Race and Revolution by Gary Nash Bibliographic Book Review

Pages: 7 (2320 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 10  ·  Level: Master's  ·  Topic: American History

Race and Revolution by Gary Nash

Bibliographic information

Nash, G. (1990). Race and revolution. Lanham, MD: Madison House Publishers.

Author Gary Nash is a professor and the University of California Los Angeles and the director of the National Center for History in the Schools, and a former president of the Organization of American Historians. Nash is a social historian, who emphasizes the importance of the interactions between different diverse groups of people at various points in time. Much of his academic research and writing has focused on the history of slavery and how race became an issue in slavery in the United States in a way that it was not in much of the rest of the Western world. In Race and Revolution, Nash investigates the role that slavery played in the American Revolution, and actually suggests that the American Revolution was the largest slave revolt in American history.

Summary

In this book, Nash looks at the role that race, most particularly race-based slavery, played in the American Revolution and the development of America after the Revolution. Nash focuses on the Constitutional Convention period, but his focus spans the time period of the colonists and includes observations that extend well into the 20th century. He begins with the premise that the founding fathers understood that slavery was somehow basically incompatible with the very premises of liberty for which they were fighting. He also discusses the fact that this focus on slavery was ignored by historians during the nineteenth and twentieth century, even after the abolition of slavery that came with the conclusion of the Civil War. He discusses the fact that abolitionism had a significant amount of support during the Revolutionary War, but that support for it had already largely dwindled by the time of the Constitutional Convention. He also discusses the fact that historians had consistently downplayed the possibility that the Founding Fathers could have meaningfully intervened in slavery at the time of the Revolution. He discusses the fact that the colonists were beginning to understand that slavery was a particularly brutal institution. He talks about the failure to abolish slavery as a grave error. Nash lists five reasons that the Constitutional period would have been perfect for abolishing slavery: high abolitionist sentiment; the South was not prepared to break away from the other states at that time; environmentalist thought led people to believe that the degraded condition of the slaves was because of slavery not because of any innate inferiority; the opening up of the West would have made a compensated emancipation possible; and the opening up of the West provided a location for the freed slaves to move if they were not welcome in the already colonized parts of the emerging United States. Nash also investigates the racism of leaders, particularly northern leaders, who recognized that slavery was a social problem, but were unwilling to compensate slaveholders for lost property upon emancipation and were unwilling to accept a biracial country. He points out the racism in the American north even after slavery was abolished and demonstrates how free blacks adapted to this system of racism. Throughout his book, Nash uses primary source documents to back up his claims that historians have not previously been accurate in their assessments of colonial sentiment regarding slavery and abolition during the Constitutional period.

Review

In many ways, Nash's book is a revisionist history, but not in the critical way that suggests a whitewashing of historical fact. Instead, Nash's history challenges the conventional views regarding slavery and the colonists, but does not attempt to remove responsibility from certain groups. Instead, Nash takes a very critical view of the Founding Fathers and challenges their willingness to continue to tolerate an institution such as slavery. Moreover, Nash is supported by direct evidence that the Founders did consider slavery to be immoral and incompatible with Revolutionary ideals, which places a moral responsibility on them that has traditionally been missing in historical accounts that suggest that, because of the time period, the Founders were somehow unaware of the apparent hypocrisy between fighting for liberty and still permitting people to hold slaves.

In fact, the conventional view has been that the American Revolution ignored those who were not in positions of power, meaning that slaves would not have played a meaningful role in the American Revolution, not because of a lack of participation, but because they were denied the ability to interact in an outcome-determinative manner (Gundersen, 1987). In many ways, this point-of-view appears to have merit; in fact, the continued persistence of the institution of slavery after the American Revolution certainly seems to bolster the notion that slaves were not given a voice after the Revolution, despite meaningful participation in the actual revolt. However, Nash's book certainly suggests that such an approach is over-simplified, and investigates the fact that the Revolutionary War's leaders were well-aware that slavery was essentially incompatible with the natural rights and basic freedoms that served as the foundational basis for the war. In fact, it tackles the issue of slavery as something other than an exception to the American ideals of freedom, which is critical, because, during the Revolutionary period, approximately one-fifth of the American population was enslaved; a population far too large to be considered an exception (Morgan, 1972).

Many times the American Revolution is looked upon as an ideological war; such that those fighting for their freedom had to have been motivated by the desire for liberty, with little attention paid to their social and economic interests. Nash's book makes it clear that, while the Revolutionary War certainly had and ideological foundation, both social and economic factors were also significant motivators for the Revolution (Wood, 1966). Moreover, while it was believed that because some of the famous founding fathers, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, spoke out against slavery and freed some or all of their slaves, that the Revolutionary War was more ideological than economic. There is some misunderstanding among people who believe that while slavery may have existed during the colonial period, it was simply a marginal institution. In fact, the traditional belief was that it was only with Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin that American slavery became such an entrenched institution (Freehling, 1972). However, this idea is clearly fallacious when one views the facts about slavery and its racial overtones, even at the time of the Revolution. First, slaves were a huge part of the colonial population, with approximately one-fifth of all colonial Americans being slaves. Moreover, while there had been slaves and/or indentured servants from a wide variety of racial backgrounds, even during the colonial period slavery was becoming a highly racialized institution.

Of course, it has long been recognized that blacks, whether free blacks or slaves, played a significant role in the armed conflicts of the Revolutionary War. While blacks were generally limited to being privates, they made meaningful contributions to the war effort (Jackson, 1942). There also seems to have been a feeling that they would be rewarded for these efforts with freedom. Nash characterizes the Revolution as the largest slave uprising in American history (Nash, 1990). However, he also acknowledges that only some of these combatants were able to gain freedom as a result of their fighting in the Revolution. Nash looks at the role that these free blacks played in establishing a biracial society. This is an important observation, because, in many ways, the antebellum United States is seen as a clash between the privileged white and an underprivileged black class. While it is critical to realize that blacks generally had fewer rights than whites, it is equally important to understand that in many areas of the United States there were thriving free black communities, where members had significant wealth and enjoyed fairly complex social interactions with one another and with white society as a whole. While Nash does not argue that an intermittent free black society was necessary to establish a place for former slaves after emancipation, he does stress the importance of free blacks in establishing societies that worked under the auspices of a white-dominated society.

In fact, the role of free blacks and slaves prior to and during the Revolution was very interesting. While slaves fought in the Revolution and played a pivotal role in securing freedom for the colonies, they did not rise up in the same way as slaves in other areas that were fighting against Britain. In many of those locations, revolution and slave uprising joined together, with the result being a slaughter of white slaveowners and a total transition to black control of the country. Of course, the numbers in the colonies did not favor such a dramatic transition, because white colonists always outnumbered blacks. However, in some colonies, that was not the case. In fact, one of the interesting aspects of the Revolutionary War is that it did not feature the same type of mass slave uprising that one saw in other countries fighting against Imperialistic occupation. "One scholar views the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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