AMERICAN FOUNDERS reveals men and women of African descent as key protagonists in the story of American democracy. It chronicles how black people developed and defended New World settlements, undermined slavery, and championed freedom throughout the Americas from the 16th through the 20th century.
American Founders explores how Afro-Americans shaped every facet of American history as explorers, conquistadores, settlers, soldiers, sailors, servants, slaves, rebels, leaders, lawyers, litigants, laborers, artisans, artists, activists, translators, teachers, doctors, nurses, inventors, investors, merchants, mathematicians, scientists, scholars, engineers, entrepreneurs, generals, cowboys, pirates, professors, politicians, priests, poets, and presidents.
The multitude of events and mixed-race individuals included underscore the fact that black and white Americans share the same history, and in many cases, the same ancestry. American Founders is meant to celebrate this shared heritage and strengthen these bonds.
This is a painting by Eastman Johnson, the nineteenth-century artist (known for his portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorn, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) and a co-founder of Metropolitan Museum of Art. During the American Civil War, Johnson was following the Army of the Potomac into northern Virginia when he witnessed this family escaping slavery and seeking freedom in Federal territory. Affixed to the back of the painting, hanging in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is the artist’s message: “A veritable incident as seen by myself in Centerville.”
Seizing their own freedom, the American family captured in the painting exemplifies many of the themes of American Founders. During the Civil War, roughly a half-million enslaved people risked their lives in daring escapes just like the one depicted here (some estimates are much higher). About 200,000 of these individuals served in the Union forces officially; countless others, women especially, served unofficially. The military contributions of black Americans, Lincoln ultimately acknowledged, was essential to the preservation of the nation. Thus, when Lincoln issued the
Emancipation Proclamation, it was primarily a measure to officially enlist the hundreds of thousands of black Americans who had already been volunteering to defend the United States on the battlefield. By the time the proclamation was issued, emancipation was a fait accompli; African Americans had liberated themselves in massive numbers and were fighting to ensure the liberty of others.
Because the American Revolution failed to yield a democracy but rather left one fifth of the country’s population enslaved, one could argue that it was not until the Civil War that African Americans brought slavery to a close and established democracy in the United States. As I outline in American Founders, the democratic service of black Americans in the Civil War was embedded in a long and continuous tradition of Afro-American efforts to eradicate slavery throughout the hemisphere.
Robert Smalls was an enslaved American who seized his own freedom and fought for that of others during the American Civil War. This South Carolinian commandeered a Confederate ship, impersonated its captain, and brought his and several enslaved families to freedom. Smalls served the Union as a naval captain before returning to Charleston where he bought his former owner’s house (and permitted his former mistress to continue to live there until her death), was elected to Congress and helped to establish the public-school system and the Republican Party in South Carolina. Another hero of the Civil War was Mary Bowser, a freed woman who posed undercover as a slave in the capital of the Confederacy. She feigned a dim wit, but her literacy and photographic memory allowed her to pass on sensitive information to the white baker and fellow Union spy who visited the house regularly. Harriet Tubman became the first American woman to lead a raid in the U.S. Army when she liberated 800 enslaved individuals in a single incursion during the war. These are just a few of the myriad individuals who risked their lives to establish democracy chronicled in American Founders.