A courageous revolutionary during America’s founding period fought for freedom under his motto of “Death or Liberty.” One of his lieutenants declaimed, “We had as much right to fight for our liberty as any men.”1 In pursuit of freedom, these men rose against oppression and lost their lives in the struggle. Were these freedom fighters among the heroes who founded the United States of America? They were not. They were black slaves in Virginia who were born and raised during the lifetimes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. And, although they stood in staunch agreement with America’s founding principles and fought for those principles against their enslavement, they were executed by American authorities for so doing.
Gabriel Prosser, leader of this 1800 slave rebellion, and his lieutenants took seriously the ideals of the American Revolution, the principles that men have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and have a right to rebel when those rights are denied. They were enraged at the hypocrisy of America proclaiming itself a free republic while denying these basic rights to several million Americans based on skin color.2
Prosser was but one of several black American slaves (or freed slaves) who led uprisings in a quest for freedom. Another was Denmark Vesey, a freedman who “lectured fellow blacks on the Declaration of Independence,”3 and who led his students in a slave rebellion in South Carolina in 1822. A third was Nat Turner, a slave who planned his original uprising to occur on July 4, 1831, a date the significance of which he fully comprehended.4
These and other such men of the time understood the meaning and importance of the principle of individual rights as well as did any of America’s Founding Fathers. But for the trivial fact of their skin color, these men could have been among the Founders of the United States of America.
Many blacks of the revolutionary era understood the basic principles of America’s founding. And many of them—such as Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave killed in the Boston Massacre, and Peter Salem, a hero at the Battle of Bunker Hill—fought at the side of white Americans in the struggle for independence from Great Britain. Indeed, five thousand of the roughly three hundred thousand soldiers who fought for American independence were black.5
Additionally, some black American slaves joined the opposing side in pursuit of freedom. Tens of thousands escaped to the British during the Revolutionary War, many serving His Majesty’s Army as laborers or soldiers. The British promised freedom to slaves who ran away from rebel masters—and many blacks took them at their word. Historian Benjamin Quarles explains that these slaves’ “major loyalty was not to a place nor to a people, but to a principle,” and a man of principle on this matter “was likely to join the side that made him the quickest and best offer in terms of those ‘unalienable rights’ of which Mr. Jefferson had spoken.”6
Britain, homeland of John Locke and birthplace of the principle of individual rights, during this period also faced uprisings from slaves who understood the meaning and importance of these Anglo-American principles of liberty. Samuel Sharpe, for example, a black slave in Jamaica, led a slave uprising in 1831 that cost the lives of fourteen whites and greater than five hundred slaves, most of the latter by trial and execution. Before being hanged, Sharpe said, “I would rather die on yonder gallows than live in slavery.”7
Many such uprisings occurred during the founding era, and the details often were gruesome. . . .