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By the 1770s the colonies were deeply divided. Agitators roamed the streets, supporters of the British were tortured and terrorized, and the political climate was intensely polarized. Perhaps as many as a third of the people of the colonies were either pro-British or at least opposed to the methods of the Patriots. Despite this, the Loyalists (often called Tories) found the consequences of being targeted by Patriots too great to dare speak their opinion or act. It was common practice to burn Loyalists and British officials out of their homes or to tar and feather them.

Much of this unrest was spread by a secret society called the Sons of Liberty. They organized meetings, recruited supporters, and planned secret raids like the Boston Tea Party. They also were fond of attacking British officials and tarring and feathering anyone who volunteered for jobs such as tax collection. Organized largely through the Freemasons, they spread talk of revolt and began organizing Patriot militias.

In many cases, free blacks were part of the climate of rebellion. The heady talk of freedom and liberty spoke strongly to their personal desires. Many prominent Patriots such as Thomas Paine (who wrote Common Sense) were strongly against slavery. Even some slave owners such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were aware of the contradictions implicit in their demands for personal liberty while they held others in slavery. Indeed, a few slaves managed to have themselves freed by their masters with well timed appeals to patriot sentiments of liberty and equality.

One of the defining events of the early rebellion, the Boston Massacre, seems to have largely been provoked by a free black man named Crispus Atticus (who is somehow absent from Paul Revere's famous engraving of the scene). Atticus was among the twelve martyrs of the revolution, and his grave is the site of a historic monument today.

Of course, this absence speaks volumes about how blacks were perceived by the revolutionaries. While many northern Patriots were against slavery, this didn't mean that they accepted blacks as equals in the struggle for independence.

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Paul Revere's Boston Massacre.
Paul Revere's famous engraving of the Boston Massacre. Interestingly, Crispus Atticus, the black man who provoked the riot, is not portrayed.

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