William Cooper Nell: The Man Who Restored the Importance of “The Colored Patriots”

William Cooper Nell (1816-1874)

It is no secret that black Americans were often the citizens who understood best the promises of the Declaration of Independence even when they were denied the rights promised them by Nature and Nature’s God. However, the military service of African-Americans during the revolution that secured the United States’ existence is often overlooked. As the war progressed, nearly one-fifth of the Continental Army comprised free blacks and runaway slaves, who frequently re-enlisted for service even in slave-owning states.

Before the Civil War, many abolitionists both black and white worked hard to restore black colonial troop’s rightful place in the story of the American Revolution as individuals who did not fight because they received the permission of whites, but as full partners in the Patriot cause because it was their cause, too. However, it was a black historian who wrote the first scholarly treatment of black fighting men during the War for Independence. In 1855, William Cooper Nell wrote The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, a lengthy examination of the topic that examined the contributions of black Patriots from throughout the colonies.

Nell was brilliant student in his youth. He worked for racial equality both in Boston and nationally, and was deeply respected by white peers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Wendell Phillips. He was one of the founding members of an organization that offered assistance of newly arrived fugitive slaves. He fought for desegregation of schools, railroads, and public halls in Boston, a city plagued with rampant racism despite it reputation as the virtual epicenter of the national abolitionist movement. In 1851, he became the first published black historian in the United States when he wrote the book Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812. Nell believed that integration, not separatism, should be the goal of black people in America, and that to gain full integration African-Americans had to attain high standards of intellectual excellence.  In The Colored Patriots, Nell stressed this inclusion while describing how blacks who fought as part of the general community of the times believed in the cause for which they were fighting. In short, black Patriots were part of the spirit of the age, part of American nation-building, and only time and ignorance had created the idea that blacks were not part of the Revolution and excluded from the Declaration’s promises. Quoting David Ruggles, one of his fellow black abolitionists noted for his outspoken journalism, Nell places the connection between the revolution’s manifesto and the black revolutionaries in full view:

“I have had the pleasure of helping six hundred persons in their flight from bonds. In this, I have tried to do my duty, and mean still to persevere, until the last fetter shall be broken, and the last sigh heard from the lips of a slave. But give the praise to Him who sustains us all, who holds up the heart of the laborer in the rice swamp, and cheers him when, by the twinkling of the North Star, he finds his way to liberty. Six hundred in three years I have saved; had it been in one year, I should have been nearer my duty, nearer the duty of every American, when he reflects that it was the blood of colored men, as well as whites, which crimsoned the battle-fields of Bunker Hill and the rest, in the struggle to sustain the principles embodied in our Declaration of Independence.”

In 1861, Nell became a postal clerk in Boston, making him the first American black appointed to a federal post. But, it is his work as a historian that deserves increased recognition today, work that placed before a candid world the contribution of “colored patriots” and how they helped make a nation defined by the Declaration of Independence.

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Filed under History of the Declaration of Independence, Scholarship and Historians

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