A History of a Counter-Revolution

Gerald HorneThe Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America.  NYU Press, 2014.

In the conventional, celebratory liberal historical narrative about the Founding Fathers, the post-revolutionary persistence of slavery in the United States, along with women’s lack of essential political and legal rights, has long been regarded as one of those regrettable blemishes in an otherwise praiseworthy process that led to American independence and the establishment of a republican system of government with a mission to the rest of the world based on Thomas Jefferson’s asserted belief that “all men are created equal.”  Others have seen it as rank hypocrisy.  Writing in 1775, British essayist and pundit Samuel Johnson posed the embarrassing question of why it was that the “drivers of negroes” were the persons making the “loudest yelps” about the infringements upon their liberties.

While the American Revolution did set in motion processes by which slavery was ended in the parts of the new country above the Mason-Dixon Line, the best hope enslaved Africans had of achieving liberty during the Revolution was for them to run away from their masters and hook up with the British side.  Many slaves, including those owned by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, did exactly that.  At the end of the war, even though this was a big sticking point in the negotiations, the British refused to return these escaped slaves to their patriot masters, and the Black Loyalists went on to live free lives in places like Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.  For a long time, most basic histories of the United States and its fight for independence ducked that fact since it ran so much counter to the whole national narrative.

Marxist historians, who have contributed enormously to the bringing of slavery and racism into the forefront of the retelling of U.S. history, have had their own means of rationalizing the contradiction of slavery in the professed “land of liberty.”  Like the English Revolution in 1640 and the French Revolution in 1789, the American Revolution of 1776 was a “bourgeois revolution” against monarchy and feudalism, albeit an incomplete one.  As such, it played a progressive historical role in clearing the way for the advancement of the capitalist mode of production as the next stage of human history.  To sweep away the ownership of human beings as chattel — and lay the basis for the socialist struggle against wage slavery — would require the completion of that bourgeois revolution.  This would happen finally with the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction, as the advancing capitalist mode of production came into sharp economic and political contradiction with the backward slave mode of production (and as the American Revolution’s egalitarian ideology was used to delegitimize slavery).

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America
Race to Revolution

Gerald Horne‘s new book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America puts slavery and the struggles of the enslaved to become free men and women at the very axis of the American Independence narrative.  Horne is a Marxist historian who has written extensively on the relationship of “Reds” and Blacks in U.S. and global history, including a book just published by Monthly Review Press, Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow.  Counter-Revolution throws a huge monkeywrench into the conventional narrative of the American Revolution.  Horne argues provocatively that fear that the Mother Country was on the road to emancipating the slaves in its thirteen American colonies was one of the main factors, perhaps the principal factor, behind the colonists declaring independence in order to prevent that from happening.  Horne acknowledges that the creation of the American republic did in fact improve the lives of “countless” Euro-Americans.  That said, it was “not a great leap forward for humanity.”  1776 was a counter-revolution, Horne says, in as much as it gave slavery a new lease on life.

The usual historical narrative of the events leading up to the American Revolution begins with the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 and the repeated efforts by the British Crown to crack down on colonial smuggling with the enemy islands in the Caribbean and to find the ways and means that might be acceptable to the recalcitrant Americans colonists to help lift the burdensome wartime debt accumulated from defending their lives and property against the French and their Indian allies.  In one of history’s ironies, victory for the British side in 1763 set in motion an unexpected chain of events that led ineluctably to the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 and the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.

In contrast, Horne launches his narrative leading up to the Revolution about 80 years earlier — with a raft of late 17th century slave rebellions on Barbados, Jamaica, and other English sugar plantation islands.  England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 is important in Horne’s revisionist approach not so much for setting a precedent for the American Revolution but because it had the effect of loosening the Royal African Company‘s monopoly on the slave trade.  The importation of more slaves brought to the colonies by independent slave traders meant not only additional labor for the plantation owners to exploit but also, in a dialectical kind of relationship, greater possibilities for revolts involving seasoned African warriors.  In the context of 18th century wars among the European powers, encouragement coming from Spanish Florida to slaves in South Carolina — and later in Georgia — to run away from their masters, which many did, sometimes taking up common cause with Indians, instilled a long-lasting fear among whites in that region about threats to their human chattel from without.  As an antidote, colonists sought to attract more white workers and promulgate the ideology of “whiteness.”  But profits to be made from enslaved Africans were too great despite any risk.

The chickens came home to roost for the deep southern planters with the Stono Rebellion of slaves in South Carolina in 1739.  Rebel slaves tried to march to the safety of Spanish Florida.  In 1741, fear gripped whites in New York City, which had the largest concentration of blacks in the northern colonies, that the slaves were going to rise up and burn their houses and murder them with Spanish support.  Then, in 1742, Spanish troops, including black soldiers, invaded Georgia, getting as far as the outskirts of Savannah.  The threat from Florida to the property of whites was not to be eliminated until Great Britain took over Florida from Spain in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years’ War.  By that time, however, Great Britain was using armed blacks to supplement its own troops in wars with its colonial rivals in the Caribbean.  Large numbers of enslaved Africans arriving in the mainland colonies fueled apprehensions of slave revolts and concerns that Britain might use blacks to discipline rebellious colonists.

In June 1772, two pivotal events happened further fueling those colonial apprehensions.  The first event was the burning by a mob of the Gaspée, a British customs ship that was trying to interdict colonial smuggling in Rhode Island.  This set in motion a chain of events leading to the creation of a network of Committees of Correspondence among the colonies in 1773 and to the convening of the Continental Congress in 1774.  Horne suggests that what infuriated many white Americans was not only the British plan for the accused perpetrators to be taken off to Great Britain for trial on treason charges but also that the chief evidence against them would be given by a person of color — indicating the British would use blacks against them.

Horne’s thinking about the Gaspée Affair’s racial effects is more conjectural than supported by any substantial evidence.  However, June 1772’s other pivotal event — occurring a few days later in England — well-supports Horne’s thesis that the colonists increasingly saw their struggle for independence as one for their own survival against freed and vengeful blacks unleashed upon them.  In London, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield handed down a ruling with potentially momentous implications.  He ruled that James Somerset, a run-away slave whom his master, Virginia merchant and royal customs official Charles Stuart, had brought to live with him in England could no longer be a slave because in that country there was no legal basis for slavery.  Somerset’s suit at law was backed by the nascent British abolitionist movement while Stuart was backed by other colonial masters.  Mansfield’s ruling brought freedom for some 15,000 slaves being held by their colonial masters or others under similar circumstances in England.  At a time when the protest movement in the American colonies was experiencing a lull, the ruling was followed closely in the colonies and generated great anxiety among slave-owning American colonists that its jurisdictional scope might soon be extended to their side of the British Atlantic, in as much as Parliament’s Declaratory Act in 1766 had asserted that Parliament enjoyed supremacy over all colonial laws whatsoever.

Then, in November 1775, colonial fears of a British-backed slave revolt came to be realized when the embattled Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation that slaves and servants of American rebels would be freed if they left their masters and came to fight with the British side.  Hundreds of slaves did that in Virginia, wearing a sash on their uniforms that said, “Liberty to Slaves.”  The word spread from Virginia to other slaves in the South.  In South Carolina, slaves seized two sloops to escape to the British men-of-war in Charleston harbor.  Dunmore’s proclamation was the tipping point for many slave owners in the South who had been up to then uncommitted to making a full break with Great Britain.

Edward Rutledge, a South Carolina lawyer and slave owner who signed the Declaration of Independence, spoke for many when he wrote to a friend who was then living in England:

You will receive by this conveyance a proclamation issued by Lord Dunmore — tending in my judgment, more effectually to work an eternal separation between Great Britain and the Colonies — than any other expedient, which could possibly have been thought of . . . .

Tell me then, I beseech you, (before it is too late) what are the sentiments of the English Nation — are the people of that Country determined to force us into Independence?  Or do they really imagine, that we are so void of the Feelings of Humanity, that we are so insensible to the calls of Reason — as willingly to submit to every Insult — to every Injury?  Do they expect that after our Towns have been destroyed — our Liberties repeatedly invaded — our women and children driven from their Habitations — our nearest Relatives sacrificed at the Altar of Tyranny — our Slaves emancipated for the express purpose of massacreing [sic] their Masters — can they, I say, after all their injuries — expect that we shall return to our former connection — with a forgiving and cordial Disposition?

As the New Left historian Gary B. Nash has observed, “Over the next seven years, enslaved Africans mounted the greatest slave rebellion in American history.  Wherever the British army moved, slaves bolted from their masters and headed toward British lines to claim freedom.”  In 1779, the British commander-in-chief, General Henry Clinton, issued a proclamation, the Philipsburg Proclamation, declaring all the slaves of American rebels to be free.  This led to even more slaves fleeing their masters when the British military campaigned in the South.  Ironically, as the war for independence dragged on, the patriot side, badly needing soldiers, opened up some opportunities for free blacks and slaves to fight with the promise that slaves would gain their freedom.  Black soldiers in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment helped to defeat the British at Yorktown in 1781, which won the war and American independence.  However, the new U.S. Congress passed a law forbidding blacks from serving in the national military.

Some of this road has been trodden by other scholars.  In particular, Rutgers University law professors Alfred and the late Ruth Blumrosen, in their book Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies & Sparked the American Revolution (2006), had explored the American reactions to the Somerset Decision and how those reactions figured into the calculus of revolution and independence.  Horne’s new book is different in as much as it makes slave revolts and other forms of militant resistance to the deprivation of the slaves’ liberty — he is especially keen on documenting cases where slaves poisoned their masters — the motor of this whole history.  The place of all the other causes that led to the 1776 rift — the outcry of “no taxation without representation” in reaction to the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and the Tea Act; the opposition to the writs of assistance and the vice-admiralty courts as violations of the rights of freeborn Englishmen; the Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act of 1774 jeopardizing western land speculations; the indebtedness of Virginia planters to Scottish merchants; the Intolerable Acts; Tom Paine‘s Common Sense; etc. — must be reassessed in this perspective.

Great Britain emancipated slaves in its many remaining colonies around the world in 1833.  On the other hand, American independence meant that slavery would not come to an end in the United States until 1865 and only then because slaves revolted and for military necessity — more soldiers needed again — as a side-effect of a bloody and destructive Civil War.  My own view is that what happened in 1776 had both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary aspects for people of color (as well as for others), although Horne is dealing with causes, not consequences.  Regardless, on the subsequent career of what started its life as a slaveholder’s republic, it is hard to disagree with Horne’s verdict about the United States’ hugely negative role in world affairs ever since: “Despite the alleged revolutionary and progressive impulse of 1776, the victors went on from there to crush indigenous polities, then moved overseas to do something similar in Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines, then unleashed its counter-revolutionary force in 20th-century Guatemala, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Angola, South Africa, Iran, Grenada, Nicaragua, and other tortured sites too numerous to mention.”  As Marx said echoing Hegel, the Truth is to be found — at least pretty much so — in the result.

Jay Moore is a radical historian who lives and teaches (when he can find work) in rural Vermont.