Gulf Coast region joined militias armed by both ruling Spanish officials and the British attempts at New Orleans.

But it was in our own Chesapeake region where British senior commander Adm. Alexander F.I. Cochrane and his field commander Adm. George Cockburn in early 1814 made the most concerted effort to form a regular combat unit of slaves. A widely circulated proclamation a la Lord Dunmore promised recruits not only the chance for revenge against their masters but also the encouragement to ” emigrate from the United States with their families” to British possessions in Canada and the West Indies.

Operating from a base on Tangier Island in the Bay, Cockburn organized a force of 600 black Colonial marines, who not only impressed the British with their discipline under training but also their zeal and bravery in combat. They terrified the Americans.

An irony of that bitter war came on Aug. 24, 1814, when it became clear to officials in Washington that Cockburn was headed their way. Many white citizens packed up what goods they could and fled, while hundreds of blacks were pressed into the hasty and doomed attempt to defend the town.

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