Friday, August 21, 2009

Revisioning the American story: the role of emancipation in the American Revolution


           In May, I gave a lecture at the University of Washington on Emancipation and Independence, my forthcoming book at the University of Chicago on the centrality of the struggle against bondage on both sides in the American Revolution.  I will post the video soon (some technical difficulties).  I would especially like to thank Jamie Mayerfeld, a dedicated opponent of American torture and the organizer of the lecture, and Matt Baretto who made the video, and Chris Parker and many others who made helpful comments.. 

        One virtue of a lecture, particularly when one has worked long years on a central question is that I speak of many issues in the politics and historiography of the Revolution directly and with some amusement.  The politics and much of the historiography of the American Revolution are frozen, with a kind of religious aura, like the performances of Mozart in Vienna – one can go to a Mozart concert with musicians in the original wigs; it is hard to get a job making music in Vienna if one is doing today’s music, let alone inventions of one’s own.  Similarly, there are infinite productions of Shakespeare in England and America, especially, in London; there is some new theatre but not so much.  In America, historians have the commercially stimulated fashion of writing best selling biographies – new ones of Ben Franklin or George Washington surface constantly (Tom Paine is rarer and not a best seller, though Eric Foner wrote a good book on him once upon a time).  Often, the biographers  have some insight, though the point is not to be original as a publisher (a former editor) told me, just to produce a good-read, and there is a large and voracious readership for such volumes.  When I once studied the French Revolution with Barrington Moore, we read only social histories of the class war which marked it.  A biography of Robespierre of Saint-Just or Babeuf or Hebert didn’t exist or was unimportant (perhaps there is one now…).

        But social historians do work seriously on the American Revolution.  Douglas Egerton, for example, has written Gabriel’s Revolt, the story of the great uprising to burn Richmond in 1800, previously misnamed Gabriel’s Conspiracy (who outside of England would refer to Washington’s Conspiracy?).  Gary Nash has written some 20 intriguing books on blacks, native Americans and poor whites in the American Revolution.  Graham Russell Hodges has done wonderful work on Captain Tye, the leader of a multiracial guerilla movement for the British in New Jersey (though that work is, curiously enough, published in obscure journals).  There is now a literature on artisan republicanism, black and white, in the Revolution, and on sailors as an international proletariat (Marcus Rediker).  Recently there have been a number of books on slavery in the Revolution (there were earlier ones by Benjamin Quarles in 1961 and Sylvia Frey in the early 1990s), for instance, in 2006 a reconsideration by Nash treated however as a matter of black identity (The Forgotten Fifth is its title), or a work by Simon Schama, Rough Crossings, about the peregrinations of black Loyalists who escaped with the British to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.  Yet the subject matter – freedom, the theme of the Revolution, realized fully by black struggles for emancipation - has remained partly in shadow.

       I had studied comparative revolutions long ago with Barrington Moore who wrote Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, one of the most important books in comparative social history and comparative politics of the last half century.  Moore started with the Puritan Revolution, then the French, the failed German Revolution of 1848, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution and the American Civil War.  The Civil War was about slavery; it was serious.  The American Revolution, to which Moore devoted little thought, just changed the cast of political characters.  In 1996, I read, however, Nash’s Race and Revolution which said a gigantic number of blacks escaped and fought for the British, gradual emancipation should have occurred after the Revolution (it didn’t because the North still had slaves), and left the subject after two pages.  But I stopped there.  The question: what did the struggle for emancipation mean in terms of how we think about the Revolution? stayed with me.  I have worked for 13 years on Emancipation and Independence and now can speak about the significance of the story – and what its amazingly long burial on both sides of the Atlantic suggests about how we study these things.  The story will, as Nietzsche says, transvalue values.  One can now see this struggle from below and discern the efforts of serious proponents of freedom, blacks and whites on both sides, to move history further and in a different, deeper direction.

       What I had long ago been taught of revolution by Barrington Moore omitted the Southern hemisphere.  In the bright firmament, these revolutions too, for American academia, were dark stars.  But the greatest slave uprising in all of history, the only successful one, made of the horror of St. Domingue the freedom of Haiti in 1804.  When Bolivar was losing in Venezuela to Spain, he retreated to republican Haiti, and gained time and support in exchange for gradual emancipation.  Nowhere else in the Hemisphere, where other movements end slavery with independence, is there a subsequent Civil War over bondage.  As I did this work, I placed the American Revolution deeply in its setting of these now illuminated dark stars.  In that comparison, the question of why the American Revolution failed to produce gradual emancipation not only in the North but also in the South became a burning one.  For the preface and introduction to Emancipation and Independence, see here and here.


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