Identity During the Revolution

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the impact of the American Revolution on enslaved laborers and Native Americans
  • Describe the impact of the American Revolution on women

Enslaved Laborers and the Revolution

While some enslaved laborers who fought for the Patriot cause received their freedom, revolutionary leaders—unlike the British—did not grant such enslaved laborers their freedom as a matter of course. Washington, the owner of more than two hundred enslaved people during the Revolution, refused to let enslaved laborers serve in the army, although he did allow free Black men to serve. (In his will, Washington did free his enslaved laborers.) In the new United States, the Revolution largely reinforced a racial identity based on skin color. Whiteness, now a national identity, denoted freedom and stood as the key to power. Blackness, more than ever before, denoted servile status. Indeed, despite their class and ethnic differences, White revolutionaries stood mostly united in their hostility to both Black and Indigenous peoples.

Boyrereau Brinch and Boston King on the Revolutionary War

A painting depicts four American soldiers, one of whom is black.

Figure 1. Jean-Baptiste-Antoine de Verger created this 1781 watercolor, which depicts American soldiers at the Siege of Yorktown. Verger was an officer in the French army fighting with the American forces, and his diary holds firsthand accounts of his experiences in the campaigns of 1780 and 1781. This image contains one of the earliest known representations of a black Continental soldier.


In the Revolutionary War, some Black men, both free and enslaved, chose to fight for the Americans. Others chose to fight for the British, who offered them freedom for joining their cause. Read the excerpts below for the perspective of a Black veteran from each side of the conflict.

Boyrereau Brinch was captured in Africa at age sixteen and brought to America as a slave. He joined the Patriot forces and was honorably discharged and emancipated after the war. He told his story to Benjamin Prentiss, who published it as The Blind African Slave in 1810.

Finally, I was in the battles at Cambridge, White Plains, Monmouth, Princeton, Newark, Frog’s Point, Horseneck where I had a ball pass through my knapsack. All which battels [sic] the reader can obtain a more perfect account of in history, than I can give. At last we returned to West Point and were discharged [1783], as the war was over. Thus was I, a slave for five years fighting for liberty. After we were disbanded, I returned to my old master at Woodbury [Connecticut], with whom I lived one year, my services in the American war, having emancipated me from further slavery, and from being bartered or sold. . . . Here I enjoyed the pleasures of a freeman; my food was sweet, my labor pleasure: and one bright gleam of life seemed to shine upon me.

Boston King was a Charleston-born enslaved laborer who escaped his master and joined the Loyalists. He made his way to Nova Scotia and later Sierra Leone, where he published his memoirs in 1792. The excerpt below describes his experience in New York after the war.

When I arrived at New-York, my friends rejoiced to see me once more restored to liberty, and joined me in praising the Lord for his mercy and goodness. . . . [In 1783] the horrors and devastation of war happily terminated, and peace was restored between America and Great Britain, which diffused universal joy among all parties, except us, who had escaped from slavery and taken refuge in the English army; for a report prevailed at New-York, that all the slaves, in number 2000, were to be delivered up to their masters, altho’ some of them had been three or four years among the English. This dreadful rumour filled us all with inexpressible anguish and terror, especially when we saw our old masters coming from Virginia, North-Carolina, and other parts, and seizing upon their slaves in the streets of New-York, or even dragging them out of their beds. Many of the slaves had very cruel masters, so that the thoughts of returning home with them embittered life to us. For some days we lost our appetite for food, and sleep departed from our eyes. The English had compassion upon us in the day of distress, and issued out a Proclamation, importing, That all slaves should be free, who had taken refuge in the British lines, and claimed the sanction and privileges of the Proclamations respecting the security and protection of Negroes. In consequence of this, each of us received a certificate from the commanding officer at New-York, which dispelled all our fears, and filled us with joy and gratitude.

What do these two narratives have in common, and how are they different? How do the two men describe freedom?

For enslaved laborers willing to run away and join the British, the American Revolution offered a unique occasion to escape bondage. Of the half a million enslaved people in the American colonies during the Revolution, twenty thousand joined the British cause. At Yorktown, for instance, thousands of Black troops fought with Lord Cornwallis. Enslaved laborers belonging to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and other revolutionaries seized the opportunity for freedom and fled to the British side. Between ten and twenty thousand enslaved laborers gained their freedom because of the Revolution; arguably, the Revolution created the largest slave uprising and the greatest emancipation until the Civil War. After the Revolution, some of these African Loyalists emigrated to Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa. Others left to Canada and England. It is also true that Black people made heroic contributions to the cause of American independence. However, while the British offered enslaved laborers freedom, most American revolutionaries clung to notions of Black inferiority.

Native Americans and the Revolution

Powerful Native Americans who had allied themselves with the British, including the Mohawk and the Creek, also remained loyal to the Empire. A Mohawk named Joseph Brant, whose given name was Thayendanegea, rose to prominence while fighting for the British during the Revolution. He joined forces with Colonel Barry St. Leger during the 1777 campaign, which ended with the surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga. After the war, Brant moved to the Six Nations reserve in Canada. From his home on the shores of Lake Ontario, he remained active in efforts to restrict White encroachment onto Indian lands. After their defeat, the British did not keep their promises to help their Native American allies hold on to their territory; in fact, the Treaty of Paris granted the United States huge amounts of supposedly British-owned regions that were actually Native American lands.

A portrait of Joseph Brant (a) made in 1786 is shown beside a portrait of Brant made in 1797 (b). In both, Brant wears a cloak or blanket over a collared shirt, a large piece of jewelry around his neck, and a feathered headdress.

Figure 2. What similarities can you see in these two portraits of Joseph Brant, one by Gilbert Stuart in 1786 (a) and one by Charles Wilson Peale in 1797 (b)? What are the differences? Why do you think the artists made the specific choices they did?

The 1783 Treaty of Paris did not specifically address Native Americans at all. All lands held by the British east of the Mississippi and south of the Great Lakes (except Spanish Florida) now belonged to the new American republic. Earlier in the eighteenth century, a “middle ground” had existed between powerful native groups in the West and British and French imperial zones, a place where the various groups interacted and accommodated each other. As had happened in the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion, the Revolutionary War turned the middle ground into a battle zone that no one group controlled.

A map shows the territorial divisions in North America in 1783. British, French, Spanish, and U.S. Territory are shaded. Louisiana, Florida, and New Spain are labeled within Spanish Territory, which includes most of the present-day U.S. west of the Mississippi as well as Mexico and Central America. Quebec, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia are labeled within British Territory, which includes much of present-day Canada. The United States of America is labeled within U.S. Territory, which is bordered on the west by the Mississippi River. French Territory is limited to present-day Haiti.

Figure 3. The 1783 Treaty of Paris divided North America into territories belonging to the United States and several European countries, but it failed to address Indian lands at all.

During the Revolution, a complex situation existed among Native Americans. Many villages remained neutral. Some Native groups, such as the Delaware, split into factions, with some supporting the British while others maintained neutrality. The Iroquois Confederacy, a longstanding alliance of tribes, also split up: the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Seneca fought on the British side, while the Oneida and Tuscarora supported the revolutionaries. Ohio River Valley tribes such as the Shawnee, Miami, and Mungo had been fighting for years against colonial expansion west; these groups supported the British. Some Native peoples who had previously allied with the French hoped the conflict between the colonies and Great Britain might lead to French intervention and the return of French rule. Few Native peoples sided with the American revolutionaries, because almost all revolutionaries in the middle ground viewed Indians as an enemy to be destroyed. This racial hatred toward Native peoples found expression in the American massacre of ninety-six Christian Delaware in 1782. Most of the dead were women and children.

After the war, the victorious Americans turned a deaf ear to Native Americans’ claims to what the revolutionaries saw as their hard-won land, and they moved aggressively to assert control over western New York and Pennsylvania. In response, Mohawk leader Joseph Brant helped form the Western Confederacy, an alliance of Native peoples who pledged to resist American intrusion into what was then called the Northwest. The Northwest Indian War (1785–1795) ended with the defeat of the Indians and their claims. Under the Treaty of Greenville (1795), the United States gained dominion over land in Ohio.

Try It

Women and the War

In colonial America, women shouldered enormous domestic and child-rearing responsibilities. The war for independence only increased their workload and, in some ways, solidified their roles. Rebel leaders required women to produce articles for war—everything from clothing to foodstuffs—while also keeping their homesteads going. This was not an easy task when their husbands and sons were away fighting. Women were also expected to provide food and lodging for armies and to nurse wounded soldiers.

The Revolution opened some new doors for women, however, as they took on public roles usually reserved for men. The Daughters of Liberty, an informal organization formed in the mid-1760s to oppose British revenue-raising measures, worked tirelessly to support the war effort. Esther DeBerdt Reed of Philadelphia, wife of Governor Joseph Reed, formed the Ladies Association of Philadelphia and led a fundraising drive to provide sorely needed supplies to the Continental Army. In “The Sentiments of an American Woman” (1780), she wrote to other women, “The time is arrived to display the same sentiments which animated us at the beginning of the Revolution, when we renounced the use of teas, however agreeable to our taste, rather than receive them from our persecutors; when we made it appear to them that we placed former necessaries in the rank of superfluities, when our liberty was interested; when our republican and laborious hands spun the flax, prepared the linen intended for the use of our soldiers; when exiles and fugitives we supported with courage all the evils which are the concomitants of war.” Reed and other elite women in Philadelphia raised almost $300,000 in Continental money for the war.

Link to Learning

Read the entire text of Esther Reed’s “The Sentiments of “The Sentiments of an American Woman” on a page hosted by the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Women who did not share Reed’s elite status nevertheless played key economic roles by producing homespun cloth and food. During shortages, some women formed mobs and wrested supplies from those who hoarded them. Crowds of women beset merchants and demanded fair prices for goods; if a merchant refused, a riot would ensue. Still other women accompanied the army as “camp followers,” serving as cooks, washerwomen, and nurses. A few also took part in combat and proved their equality with men through violence against the hated British.

The Legal Status of Women

In eighteenth-century America, as in Great Britain, the legal status of married women was defined as coverture, meaning a married woman (or feme covert) had no legal or economic status independent of her husband. She could not conduct business or buy and sell property. Her husband controlled any property she brought to the marriage, although he could not sell it without her agreement. Married women’s status did not change as a result of the Revolution, and wives remained economically dependent on their husbands. The women of the newly independent nation did not call for the right to vote, but some, especially the wives of elite republican statesmen, began to agitate for equality under the law between husbands and wives, and for the same educational opportunities as men.

Some women hoped to overturn coverture. From her home in Braintree, Massachusetts, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, Patriot leader John Adams, in 1776, “In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestor. Do not put such unlimited power in the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.” Abigail Adams ran the family homestead during the Revolution, but she did not have the ability to conduct business without her husband’s consent. Elsewhere in the famous 1776 letter quoted above, she speaks of the difficulties of running the homestead when her husband is away. Her frustration grew when her husband responded in an April 1776 letter: “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient—that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent—that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. . . . Depend on it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.”

A portrait of Abigail Adams is shown in image (a). Her hair is tied back in a simple style and she wears a silk gown and a pearl choker. Her husband, John Adams, is shown in image (b). He has powdered hair and wears a brown, high-collared coat and a cravat.

Figure 4. Abigail Adams (a), shown here in a 1766 portrait by Benjamin Blythe, is best remembered for her eloquent letters to her husband, John Adams (b), who would later become the second president of the United States.

Another privileged member of the revolutionary generation, Mercy Otis Warren, also challenged gender assumptions and traditions during the revolutionary era. Born in Massachusetts, Warren actively opposed British reform measures before the outbreak of fighting in 1775 by publishing anti-British works. In 1812, she published a three-volume history of the Revolution, a project she had started in the late 1770s. By publishing her work, Warren stepped out of the female sphere and into male-dominated public life.

Inspired by the Revolution, Judith Sargent Murray of Massachusetts advocated women’s economic independence and equal educational opportunities for men and women. Murray, who came from a well-to-do family in Gloucester, questioned why boys were given access to education as a birthright while girls had very limited educational opportunities. She began to publish her ideas about educational equality beginning in the 1780s, arguing that God had made the minds of women and men equal.

Painting (a) is a portrait of Judith Sargent Murray. Painting (b) is a portrait of Mercy Otis Warren. Both women wear silk dresses and pose with flowers.

Figure 5. John Singleton Copley’s 1772 portrait of Judith Sargent Murray (a) and 1763 portrait of Mercy Otis Warren (b) show two of America’s earliest advocates for women’s rights. Notice how their fine silk dresses telegraph their privileged social status.

Murray’s more radical ideas championed woman’s economic independence. She argued that a woman’s education should be extensive enough to allow her to maintain herself—and her family—if there was no male breadwinner. Indeed, Murray was able to make money of her own from her publications. Her ideas were both radical and traditional, however: Murray also believed that women were much better at raising children and maintaining the morality and virtue of the family than men.

Adams, Murray, and Warren all came from privileged backgrounds. All three were fully literate, while many women in the American republic were not. Their literacy and station allowed them to push for new roles for women in the atmosphere of unique possibilities created by the Revolution and its promise of change. Female authors who published their work provide evidence of how women in the era of the American Revolution challenged traditional gender roles.

How Revolutionary was the Revolution?

Certainly, the English colonies won their independence, and the system of government they would eventually adopt would not be a monarchy; neither was it a full-fledged democracy, as the continued subjugation of enslaved persons, women, and Native Americans attests.

Historians are generally divided into two camps in their interpretation of the American Revolution. Some historians argue that the Revolution was primarily a colonial rebellion whose aim was simply independence from Britain. According to these historians, colonial society was essentially a democratic society, and the Revolution sought to maintain the status quo. Other historians take a more radical view of the Revolution, seeing it as a violent social upheaval that was the result of a class conflict in which the lower classes of colonial society attempted to implement a greater degree of democracy and attain greater equality.

Historical interpretation of the Revolution has shifted in the years since it occurred. Historians who wrote in eras when nationalism was an important ideal or issue tended to view the Revolution as a radical event that helped to forge greater unity among the colonists and a greater degree of liberty. In the twentieth century, historians began to look more critically at nationalistic views. These historians argued that the American Revolution should be understood within the context of the British Empire as a whole, and that British policy was justified. Essentially, the Revolution represented a conflict between two incompatible societies. Still, others argued that social and economic issues were the root cause of the Revolution. These historians saw the Revolution as a radical turning point in American history, in which the dispossessed lower classes advanced their cause and attained greater rights and equality.

These debates continue today. In fact, few topics in American history have elicited such a wide range of interpretations. More recently, historians have emphasized a middle way, focusing both on the social changes the Revolution wrought, and the radical shift in political orientation. Undoubtedly, further examinations of this momentous event will continue to emerge in the years to come.

Watch It

This video recaps some of the major aspects of the Revolutionary War and also touches on how the Revolution both changed, and did not change, life for people in America.

You can view the transcript for “Who Won the American Revolution?: Crash Course US History #7” here (opens in new window).

Try It

Critical Thinking Questions

  • How did the condition of certain groups, such as women, Black people, and Indians, reveal a contradiction in the Declaration of Independence?
  • What was the effect and importance of Great Britain’s promise of freedom to enslaved people who joined the British side?
  • How did the Revolutionary War provide both new opportunities and new challenges for enslaved laborers and free Black people in America?


coverture: A legal principle in which a married woman has no legal or economic status independent of her husband. She cannot conduct business or buy and sell property.