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Modern scholars and students of slavery have the distinct advantage of using sources unavailable to Williams's generation.With the establishment of the National Archives in 1934, the documented heritage of the United States not only became permanently preserved but also opened an amazing window to scholarship and research into America's past.Blacks, free and slave, were serving in the various military organizations of the individual colonies before those who opposed their service could question their enlistment. George Washington and the military command of the Continental Army raised objections to their service, and in September 1775 the Continental Congress debated the enlistment or rejection of blacks.No coherent or consistent stance emerged; consequently, the Congress followed the policy of leaving the matter to the various colonies.Most agencies of the new but small and growing government had to tackle multifaceted issues posed by slavery and the international slave trade.The documentation of these actions is preserved in the records of the National Archives and Records Administration.By the time of the American Revolution, slavery had existed in British mainland North America for a century and a half.It had become a vibrant social and economic institution, accepted and practiced in all of the thirteen colonies.6 While the Revolution centered on the struggle for independence from British rule, it had critical implications for the slave trade and slavery and the status of black people in general.
The Continental Congresses, the first formal national governing institution (First Congress: September 5 - October 26, 1774; Second Congress: May 10, 1775 - March 2, 1781), addressed the multiple issues spawned by slavery.
The British use of slaves influenced most colonies to consider enlisting slaves, and by late 1775 General Washington departed from established policy of refusing enlistment of free blacks and began accepting them. The enlistment of free blacks and slaves remained a contested issue in the Continental Congress, and individual colonies throughout the war struggled with it because of the questions of freedom for slaves and the possible abolition of slavery.
Despite this debate, more than five thousand slaves and free blacks served, with many gaining their freedom, and the Continental Congress and the Continental Army praised their service.7 The escape of slaves and the British evacuation of them emerged quickly as a contentious issue in the Continental Congress.
At the center of the discussion surrounding the Treaty of Paris (1783) and Jay Treaty (1794) rested the question of who had legal ownership of the slave refugees removed during the war.
The British held out the promise of freedom and declared that slaves who came within British lines were by the laws of war British property.