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Slavery, Propaganda, and the American Revolution

Slavery, Propaganda, and the American Revolution

Patricia Bradley
Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 184
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    Slavery, Propaganda, and the American Revolution
    Book Description:

    Under the leadership of Samuel Adams, patriot propagandists deliberately and conscientiously kept the issue of slavery off the agenda as goals for freedom were set for the American Revolution.

    By comparing coverage in the publications of the patriot press with those of the moderate colonial press, this book finds that the patriots avoided, misinterpreted, or distorted news reports on blacks and slaves, even in the face of a vigorous antislavery movement. The Boston Gazette, the most important newspaper of the Revolution, was chief among the periodicals that dodged or excluded abolition. The author of this study shows that The Gazette misled its readers about the notable Somerset decision that led to abolition in Great Britain. She notes also that The Gazette excluded antislavery essays, even from patriots who supported abolition. No petitions written by Boston slaves were published, nor were any writings by the black poet Phillis Wheatley. The Gazette also manipulated the racial identity of Crispus Attucks, the first casualty in the Revolution. When using the word slavery, The Gazette took care to focus it not upon abolition but upon Great Britain's enslavement of its American colonies.

    Since propaganda on behalf of the Revolution reached a high level of sophistication, and since Boston can be considered the foundry of Revolutionary propaganda, the author writes that the omission of abolition from its agenda cannot be considered as accidental but as intentional.

    By the time the Revolution began, white attitudes toward blacks were firmly fixed, and these persisted long after American independence had been achieved. In Boston, notions of virtue and vigilance were shown to be negatively embodied in black colonists. These devil's imps were long represented in blackface in Boston's annual Pope Day parade.

    Although the leaders of the Revolution did not articulate a national vision on abolition, the colonial antislavery movement was able to achieve a degree of success but only in drives through the individual colonies.

    Patricia Bradley is the former director of the American Studies program at Temple University and is currently Chair of the Temple University Department of Journalism, Public Relations, and Advertising.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-669-4
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. IX-XII)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. XIII-XXIV)

    In 1764, the Boston lawyer and firebrand James Otis transcended his local reputation and parochial interests to publish the first major pamphlet of the revolutionary era. In a theme that would come to define the American Revolution, Otis argued against taxing measures on the basis of colonists’ natural rights. But in another theme that would not take hold with the same tenacity, Otis was led to ask: “Does it follow that ’tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Will short curl’d hair like wool, instead of Christian hair, as ’tis called by those whose hearts are as...

  6. Chapter One The Metaphor of Slavery
    (pp. 1-24)

    On an early fall night in 1769, John Adams recorded in his diary a famous account of what had become a weekly ritual: “Supped with Mr. Otis, in company with Mr. Adams, Mr. William David and Mr. John Gill,” he wrote. “The evening was spent in preparing for the Next Days newspaper—a curious Employment. Cooking up Paragraphs, Articles, Occurrences, etc.—working the political Engine” (Adams,Diary1:3523).

    By 1769 these were men experienced in the shaping of public opinion across the American colonies by means subtle and outrageous. Certainly suspected Tory printers such as John Mein and James Rivington,...

  7. Chapter Two Slave Advertising: The Colonial Context
    (pp. 25-44)

    For the newspaper propagandists of the American cause, the revolutionary message, whatever the cast of the moment, had, at its literal back, advertisements that sought to buy slaves, sell slaves, or recover slaves who had escaped. There could be no confinement of the word “slavery” to a rhetorical flourish or to political metaphor when colonial readers saw the existence of slavery, if not in day-to-day contact, each week in the newspapers. Slave advertising occurred routinely in newspapers of all colonies, and because “runaway” notices crossed colony borders, colonists far from concentrations of slavery had before them examples of the construction...

  8. Chapter Three Flames for the Cause
    (pp. 45-65)

    By 1768, as Otis became further incapacitated by mental illness, Samuel Adams emerged as the radical leader. One indication that Adams was now at the helm was the appearance of his front-page articles in theBoston Gazette. In pieces that tilled the Wilkite legacy of stirring popular ferment by appealing to long-standing and deep-seated fears, Adams dug deeply into New England’s fertile anti-Catholicism. As the “Puritan,” Adams argued that “popery” posed a more serious threat to Massachusetts than British tyranny, and the members of the General Court who did not support the Boston Whigs were clearly papists. If Protestants did...

  9. Chapter Four The Somerset Case
    (pp. 66-80)

    One day in the early summer of 1772, South Carolina planter Henry Laurens was at his London desk amidst business correspondence. He had arrived the previous autumn to enroll his sons in a British school and, in an unofficial capacity, look after the interests of South Carolina, including the colony’s substantial donation to the defense of John Wilkes (Wallace 162–76). But Laurens’s ongoing business interest during that London year was the disposal of an “African cargo,” that is, his financial interest in the slaves on a ship headed for Charles Town in South Carolina. He also had some immediate...

  10. Chapter Five The Voices of Antislavery
    (pp. 81-98)

    For Granville Sharp, the man who had done the most to bring the subject of slavery to a British court, the Somerset decision meant that slavery was forbidden not only in Great Britain but in the American colonies as well. The tireless writer was quick to his pen, and with equal speed the colonial Quaker printers published his comments in the colonies. “Why is it that the poor sooty African meets with so different a measure of justice in England and America, as to beadjudged freein the one, and in the other held in the most abject slavery?”...

  11. Chapter Six Shame and Guilt in the Garden of the Innocent
    (pp. 99-115)

    James Otis may be said to have ushered in the antislavery debate of the revolutionary period in his 1764 pamphlet that clearly put antislavery on the radical agenda. Otis’s example was followed in 1767 when a Bostonian Son of Liberty, Nathaniel Appleton, sought to anchor the antislavery debate amid the wave of early patriot successes. “The years 1765 and 1766 will be ever memorable for the glorious stand which America has made for her liberties; how much glory will it add to use if at the same time we are establishing Liberty for ourselves and children, we show the same...

  12. Chapter Seven The Newspaper Debate
    (pp. 116-131)

    In the prerevolutionary period, neither Joseph Crukshank nor Isaac Collins, the two Quaker publishers who had printed most of the antislavery pamphlets, published newspapers. There was no Quaker newspaper publisher in any of the colonies until Collins was pressured into publishing a New Jersey patriot paper in 1775 (Hixson). It was in the cities of Connecticut that newspaper discussion of slavery occurred most frequently. Indeed, three of the four Connecticut newspapers gave more space to the dialogue, on a more frequent basis, than the rest of the colonies put together.

    How to account for the Connecticut record? Most evident was...

  13. Chapter Eight Insurrection
    (pp. 132-153)

    In the early fall of 1774, Abigail Adams informed John that a Boston “conspiracy of the Negroes” had failed. This was not the usual conspiracy of revolt. Adams was referring to the presentation of two petitions by Boston’s black leaders to General Thomas Gage, the British commander-in-chief in America, “telling him that they would fight for him provided he would arm them and engage to liberate them if he conquered” (Adams Family1:161).

    This was not news that a reader could find in the Boston newspapers. Although the colonial press had not been adverse to printing stories that engaged colonial...

  14. Conclusion Propaganda and Patriotism
    (pp. 154-158)

    Early in his national career, Abraham Lincoln argued that the founding fathers, understanding slavery was wrong but finding its eradication a practical impossibility at the establishment of the national government, “hedged and hemmed it in to the narrowest limits of necessity.” The word “slavery” was not even allowed in the Constitution, Lincoln told his audience of Nebraska-Kansas Act opponents, in order to indicate that “the cutting may begin at the end of a given time” (Donald 176).

    The antislavery legislation that began to occur even before independence was won upholds the traditional view that the Revolution included the tacit promise...

  15. Works Cited
    (pp. 159-176)
  16. Index
    (pp. 177-184)