Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A review of Black Patriots and Loyalists by Douglas Egerton

Doug Egerton is a fine historian who wrote a memorable book on the insurrection led by Gabriel and aided by two emigre French jacobins in 1800 to burn down the wooden city of Richmond. It is called Gabriel's Revolt (1994), changing the standard name "Gabriel's Conspiracy" handed down among racists since no one, outside of Imperial England, would speak of the American Revolution as "Washington's Conspiracy." Since the revolts of the oppressed - the international second revolution of slaves and the independence revolution - are both morally justified, the names here are not matters of "preference," but rather, have real moral and political weight.

Egerton would have preferred that I draw contrasts with Simon Schama and Cassandra Pybus in the text rather than in the notes. But the book is meant to be read broadly, by motivated high school as well as college students - see "Teaching Black Patriots and Loyalists in beginning political science classes" here on Amentahru Wahlrab's assigning the book to 125 first year students at the University of Texas at Tyler - and not to be lost in controversies with others. Through telling stories about those, who against all odds, moved the mountain of slavery, I mean the book to speak directly to those who still need to move mountains, most obviously the American prison system (2.3 million prisoners, 25% of the world's prisoners), American militarism and "gun culture," No other advanced capitalist society or, for that matter, China, allows the mass murder, with big weapons, of 6 year olds and the women who teach them as in the horror in Newtown, Connecticut; it is American violence which is at issue here. The book also casts light on the fear of blacks and native Americans which is so extraordinary in America and so linked to distinctive and devastating slaughters, historical and present. Such fears signal the unique depths of American racism, including that surrounding, as Black Patriots and Loyalists reveals, the Revolution.

I also give historians like Gary Nash, Sylvia Frey, Peter Wood, Graham Russell Hodges and others credit for discoveries which gradually will help to make this new way of looking at the Revolution - that it is centrally involved with and shaped by the international revolt against bondage and that it must be seen from the bottom up - audible. This is, as it were, a new paradigm for looking at a Revolution previously seen as only about independence, only American to the exclusion of other revolutions in the Hemisphere, the first "new nation," and with slaves isolated and at most interesting in terms of "identity polities." No, they fought for freedom, and freedom, for all was the cause of the American Revolution, one betrayed by the slave-owning and dealing of the founders and the Constitution.

The review appears in the new edition of The Historian:

Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence. By Alan Gilbert. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pp. xvi, 369. $30.00.)

Historians have long understood that there were two American Revolutions, the triumphant one that culminated in political independence for the thirteen British mainland colonies and the far less successful campaign waged for human freedom. Alan Gilbert’s contribution is to demonstrate how the second revolution could have sustained and even hastened the first. Given the large number of Africans and African Americans in the colonies, together with a sizeable percentage of whites who remained loyal to Britain, the November 1775 decision by General George Washington and the Continental Congress to cease the enlistment of slaves temporarily handed the military advantage to the Crown.

Washington quickly came to see the folly of his decision, but the American refusal to adopt more dramatic proposals for black enlistment, such as that advanced by South Carolina’s John Laurens, led most black combatants to regard the British as the more dedicated to the cause of social equality. This saga has been told before, and specialists will be familiar with many of the stories recounted here, from that of Lord Dunmore’s regiment to Sir Guy Carleton’s principled refusal to return those soldiers and their families who took refuge within his lines. But armed with new research, Gilbert tells his sprawling story with grace and clarity as he follows his veterans onto the rocky shores of Nova Scotia and the rainy coast of Sierra Leone. As the white patriots they left behind crafted a Constitution that protected slavery and allowed for the importation of more captured Africans, the black refugees struggled to advance the cause of democracy and freedom in each place they settled. Although Gilbert’s wide-ranging account generally abandons the early Republic with the black emigrants, he gives the final word to one of Gabriel’s men, who during his trial compared himself to Washington and insisted that he too had risked his life for liberty.

An elegant and passionate writer, Gilbert pulls no punches, and not surprisingly a number of white founders attract his censure. Jefferson’s enmity toward the rebels in Saint-Domingue is here chronicled, as is James Madison’s curious theory that arming blacks would not cripple slavery on the grounds that “a freedman immediately loses all attachment and sympathy with his former fellow-slaves” (172). Gilbert also carries on a polite but firm debate with other scholars in his discursive notes—usually Simon Schama but often Cassandra Pybus— which, unfortunately, are buried at the end of the volume.


Gilbert suggests that most accounts “dramatically understate the number of blacks on the American side,” which is usually placed around five thousand (105). Incomplete muster rolls and pay records, Gilbert concedes, make precision on this point difficult; some scholars simply identify soldiers as blacks if their surnames hint at their race. There is also the question of how to count enslaved manservants. Gilbert writes that William Lee “fought alongside” his master, George Washington, yet Lee’s only brush with death was due to an errant cannonball (108). Yet another of Washington’s slaves, the African renamed Harry Washington, fled with the British only to find himself battling autocratic imperial officials in Sierra Leone. Both men would have agreed with Gilbert that their second, unfinished revolution became part of an international struggle “devoted to incipient stirrings of democracy around the world” (207).

Le Moyne College Douglas R. Egerton

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