Saturday, May 25, 2013

Edward Countryman on Black Patriots and Loyalists, American Historical Review, April, 2013


Edward Countryman is a fine scholar of the American Revolution and recently, of black men and women in the revolutionary era, as his first comment shows. He places Black Patriots and Loyalists in a tradition that starts from William Nell, the black abolitionist, who wrote Colored Patriots of the American Revolution in 1855, and runs through Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (1961) and Vincent Harding, There is a River. This is, in many ways, a more fiery and apt tradition than much historical writing.

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These are black writers, for whom lifting America into freedom from the bottom up is deeply a cause. There is also a great tradition among democrats of which Herbert Aptheker's Negro Slave Revolts is a paradigm, as Peter Wood has underlined. And a further scholarly tradition that includes fine work by Gary Nash, Graham Hodges, Wood, Sylvia Frey, Simon Schama, Cassandra Pybus, and many others.

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Countryman also places Black Patriots and Loyalists in the tradition of accounts of a second revolution, of artisans and farmers initiated by Carl Becker (as Staughton Lynd, part of it, says in a comment on the back of the book). One of the things which is new in the book, however, is to stress this second revolution, the one for abolition, as part of a great international surge of rebellion against bondage starting in the Caribbean in the 1750s, surging into London and North America in the 1760s, and moving from the American Revolution to Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone, St. Domingue and Venezuela, and onward into the Civil War.

Countryman treats the book primarily as a contribution to the literature on blacks in the Revolution which it certainly is. But Black Patriots and Loyalists also focuses - a perhaps political theory theme as well as an historical one - on this international revolution against bondage which shapes and in many ways, overshadows the mainly white-led, though driven centrally by black soldiering revolution for independence (the last paragraph gestures at this theme).

For the official story of Independence and the Founders misses or downplays the main revolution at the time; this new way of setting the revolution - in the global context of uprisings of black and brown people - makes the cause of freedom\emancipation much more thoroughgoing, as Countryman notes in citing Samuel Johnson's witticism: "How come we hear the greatest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?"

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That for 52 of the first 72 years of the republic (until the election of Lincoln), the President was a slave-owner and that the only Presidents elected twice were slave-owners underlines this point. In talking about Black Patriots and Loyalists, I now refer to Founding Myths and Founding Amnesias...

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Historians perhaps tend to weigh the richness of local and detailed accounts more than novelty of theme. Or perhaps, one might say, like others, historians tend to look at things in the optic of a particular paradigm, today one in which the issue of identity and stories of blacks fighting in the Revolution is important, abolition somehow less so. In this regard, the title and vision of his new book - Enjoy the Same Liberty here - goes beyond this review.

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Black Patriots and Loyalists, as Countryman notes, is primarily focused on the agency of blacks in freeing themselves. But it is not exclusively so. I am also concerned with white sailors - "impressed" into the British Navy - who learned from black uprisings for abolition in the Caribbean, brought the word to London and Boston in the early 1760s, and led, along with black sailors, every revolutionary crowd. They helped make the Boston Tea Party or the riots against press-gangs also for abolition, and along with other anti-racist artisans, contributed to gradual emancipation throughout the North by the beginning of the Nineteenth Century (the last two states to pass gradual emancipation laws were New York 1799 and New Jersey, 1804).

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There was only a North in the Civil War because of the emancipation achieved during and immediately after the American Revolution...

This success - and not its limitation (or "incompleteness" in Countryman's phrase) - is the highest achievement of freedom during the American Revolution.

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Radical sailors and artisans, black and white, slave and free, were central to this decisive change.

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Black Patriots and Loyalists is thus concerned with the broad movement for emancipation, instigated by black revolt. This movement includes John Laurens, a great revolutionary leader inspired by the words of Rousseau - the latter came to play a considerable part even in America as well as in Lafayette and Jacobin abolition of bondage in the French colonies in 1794 - and author of a proposal, which passed the Continental Congress in 1779 to recruit and free 3,000 blacks in South Carolina and 2,000 in Georgia. Similarly, John Woolman, Levi Hart, Samuel Hopkins and other Christians realized that bondage was, as Hopkins named it, "a sin of crimson dye."

Rousseau and the others are hardly outside the sphere of international black revolt against bondage, considered in the light of its ultimately shattering public impact against chains and for freedom. In fact, all their efforts helped forge an empire of opinion from below (Rousseau's term in his Letter to D'Alembert) which created, over a long epoch of Revolution, Civil War and the civil rights movement, a beginning democracy.

Rousseau's words helped name, in American as well as French documents and controversies, what emancipation meant.

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Countryman thinks that Rousseau is extraneous to this account (explored, as it were, only because I am also a political theorist) because to some extent, he focuses on localized history (telling the story of blacks as a matter of identity politics; compare Nash's title for his very good 2006 volume, The Forgotten Fifth) rather than on the central struggle for freedom/abolition.

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But Countryman is right in his criticisms of mistakes and absences in the book. In a previous, longer draft, most of the documents and people he mentions were included, but this account would have benefited particularly from his contrast of the Cushing decision in Massachusetts - a more radical one - and both the Mansfield decision in London and the American Constitution as a slave-owners document (I have since written quite a bit on the Constitution, but he is right that the theme belonged in the book - see here, here, here and here).

Countryman also notes that I did not cover Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, black ministers, who led the new black churches after the Revolution for freedom. This is an important extension of the efforts of black Patriots in the Revolution itself.

In contrast to the international and local abolition societies (ch. 9), I did not look into them sufficiently to have much new to say. But there is plenty to be found out. Countryman notes that a broad literature is beginning to excavate the real history of black and white agency for emancipation - the center of the American Revolution - and that there is yet much work to be done. It is time historically - as it is with Sand Creek as an emblem of the second Civil War (1861-1890), not a war against bondage but a war of genocide against indigenous people - see here and here. There are the voices of indigenous people and of ordinary Americans who resisted this. It is time to set a new course - one much more inclusive and welcoming of the voices of the oppressed - for American democracy and to achieve peace (more realistically, diminished belligerence).

I am grateful for Countryman's review and for the work he - and others like Gerald Horne - are in process of doing.

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American Historical Review, April, 2013
Alan Gilbert. Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2012. Pp. xvi, 369. $30.00.

Edward Countryman
Southern Methodist University

Building on a distinguished career in the history of political thought, Alan Gilbert's Black Patriots and Loyalists is an exhaustive account of how black men and women participated in the War of Independence. His primary theme is that these people took full advantage of the rupture that the crisis brought in white colonial society. Pursuing their own freedom, they fought on both the American and British sides (which is why I have written “black men and women” — to take account of people who simply did not want to be American — or “African Americans”).

Gilbert's theme is not new, reaching as far back as William C. Nell's The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855). Writing on the very eve of the Civil War, Nell had good reason to describe (in the spirit of Frederick Douglass) the frustrated patriotism of his subjects. A century and a half later, Gilbert, like other scholars of the subject, can take a larger view, addressing how black people claimed American liberty as well as how they chose sides, all the while confronting (to borrow Samuel Johnson's famous phrase of 1776) the “yelps for liberty” that emanated from American “drivers of negroes.”

Gilbert invokes the argument, famously advanced by Carl Lotus Becker in The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 176
0–1776 (1909), that two separate revolutions were underway during the independence period. One, for independence, severed the “political bond” that had connected Americans to metropolitan Britain and established the United States on republican terms. The other came from below. To Progressive historians of Becker's ilk, this revolution emanated from middling and lesser white males who contended with their supposed betters for power. It was effectively defeated by the movement that led to the Constitution. Gilbert reformulates the second part of this “dual revolution” in how black people took advantage of the rupture with Britain not just to escape, but to help inaugurate slavery's destruction. Their revolution was not so much defeated as left incomplete. Beginning with Virginia governor Lord Dunmore's “Ethiopian Regiment,” black loyalists were just as challenging to the existing order, just as transformative in their goals, as anybody on the American side. The Scottish earl's November 1775 offer of freedom for slaves “appertaining to rebels” who would fight for the crown is well known. Gilbert's achievement is that he found a great deal of evidence about what black people did with the chances that the era presented even before Dunmore's offer, on both sides of the armed conflict. No other study presents nearly as much material on this theme.

But there are some flaws and absences in Gilbert's account. A few are simple errors, such as confusing Connecticut Yankee Benjamin Harrison with the future president of the same name (p. 108), or asserting that British General Sir Henry Clinton had been governor of North Carolina (p. 32). And perhaps the author's interest in political thought explains why a book whose subject is black people acting for themselves digresses to the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau on white antislavery advocate and South Carolinian John Laurens. Or why it simply ignores the import of Thomas Jefferson's ahistorical and illogical attempt to blame the book's own subject matter, black rebellion against real enslavement, on King George in his draft of the Declaration of Independence. British jurist William Murray, Baron Mansfield, rightly receives attention for his epochal decision (against his own inclinations) in Somersett's Case (1771–1772), which determined that people held as slaves within Britain could seek freedom through the courts. But Gilbert ignores the much greater conceptual sweep of Massachusetts chief justice William Cushing's decision in Quock Walker (1783), which ended slavery in that state. He ignores as well the rejection of the principle by the framers of the United States Constitution that self-liberating slaves could find security in a jurisdiction, such as Mansfield's England, contemporary France, or Cushing's Massachusetts, where positive law did not establish slavery.

Gilbert rightly stresses that what began in revolutionary America spread widely, both with the black diaspora that accompanied British withdrawal, and by influence, starting with Haiti. But he pays little attention to the black American leaders who emerged during the era and who set out, with their fellows, to bring down slavery itself. The index has no entries at all for Richard Allen or Absalom Jones, whose churches became centers of organization and resistance, or Benjamin Banneker, who sharply rebuked Jefferson on the Virginian's own terms, and one bare entry for Phillis Wheatley, whose poetry betrays her tightly controlled but still seething anger. Nonetheless, Gilbert has made a strong, deeply researched contribution to an emerging body of scholarship that shows afresh how far the American Revolution reverberated.

© 2013 American Historical Association. All rights reserved.

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