Read The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution by Gary B. Nash Online


As the United States gained independence, a full fifth of the country's population was African American. The experiences of these men and women have been largely ignored in the accounts of the colonies' glorious quest for freedom. In this compact volume, Gary B. Nash reorients our understanding of early America, and reveals the perilous choices of the founding fathers thatAs the United States gained independence, a full fifth of the country's population was African American. The experiences of these men and women have been largely ignored in the accounts of the colonies' glorious quest for freedom. In this compact volume, Gary B. Nash reorients our understanding of early America, and reveals the perilous choices of the founding fathers that shaped the nation's future. Nash tells of revolutionary fervor arousing a struggle for freedom that spiraled into the largest slave rebellion in American history, as blacks fled servitude to fight for the British, who promised freedom in exchange for military service. The Revolutionary Army never matched the British offer, and most histories of the period have ignored this remarkable story. The conventional wisdom says that abolition was impossible in the fragile new republic. Nash, however, argues that an unusual convergence of factors immediately after the war created a unique opportunity to dismantle slavery. The founding fathers' failure to commit to freedom led to the waning of abolitionism just as it had reached its peak. In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, as Nash demonstrates, their decision enabled the ideology of white supremacy to take root, and with it the beginnings of an irreparable national fissure. The moral failure of the Revolution was paid for in the 1860s with the lives of the 600,000 Americans killed in the Civil War. The Forgotten Fifth is a powerful story of the nation's multiple, and painful, paths to freedom....

Title : The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution
Author :
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ISBN : 9780674021938
Format Type : Hardcover
Number of Pages : 190 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution Reviews

  • Andrew Detch
    2019-04-18 20:58

    Nash offers an interesting corrective to the typical whitewashed American Revolution taught in schools and colleges. He traces black participation in the war and then illustrates how African-Americans, increasingly restricted from the developing Anglo-American United States, began forming their own social and cultural nation within the United States. This is a relatively thin book, which is to be expected given that the three chapters were based on The Nathan I. Huggins Lectures Nash gave at Harvard. The first chapter casts the American Revolution as America's largest slave revolt. While Nash sometimes overstates the point, he does succeed in returning African-Americans to a place of prominence during the American Revolution. I would certainly like to know more about how slaves from New England to Virginia helped "to shape British policy rather than simply responding to it" (25). Personally, I found his second chapter on the possibilities of abolition the most compelling. While living in the realm of counterfactuals and possibilities can be quite dangerous, Nash wades through those high waters with quite some deftness, showing that America's white political founders could have, and indeed sometimes wanted to, abolish slavery, but pulled back from doing so for a variety of reasons. The chapter is an excellent and necessary counterpoint to the seemingly uncountable number of texts that unilaterally praise the genius and leadership of America's founding generation and apologize for their shortcomings by claiming that they were simply men of their broken times. The third chapter, covering the years after Washington's death doesn't add much to Nash's point, nor does it offer much that could be considered new. The systematic disenfranchisement of free African Americans and the expansion of slavery in the early nineteenth century are well-trod grounds at this point. Nash's Philadelphia-centric chapter also brings to bear the question of applicability, but it does allow him to trace the fascinating reversal of Tench Coxe, once one of Philadelphia's most vocal anti-slavery proponents who became a strong partisan of the American Colonization society.In the end this is a typically important, well-written text from one of the field's most important historians. While it may not offer many new insights to graduate students and faculty who study early America, this is a book that any who intend to teach undergraduates or high school students should read and keep on their bookshelves.

  • Waller
    2019-04-14 20:04

    This is a set of three lectures that first examine the role of African Americans on both sides of the Revolutionary War (which is the subject of a research project I'm working on), then pretty effectively demolishes the idea that it would have been impossible to end slavery at the beginning of the nation, as many historians had argued. When you are done with Nash's book, you come away with a sense that the Founding Fathers fumbled an ideal opportunity to eliminate slavery and avoid the Civil War.

  • Matt Kuhns
    2019-03-20 15:46

    This is a short book. It’s a small book, also. The edition I read is hardcover, but the pages are about the size of a typical paperback novel, with generous margins around the text. About one-third of the book’s 235 pages are notes and the index. Ultimately, it’s more an essay, or perhaps three essays, than a book, and more a conversation-starter than an authoritative statement. That may well be exactly what the author intended, though, and in any event it’s no bad thing.I certainly did a good deal of thinking while, and since, reading Nash’s description of black Americans’ lives, and white America’s attitudes toward black America, during and after the Revolutionary War.Depending on one’s perspective, The Forgotten Fifth might be considered a revisionist work. I can’t say for certain how much it differs from current, mainstream views among historians and scholars, although Nash argues that the perspectives he examines have been overlooked or marginalized. And I’ve no doubt that for a significant number of Americans (who will probably never read Nash’s book), his criticisms of the Founding Fathers would place the author among those “who would like to rewrite history — revisionist historians is what I like to call them,” in the words of George W. Bush.For my own part, though, I’m unsure how much new ground is really broken. Educated, thinking people are well aware that the Founding Fathers were hypocrites for extolling liberty while owning slaves, and that the political compromises which resulted were shabby as well as, ultimately, dangerously unstable. That much is obviously not a revelation.Perhaps the book’s most effective assault on our mythology is, instead, its questioning of comfortable ideas that the Founders’ acceptance of slavery must be judged in the context of another era where standards were different. Nash exposes the holes in this excuse by documenting that not only did the Founding Fathers repeatedly acknowledge slavery as immoral and incompatible with a republican nation, but that such views were moreover shared by a significant portion of society, even in the south. The drafters of America’s Constitution and its first Presidents had views on slavery which were in reality much closer to those of our own era than to those of, say, ancient Rome.Having established this, Nash then mounts an assault on traditional ideas that abolishing slavery from the new nation’s founding was effectively impossible. I am somewhat less convinced by this argument, though.The question itself requires delicate, perhaps inevitably arbitrary, delineations of what amounts to being “possible.” Slavery, after all, only existed because people believed that it did. In that sense it’s patently obvious that it could have been abolished had people chosen to do so; the question only makes sense if it’s understood as being different from “can we cure AIDS” or “can we make fusion commercially practical.”Readers will know that I hardly view the present, or the past, through rose-tinted glasses, and while I respect America’s Founding Fathers I consider myself entirely willing to acknowledge their failings. I have no defense to offer Washington, Jefferson, et al. from charges of personal hypocrisy and weakness; not only were they wrong to allow slavery but, as Nash makes abundantly clear, they generally saw themselves as being in the wrong and simply did nothing about it.And yet, for me, this doesn’t quite add up to making the case that slavery “could have been ended” following the revolution. For one thing, Nash makes much of the founders’, and particularly Washington’s, enormous prestige. Yet a familiarity with history provides ample evidence that, when they didn’t feel like supporting him, his contemporaries found no difficulty in compartmentalizing their respect for Washington. Sure, old wood-teeth could and should have done more to end slavery both in his own household and the nation as a whole anyway, but I’m not convinced that really would have changed the course of history.And Nash himself doesn’t go so far as saying that any one or even two of the Founding Fathers could have exercised a crucial difference. Toward the end of his chapter on this question, he writes a lengthy series of “ifs…” that encompasses at least a dozen men. I’ll allow that “if” all of them had acted forcefully to abolish slavery, it could well have happened.But a lot of things would be possible “if” a group of influential people acted differently. As Tyler Cowen remarked a couple of years ago, “In general you should be suspicious of explanations which take the form of ‘if only the good people would all band together and get tough.’”At some point between one individual and society, we leave the “great man” model of history and end up in the world of broad, impersonal forces. While acknowledging, again, that acceptance of slavery was bad, I think the very fact that nearly all of the influential people identified by Nash ended up letting the matter slide, and in spite of convictions to the contrary, suggests that realistically one must look for additional, larger explanations beyond an incredible coincidence of personal failings among otherwise bold and daring men. A reason is not the same as an excuse, but reasons do exist.I also believe that one cannot adequately consider the issues which Nash raises without a rather broader context than the almost entirely “black” and “white” picture drawn in The Forgotten Fifth. In fact while reading the book, I found the near-complete exclusion of other non-white-male groups from consideration so odd as to be nearly comical. Yes, the book is subtitled African Americans in the Age of Revolution, but its subject is at least as much a consideration of the conflict between Revolutionary America’s goal of a free republic and its oppression of large numbers of the country’s inhabitants. It seems rather obvious that one or two other populations presented similar issues that have direct bearing on the question.The native American population gets a few brief mentions, but largely incidentally as part of quotes that also mention blacks; people of the time apparently had a more holistic view of race relations than Nash’s historical study. And I was almost dumbfounded when Nash, at one point, offers a contemporary proposal to compensate slave owners with land in the ex-colonies’ western territories to support his argument that a negotiated end of slavery was possible… completely ignoring the fact that said land was already inhabited by another non-white population. Which may not impact Nash’s argument, and of course native Americans were near-exterminated anyway so selling their land in order to free the slaves wouldn’t exactly have produced any bad outcome which could have been prevented by not doing so. All the same though, it’s inconceivable that Nash could have been unaware of the irony; why ignore it so pointedly?And there’s also the fact that, while the rise in opposition to voting or even commercial enterprise by blacks which Nash chronicles is certainly abominable, about half of the fledgling republic’s population remained barred from voting by law and from almost any kind of independent existence by custom throughout the post-revolutionary era and long after. The Founding Fathers’ willingness to espouse liberty and equality before the law, in a society that denied full citizenship to the entire female sex, seems like it deserves at least a mention, yet Nash doesn’t even hint at the issue of women’s rights.Still, The Forgotten Fifth was an interesting and worthwhile read. For what it’s worth, my evaluation of the book based on what it is, rather than what it is not, is rather neatly much like my view of America’s Founding Fathers.They failed in many ways, those men; as I have noted those failings in fact go far beyond the failure to end slavery. They were sexist, racist and imperialist. They also stuck us with the idiocies of the Electoral College and the United States Senate.On the other hand, they were still visionaries. They founded a republic in a world where the idea of republican government was seen as essentially a fantasy; republicanism seemed as dead as the ancient world in which it had been tried and defeated, far more dead than Marxism today, probably. And not only did they pursue this daring experiment, they made it work.Yes, there were shabby compromises, some of which nearly split the nation in half during the Civil War, other of which still plague us today. But any realist, at the time, would probably have never spared a moment to imagine the United States lasting even fifty years, let alone two centuries. Consider the result of such projects throughout history and the odds would suggest that America should have fallen apart completely within decades, probably within a few years, of its founding. Instead, while it did take two tries (the Articles of Confederation having proven as unworkable as skeptics no doubt expected), we got a Constitution that has endured.It may contradict my tendency toward a broad impersonal forces model, but all the same when considering world history, I always feel that America was in many ways astonishingly fortunate in getting the collection of relatively smart, honorable, public-spirited founders that we had. I’m grateful for that in spite of their failings.If we condemned everyone in history who was in any significant way wrong, after all, the result would not only be a rather bleak history, but would also be just as imbalanced as glossing over faults to produce idealized heroes. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison were fallible and just plain wrong in many ways, and we should absolutely acknowledge that, but if the term “great” is to be anything other than hypothetical, I believe that such men must be deserving of the title.

  • Nada
    2019-04-08 17:44

    This wasn't the most exciting history book I've ever read. I think part of the problem was that it was edited form lectures that the author had given. It may have been better spoken rather than read. Having said that it did open my eyes to the false idea that continued slavery and racial prejudice concerning US citizenship was not inevitable. It was interesting to read the ideas that were circulating during this time period and to learn about Black thinkers during this time period and how they struggled with their place within this new country.

  • Alessandra
    2019-03-28 23:34

    Nash's provocative work suggests that the American Revolution constituted "the first mass slave rebellion in American history." This convincing interpretation of the Revolution raises important questions about the possibility for abolition in the wake of war, with Nash arguing that the post-Revolution landscape was amenable to emancipation. Ultimately, Nash reveals, the rise of Jeffersonian politics signaled a retrenchment of white supremacist thinking that ultimately silenced the lingering cries for black freedom.

  • Ryan
    2019-03-28 20:01

    Very informative and full of great history I didn't even know that I didn't know.