Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

2026 and Black Americans: A Conversation about Benjamin Quarles

· June 28th, 2023 · No Comments

Image of the cover of The Negro in the American Revolution by Benjamin Quarles.

At the For 2026: Revolutionary Legacies conference in October 2022, four scholars gathered to discuss the long-term impact of Benjamin Quarles’s scholarship: Adam X. McNeil (Rutgers University), Rebecca Brannon (James Madison University), Derrick Spires (Cornell University), and Michael Dickinson (Virginia Commonwealth University). They shared stories about their first encounters with The Negro in the American Revolution, its role in shaping their own research and teaching, and the ways in which they see Quarles’s influence on the scholarship of the American Revolution overall.

Benjamin Quarles (1904-1996) earned his Ph.D. in 1940 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and over the course of his decades-long career taught at Shaw University, Dillard University, and Morgan State College. In addition to his work on the American Revolution, Quarles published books about the experience of Black Americans during the Civil War, a scholarly biography of Frederick Douglass, and several other topics in African-American history.

Photo of Professor Michael Dickinson

We invited Michael Dickinson to talk about the long-term impact of Quarles’s work. Dickinson is an assistant professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University. His first book, entitled Almost Dead: Slavery and Social Rebirth in the Black Urban Atlantic, 1680-1807, was published in 2022 by the University of Georgia Press. 

Quarles opens the book by stating that “the Negro’s role in the Revolution can best be understood by realizing that his major loyalty was not to a place nor to a people, but to a principle” (xxvii). How did the ideology of the American Revolution shape Quarles’s thinking?

The principle that Quarles referenced was liberty — a liberty which included freedom from slavery and racial inequality. In this view, people of African descent in many ways remained truer to the ideology of the American Revolution than the vast majority of their white counterparts. Quarles uses this point throughout the text to highlight how Black people envisioned and sought liberty in colonial America long before the Revolution. Therefore, Revolutionary ideology merely fanned the flames of Black desires for freedom and provided discourse on which to further ground Black calls for independence. People of African descent enthusiastically embraced Revolutionary ideals, believing that the rhetoric could and should apply to Black Americans as well. Indeed, freedom remained at the forefront of their minds. Understanding Black allegiance to liberty above all else, resolute as it often was, then helps us to understand Black actions during the war, according to Quarles.  

What did Quarles believe was the impact of the Dunmore Proclamation of November 1775?

In Quarles’s view, the Dunmore Proclamation provided a new pathway to potential freedom for enslaved people. He first discusses the various ways bondspeople pursued freedom before the Revolution, including lawsuits, self-purchase, and flight. Quarles does this in order to help us understand how the war expanded the limited avenues to freedom. Dunmore’s Proclamation and later the Philipsburg Proclamation were essential in that expansion. Enslaved people were emboldened to resist, flee, and actively support the British war effort. Notably, Quarles’s point was that Black desires for liberty existed prior, but these decrees changed the calculous for many captives. 

Why did Black men join either the American or British militaries during the American Revolution, according to Quarles?

Opportunity and expediency were often the greatest factors influencing these decisions. In the words of Quarles, “In so far as he had freedom of choice, he 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. Whoever invoked the image of liberty, be he American or British, could count on a ready response from [Black people.]” The fight was for their own liberty more than either side of the war. Even Black men who joined the American military at the behest of their enslavers oftentimes fought with the hope of gaining freedom through their military service. With that said, Quarles is also careful to note that we cannot discount patriotic sentiment on an individual basis. He explains this, for example, in attempting to discern the motivations of Crispus Attucks, a man of at least partial African descent murdered by British troops at the Boston Massacre, whom many historians regard as the first casualty of the Revolutionary War. We may never fully know Attucks’s motivations, but it is possible that he felt true allegiance to the Patriot cause in addition to a personal desire for equality. But again Quarles underscores that Black motivations for joining either side of the war, to the extent they could choose, remained largely contingent on which side presented the most expedient opportunity to gain freedom for themselves and loved ones. This could prove a difficult calculus with seismic ramifications for the lives of Black people during the war. 

Unlike many scholars of the American Revolution, Benjamin Quarles worked with almost no secondary literature to respond to because he was, in essence, creating the sub-field for his topic. Fortunately that’s no longer possible. Beyond that crucial contribution, what do you see as the most significant legacy of the book for scholars?

First off, I believe that your initial point should be underscored. The book can and should hearten historians confronting topics that have garnered limited scholarly attention. Quarles confronted such a challenge and saw opportunity, possibility, and necessity rather than impossibility, which should inspire us all, especially those of us who work to uncover histories of populations often overlooked. Related to this, I believe the book’s central legacy remains in its effort to foreground Black perspectives in a meaningful way. Quarles pushes readers to view the Revolution through the eyes of African-descended peoples in order to understand their motivations, actions, and struggles in ways that underscore their agency within oppressive circumstances. In doing so, he reminds us that Black people were vital actors in the Revolutionary saga with interests all their own. This is no small feat, and this work continues to challenge historians to uncover and appreciate the ways African descended people envisioned and contributed to this nation from its very inception.

How have Quarles’s conclusions about Black participation in the American Revolution held up over the past sixty-two years since the book first appeared?

Exceptionally well. In a discipline where revision and critique are mainstays, it is exceedingly rare to find a book that has stood the test of time like The Negro in the American Revolution. While scholars have built upon Quarles’s arguments, added further nuance to his analysis, and pursued new lines of inquiry regarding Black participation in Revolution, his book conclusions have largely stood the test of time.  

The Negro in the American Revolution is a capacious work of scholarship that historians have used to ask numerous questions about the role of Black Americans during the era. What is one topic that Quarles raised that you would like scholars to return to in greater depth?

In addition to its big-picture legacy, one of the greatest contributions of The Negro in the American Revolution has been its role in providing fertile ground for subsequent scholarship.  Perhaps the largest oversight of the text was the role of Black women in the war. Quarles largely focuses on Black men in the text, examining women sparingly. This oversight has been addressed by a handful of scholars, perhaps most notably Karen Cook-Bell, Catherine Adams, and Elizabeth Pleck, but the contributions and perspective of Black women are certainly worthy of additional attention. 

How does The Negro in the American Revolution change the way we should think about the United States declaring independence in 1776?

The Negro in the American Revolution adds immense complexity to the United States declaring independence. In the national, public narrative, the event is oftentimes upheld as a pride-filled moment when the Founding Fathers stood up valiantly against British tyranny. Quarles reveals that the reality was far more complex for Black Americans. Many felt a sense of optimism for the purported ideals conveyed in the Declaration of Independence and many seized new opportunities for freedom occasioned by the moment. However, the hope for people of African descent inspired by American independence largely resulted in disappointment even as Black Americans highlighted the hypocrisy of a nation founded on liberty continuing to oppress an entire population. Here Quarles conveys a sense of lament at a potential inflection-point where slavery could have been abolished, as he explains how the initial draft of the Declaration directly addressed slavery only to largely remove any discussion of it in the final document. Thus, I believe that we can and should envision the United States declaring independence with the complexity of pride for its compelling ideals, lament at its failure to fully actualize them, and critical reflection upon how we can live up to those ideals in the present. 

What is the one thing you most wish those working on commemorations for America’s 250th would learn from Quarles’s book?

That we cannot fully understand or appreciate the United States— its genesis, its foundational ideals, and its present circumstances— without comprehending the contributions, perspectives, and lived experiences of Black Americans to the nation. 

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