The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. By Gerald Horne (New York University Press, 2014) ISBN 978-1-4798-9340-9
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow debunked the happy babble about a contemporary post-racial America. Gerald Horne’s The Counter-Revolution of 1776 broadens the focus to look at the historical roots of this self-proclaimed liberal democracy. He shows, in great detail, that the drive for American political independence was at bottom a slaveowners revolt against the winds of emancipation sweeping the old colonial powers, including Great Britain.
James Somerset — his given name — was born in Africa and dragged to Virginia on a slave ship. There he was bought by a merchant, Charles Steuart, who took Somerset with him on a business trip to London. Since Somerset had tried several times to escape, Steuart chained Somerset aboard a ship anchored in the Thames, intending to sell him to plantation owners in Jamaica. London abolitionists got wind of Somerset’s bondage and filed a writ of habeas corpus. Somerset was brought before the court, and arguments proceeded, with wide publicity on both sides of the Atlantic. In June 1772 Lord Mansfield, the trial judge, ruled for Somerset and ordered that he be freed. Although the court attempted to limit it to this particular case, the decision was generally understood as a declaration that slavery was unlawful in Great Britain … and by extension, in the territories Britain ruled. Numerous succeeding court decisions and acts of parliament confirmed this conclusion.
The Somerset case had broad repercussions. American slaveowners agonized that they and their livelihood were now threatened with extinction. Slaves, on the other hand, felt boldly encouraged, and the already lengthy history of slave rebellions in the colonies took an upswing. Lord Dunsmore, the colonial governor of Virginia, both channeled and further inflamed the passions in May 1775 by announcing his intent to arm all the Negroes who came to him, unless the settlers calmed their agitation for independence. Opinion on both sides of the water castigated the illogic of the colonists who yelped for liberty while tightening the chains of slavery; the framers of the Declaration of Independence were seen as hypocritical gasbags. As the author depicts in detail, African-American opinion (and in many cases, armed action) tended strongly to side with London, and the menace of a London-sponsored general rising of the slaves was the colonists’ principal nightmare.
It was not only England that was moving toward emancipation of slaves. Decades earlier, Spain had made its colony in Florida a magnet for slaves escaping from the Carolinas, and had on numerous occasions terrified the authorities in Charleston by sending naval raiding parties from St. Augustine, the ships manned in part by armed and uniformed Africans. The Spanish crown in 1733 issued a proclamation of liberty and protection to all slaves who deserted to its realm. In St. Augustine, Africans made up the majority of the militia, including the officer corps, and received the same salary and uniforms as the Spanish, to the utter horror of the American slaveowners. Spanish Florida became such a threat to the Carolinas that the slaveholders created the state of Georgia and attempted to populate it with whites, as a buffer zone. The French similarly recognized Africans as merchants and free people, unsettling and threatening the American colonists. In the sugar colonies of Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Cuba, among others, the slaves had rebelled so persistently and successfully that many of their masters ran away to the American mainland, where, however, the slaves proved hardly more docile. Every white settler, it was said, knew personally someone whose throat had been cut or who had been poisoned by one of their slaves. The colonial press was filled with dread that the rapidly growing slave population would rise up en masse, with encouragement from Spain, France, and then London. Native Americans also played a significant role, such as in the Yamasee wars in 1715, usually in in alliance with slave revolts. In 1739 in South Carolina, near the Stono River, hundreds of Angolan slaves rose up and slaughtered 29 settlers in a revolt probably triggered by Spanish promises of freedom in St. Augustine. Many of the Angolans spoke Portuguese and communicated easily with the Spanish. The colonists’ sedated their apprehension of mass murder with the fabulous profits made from slave labor.
Rivalries between the colonial powers were endless, leading to several wars that are today little remembered. It was in such pursuits that Spain and France, and gradually England, seized on the utility of emancipating and arming slaves, particularly the slaves of their rivals. Emancipated slaves often fought with greater passion and discipline than conscripted European soldiers, since the consequences of defeat were so much more drastic for them. The sight of armed and uniformed Africans on shipboard or land stunned slave owners like an apparition from hell. It was the military advantage of slave emancipation, more than abstract humanitarian sentiment, that drove each of the colonial powers toward abolitionist positions. Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration in the midst of the Civil War a century later arose from a similar calculation.
An important and only partly hidden dynamic was the American colonialists’ friction with the Royal Africa Company. In the late 1600s, the RAC had built up a string of forts and castles along the West African coast to collect and transport slaves, promote the slave trade for British interests, and keep competing colonial powers at bay. Private traders had to pay fees to the RAC for the service and protection it provided. American slavers ran up huge debts to the RAC, but when royal agents sued in the American courts to collect, the local judges were uncooperative. More than one commentator at the time, including the literary giant Samuel Johnson, opined that the American rebellion had as a prime motive the default on these debts. The rebels’ victory crushed the RAC economically and left the American slave traders atop the most lucrative core of the dirty business, greatly boosting the shipbuilding industry, among others, and fattening the financiers of the slave trade in New York, Rhode Island, and other Northern cities, where prominent institutions bear their names to this day.
The settler victory in the war of 1776 brought about a reassertion of slaver control over the black population in the new republic, with fearsome consequences. Many slaves had fought on the side of the redcoats, and the whole slave people suffered terrible retribution because of it. The condition of slaves worsened, and their masters (all while spouting the phrases of the Declaration of Independence) went on to crush (or attempt to crush) indigenous rebellions not only on the American mainland, but also in Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines, and in the 20th-century interventions too numerous to mention, and ongoing as we speak.
It is much too generous, says the author, to view the new republic as suffering from a tragic flaw, such as Jefferson’s ownership of slaves, and the like. The “flaw,” he writes, was in the design. It did not merely “forget” to include the black population in its bounty. Their exclusion was a central object of their rebellion and a bedrock feature of the new state.
Today, the author writes, “the descendants of enslaved Africans continue to suffer astronomical rates of incarceration, are disproportionately accorded the death penalty, and endure all manner of ills — with few scrutinizing the origins of the republic in search of a reason why.”
Prof. Horne’s book is richly detailed, often from sources that other scholars have not troubled to dig up, and contains material that might inspire a dozen movies more gripping than the handful of “slavery” films launched in recent years. It forces the reader to rethink fundamental historical matters, to confront the racism at the root of this state, and to rid ourselves of the illusion that the American revolution was a legitimate child of the great French Enlightenment. It borrowed from the Enlightenment little more than the rhetoric. Both in motive and in effect, it was a counter-revolution, and it kept the new American republic insulated in its slave-owning backwardness for nearly a century while most of the rest of the world embraced abolition. It took the Civil War to bring America into modernity, but that’s another story.