Saturday, July 16, 2016

A debate: Keith Brooke’s essay on what if the British had won – and abolition of bondage – and my response

    Keith is a radical teacher and union/community organizer who is writing a book challenging important reactionary clichés in American history writing.  He takes up the theme of Gerald Horne and others that the American Revolution was simply a pro-slavery revolt.  Since there was a big fight for abolition from below on the American side, resulting in gradual emancipation in the North – what created the free North, see Black Patriots and Loyalists (below BPA) and my Daily Beast essay on this here – I think this misreads a very important part of the story, misses the movement from below led by sailors, black and white, for emancipation and the importance of military competition for black recruits, and overly idealizes, despite the way you rightly qualify this,  the corrupt British empire.  I reproduce the exchange here because it is decisive for how all of us assess the American Revolution, especially its genocides toward blacks and indigenous people as well as its emancipatory features toward blacks are often whited out in conventional history writing and teaching.  For if one casts a Founding Amnesia over bondage, one cannot notice, until my book (2012), even gradual emancipation in the North.  Yet  the abolitionist movement in the Revolution forced the creation of a free North for the Civil War (no free North, no Civil War...).  So the conventional tradition of silence about gradual emancipation in the North is a startling lame, pro-racist, tyrannical and silly misreading - for 229 years - of huge, structural features of American history.


As the United States Celebrates the 240 year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence:


“I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America, if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery”. Marquis de Lafayette, French military leader who was instrumental in enlisting French support for the colonists in the American War of Independence
Historians have long grappled with the contradiction of a revolution under the banner of “all men are created equal” being largely led by slave owners. Once free of England, the U.S. grew over the next 89 years to be the largest slave owning republic in history. But the July 4th 1776 Declaration of Independence (DI) was in itself a revolutionary document . Never before in history had people asserted the right of revolution–not just to overthrow a specific government that no longer met the needs of the people, but as a general principle for the relationship between the rulers and the ruled : “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government...”

And yes, “ all men are created equal” excluded women, black people and the indigenous populations of the continent, and was written by slave owner Thomas Jefferson with all his personal hypocrisies. But the words themselves have been used many times since to challenge racism and other forms of domination and inequality. Both the 1789 French Revolution and the 1804 Haitian revolution–the only successful slave revolt in human history–drew inspiration from this clarion call. In 1829 black abolitionist David Walker threw the words of the DI back in the face of the slave republic : “See your declarations Americans !!! Do you understand your own language ?” The 1848 Seneca Falls women’s rights convention issued a Declaration of Sentiments proclaiming that “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men and women are created equal”. Vietnam used these very words in declaring
independence from France in 1946. And as ML King stated in his 1963 I have a Dream Speech , it was “A promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Americans are taught to see the birth of our country as a gift to the world, even when its original defects are acknowledged. The DI along with the Constitution are pillars of American Exceptionalism–the belief that the U.S. is superior and unique from all others, holding the promise of an “Asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty” in the words of Thomas Paine in Common Sense . Historian Gary Nash has made a case that upon winning independence, the conditions for at least the gradual abolition of slavery throughout the 13 colonies were present but lacked political leadership. “One of the lessons of history is that in cases where a fundamental change has been accomplished against heavy odds, inspired leadership has been critically important” and “Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were strategically positioned to take the lead on the slavery issue. All three professed a hatred of slavery and a fervent desire to see it ended in their own time.” (The Forgotten Fifth, 91, 95 ). For all their lofty rhetoric none of them lifted a finger to bring that about. Perhaps though a different question might be asked : what if the British had won, had defeated the colonists’ bid to break from the mother country ? Is it possible that the cause of freedom and the ideals of the DI would have been paradoxically better served by that outcome ?

England’s Victory Over France Leads to the American War For Independence

It was, ironically, England’s victory over France for control of the North American continent in the seven years war (1756-1763) that laid the basis for their North American colonies to revolt just 13 years later. As the war with France ended, the British 1763 Proclamation prohibited white settlement west of the Appalachian mountains in an attempt at detente with Native Americans -- bringing England into conflict with colonists wanting to expand westward. More serious still were the series of taxes England imposed on the colonies to pay off its large war debt : the 1765 Stamp Act, the 1767-1770 Townshend Acts, and the 1773 Tea Acts among others. As colonial leaders mounted increasingly militant resistance to these measures, so too did British repression ramp up.

And while “No taxation without representation” and opposition to British tyranny are the two most commonly cited causes propelling the colonists’ drive for independence, recent scholarship (Slave Nation by Ruth and Alfred Blumrosen, Gerald Horne’s The Counter-Revolution of 1776, and Alan Gilbert’s Black Patriots and Loyalists in particular) has revealed a heretofore unacknowledged third major motivating force --the preservation and protection of slavery itself. In 1772, the highest British court ruled in the Somerset decision that slave owners had no legal claims to ownership of other humans in England itself, declaring slavery to be “Odious”. Somerset eliminated any possibility of a de jure defense of slavery in England, further reinforced at the time by Parliament refusing a request by British slave owners to pass such a law. While Somerset did not apply to England’s colonies, it was taken by southern colonists as a potential threat to their slave power. Their fear was further reinforced by the 1766 Declaratory Act which made explicit England’s final say over any laws made in the colonies, and the “Repugnancy” clause in each colony’s charter. Somerset added fuel to the growing fires uniting the colonies against England in a fight for independence.

“Seeing the Revolutionary War through the eyes of enslaved blacks turns its meaning upside down” Simon Schama, Rough Crossings

Among the list of grievances in the DI is the rarely scrutinized “He [referring to the king] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us”. This grievance was motivated by Virginia Royal Governor Lord Dunmore’s November 1775 proclamation stating that any person held as a slave by a colonist in rebellion against England would become free by joining the British forces in subduing the revolt. While 5000 mainly free Black people from northern colonies joined with the colonists’ fight for independence, few of our school books teach that tens of thousands more enslaved black people joined with the British, with an even greater number taking advantage of the war to escape the colonies altogether by running to Canada or Florida. They saw they had a better shot at “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” with the British-- than with their colonial slave masters.

To further put these numbers in perspective, the total population of the 13 colonies at the time was 2.5 million, of whom 500,000 were slaves and indentured servants. While there is some debate
about the exact numbers, Peter Kolchin in American Slavery points to the “Sharp decline between 1770 and 1790 in the proportion of the population made up of blacks (almost all of whom were slaves) from 60.5 % to 43.8 % in South Carolina and from 45.2 % to 36.1 % in Georgia” (73). Other commonly cited figures from historians estimate 25,000 slaves escaped from South Carolina, 30,000 from Virginia, and 5,000 from Georgia. Alan Gilbert in his Black Patriots and Loyalists says “ Estimates range between twenty thousand and one hundred thousand...if one adds in the thousands of not yet organized blacks who trailed ...the major British forces ...the number takes on dimensions accurately called ‘gigantic’( xii
Among them were 30 of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, 20 of George Washington’s, and good ole “Give me liberty or give me death” Patrick Henry also lost his slave Ralph Henry to the Brits. It was the first mass emancipation in American history. Evidently “domestic insurrection” was legitimate when led by slave owners against England but not when enslaved people rose up for their freedom--against the rebelling slave owners !

Before There Was Harriet Tubman There was Colonel Tye

Crispus Attucks is often hailed as the first martyr of the American revolution, a free black man killed defying British authority in the 1770 Boston Massacre. But few have heard of Titus, who just 5 years later was among those thousands of slaves who escaped to the British lines. He became known as Colonel Tye for his military prowess in leading black and white guerrilla fighters in numerous raids throughout Monmouth County New Jersey, taking reprisals against slave owners, freeing their slaves, destroying their weaponry and creating an atmosphere of fear among the rebel colonists–and hope among their slaves. Other black regiments under the British fought with ribbons emblazoned across their chests saying “Liberty to Slaves “.

One might compare Col. Tye to Attucks but if Attucks is a hero, what does that make Tye, who freed hundreds of slaves? Perhaps a more apt comparison is with Harriet Tubman who escaped slavery in 1849 and returned to the south numerous times to also free hundreds of her brothers and sisters held in bondage.

So What if the British had won ?

At no point though did the British declare the end of slavery to be a war goal; it was always just a military tactic. But if the Brits had won, as they came close to doing, it might have set off a series of events that went well beyond their control. Would England have been able to restore slavery in the 13 colonies in the face of certain anti-slavery resistance by the tens of thousands of now free ex-slaves, joined by growing anti-slavery forces in the northern colonies ? As Gilbert puts it “Class and race forged ties of solidarity in opposition to both the slave holders and the colonial elites.” (10) Another sure ally would have been the abolitionist movement in England which had been further emboldened by the 1772 Somerset decision. And if England had to abolish slavery in the 13 colonies, would that not have led to a wave of emancipations throughout the Caribbean and Latin America ?
And just what was the cost of the victorious independence struggle to the black population ? To the indigenous populations who were described in that same DI grievance as “The merciless Indian Savages”? Might it have been better for the cause of freedom if the colonists lost ? And if the colonists had lost, wouldn’t the ideals of the DI have carried just as much if not more weight ?

“The price of freedom from England was bondage for African slaves in America. America would be a slave nation.” Eleanor Holmes Norton, introduction to Slave Nation

We do know however the cost of the colonists’ victory : once independence was won, while the northern states gradually abolished slavery, slavery BOOMED in the south. The first federal census in 1790 counted 700,000 slaves. By 1810, 2 yrs after the end of the slave trade, there were 1.2 million slaves, a 70% increase. England ended slavery in all its colonies in 1833, when there were 2 million enslaved people in the U.S. Slavery in the U.S. continued for another 33 years, during which time the slave population doubled to 4 million human beings. The U.S abolished slavery in 1865; only Cuba and Brazil ended slavery at a later date. And the colonists’ victory also further opened the gates to the
attempted genocide of the indigenous peoples over the next 125 years.

The foregoing is not meant to romanticize and project England as some kind of abolitionist savior had they kept control of the colonies. Dunmore himself was a slave owner. England was the center of the international slave trade. Despite losing the 13 colonies, England maintained its position as the most powerful and rapacious empire in the world till the mid-20th century. As England did away with chattel slavery, it replaced it with the capitalist wage slavery of the industrial revolution. It used food as a weapon to starve the Irish, conquered and colonized large swaths of Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

We often see the outcomes of history as predetermined, as inevitabilities, and think there were no other outcomes possible. We look back 240 years later and for most it seems unquestionable that the American revolution was good for the world, a step, perhaps somewhat tortured , towards progress and freedom. But for historian Gerald Horne , “Simply because Euro-American colonists prevailed in their establishing of the U.S., it should not be assumed that this result was inevitable. History points to other possibilities... I do not view the creation of the republic as a great leap forward for humanity” ( Counter-Revolution of 1776, ix ).

The American revolution was not just a war for independence from England. It was also a battle for freedom against the very leaders of that rebellion by hundreds of thousands of enslaved black people, a class struggle of poor white tenant farmers in many cases also against that same white colonial elite, and a fight for survival of the indigenous populations. But the colonists’ unlikely victory was to lead to the creation of the largest slave nation in history, the near genocide of the indigenous populations and a continent-wide expansion gained by invading and taking over half of Mexico. The U.S. went on to become an empire unparalleled in history, its wealth origins rooted largely in slave labor. The struggles for equality and justice for all that the DI promised continues of course, a task that remains undone, ML King’s promissory note unfulfilled to this day.

The late Chinese Premier Chou en Lai was once asked his assessment as to whether the French revolution was a step forward in history. His response was “It’s too soon to tell”. Was the founding of the United States a step forward in history ? Or is it still too soon to tell ?


Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen Slave Nation
Alan Gilbert Black Patriots and Loyalists
Gerald Horne the Counter-Revolution of 1776
Peter Kolchin American Slavery
Gary Nash The Forgotten Fifth
Simon Schama Rough Crossings

Bio: Keith Brooks is a long time union, unemployed and tenant organizer and political activist. He recently retired after 22 years as a NYC high school educator and also taught at Richmond College and at Alternate U. This essay is from a chapter “the Hidden History of the American Revolution” in MythAmerica, a book Keith is writing. He has been published in the Nation, Baltimore Sun, Amsterdam News, and other progressive and mainstream venues.


Dear Keith,

     I like both the project of this chapter and your book (be interested in the other topics…).  Counterfactuals are useful, particularly when the Founding Amnesias of America, its twin genocides, as I name them, are so oppressive.  I especially value that you include indigenous people in this essay and the point about the British trying to halt further settlement West of the Appalachians after 1756 and American hunger for genocide (worth underlining), a very important and strong argument in favor of your counterfactual.  Canada is not very good to this moment, but the extremes of settler genocide are an American phenomenon…

        I hope you found the article on the 6600 and growing – I suspect the number will end up two or even three times as high - useful.  Schama’s citation is wonderful, but he was out to take the Americans down a peg, and missed entirely the role of black and Narragansett soldiers, inter alia, on the American side.  Washington feared British recruitment of blacks “growing like a snowball in rolling,” wanted to win more than he pursued his interests as a slave-owner (the threat of hanging sometimes does this), and supported the creation of the First Rhode Island Regiment.  That is in chapter 4 of Black Patriots and Loyalists, especially pp. 98-105.  Also he very likley supported the Laurens proposal (or the Laurens-Hamilton proposal) which otherwise would not have passed the Continental Congress  The letter from Washington you cite, however, is important counterevidence, and I agree with you – I do not  have a full explanation for his not blocking it (the explanation so far – 1) nothing passed the Continental Congress without Washington’s being in on the loop and in favor of it; 2) the need for Laurens proposal, if the Patriots were going to defeat the Crown, was very important, and the arguments those that convinced Washington in commending the creation of the First Rhode Island Regiment. See pp. 89-91)

    But the chapter miss the central and very important  theme of Black Patriots and Loyalists, which is that military competition between the Patriots and Loyalists over recruits led to the freeing of a much larger number of black folks, on both sides, than has previously been thought. And this thought amplifies, makes centrally effective the argument of Gary Nash’s argument that emancipation was possible throughout the U.S – I emphasize that military competition was a really decisive dynamic in the South as well.  You mention emancipation in the North in a clause but turn away from it too quickly.  For further, with a black and white and sometimes indigenous (Crispus Attucks was indigenous and black, and a sailor – sailors were the most militant force in the American Revolution – all of which should be added briefly to your description) push from below, gradual emancipation occurred throughout the North.  It created a free North to fight eventually the Civil War and defeat the South using primarily – an echo of the Revolution, see my book on the centrality of black fighters at Yorktown, where the diary of Private Georg Daniel Flohr quoted at p. 175 ( ch. 6) of BPL says that most of the corpses on the field on both sides were Mohren (Moors) – 184,000 black troops recruited after the Emancipation Proclamation.   

    This creation of a free North, along with the more publicized equal freedom of conscience and association, is the great, hidden success of the American Revolution unemphasized until my book in 2012 (and you basically miss its significance, so still neglected).   This triumph of liberty, too, not just the Southern revolt to secure bondage a la Horne and the Blumenrosens, is a central facet of the American Revolution, again driven by revolt from below, particularly against the Imperial press-gangs, which made for the militancy of the Revolution and was abolitionist (happy if you have suggestions re the 2015 essay below which I am working on to be a short book…).  Your essay overemphasizes British revenue claims in the light of the French war and misses the central role of 604 uprisings around the Atlantic world against press-gangs, the 3 day Knowles riot in Boston in 1746, driving the Governor from Boston after the sailors threatened him with hanging like “Porteous” in London, the training through fighting for their lives in militancy of revolutionary  sailors and abolitionism.  This would be important to include in your vision of what made the American Revolution.  If it were just as you say, the scheming of Washington and others for indigenous land plus middle class resistance to taxes, there would have been no American Revolution.  The way you – and Horne and the Blumenrosens view it – subtracts any mass democratic struggle from below (though you do, rightly, mention white farmers).

       More importantly, I reviewed Horne’s book which I like very much and, of course, agree with him about racism down to how he couldn’t hail a cab from the Schomburg in Harlem (what a crummy place America still is).  But he cites my book, yet misses utterly the emancipatory side of the American revolution as, again, do the Blumenrosens.  They are importantly right – the South seceded to preserve bondage -  but dialectically speaking, one-sided and miss the popular, abolitionist, black and white character driving the Revolution from below.  See the Journal of American History review also below.  Not a good path to follow solely as your essay currently does.

         Note: Dunmore’s threats from 1772 on to free every slave and (white) indentured servant – another big topic on which I have found very little so far – “sow destruction wherever I can reach and burn your mansions to the ground” – sparked American secession in the South – see ch. 1 especially p. 15, 18-30   - a theme of my book; the revolt/secession in the South  prefigured the Civil War (Schama has one very good sentence on this, but avoids it mostly).

   A very large number of blacks fled to the Crown.  All Generals had large black recruits and workers, and were followed by groups of 4 thousand or more who sacked all the plantations they passed, Loyalist as well as Patriot. 

       If London had been smart enough to follow Dunmore with many Ethiopian regiments, and more encouragement of Tyes (your point here is wonderful  here) and guerilla war in South Carolina – see pp  154-60 of ch. 6, 134-37 of ch. 5  – they would have won.  In 1781, Dunmore was campaigning for recruitment of black guerillas – he failed because the elite in London was racist and defeatist.  Sir Henry Clinton issued a great Proclamation (1781)  to answer the First Rhode Island Regiment,  but diverted blacks – and the thousands who followed British troops – from becoming Redcoats (perhaps a fifth did).  Nonetheless, many ended up fighting.  See BPA,  pp 120-21 of ch. 5.

     Now as you rightly say, the abolitionist movement in England, particularly Granville Sharp, had a remarkable vision of America (see ch. 8, pp. 217-18).  And it worked to free slaves in the British empire.  And the British relied primarily on black troops in the South as I underline in the book.  And they took a much larger number to Canada upon defeat than has previously been estimated.  The old estimate is 4,000 – 3,000 in the Book of Negroes and 1,000 estimated, added on.  By comparison of musters for black settlements involving 1000 people to the Book of Negroes, I show that 2 ½ to 3 times as many blacks escaped separately to the Crown, perhaps 10,000,  than has previously been thought. (pp. 207-09 of chapter 8).  Gary Nash was most struck by this, and says so on the back of the book.  This would extend your point about Tye quantitatively and strengthen your theme about how strong the impetus for freedom was among the British, even though mostly for opportunist reasons, after Somersett and Dunmore.  The Crown would have been racist but, nonetheless, would have tolerated at least as great a push from below for emancipation.  Still, if one subtracts the military competition with the Americans, the British don’t look so good.

     Your figures are perhaps too high on the numbers escaped  (lots escaped in Virginia, but Jefferson’s guess of 30,000 might be true but is just a big multiple of the 30 who escaped him, as Cassandra Pybus points out (she is pro-Loyalist and wants the number lower ironically so that the British can be thought honorably to have taken most to freedom – but nothing like that is true).  My guess is 40,000 (Nash’s too; we exchanged letters about it).

    Your point about the legitimacy of black revolt – and the hypocrisy of the celebration of the American Revolution in the primary interest of elite whites – is wonderful.  Also wonderful about Tye…

    On the competition in the South – John Laurens was a real hero, seeking to mobilize black soldiers to fight.  New York was as big a slave-owning state as South Carolina or Virginia (just no big plantations).  It is unclear why the South could not have achieved gradual emancipation during the Revolution.  Even more intense conflict in the South a la Charlestown and Savannah involving still more black troops might have escalated this.  There were stirrings.  But, sadly, it did not quite happen.

     Note: while the British officers were opportunist, black leaders particularly guerillas were not.  I invoke the great letter of Murphy Steele, a sergeant in the Black Pioneers to Sir Henry Clinton, about how God told him to tell Clinton to recruit all the black men in America to fight.  That was really good strategic advice, Clinton too dumb and racist to take it.  See p, 153.  Schama values the voices of no blacks from the revolutionary period (he disguises this by praise for Frederick Douglas), and treats letter as a dead instrument, merely a way to disparage Cornwallis.  By the way, I think 1 out of every 2 claims in Schama’s marvelously written book is true and am not really a fan (though I think he has written a lot of gaudy and telling books, including on art)…

     Though the British empire failed to get a foothold in French Saint Domingue (your essay is too brief on this and sounds misleading), there blacks liberated themselves.  Some of the leaders, like Henri Christophe, had fought in the American Revolution with the French and did learn from the first paragraph of DI…Though that undercuts your theme some, if the British had won, they still might have learned, as you underline, from the liberating first sentences of the DI as Bolivar did in the 19th century or Ho Chi Minh did a century and a half later.  So the complex liberating effects of the American Revolution – including the fight for gradual emancipation in the North, i.e. Vermont, 1777, Pennsylvania 1780, Mass. 1782, Rhode Island and Connecticut 1784 – might still have progressed quickly even with British victory,

    When Bolivar went to republican Haiti for support, he got it in exchange for gradual emancipation.  40% of his troops were pardos (blacks).  The North and Venezuela are parallels – also in genocidal policies toward indigenous people.  But could British victory had speeded up and made more peaceful emancipation – a non-Civil War based  emancipation - in the South?  Possibly…

    If the economic “prosperity” brought by the cotton gin and the slave trade occurred after the peace anyway, perhaps not.  But one wonders whether had the British won, and had the abolitionist movement on both sides of the Atlantic been strong, including Nat Turner and other black revolts (like the Black Baptist revolt in Jamaica in 1834 and working class violence and radicalism in England – see Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains), perhaps gradual abolition could have occurred even in the South.

   More deeply, American Manifest Destiny, the world’s ugliest term, therefore downplayed in American history books, sweeping across the continent from the Louisiana Purchase (Jefferson is an analogue in vision, it turns out, to Hitler, Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier” echoed in the Nazi Lebensraum…) to the slaughters in the Philippines in 1898 is part of the unacknowledged – Founding Amnesia – “success” of the American Revolution.  And the Civil War, under Lincoln, was a war against genocide in the South, but a war of genocide here in Colorado, and in Minnesota, Utah, and the “West” generally speaking.

   I have fought eugenics, in America and Germany, as a key component of Nazism all my adult life.  But studying indigenous people three years ago, I became aware of how Hitler modeled concentration camps on reservations (Kit Carson/Bosque Redondo).  And it turns out that the Harry Potter Books of Germany for the last century, the Karl May novels about Winnetou and the German sharpshooter old Shatterhand, had a profound influence on Hitler who grew up playing cowboys and Indians.  Hitler saw Poland and Russia as the Wild East, and planned to murder some 40 million, cordon others in reservations, settle German/Aryan farmers….  There are two new books on this by Carroll Kakel – since 2012 – and several others which I will write about very soon.  Frederick Jackson Turner influenced a fellow named Haushofer (Biogeographie) whose military assistant and then student Rudolf Hess was a secretary to Hitler in prison in 1923, and who publicized “Lebensraum,”  just as in America, the Wild West,  widely in pre-Nazi - the pan-German League prior to World War I - and Nazi Germany.  This, too, is worth taking in in an appraisal, for it turns World War II into settler colonialism brought back to Europe, from the United States, with a vengeance…

    No wonder the US has placed such a whiteout on Hitler’s views, even eugenics, but specifically this…

    Now supposing the British had actually limited settlement and worked it out in a less murderous way: that would have meant that perhaps that the dream of “the Wild East” or in Chile and Argentina, under German eugenic influence, “the Wild South” (10% of Chile’s population is Mapuche) could have been avoided or at least limited short of genocide toward indigenous people and slavs…And perhaps the deepest evil of World War II could have been headed off.  I would say, that possibility certainly makes British victory over the Revolution attractive or at least certainly worth a try.  This thought (with a note to me) might go well before the paragraph from Chou En-lai.  Despite protest from below, the American experiment has been, until very recently, an experiment in evil, with really dramatic and covered up – Founding Amnesia permeating to keeping silence about Hitler providing 300,000 Karl May novels to his officers on the Eastern Front because fighting Indians in imagination was fighting Soviet guerillas – “Russian redskins” as Hitler called them – at Stalingrad.  Way out stuff…
      All the best,


Review of Gerald Horne, The Counter-revolution of 1776

Journal of American History

The Counter-revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. By Gerald Horne. (New York: New York University Press, 2014. xiv, 349 pp. $39.00.) 

Gerald Horne’s The Counter-revolution of 1776 strikingly places the American founding in its international setting and emphasizes that the slave-owning South seceded from the Crown in a foreshadowing of the Civil War. In competition with Catholic France and Spain, Protestant England fought for dominion over an unruly New World, particularly in the Caribbean, in which “the deliciously profitable” slave trade was on the rise. 

Britain became economically dominant largely because of that trade and its stimulation of other industries. But American manufacturing increasingly challenged Britain. In addition, throughout the Caribbean, slave revolts threatened England. Often-outnumbered white colonists’ fears of “domestic” or “instigated insurrections” by Spain (which would arm blacks) or—in the Declaration of Independence—George III, underlay daily life. 

Blacks, treated rightly by Horne as independent actors, fought for freedom. They saw indigenous people as potential allies. They cooperated with rival empires. In contrast, the American colonists hoped to expand West and South, driving out indigenous people and working the property with slaves. But British governors also united with some tribes, limited settler expansion, and taxed “property”—notably slaves. 

When Britain defeated imperial rivals in Canada (1762) and Havana (1763), blacks had less to hope for, slave owners had less to fear. In London’s perspective the colonists seemed ungrateful for being unwilling to defend themselves and hypocrites for demanding liberty while holding slaves. In his 1775 pamphlet ,“Taxation No Tyranny,” the essayist Samuel Johnson rightly said, “How come we hear the greatest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?” The decision in Somersett v. Stewart (1772) and the Dunmore Proclamation (1775) solidified the conflict.

Conjoining with work by many others, including Gary B. Nash and Silvia R. Frey, Horne frames the book in a new, more factual paradigm. In Nash’s phrase (in The Forgotten Fifth [2009]) the fact that blacks fought mainly for the British was the Revolution’s “dirty secret,” or in my words, their participation is buried in a “founding amnesia.” Horne shatters the older frame for the Revolution and the War of 1812.

But Horne’s strength is also a blind spot. He ignores that American liberty was, on the part of revolutionaries such as James Otis and John Laurens, liberty “for black as well as white.” He does not see that black and white sailors, impressed off the streets by the British, identified with slave revolts in the Caribbean and brought the word to London and America in the 1760s. He omits the 1st Rhode Island Regiment and the black patriots who were the majority of the dead on the American side at the Battle of Yorktown. Thus, he does not recognize that a comparatively free North was created during and after the Revolution by this movement, largely from below, of abolitionist sailors, artisans, and soldiers. Without the North, there could have been no Civil War against bondage. 

A great shift is occurring in America. On December 3, 2014, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper apologized to Cheyenne and Arapaho descendants for the 1864 Sand Creek massacre. Horne’s book advances this type of cause for African Americans. Though Lynne Cheney or the Jefferson County (CO) School Board imperiously command the sea to stop, it will not. 

Alan Gilbert 
University of Denver Denver, Colorado
Book Reviews 1


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