During the American Revolution the Continental Congress, desperate for fighting manpower, permitted the recruitment of White slaves into the army, which was tantamount to granting them their freedom. This was not particularly radical however, in view of the fact that “four score and seven years” before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, freed the negroes in his jurisdiction in the hope they would join the “Ethiopian Regiment” he had formed and fight the patriots.
In 1765, a fourteen year old Irish lad, Matthew Lyon, was orphaned when his father was executed along with other leaders of the “White Boys,” an Irish farmer’s association organized to resist British government confiscation of their farmlands. The boy was enslaved and transported to America where he was purchased by a wealthy Connecticut merchant. 9
Later he was made to endure the shame of being sold to another master in exchange for two deer “which was a source of no end of scoffs and jeers” at Lyon’s “irreparable disgrace of being sold for a pair of stags.”
The colonies of Rhode Island, New Jersey and Maryland declared White slaves eligible to enlist in the Continental Army without their master’s consent. Though such decrees had the effect of granting the freedom of those slaves who fought, the American Revolution did not result in a prohibition of the institution of White slavery itself. In rhetoric it was conceded that White slavery was “contrary to the idea of liberty” but the system remained profitable and many Southern and middle colony White slaves had not been allowed to join the Revolutionary Army and they remained in bondage.
In the spring of 1775 Matthew Lyon had taken advantage of the manpower shortage of the American Revolution and joined an obscure, ragtag band of guerrilla fighters. Lyon and his fellow rebels were destined to enter the annals of historical fame when not long afterward they appeared out of nowhere at Ticonderoga in northern New York where their commander, Ethan Allen, demanded the surrender of the mighty British fort. Matthew Lyon had joined the Green Mountain Boys.
“Eighty five of us,” Lyon would later recall with pride, “took from one hundred and forty British veterans the Fort Ticonderoga.” The guns, cannon and ammunition obtained at Ticonderoga would supply the American army throughout the war.
The former slave boy Matthew Lyon rose to the rank of colonel in Ethan Allen’s militia and fought the British at the battles of Bennington and Saratoga. One of the founders of the state of Vermont, he was elected to its assembly and later to the U.S. Congress, where the eponymous firebrand wrestled a Federalist on the floor of the House of Representatives.
He was the first American to be indicted under President John Adams’ Sedition Act, for publishing material against central Federal government and Adams. While awaiting trial, Lyon commenced publication of Lyon’s Republican Magazine, subtitled “The Scourge of Aristocracy”. At trial, he was fined $1,000 and sentenced to four months in jail.10 Forced to run for Congress from a jail cell, Lyon was overwhelmingly re-elected and returned to a tumultuous hero’s welcome in Vermont.
Lyon moved to Kentucky in 1801 and settled in Livingston County, Kentucky (later Caldwell County and now Lyon County). He became a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1802 and was elected to the Eighth and to the three succeeding Congresses (March 4, 1803 – March 3, 1811). He was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1810 to the Twelfth Congress. Lyon died in Spadra Bluff, Arkansas (near Clarksville) on August 1, 1822. He was initially interred in Spadra Bluff Cemetery, and in 1833 he was reinterred in Eddyville Cemetery in Eddyville, Kentucky. 11
The importation of White slaves was resumed after the American Revolution on much the same basis as it had existed before, with the exception of convict slave-labor. In 1788 the Continental Congress urged the states to ban the importation of convict slave labor.
9 “…the (Irish) peasant resorted to violence in self-protection, to resist the sometimes impossible demands of (the) landlord… to keep his miserable little plot of land— his only safeguard against starvation… The White-Boy Associations were in a sense, a ‘vast trades union for the protection of the Irish peasantry…’” (Shaw, pp. 172-174).
10 & 11 Wikipedia