Guided Readings: Impact of the Revolution on Women and African Americans

Reading 1

I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776

Reading 2

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 Colleges 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 powerful than all the rest were grown discontented. . . .

Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Although they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Petticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight.

John Adams to Abigail Adams, April 14, 1776

Reading 3

As to the doctrine of slavery and the right of Christians to hold Africans in perpetual servitude, and sell and treat them as we do our horses and cattle, that (it is true) has been heretofore countenanced by the custom formerly, but no where is it expressly enacted or established. . . . But whatever sentiments have formerly prevailed in this particular or slid in upon us by the example of others, a different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of liberty, which with Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses features) has inspired all the human race. And upon this ground our Constitution of Government, by which the people of this Commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves, sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal—and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property—and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves.

Quock Walker Case, Massachusetts, 1783

Reading 4

In the disposition of these unfortunate people, there are two rational objects to be distinctly kept in view. First. The establishment of a colony on the coast of Africa, which may introduce among the aborigines the arts of cultivated life, and the blessings of civilization and science. By doing this, we may make to them some retribution for the long course of injuries we have been committing on their population. . . .

The second object . . . is to provide an asylum to which we can, by degrees, send the whole of that population from among us, and establish them under our patronage and protection, as a separate, free and independent people. . . . There are in the United States a million and a half people of color in slavery. . . . Let us take twenty-five years for its accomplishment, within which time they will be doubled. Their estimated value as property . . . at an average of two hundred dollars each, young and old, would amount to six hundred millions of dollars, which must be paid or lost by somebody. To this, add the cost of their transportation by land and sea to Mesurado [Liberia], a year’s provision of food and clothing, implements of husbandry and of their trades, which will amount to three hundred millions more, making thirty-six millions of dollars a year for twenty-five years. . . . It cannot be done in this way.

There is, I think, a way in which it can be done; that is, by emancipating the afterborn, leaving them, on due compensation, with their mothers, until their services are worth their maintenance, and then putting them to industrious occupations, until a proper age for deportation. . . . The estimated value of the new-born infant is so low, (say twelve dollars and fifty cents,) that it would probably be yielded by the owner gratis, and would thus reduce the six hundred millions of dollars, the first head of expense, to thirty-seven millions and a half; leaving only the expenses of nourishment while with the mother, and of transportation. And from what fund are these expenses to be furnished? Why not from that of the lands which have been ceded by the very States now needing this relief?

. . . The separation of infants from their mothers . . . would produce some scruples of humanity. But this would be straining at a gnat, and swallowing a camel.

Thomas Jefferson, 1824


Spelling and capitalization has been updated in these guided readings. For the original transcripts, see:

Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776, "Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive" at the Massachusetts Historical Society

John Adams to Abigail Adams, April 14, 1776, "Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive" at the Massachusetts Historical Society

Chief Justice William Cushing’s instructions to the jury, Legal notes by William Cushing about the Quock Walker Case at the Massachusetts Historical Society

Thomas Jefferson to Jared Sparks, February 4, 1824, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, H. A. Washington, ed. (New York: Derby and Jackson, 1859), 7:332–335. Available on Google Books.