Monday, July 23, 2012

The nub of the problem: was Crispus Attucks a lone ranger? Conversation with Marc Steiner

Marc Steiner of WEAA in Baltimore loves and reads history. He prompted a new kind of conversation about Black Patriots and Loyalists, one that enabled me to articulate something fundamental. Listen here.

When the New York Times corrected the Daughters of the American Revolution in praising its new integrated chapter (July 4th) here, it did so only by saying, with the genealogist of the D.A.R., that some blacks participated – 5,000 out of 400,000. That comment made the role of black Patriots sound minor. But as Mike Goldfield, author of the brilliant The Color of Politics who has read my book very carefully, wrote: doesn’t the article lowball the number and significance of black fighting even on the Patriot side?

I sent the Times a letter on this point here, but the op-ed page did not print it. The nub of the problem might be put this way: the dense screen of racism has sufficiently abated so the Times could mark the passing of an aspect of the D.A.R. and S.A.R.’s racism, but not so that it could include a serious view of the role of black Patriots (or Loyalists). Yes, blacks participated eccentrically, it seems to say; tailing after the main American forces, they were Lone Rangers or Don Quixotes...

Yes, their descendants deserve admission to these organizations.

But no one could consider their role central to Patriot efforts, let alone that the fight against bondage shaped the American Revolution and rendered it, through gradual emancipation in the North, consistent, and that rebellions against bondage, initiated in the Caribbean in the 1750s and 1760s and extended through the American Revolution to Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone, and Saint-Domingue, continued to inspire democratic uprisings through 1865 and beyond.

Interestingly, even the D.A.R. genealogists (not the director of the project) have noticed that the standard figure - 5,000 derived by repetition from an estimate of the great black abolitionist William Nell - is low. See here. The two now estimate that 6,600 blacks and Native Americans fought on the American side, a confirmation, name by name, that one-third more than historians had previously thought, in fact, fought. This is a positive step. And these genealogists say, there are more to be found, as I argue in chapter 2 of Black Patriots and Loyalists, probably quite a lot more.

As Marc Steiner's interview stresses, however, even this discovery does not get at - and in certain ways, avoids - the new perspective Black Patriots and Loyalists brings. Black soldiers were important, often central, recruited by the Crown and the Patriots and (mostly) freed, I argue, because not enough foreign or white soldiers, Loyalist or Patriot, would fight. The war increasingly depended on black soldiers and their quest for freedom. Hence, as German Private Georg Daniel Flohr said walking around the field at Yorktown, the crucial battle in which General Cornwallis was defeated and the British forced to surrender, most of the corpses, on both sides, were “Mohren” (blacks).

All of Marc’s questions and comments reflect this; this is part of a history in which the struggle from below for black liberation (as he puts it) is essential, starting from the some 20 uprisings against slavery in the Caribbean and extending to the United States, Sierra Leone, Haiti, Venezuela, the Black Baptist revolt in Jamaica, the fall of slavery in the British empire (four years after Jamaica) and the U.S. Civil War (Black Patriots and Loyalists, pp. 4-5, 10-11). The fight against bondage - what I call the second revolution - shapes the American Revolution and is integral to it. The independence movement is not, as it were, a white sun around which black soldiers orbit; the movement against bondage made the American Revolution consistently for freedom and was central, as in the First Rhode Island Regiment, to the fighting itself.

Before Black Patriots and Loyalists, very able historians had envisioned blacks, as Gary Nash titles an otherwise eloquent book, as The Forgotten Fifth. Nash sees them as fighting primarily with the British, the “dirty secret” which has prevented American historians, often for shame, from talking about the role of blacks for 225 years. Blacks were more than a few, but nonetheless, their significance is still circumscribed intellectually to a kind of identity politics (the force of Nash's work, some 25 books on blacks, poor whites and native americans in the Revolution, however, goes far beyond this).

In her powerfully titled and written Water from the Rock, Sylvia Frey in 1991 spoke of the blacks as a third force mainly in South Carolina. (Patriot militias patrolled to recapture slaves, and did not recruit blacks; in Georgia, the one black recruit, Austin, was hailed as unusual for "people of his color"...). But even in this case, the war of Independence and George Washington are the stars, black soldiers a distant but a circling planet.

In contrast, Black Patriots and Loyalists shows that blacks who escaped from or occasionally (widely, internationally) rose up against bondage gave the Revolution its meaning. The American Revolution was the first fight for freedom, not just of white people and slaveowners as Samuel Johnson cuttingly said, but of all. “How come” he quipped in response to the first Continental Congress, “we hear the greatest yelps for liberty from the drivers of slaves?”

Abolitionism was brought to the Revolution on the American side by sailors, impressed into the British navy, experiencing a real slavery (worse than a three penny tax on tea), rebelling against it in riots against press-gangs – a leading feature of pre-War revolutionary activity (Black Patriots and Loyalists, p. 10 – and composing much of every revolutionary crowd.

Sailors influenced J. Philmore in London in 1760 who wrote Two Dialogues concerning the Man-trade and James Otis in Boston in 1764 - The Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved which maintained that all men, black as well as white, have natural rights. These pamphlets were the subject of discussions among sailors and artisans in every working class tavern in the run-up to the Revolution. The forces from below, white sailor and artisan (mostly) as well as black, who composed the Revolutionary crowds, were abolitionists. So were the Shays rebels, revolutionary farmers, as I point out at the end of my book (pp. 255-56) in the stunning letter of three Western Massachusetts farmers in 1787 rejecting the Constitution. Imagine they say, that you sent your daughter to fetch water from the stream and she was kidnapped and sold into bondage for her whole life. This is a precursor, eloquent and powerful, of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.

Black Patriots and Loyalists is the story of why.

I had not met Marc before. But he is a longstanding anti-racist activist, also with poor whites, members of the White Patriots, a Chicago gang similar to the Young Lords among Purerto Ricans, who came to the Poor People’s encampment, Resurrection City, in Washington in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Marc reads as an historian who likes a new take. He gets and then works on the new ideas in the book. If Britain had freed and recruited even more blacks,* they might well have won the war. In fact, the British initiated and extended the competition to recruit and free black soldiers; they nearly did. This is an important counterfactual which Black Patriots and Loyalists explores.

In addition, I offer an international perspective, one of black revolts from below against slavery surging into the American revolution and beyond, extending to all the independence movements in the Hemisphere of black and brown people. Thus, in the greatest and one successful slave uprising in all of history, slaves made Haiti. In Venezuela, Bolivar was losing to Spain until he went to republican Haiti for aid. Yes, this Great Liberator continued to oppress indigenous people in Venezuela. But bondage was gone.

In the story of comparative revolutions as in Barrington Moore and Theda Skocpol and in the study of the American independence movement, black and brown people - and revolutions to the South - are whited out. Black Patriots and Loyalists corrects this.

Looking at the first independence movement and slavery in the light of comparative politics, comparative revolutions or comparative social history, the subsequent North American civil war over slavery is eccentric. American historians - both biographers, long the primary form of writing about the Revolution, in contrast to the French who write mainly histories of class struggle on the French Revolution, and even American social historians - have preserved this isolation. The singularity of the American case is a paradigm which drapes the pages of the New York Times and is rooted in and shapes previous academic thinking about the role of black soldiers in the Revolution.

Black Patriots and Loyalists explodes this framework.

This book went through 16 years of writing, revision and review, including four at the University of Chicago Press. It has passed a high muster. Chicago has provided a stunning cover - see its Facebook page on the book here - and printed it beautifully. But its themes require a shift in perspective, a paradigm shift in Thomas Kuhn’s phrase. And that may sometimes be - sadly - too much, in prevailing quarters, to handle.

In contrast, Marc's interview rests on a straightforward reading of the history - one which takes in the facts - and shows something of what a sophisticated conversation might look like.

On the issue of bondage in the Revolution, many historians have recently done important work. Recognition of black Loyalists - see Nash, Hodges, Frey, Schama, Pybus, inter alia - is real, though perhaps not their significance within British forces, since 1990 and especially since 2005 (Nash, Schama and Pybus all published in 2005 and 2006). But the role of black Patriots and the military competition between Patriots and Loyalists to recruit and free blacks has been understated or missed.

As Marc realized, reading without the heritage of American racism (it affects him, as it does me, as a matter of laughter, ridicule and opposition) and the still fairly timid reaching for new truth among post-civil rights era historians, Black Patriots and Loyalists provides an entirely new perspective.

Washington, though the leader of the first new nation, was not so great a leader for freedom. If he had been really good, he would have been a Toussaint (the leader of the Haitian uprising). Sadly, though forced from below to accept black recruitment and pressed by the great John Laurens, Washington was not quite…

In Sierra Leone, blacks, as Marc's questioning emphasizes, founded a new democratic regime with a shorter work week (by 24 hours) than in England or America. English or American workers might well have learned from this great democratic uprising in Freetown...

A new story meets resistance. That is the nub of the problem.

*Everyone including Cassandra Pybus – see "Jefferson’s Faulty Math" – thinks they recruited many. Estimates range from 20,000 – Pybus - to 100,000; it is probably, as I show in increasing the estimates for Nova Scotia (pp. 207-09), a good deal more than 20,000...

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