Racialization is simultaneously self-ascribed and externally imposed. As such, racial discourse provides fertile ground for conflict. It is through warfare that irreconcilable aspects of racialization are hammered out. Our Savage Neighbors by Peter Silver and Water From the Rock by Sylvia R. Frey show that the wars of colonial America served as crucibles in the forging of American racial identity.
- Frey, Sylvia R. Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.
- Silver, Peter. Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008.
The history of race in the United States is unfortunately one characterized by conflict. At its simplest, racial history demonstrates that humans possess a propensity to categorize and organize themselves according to perceived racial ideals. However, racial thought is rarely as simple as people acknowledging a affinity or aversion to others based on skin color. As a social construct, “race” is constantly built, communicated, negotiated, and contested. Societies build racial identities for an assortment of political, economic, or cultural reasons. Racial identities are molded through conflict and negotiation in order to fulfill various needs within society. Racialization is simultaneously self-ascribed and externally imposed. As such, racial discourse provides fertile ground for conflict. It is through warfare that irreconcilable aspects of racialization are hammered out. Our Savage Neighbors by Peter Silver and Water From the Rock by Sylvia R. Frey show that the wars of colonial America served as crucibles in the forging of American racial identity.
Silver and Frey explore how war influenced the development of racial identity in colonial North America. Silver deals primarily with the creation of a united race of “white people” vis-á-vis the trope of the Indian “savage.” He argues that Europeans found a common cause in their Indian-hating, united under a banner of “whiteness,” and used charges of race betrayal as a means to attack political adversaries. Frey bases her argument on the existence black resistance during the Revolutionary era, and deals with the creation of a “black” identity among slaves. She argues that black resistance in the American South was integral in not only the conduct of the Revolutionary War, but also in how Southern society would be shaped by the war. According to Frey’s narrative, black resistance and warfare hardened racial distinctions, turning a society that was marked by racial hybridization into one of separation. According to Silver and Frey, war was central to the evolution of racial thought in America.
In Our Savage Neighbors, Peter Silver focuses his study on the middle colonies, especially Pennsylvania. He describes how colonial warfare shaped the character and transmission of notions of race. Emigrants from Germany, Ireland, Scotland, and Britain poured into the port of Philadelphia in the early eighteenth century. Once these wildly dissimilar groups of settlers encountered the region’s Native American population, Pennsylvania became one of the most diverse places in the world. Disputes arose between the proprietary government, settlers, and the Indian societies as European migration encroached further into Pennsylvania’s interior. The harsh realities of life—specifically the constant fear of Indian warfare—in these liminal edges of “white civilization” led to the formation of separate white and Indian identities.
Silver argues that the communalistic tendencies of frontier life were not enough to unite formerly antagonistic European ethnicities under the mantle of whiteness. It was war, and especially the fear that came to characterize Indian warfare, that crystallized racial divisions in Pennsylvania. Europeans generally came to the colonies with a preconceived notion of what war should be. Isolated and scattered throughout the frontier, setters were shocked and terrified by the abject brutality of Native American’s tactics. Indians employed terror as weapon by attacking at night, mutilating bodies, engaging in scalping, and kidnapping settlers. Antagonism between settlers and Indians carried on uninterrupted for so long that it influenced European notions of race. Settlers began to see themselves as whites, Indians as barbaric and savage racial others, and those who did not engage in “the anti-Indian sublime” fervently enough as enemies (Silver 2008, xx).
Newspaper stories and letters describing atrocities against innocent white frontier families transmitted the fear and hate of Natives throughout the Anglo-American world. Perhaps the most effective conveyance of this message was the mutilated bodies of slain settlers, sent to cities in order to mobilize the colony against Indians and build sympathy for whites living on the frontier. The “anti-Indian sublime” became an unassailable factor in politics. Those who were not seen as being sufficiently hateful of Natives were seen as not acting in the best interest of “white people.” Since appropriate hatefulness entailed unflappable support for war against Indians, pacifists (such as Quakers) and those who sought to convert Indians (such as Moravians) very undermined politically. In an account likely shaped by the events surrounding the Global War on Terror, Silver shows how racial distinctions based on the hate hardened during the Seven Years’ War and became an effective political and social weapon during the American Revolution.
In Water From the Rock, Sylvia Frey expands upon Benjamin Quarles’s earlier work, The Negro in the American Revolution. Where Quarles argues that African American Patriots benefited from their participation in the American Revolution while black Loyalists were essentially betrayed by the British, Frey envisions a much more nuanced reality. Focusing on the colonial South, Frey demonstrates that black participation in and agency during the Revolutionary era had the effect of calcifying racial divisions. A Patriot, Tory, and Black trichotomy was formed in the process, with African Americans existing in a mutable relationship with both the British and colonists. Frey demonstrates that prerevolutionary slavery created a hybridized slave society in the South. Slaves were slowly acculturated into white colonial society, but they also managed to maintain African cultural rituals and community structures. Frey argues that slaves were not powerless in their captivity. On the eve of the Revolution, African Americans were developing their own definitions of revolutionary ideology. The ideas of liberty and equality espoused by white Patriots found an eager audience in African Americans, who began resisting their master and pursuing their freedom through escaping and forming maroon communities.
The British military and government, especially colonial governor Lord Dunmore of Virginia, took notice of slave unrest during the Revolutionary War and sought to exploit it. When the British offered freedom in exchange for service, slaves enthusiastically abandoned their masters. White southerners were terrified by the fact that their slaves were taking up arms against them and begin conjuring up methods to prevent future insurrections. After the Revolution, the British largely ignored their promises to former slaves, who were either resold into bondage or left behind to face their victorious and vengeful former masters. The willingness of African Americans to turn against their masters influenced how races interacted socially and how religion would develop in the region. As a result of the war and African American role in it Southern slave society became more coercive while racial divisions became more explicit.
As a construct, race holds no more meaning than that assigned to it by society. Silver argues that Pennsylvania, founded upon the utopian dream of equality and tolerance, had the potential to fulfill its mission to downplay racial and religious divisions. However, the very act of American colonization entails the amalgamation of land and power at the expense of indigenous peoples, thus rendering this utopian goal highly unlikely. However, Indians and African Americans were not powerless victims of racial categorization. Silver states that Indians helped create a “savage” identity in order to protect their lands and communities. Slaves, according to Frey, actively resisted attempts to assimilate them into white-dominated society. Concepts of whiteness, blackness, and Indianess were afforded value by all peoples involved in their creation. White, Black, and Indian societies and people, according to these studies, were dynamic participants in the wars and conflicts that their racial identities.
 Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1961).