Signer William Whipple from New Hampshire provides an opportunity to present an element of the Revolution that is rarely mentioned today: the role of people of color—of non-white Americans—in securing America’s independence.
After signing the Declaration, Whipple entered military service as a captain, later becoming a general over his state’s militia. When he initially set out for Washington’s army, he took his slave Prince. Along the way, he turned to Prince and told him that if they were called into battle, he hoped Prince would "behave like a man of courage and fight bravely for his country." Prince replied, "Sir, I have no inducement to fight; but if I had my liberty, I would endeavor to defend it to the last drop of my blood." When Whipple heard this statement, an epiphany occurred; how true were those words! He turned to Prince and freed him on the spot.
This action by Whipple represents something common in the years leading up to the Revolution. As explained by Founder John Jay (a president of the Continental Congress):
Prior to the great Revolution, the great majority… of our people had been so long accustomed to the practice and convenience of having slaves that very few among them even doubted the propriety and rectitude of it.
For many white Americans, slavery was so much a part of the culture that it never crossed their minds to question it; but the Revolution brought a change. As Jay acknowledged:
That men should pray and fight for their own freedom and yet keep others in slavery is certainly acting a very inconsistent as well as unjust and perhaps impious part.
Consequently, many Founders who owned slaves before the Revolution freed them; and numerous became involved in anti-slavery activities, leading abolition societies, or passing anti-slavery laws. Their states even began abolishing slavery, including Connecticut (1777), Massachusetts (1780), Pennsylvania (1780), Rhode Island (1784), Vermont (1786), New Hampshire (1792), New York (1799), New Jersey (1804).
Prince Whipple did fight for America’s liberty and was an excellent soldier. He accompanied General Washington in the legendary Christmas Day crossing of the Delaware (Prince is believed to be the man on the oar in the front of Washington’s boat in the famous 1851 painting of the Crossing of the Delaware). Then after participating with Washington in the Battle of Trenton, Prince also fought in the battles of Saratoga in 1777 and Rhode Island in 1778. Prince directly attended General Washington and the general staff throughout the Revolution, serving as a soldier and aide at the highest levels.
Prince was representative of thousands of black patriots who fought for American independence. Others included:
• Wentworth Cheswell — elected to office in New Hampshire in 1768, he made a Paul Revere-like ride to rouse patriots
• Salem Poor — a soldier in the battles of Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Monmouth, he endured the devastating winter at Valley Forge
• Peter Salem — a decorated hero at the Battle of Bunker Hill
• Prince Estabrook — a black Minuteman wounded at Lexington
• James Armistead — America’s first double spy
These are just a few examples of the thousands who fought side-by-side with their white friends during the Revolution to achieve independence
for all Americans.
But the patriots in the American Revolution were not just black and white, they also included Hispanics such as Juan Miralles, Bernardo de Galvez, and Francisco Saavedra; and many Irish fought alongside the Americans, including General Richard Montgomery and Commodore John Barry. There were also Frenchmen such as General LAFAYETTE and Admiral DeGrasse; Poles such as Count Pulaski and General THADDEUS KOSCIUSZKO; Germans such as Generals De Kalb and Von Steuben; and others. Additionally, many Eastern Indian tribes joined the cause, including the Stockbridge, Passamaquoddy, St. John’s, Penobscot, Oneidas, and Tuscarora tribes.
The American patriots were not just men of all colors and nationalities, they numbered women as well, including:
• Mercy Otis Warren — America’s first female historian, called "The Conscience of the Revolution"
• "Captain" Margaret Corbin — when her husband was wounded, she took over his cannon and fired with deadly accuracy; she was seriously wounded and was granted a lifetime military disability by the Continental Congress
• Deborah Sampson — posing as a man, she entered and served in the Continental Army
• Abigail Adams — she was the source of accurate military intelligence for her husband, John, and the Continental Congress
• Sybil Ludington — she made an all- night Paul Revere-like ride of 40 miles through New York, calling patriots to arms against a British attack
• Mary Ludwig Hays — when her husband was shot, she took his place in the artillery corps and was awarded a military pension by the Pennsylvania legislature.
Furthermore, the patriots were not just Christians but also Jews, including notables such as:
• Haym Salomon — who helped secure the financing for George Washington to continue the Revolution
• Isaac Moses — a blockade runner carrying supplies to American troops
• Major Benjamin Nones — a leader in the battles of Savannah and Camden
• Mordecai Sheftall — a patriot leader in Georgia
• Francis Salvador — the first Jewish patriot to die in the Revolution
• Colonels David and Isaac Franks — military as well as synagogue leaders
In short, the Revolution was fought by American men and women— black, white, and brown; Christian and Jewish Americans; English, Polish, Irish, French, and German Americans—but Americans all; and every one of them committed to securing liberty, self-government, and unalienable rights.
Reviewing the diversity of the patriots who fought beside each other in the American Revolution, one is reminded of the wholesome definition of “American” taught to immigrants in previous generations. As a 1941 immigration text explained:
What is an American? An American is a man who is greater in his soul than in his class, creed, political party, or the section in which he lives. To be an American, a man must have an American soul and believe in the spiritual realities upon which America rests and out of which America was born. America was created to unite mankind by those passions which lift and not by the passions which separate and debase… The man who seeks to divide men from men, group from group, interest from interest in this great Union is striking at its very heart.
It is time to re-embrace this definition and reject the post-structuralism, de-constructionism, and identity politics that seek to divide Americans rather than unite us. We must not allow epluribus unum (out of many, one) to become e unum pluribus (out of one, many). As George Washington admonished:
The name of ‘American,’ which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation [title] derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits... With such powerful and obvious motives to union affecting all parts of our country… there will always be reason to distrust the patriotism of those who in any quarter may endeavor to weaken its bands.
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