In recognition of American Independence Day, we present this adapted excerpt — on the important role played by multiracial seaport crowds in the American Revolution, and the counterrevolution that would foreclose their participation in the nation to come — from Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic.
In October 1765 a mob of sailors wearing blackface and masks, armed with clubs and cutlasses, visited the home of a wealthy Charleston merchant named Henry Laurens. Eighty strong and warm with drink and anger, they had come to protest the Stamp Act, recently passed by Parliament to raise tax revenues in the American colonies. Responding to the rumor that Laurens had stored in his home the stamped paper everyone would be forced to buy in order to conduct the business of daily life, they chanted, "Liberty, Liberty, & Stamp’d Paper," and demanded that he turn it over so that they could destroy it in an act of defiance. Laurens was rattled, as he later explained: they "not only menaced very loudly but now & then handled me pretty uncouthly." Finally convinced that Laurens did not have the paper, the men dispersed across the waterfront, shedding their disguises and straggling into the smoky taverns and bare boarding houses, onto the damp wharves and creaky ships. Their protest had consequences. Parliament, taken aback by colonial resistance, would soon repeal the Stamp Act. And in Charleston, one thing would lead to another, as another mob would meet in January 1766 to cry again for liberty. This time the protesters were African slaves, whose action caused greater fear and "vast trouble throughout the province." Armed patrols stalked the city’s streets for almost two weeks, but the tumult continued. Since Charleston’s harbor was crowded with ships, the seafarers were soon "in motion and commotion again," styling themselves, said a cynical Laurens, the "Protectors of Liberty." South Carolina Governor William Bull would later look back over the events of late 1765 and early 1766 and blame Charleston’s turmoil on "disorderly negroes, and more disorderly sailors."
Laurens and Bull identified a revolutionary subject often described by contemporaries as a "motley crew," which has rarely been discussed in histories of the American Revolution. It is a subject whose history we have traced from the hydrarchy of the 1710s and 1720s to the slave revolts and urban insurrections of the 1730s and 1740s. The defeat of these movements allowed slavery and maritime trade to expand, as gangs of slaves extended plantation acreage and gangs of sailors manned ever growing fleets of naval and merchant vessels. Britain confirmed its primacy as the world’s greatest capitalist power by defeating France in the Seven Years’ War in 1763, protecting and enlarging its lucrative colonial empire and opening vast new territories in North America and the Caribbean for the hewing of wood and the drawing of water. And yet at the very moment of imperial triumph, slaves and sailors began a new cycle of rebellion.
Operations on sea and land, from mutiny to insurrection, made the motley crew the driving force of a revolutionary crisis in the 1760s and 1770s. Such actions helped to destabilize imperial civil society and pushed America toward the world’s first modern colonial war for liberation. By energizing and leading the movement from below, the motley crew shaped the social, organizational, and intellectual histories of the era and demonstrated that the American Revolution was neither an elite nor a national event, since its genesis, process, outcome, and influence all depended on the circulation of proletarian experience around the Atlantic. That circulation would continue into the 1780s, as the veterans of the revolutionary movement in America carried their knowledge and experience to the eastern Atlantic, initiating pan-Africanism, advancing abolitionism, and assisting in the revival of dormant traditions of revolutionary thought and action in England and, more broadly, in Europe. The motley crew would help to break apart the first British empire and to inaugurate the Atlantic’s age of revolution.
For our purposes, two distinct meanings of "motley crew" must be defined. The first of these refers to an organized gang of workers, a squad of people performing either similar tasks or different ones contributing to a single goal. The gangs of the tobacco and sugar plantations were essential to the accumulation of wealth in early America. Equally essential were the crews assembled from the ship’s company, or ship’s people, for a particular, temporary purpose, such as sailing a ship, undertaking an amphibious assault, or collecting wood and water. These crews knew how to pull together, or to act in unison, not least because they labored beneath the whip. The first meaning, then, is technical and specific to the plantation and maritime labor processes. The economies of the eighteenth-century Atlantic depended on this unit of human cooperation.
The second meaning describes a sociopolitical formation of the eighteenth-century port or town. The "motley crew" in this sense was closely related to the urban mob and the revolutionary crowd, which, as we shall see, were usually armed agglomerations of various crews and gangs that possessed their own motility and were often independent of leadership from above. They provided the driving force from the Stamp Act crisis to the "Wilkes and Liberty" riots to the series of risings of the American Revolution. The revolts of the eighteenth-century Atlantic depended on this broader social form of cooperation.
When we say the crew was motley, we mean that it was multiethnic. This was, as we have noted, characteristic of the recruitment of ships’ crews during and after the expansion of the maritime state under Cromwell. Such diversity was an expression of defeat — consider the deliberate mixing of languages and ethnicities in the packing of slave ships — but that defeat was transformed into strength by agency, as when a pan-African, and then an African American, identity was formed from the various ethnicities and cultures. Original “ethnic” designations, such as the “free-born Englishman,” could thus become generalized, as shown by our study of the African sailor Olaudah Equiano, below.
Over time, the second (political) meaning emerged from the first (technical) one, broadening the cooperation, extending the range of activity, and transferring command from overseers or petty officers to the group itself. This transition was manifested in the actions of the motley crew in the streets of the port cities: as sailors moved from ship to shore, they joined waterfront communities of dockers, porters, and laborers, freedom-seeking slaves, footloose youth from the country, and fugitives of various kinds. At the peak of revolutionary possibility, the motley crew appeared as a synchronicity or an actual coordination among the “risings of the people” of the port cities, the resistance of African American slaves, and Indian struggles on the frontier. Tom Paine feared precisely this combination, but it never actually materialized. On the contrary, as we shall see, the reversal of revolutionary dynamics, toward thermidor, shifted the milieu of the motley crew, as refugees, boat people, evacuees, and prisoners gave human form to defeat.
The trajectories of rebellion among sailors and slaves intersected in seaport mobs, those rowdy gatherings of thousands of men and women that created the crisis in the North American colonies. Like the New York conspirators of 1741, sailors and slaves fraternized in grogshops, dancing cellars, and “disorderly houses,” in Philadelphia’s Hell Town and elsewhere, despite efforts by authorities to criminalize and prevent such meetings. They had been gathering together in Boston’s northside and southside mobs since the 1740s. Indeed, perhaps the single most common description of the mob in revolutionary America was as a “Rabble of boys, sailors, and negroes.” Moreover, on almost every occasion when a crowd went beyond the planned objectives of the moderate leaders of the patriot movement, sailors and often slaves led the way. Motley mobs were central to protests against the Stamp Act (1765), the Quartering Acts (1765, 1764), the Townshend Revenue Act (1767), the increased power of the British customs service (1764–1774), the Tea Act (1773), and the Intolerable Acts (1774). As multiethnic mobs helped to revive old ideas and to generate new ones, they were denounced as a many-headed hydra.
Multiracial mobs helped to win numerous victories for the revolutionary movement, especially, as we have seen, against impressment. The heterogeneous rioters of Boston, as we have also seen, inspired new ideas in 1747. In 1765, “Sailors, boys, and Negroes to the number of above Five Hundred” rioted against impressment in Newport, Rhode Island, and in 1767 a mob of "Whites & Blacks all arm’d" attacked Captain Jeremiah Morgan in a press riot in Norfolk. A mob of sailors, "sturdy boys & negroes" rose in the Liberty Riot in Boston in 1768. Jesse Lemisch has noted that after , "armed mobs of whites and Negroes repeatedly manhandled captains, officers, and crews, threatened their lives, and held them hostage for the men they pressed." Authorities such as Cadwallader Colden of New York knew that royal fortifications had to be "sufficient to secure against the Negroes or a mob."
Why did African Americans fight the press-gang? Some probably considered impressment a death sentence and sought to avoid the pestilence and punishment that ravaged the men of the Royal Navy. Others joined anti-impressment mobs to preserve bonds of family or some degree of freedom that they had won for themselves. And many may have been drawn to the fight by the language and principles of the struggle against impressment, for on every dock, in every port, everywhere around the Atlantic, sailors denounced the practice as slavery plain and simple. Michael Corbett and several of his brother tars fought against being forced on board a man-of-war in the port of Boston in 1769, claiming that “they preferred death to such a life as they deemed slavery.” The Baptist minister John Allen reiterated what countless sailors had expressed in action and what Sam Adams had written years before: The people “have a right, by the law of God, of nature, and nations, to reluct at, and even to resist any military or marine force.” Allen then compared one form of enslavement to another. The press-gang, he insisted, “ought ever to be held in the most hateful contempt, the same as you would a banditti of slavemakers on the coast of Africa.” Salt was the seasoning of the antislavery movement.
The motley crew led a broad array of people into resistance against the Stamp Act, which taxed the colonists by requiring stamps for the sale and use of various commodities. Since the act affected all classes of people, all were involved in the protests, though sailors were singled out by many observers for their oppositional leadership and spirit. The refusal to use stamped paper (and to pay the tax) slowed commerce, which meant that idle sailors, turned ashore without wages, became a volatile force in every port. Royal officials everywhere would have agreed with the customs agent in New York who saw the power of the "Mob . . . daily increasing and gathering Strength, from the arrival of seaman, and none going out, and who are the people that are most dangerous on these occasions, as their whole dependence for subsistence is upon trade." Peter Oliver noted that after the Stamp Act riots, “The Hydra was roused. Every factious Mouth vomited out curses against Great Britain, & the Press rung its changes against Slavery.”
Boston’s mob took angry action against the property of stamp distributor Andrew Oliver on August 14, 1765, then twelve days later turned an even fiercer wrath against the house and refined belongings of Thomas Hutchinson, who cried out at the crowd, “You are so many Masaniellos!” Others who detested the mob later singled out its leader, Ebenezer MacIntosh, as the incarnation of the shoeless fisherman of Naples. Sailors soon carried the news and experience of the tumults in Boston to Newport, where loyalists Thomas Moffat and Martin Howard, Jr., suffered the same fate as Hutchinson on August . In Newport, where the mercantile economy depended upon the labor of sailors and dockworkers, the resistance to the Stamp Act was spearheaded by John Webber, probably a sailor and according to one report a “deserted convict.” A band of sailors known as the Sons of Neptune then led three thousand rioters in an attack on New York’s Fort George, the fortress of royal authority. They followed the example of the insurrection of when they tried to burn it to the ground. In Wilmington, North Carolina, a “furious Mobb of Sailors &c.” forced the stamp distributor to resign. Sailors also led mass actions against the Stamp Act in Antigua, St. Kitts, and Nevis, where they "behaved like young Lions.” Mob action continued in resistance to the Townshend Revenue Act and the renewed power of the British customs service in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Seamen drew on maritime custom to add a weapon to the arsenal of justice, using tar and feathers to intimidate British officials. The clunk of the brush in the tar bucket echoed behind Thomas Gage’s observation in 1769 that “the Officers of the Crown grow more timid, and more fearfull of doing their Duty every Day.”
The burning of the customs schooner Gaspee in Newport in 1772 proved to be another decisive moment for the revolutionary movement. “Lawless seamen” had often taken direct action against customs men, in Newport and elsewhere. After the Gaspee ran aground, sixty to seventy men swarmed out of three longboats to board the ship, capture the despised Lieutenant William Dudingston, take him and his crew ashore, and set the vessel afire. The troublemakers were subsequently charged with “high treason, viz.: levying war against the King,” which sailors’ burning of the king’s vessels had long signified. Merchants, farmers, and artisans may have been involved in the Gaspee affair, but sailors were clearly the leaders, as concluded by Daniel Horsmanden, who brought his experience in presiding over the trials of the New York conspirators of 1741 to bear as head of the king’s commission to investigate this new incident. The act of burning the vessel, he wrote, had been “committed by a number of bold, daring, rash enterprising sailors.” Horsmanden did not know if someone else had organized these men of the sea or if they had simply “banded themselves together.”
Seamen also led both the Golden Hill and Nassau Street Riots in New York City and the King Street Riot in Boston, better remembered as the Boston Massacre. In both ports, sailors and other maritime workers resented the British soldiers who labored for lower-than-customary wages along the waterfront; in New York they also objected to the soldiers’ attacks on their fifty-eight-foot liberty pole (a ship’s mast). Rioting and street fighting ensued. Thomas Hutchinson and John Adams believed that the events in New York and Boston were related, perhaps through common participants. Adams, who defended the British soldiers at trial, called the mob that assembled on King Street on “the Fatal Fifth of March” nothing but a “motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues, and outlandish Jack Tarrs.” Their leader was Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave of African American and Native American descent whose home was the small free black community of Providence in the Bahama Islands. Seamen also took part in the direct actions of the several Tea Parties, after which Thomas Lamb exclaimed in New York, “We are in a perfect Jubilee!”
By the summer of 1775, seamen and slaves had helped to generate an enthusiasm described by Peter Timothy: “In regard to War & Peace, I can only tell you that the Plebeians are still for War—but the noblesse [are] perfectly pacific.” Ten years of insurrectionary direct action had brought the colonies to the brink of revolution. As early as during the Stamp Act protests of 1765, General Thomas Gage had recognized the menace of the mob: “This Insurrection is composed of great numbers of Sailors headed by Captains of Privateers,” as well as many people from the surrounding area, the whole amounting to “some thousands.” Late in 1776, Lord Barrington of the British Army claimed that colonial governments in North America had been “overturned by insurrections last summer, because there was not a sufficient force to defend them.” Sailors, laborers, slaves, and other poor workingmen provided much of the spark, volatility, momentum, and sustained militancy for the attack on British policy after 1765. During the Revolutionary War, they took part in mob actions that harassed Tories and diminished their political effectiveness.
“I found myself surrounded by a motley crew of wretches, with tethered garments and pallid visages,” wrote Thomas Dring as he began his imprisonment in aboard the notorious hulk Jersey, a British man-of-war serving as a prison ship in the East River of New York. Many thousands, especially sailors, were charged with being “pirates” and “traitors” and herded into British prisons and prison ships after 1776. Philip Freneau, who spent two months in the Scorpion hulk, “doom’d to famine, shackles and despair," composed "The British Prison Ship,” one of the era’s greatest poems, in 1780:
Hunger and thirst to work our woe combine, And mouldy bread, and flesh of rotten swine, The mangled carcase, and the batter’d brain, The doctor’s poison, and the captain’s cane, The soldier’s musquet, and the steward’s debt, The evening shackle, and the noon-day threat.
Amid the hunger, thirst, rot, gore, terror, and violence, and the deaths of seven or eight thousand of their fellow inmates during the war, the prisoners organized themselves according to egalitarian, collectivist, revolutionary principles. What had once functioned, as “articles” among seamen and pirates now became a Code of By-Laws . . . for their own regulation and government.’ Equal before the rats, the smallpox, and the guard’s cutlass, they practiced democracy, working to distribute food and clothing fairly, to provide medical care, to bury their dead. On one ship a common sailor spoke between decks on Sundays to honor those who died "in vindication of the rights of Man." A captain who looked back with surprise on the self-organization of the prisoners remarked that the seamen were "of that class . . . who are not easily controlled, and usually not the most ardent supporters of good order." But the sailors drew on the tradition of hydrarchy as they implemented the order of the day: they governed themselves.
The motley crew thus provided an image of revolution from below that proved terrifying to Tories and moderate patriots alike. In his famous but falsified engraving of the Boston Massacre, Paul Revere tried to render the "motley rabble" respectable by leaving black faces out of the crowd and putting in entirely too many gentlemen. The South Carolina Council of Safety complained bitterly of the attacks of sailors — both "white and black armed men" — in December 1775. Elite colonists reached readily for images of monstrosity, calling the mob a "Hydra," a "many-headed monster," a "reptile," and a "many-headed power.” Many-headedness implied democracy run wild, as Joseph Chalmers explained: A government that is too democratic "becomes a many-headed monster, a tyranny of many." Against the revolutionary soldiers and sailors who fought beneath the banner of the serpent and the motto "Don’t Tread on Me," John Adams proposed Hercules as the symbol for the new nation.
Multiracial mobs under the leadership of maritime workers thus helped simultaneously to create the imperial crisis of the 1770s and to propose a revolutionary solution to it. The militancy of multiracial workers in Boston, Newport, New York, and Charleston led to the formation of the Sons of Liberty, the earliest intercolonial organization to coordinate anti-imperial resistance. Richard B. Morris wrote that New York’s sailors "were organized as the Sons of Neptune, apparently antedating the Sons of Liberty, for whom they may well have provided the pattern of organization." The commotion around the Gaspee incident of 1772 set in motion a new round of organization, for in the aftermath of this bold action, another revolutionary institution, the committee of correspondence, was established throughout the colonies. To loyalist Daniel Leonard, such committees were the "foulest, subtlest, and most venomous serpent ever issued from the egg of sedition." But if the motley crew shaped the organizational history of the American Revolution, it had, as we have seen, an even greater impact upon its intellectual history, influencing the ideas of Samuel Adams, J. Philmore, James Otis, Jr., Anthony Benezet, Thomas Paine, and John Allen. Action from below taken in Boston, in Saint Mary’s Parish, Jamaica, and in London perpetuated old ideas and generated new ones that would circulate around the Atlantic for decades to come.
One of the main ideas kept alive by multiracial seaport crowds was the antinomian notion that moral conscience stood above the civil law of the state and therefore legitimized resistance to oppression, whether against a corrupt minister of empire, a tyrannical slaveowner, or a violent ship’s captain. David S. Lovejoy has convincingly shown that a levelling spirit and an antinomian disdain of laws and government lay within the rising "political enthusiasm" of the revolutionary era. Explosive mobs consistently expressed such enthusiasm, moving Benjamin Rush to name a new type of insanity: anarchia, the "excessive love of liberty." The higher-law doctrine historically associated with antinomianism would appear in secular form in the Declaration of Independence, denounced in its own day as an instance of "civil antinomianism.”
In its struggle against impressment, the motley crew drew on ideas dating from the English Revolution, when Thomas Rainborough and the revolutionary movement of the s had denounced slavery. In the second Agreement of the Free People of England (May), the Levellers had explained the antinomian basis of their opposition to impressment: "We the free People of England" declared to the world that Parliament had no power to press any man into war, for each person must have the right to satisfy his own conscience as to the justice of such war. The Levellers thus made man and his conscience (not the citizen) the subject of declaration, and life (not the nation) its object. Peter Warren was correct when he claimed that the sailors of New England were "almost Levellers"; as such, they expressed their opposition to impressment and to slavery more broadly, influenced Jefferson, Paine, and a whole generation of thinkers, and showed that revolutionary confrontation between upper and lower classes in the 1640s — and not the compromises of within the ruling orders — was the true precedent to the events of 1776.
When the Tory Peter Oliver complained that the press rang the changes against slavery, he was referring to bell-ringing, and to all the permutations in which a peal of bells might be rung. He suggested a dreary drone, but we can posit a campanology of freedom.When a single bell among a tuned set is struck, its reverberations cause its neighbors to emit harmonious overtones, and when several are struck rapidly, the result is a rhythm of cascading excitement. What were the "changes against slavery" in the age of the American Revolution? There were patriot bells, clamoring with mounting insistence, and there were the loud, long reverberations struck by the distinctive notes — Tacky’s Revolt, the Stamp Act crisis — of the motley crew. The patriots struck against several meanings of slavery: taxation without representation, denial of free trade, limitations on the press, ecclesiastical intolerance, and the expense and intrusions of a standing army. Sailors and slaves, meanwhile, opposed other meanings: impressment, terror, working to death, kidnapping, and forcible confinement. Both groups objected to arbitrary arrest and judgment without peers or juries. These tolling bells revived distant, deeper memories from the English Revolution. Hence the importance of habeas corpus, or freedom from imprisonment without due process of law, the deepest tone in freedom’s peal and fundamental to sailor, slave, and citizen. In the cycle of the American Revolution, Tacky struck the tocsin of freedom’s uprising, and the Philadelphia Convention sounded the knell of its death, though the murmuring undertones would continue, in diminuendo, and in San Domingue.
If the motley crew’s audacious actions gave motion to the multiclass movement toward independence, they also generated commotion within it — fear, ambivalence, and opposition. In New York, for example, the Sons of Liberty came into being as a reaction against the "threatened anarchy" of autonomous risings against the press and the Stamp Act in 1764 and 1765. Everywhere the Sons began to advertise themselves as the guarantors of good order, as the necessary counterpoint to the upheaval within which they themselves had been born. By 1766 the propertied opponents of British policy had declared themselves for "ordered resistance." In the aftermath of the Boston Massacre in 1770, John Adams defended the redcoats and made an explicitly racist appeal in court, claiming that the looks of the Afro-Indian sailor Crispus Attucks "would be enough to terrify any person." But in 1773 he wrote a letter about liberty, addressed it to Thomas Hutchinson, and signed it, "Crispus Attucks." Adams dreaded the motley crew, but he knew that it had made the revolutionary movement.
Similar contradictions haunted Thomas Jefferson, who acknowledged the motley crew but feared its challenge to his own vision of America’s future. Jefferson included in the Declaration of Independence the complaint that King George III had "constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands." He (and Congress) included sailors in the revolutionary coalition but tendentiously simplified their history and role within the movement, leaving out the war of classes and emphasizing only the war of nations. The passage also lacks the graceful wording and lofty tone of the rest of the Declaration: it seems awkward, confused, especially in its indecision about how to classify the sailor (citizen, friend, brother?). Jefferson employed the "most tremendous words," as Carl Becker said of the draft prose concerning African slavery, but "the passage somehow leaves us cold." There is in it a "sense of labored effort, of deliberate striving for an effect that does not come." As it happened, Jefferson added the words about impressment as an afterthought, squeezing them into his rough draft of the Declaration. He knew that the labor market was a serious problem in that mercantile age and that commerce would depend on sailors, whether America remained within the British Empire or not.
Thomas Paine knew it, too. He also denounced impressment, but he was more concerned in Common Sense to reassure American merchants about the maritime labor supply after the revolution: "In point of manning a fleet, people in general run into great errors; it is not necessary that one fourth part should be sailors. . . . A few able and social sailors will soon instruct a sufficient number of active landmen in the common work of a ship." This had been his own experience aboard the Terrible, a privateer, during the Seven Years’ War, which led him to argue that sailors, shipbuilders, and the maritime sector as a whole constituted a viable economic basis for a new American nation. (He failed to mention that the crew of the vessel had been motley and mutinous.) The only question remaining was how to obtain independence: should it be done from above, by the legal voice of Congress, or should it be done from below, by the mob? Here Paine shared the attitudes of others of his station: he feared the motley mob (though he would think differently in the 1790s). The multitude, he explained, was reasonable in 1776, but "virtue" was not perpetual. Safeguards were necessary lest "some Massanello may hereafter arise, who laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and the discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, may sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge." His greatest fear lay in a concurrence of the struggles of urban workers, African slaves, and Native Americans.
The motley crew had helped to make the revolution, but the vanguard struck back in the 1770s and 1780s, against mobs, slaves, and sailors, in what must be considered an American Thermidor. The effort to reform the mob by removing its more militant elements began in 1776 and continued, not always successfully, through the revolution and beyond. Patriot landowners, merchants, and artisans increasingly condemned revolutionary crowds, seeking to move politics from "out of doors" into legislative chambers, in which the propertyless would have no vote and no voice. Paine, for his part, would turn against the crowd after Philadelphia’s Fort Wilson Riot of 1779. When Samuel Adams helped to draw up Massachusetts’s Riot Act of 1786, designed to be used to disperse and control the insurgents of Shays’ Rebellion, he ceased to believe that the mob "embodied the fundamental rights of man against which government itself could be judged," and detached himself from the creative democratic force that years before had given him the best idea of his life.
The moderate patriots had, since the beginning of the movement, in 1765, sought to limit the struggle for liberty by keeping slaves out of the revolutionary coalition. The place of slaves in the movement remained ambiguous until 1775, when Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, attacked the patriot tobacco planters by offering freedom to servants and slaves willing to join His Majesty’s army to reestablish order in the colony. The news of the offered liberation ran like wildfire through slave communities, and thousands deserted the plantations, inaugurating a new, mobile slave revolt of huge proportions. Some of these slaves would be organized as Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment; those who were not permitted to bear arms would seek the protection of the British army. American leaders, infuriated by the move, tried to preserve slavery, announcing in 1775 that recruiters should take no deserter, "stroller, negro, or vagabond," and reaffirming over the next year that neither free blacks nor slaves would be eligible for military service. Scarcity of labor would force reconsideration of this edict, however, especially later in the war. While five thousand African Americans fought for liberty, the American political and military leadership battled the British and some of its own soldiers to protect the institution of slavery.
The sailor would be encouraged to serve in the Continental Navy, but he was not, according to James Madison, a good citizen for a republic. What little virtue he may have had was deadened by his life as a dumb drudge at sea: "Though traversing and circumnavigating the globe, he sees nothing but the same vague objects of nature, the same monotonous occurrences in ports and docks; and at home in his vessel, what new ideas can shoot from the unvaried use of the ropes and the rudder, or from the society of comrades as ignorant as himself." Madison’s own ignorance, arrogance, or denial caused him to invert the truth, but he was right about something else: the greater the number of sailors in a republic, as he suggested, the less secure its government. Madison was joined in these attitudes by many, including the "Connecticut Wits" (David Humphreys, Joel Barlow, John Trumbull, and Dr. Lemuel Hopkins) who in wrote a poem entitled "The Anarchiad," in response to Shays’ Rebellion and in memory of the cycle of revolt in the 1760s and 1770s. The poets expressed their hatred for mobs and their ideas. They sneered at "democratic dreams," "the rights of man," and the reduction of all "to just one level." One of their darkest nightmares was what they called a "young DEMOCRACY from hell." They had not forgotten the role of sailors in the revolution: in their imagined state of anarchy, the "mighty Jacktar guides the helm." He had been "Nurs’d on the waves, in blust’ring tempests bred,/ His heart of marble, and his brain of lead." Having sailed "in the whirlwind" as a part of his work, this hard-hearted, thick-headed man naturally "enjoys the storm" of revolution. The poets alluded to the revolutionary acts of sailors when they referred to "seas of boiling tar.”
During the 1780s, such thinking came to prevail among those who made up the emerging political nation — merchants, professionals, shopkeepers, artisans, slaveowners, and yeoman farmers. Sailors and slaves, once necessary parts of the revolutionary coalition, were thus read out of the settlement at revolution’s end. Of the five workingmen killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770, John Adams had written, "The blood of the martyrs, right or wrong, proved to be the seed of the congregation." Yet had Crispus Attucks — slave, sailor, and mob leader — survived the fire of British muskets, he would not have been allowed to join the congregation, or new nation, he had helped to create. The exclusion of people like Attucks epitomized the sudden, reactionary retreat from the universalistic revolutionary language that had been forged in the heat of the 1760s and 1770s and permanently emblazoned in the Declaration of Independence. The reaction was canonized in the U.S. Constitution, which gave the new federal government the power to suppress domestic insurrections. James Madison worried in 1787 about a "levelling spirit" and an "agrarian law." The Constitution also strengthened the institution of slavery by extending the slave trade, providing for the return of fugitive slaves, and giving national political power to the plantation master class. Meanwhile, an intensive debate about the nature and capacity of "the negro" raged between 1787 and 1790. Many Baptists and Methodists backed away from antislavery positions and sought instead a "gospel made safe for the plantation." The new American ruling class redefined "race" and "citizenship" to divide and marginalize the motley crew, legislating in the 1780s and early 1790s a unified law of slavery based on white supremacy. The actions of the motley crew, and the reactions against it, help to illuminate the clashing, ambiguous nature of the American Revolution — its militant origins, radical momentum, and conservative political conclusion.
Vectors of Revolution
And yet the implications of the struggles of the 1760s and 1770s could not easily be contained, by the Sons of Liberty, Jefferson, Paine, Adams, or the new American government. Soldiers who fought in the war circulated the news, experience, and ideas of the revolution. Several veterans of the French regiments deployed in North America, including Henri Christophe and Andre Rigaud, would later lead the next major revolution of the western Atlantic, in Haiti, beginning in 1791. Other veterans returned to France and may have led a series of revolts against feudal land tenure that accelerated revolution in Europe. The news carried by Hessian soldiers back to their homeland eventually propelled a new generation of settlers toward America. But it was the motley crew, the sailors and slaves who were defeated in America and subsequently dispersed, that did the most to create new resistance and to inaugurate a broader age of revolution throughout the world.
Sailors were a vector of revolution that traveled from North America out to sea and southward to the Caribbean. The sailors of the British navy grew mutinous after 1776, inspired in part by the battles waged against press-gangs and the king’s authority in America; an estimated forty-two thousand of them deserted naval ships between 1776 and 1783. Many who went to sea in this era got a revolutionary education. Robert Wedderburn, born to a slave woman and a Scottish plantation owner in Jamaica, joined the mutinous navy in 1778 and thereafter worked as a sailor, a tailor, a writer, and a preacher of jubilee as he took part in maritime protests, slave revolts, and urban insurrections. Julius Scott has shown that sailors black, white, and brown had contact with slaves in the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch port cities of the Caribbean, exchanging information with them about slave revolts, abolition, and revolution and generating rumors that became material forces in their own right. It is not known for certain whether sailors carried the news of the American Revolution that helped to inspire slave rebels in Hanover Parish, Jamaica, in 1776, but there is no doubt that a motley crew of "fifty or sixty men of all colors," including an "Irishman of prodigious size," attacked British and American ships in the Caribbean in 1773, apparently in league with the new revolutionary government of Haiti.
The slaves and free blacks who flocked to the British army during the revolution and who were then dispersed around the Atlantic after 1783 constituted a second, multidirectional vector of revolution. Twelve thousand African Americans were carried out of Savannah, Charleston, and New York by the army in 1782 and 1783, while another eight to ten thousand departed with loyalist masters. They went to Sierra Leone, London, Dublin, Nova Scotia, Bermuda, eastern Florida, the Bahamas, Jamaica, the Mosquito Shore, and Belize. Free people of color from North America caused problems throughout the Caribbean, especially on Jamaica and in the Windward Islands, where they created new political openings and alignments in slave societies and helped to prepare the way for the Haitian Revolution. By 1800 Lord Balcarres, governor of Jamaica, would write of the "Pandora’s Box" that had been opened in the West Indies: "Turbulent people of all Nations engaged in illicit Trade; a most abandoned class of Negroes, up to every scene of mischief, and a general levelling spirit throughout, is the character of the lower orders in Kingston." Here, he explained, was a refuge for revolutionaries and a site for future insurrection, a place that might "in a moment . . . be laid in ashes."
A third powerful vector of revolution hurtled eastward toward the abolitionist movement in England. Granville Sharp,whose work in the late 1760s and early 1780s included opposition to impressment in the American Revolution, went on to become one of the leading figures in the transatlantic antislavery movement. After Olaudah Equiano told him in 1738 about the slave ship Zong, whose captain threw 132 slaves overboard in order to save supplies and then tried to collect insurance money for the dead, Sharp publicized the mass murder effectively. He also worked to establish the free black state of Sierra Leone in 1783, and served on the Committee for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. F. O. Shyllon and Peter Fryer have conclusively demonstrated the independent existence of a black population in London whose self-organization sustained and encouraged the abolitionist Sharp and, also in the 1780s, a young scholar-activist named Thomas Clarkson.
After the American war, Clarkson began to gather evidence about the slave trade. Especially interested in the effects of the trade on sailors, he wanted to talk to the men who had sailed on the slave ships and to inspect those ships’ crew lists in order to gauge mortality. To accomplish this, the young Cambridge scholar disguised himself as a sailor and walked the docks. But how would he get men who were terrified of the slave trade, and terrified to talk about it, to speak to a stranger? He found John Dean, a free black sailor and his first informant, in a boardinghouse kept by one Donovan, an Irishman. Dean, like thousands of others, had entered the slave trade through the rough netherworld of proletarian recruitment — the squalid sailor’s tavern where, in Liverpool, Bristol, or London, slaving crews were often assembled between midnight and two in the morning. Dean had a personal tale to tell: "For a trifling circumstance for which he was in no-wise to blame, the captain fastened him with his belly to the deck, and that, in this situation, he had poured hot pitch upon his back, and made incisions in it with hot tongs." Dean and countless other sailors like him provided the personal knowledge and information that gave the middle-class antislavery movement its ballast.
The relationship of sailors to the abolitionist movement, on the one hand, and to the ambiguities between the condition of slavery and sailoring, on the other, are nowhere better personified than in the life of that eminence grise of the abolitionists, the Igbo slave and sailor Olaudah Equiano. Enslaved in West Africa, he was hardly aboard the slave ship before he saw a white sailor flogged to death. In later years he would see a sailor hanged from a yardarm, a soldier hung by his heels, a man on the gallows at Tyburn; he himself was twice suspended, though not by his neck. Terror, he understood immediately, was the fate of both sailors and slaves. Aboard the Aetna man-of-war, he learned to read and write, to shave, to dress hair. A messmate, the Irishman Daniel Quin, taught him to read the Bible and to think of nothing "but being free." At the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, when the Aetna was anchored in the river Thames, his master, worried that Equiano’s recent promotion to ablebodied seaman would make it harder to maintain him in slavery, forced him into a barge at the point of his sword. The Igbo sailor plucked up his courage: "I told him I was free, and he could not by law serve me so." Sold to Captain Doran of the West Indiaman Charming Sally, Equiano explained, "I told him my master could not sell me to him, nor to anyone else. ‘Why,’ said he, ‘did not your master buy you?’ I confessed he did. But I have served him, said I, many years, and he has taken all my wages and prize money, for I only got one sixpence during the war; besides this I have been baptized; and by the laws of the land no man has a right to sell me." Confronted with these economic, religious, and legal arguments, Doran told him, Equiano reported, that "I talked too much English." Meanwhile, Equiano’s shipmates promised to do what they could, which, apart from getting him some oranges, was nothing.
Equiano now entered the sugar economy of the West Indies. "I now knew what it was to work hard; I was made to help to unload and load the ship." His own situation began to improve, but he witnessed the intense sufferings of others — the rapes, whippings, brandings, mutilations, cuts, burnings, chains, muzzles, and thumbscrews. He wondered of the rulers of England, "Are you not hourly in dread of an insurrection?" He then quoted the speech of Beelzebub in Paradise Lost, written by John Milton and published exactly one hundred years earlier. Much of Equiano’s evolving conception of freedom, and hence part of his own self-definition, were derived from other sailors — from his keen sense of the rights of the accused to his belief in the jury system, from his reference to his "fellow creatures" to his study of the Bible, from his quotations from Milton to his detestation of those "infernal invaders of human rights," the slavers, impressers, and trepanners.
Equiano was in Charleston during the demonstrations of joy that followed the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766. It is easy to imagine his participating in them, and equally easy to understand why he might not want to admit it to his British readers. Many of the sailors in that demonstration went in blackface. Some years later Equiano himself had occasion to put on whiteface in an episode that was by his own account a turning point, the source of a suicidal and spiritual crisis. In 1774 he helped to recruit a black sea-cook, John Annis, onto a ship bound for Turkey. Annis, formerly a slave to one Kirkpatrick of St. Kitt’s, was soon impressed by his former master and a gang of bullies on the Thames. Equiano rushed to obtain a habeas corpus but before handing it over, whitened his face to escape suspicion. He then contacted Granville Sharp, but his attorney ran off with the money, and Annis was carried to St. Kitt’s, where he was staked to the ground, cut, and flogged to death. Equiano took Annis’s death as a personal defeat; it plunged him into the depths of despair. Yet slowly he began to discover the rich spiritual resources of proletarian London in the 1770s — the love-feasts of a silk weaver, the evening singing of hymns. A prison reformer, a Dissenter, pointed out to him that "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." An antinomian ("an old sea-faring man") referred him to the Isaiah of William Blake: "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together." He was guided to the Book of James and its "So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty." The Scripture of Isaiah, James, John, and Acts — the prophetic, the social gospel, and the persecuted — began to provide him with convincement. He went back to sea and continued to study. He identified with the condemned criminal, the needy, the poor; he moved from personal redemption to liberation theology. He wrote his own verses of despair, imprisonment, and enslavement, concluding with an allusion to the Gospel of Mark, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the main cornerstone." He thus answered Jefferson and Paine and their fears of the motley crew. But whether the disenfranchised, the enslaved, the imprisoned, the sailor — in short, the many headed hydra — could become a "cornerstone" would be a story for the 1790s.
The failure of the motley crew to find a place in the new American nation forced it into broader, more creative forms of identification. One of the phrases often used to capture the unity of the age of revolution was "citizen of the world." J. Philmore described himself this way, as did others, including Thomas Paine. The real citizens of the world, of course, were the sailors and slaves who instructed Philmore, Paine, Jefferson, and the rest of the middle- and upper-class revolutionaries. This multiethnic proletariat was "cosmopolitan" in the original meaning of the word. Reminded that he had been sentenced to exile, Diogenes, the slave philosopher of antiquity, responded by saying that he sentenced his judges to stay at home. And "asked where he came from, he said, ‘I am a citizen of the world’" — a cosmopolitan. The Irishman Oliver Goldsmith published in 1762 a gentle critique of nationalism entitled Citizen of the World, featuring characters such as a sailor with a wooden leg and a ragged woman ballad singer. Goldsmith praised the "meanest English sailor or soldier," who endured days of misery without murmur. He was "found guilty of being poor, and sent to Newgate, in order to be transported to the plantations," where he would work among Africans. He returned to London, was press-ganged, sent to fight in Flanders and India, beaten by the boatswain, imprisoned, taken by pirates. He was a soldier, a slave, a sailor, a prisoner, a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world. James Howell, historian of the Masaniello Revolt, wrote in the seventeenth century that "every ground may be one’s country — for by birth each man is in this world a cosmopolitan.”
A fourth and final vector pointed toward Africa. The African Americans in diaspora after 1783 would originate modern pan-Africanism by settling, with the help of Equiano and Sharp, in Sierra Leone. Their dispersal after the American Revolution, eastward across the Atlantic, was similar to that of radicals after the English Revolution, a century and a half earlier, westward across the Atlantic. Both movements had posed challenges to slavery and been defeated. The earlier defeat permitted the consolidation of the plantation and the slave trade, while the later defeat allowed the slave system to expand and gather new strength. Yet the longterm consequences of the second defeat would be a victory, the ultimate undoing of the slave trade and the plantation system. The theory and practice of antinomian democracy, which had been generalized around the Atlantic in the seventeenth-century diaspora, would be revived and deepened in the eighteenth. What went out in whiteface came back in blackface, to end the pause in the discussion of democratic ideas in England and to give new life to worldwide revolutionary movements. What goes around, comes around, by the circular winds and currents of the Atlantic.