We’ve all absorbed the comforting story about our Founding Fathers (cozy word, “fathers,” implying that, like good dads, they had our democratic interests at heart), to wit, that in response to the outrageous cruelty of the British and mad King George in imposing unfair taxes on colonial commerce, the original Tea Partiers responded with protests, revolts, a Declaration of their Independence, and finally a Revolutionary War. And under the paternal guidance of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others, the colonial cry of “give me liberty or give me death” gave the world the most successful example of rebellion against tyranny ever witnessed. The United States of America thenceforth stood as a shining example of self-government, of “liberty and justice for all”—an example everywhere imitated and envied, an example that has made America the global leader in not just war and peace and freedom but free-market consumerism as well.
Now, however, comes a thesis from Professor Gerald Horne that turns this story on its head. What Horne purports to demonstrate in The Counter-Revolution of 1776 (NYU Press: 2014) is that our so-called “revolution” did not overturn a cruel tyranny at all, but rather was a successful attempt to thwart, to counter an anticipated real revolution by America’s slaves. Horne supports his argument with endless accounts of revolts by Negroes (the word came to us from the Spanish word for ‘blacks’) throughout both the mainland colonies and the British sugar colonies in the Caribbean. Our history, of course, either downplays or outright ignores this story, leaving many of us wondering why the slaves didn’t revolt. What Horne demonstrates is that they indeed did revolt on countless occasions in Manhattan, in Rhode Island, in South Carolina, in Virginia and especially in Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua and other British-held sugar slavelands. And it was these revolts, coupled with the increasing indications that Great Britain was moving inexorably towards the abolition of slavery in its colonies, that, according to Horne, compelled the thirteen colonies to take up arms against the mother country.
This is a stunning re-reading of history, and it deserves to be accurately and engagingly presented. Sadly, Horne’s presentation lacks the style and cogency to turn his book into a best-seller. He broaches all the important events, it seems, but too often his rhetorical skills fail him, and we are left uncertain not only about whether what he asserts is correct, but whether it deserves the importance he ascribes to it. Partly this is due to our mass-mediated numbness regarding death: when we read that a slave revolt ended with only a half dozen settlers killed or a dozen slaves hanged, we hardly respond. We see far more than that in an average shooting rampage by one of our crazed citizens. But partly it is due to the fact that Horne seems to take our knowledge of most of these events for granted, as if we are all historians intimately familiar with Jamaican hill warfare or the outcome of the Somerset case. We aren’t and it is the job of the historian to make sure we are clear about basic facts and crucial events. It is also his job to organize his material for maximum impact, and Horne falls short in that arena as well. The result is that this reader, for one, is not entirely convinced that a slave revolution on the mainland was imminent, nor that it was the chief motivating force for the American Revolution. And given that such a conclusion would be so transformative, that is a pity.
Still, Horne gives us enough to make us think, enough to make us condemn all those historians in the past who have created the myths we have all been fed, and who have conspired to obscure and hide and falsify the truth: that slavery was pervasive throughout the original thirteen colonies, and that not just the southern colonies but every last one of them was involved in the nastiest business ever concocted on this planet. George Washington was a major slaveholder; Thomas Jefferson, as we’ve learned in detail in recent years, was another major slaveholder, as was James Madison, and most surprisingly, John Hancock—one of Boston’s largest slave owners. And John Adams? He made his fortune as a lawyer for slaveholders in cases against the enslaved. In this light, the fact that the revered Constitution of the United States somehow contains that puzzling and ghastly proviso that slaves shall be counted as 3/5 of a human—able to be counted for representation, but not when it came to the rights so loudly proclaimed—suddenly makes more sense.
What Horne also does is lay out the main inciting factors leading to the decision to declare independence. There are, of course, centuries of little events that built to the big ones, but the really incendiary actions can be briefly touched on. First was the transfer of the slave trade, and slaves and planters, from the Caribbean islands like Jamaica and Barbados to the mainland colonies like South Carolina and Virginia and Rhode Island (a principal hemispheric slave market). The reason lay in the increasing recognition that the huge ratio of slaves to “white” settlers was very dangerous to island settlers (Jamaica in 1714 had 80,000 Negroes and 2,000 whites). Many Jamaican slaves, known as Maroons, had revolted, slain their masters, and fled to the mountains from which they maintained irregular warfare, proving, eventually, that islands were simply too small and too confined to contain the wrath of enslaved peoples. Second was the increase in the rising merchant class on the mainland, especially after 1688 when, with the change in Britain’s monarchy, the Royal African Company lost its dominance of the African trade to the “free” merchant class. Horne relates this not just to the slave trade but to capitalism itself:
Arguably, it was then that the groundwork was laid for the takeoff of capitalism—a trend in which slavery and the slave trade played an indispensable role. The growing influence of merchants in the aftermath of 1688 turbocharged the African Slave Trade, which allowed for spectacular profits growing from investments in the Americas and the forging of a wealthy class there which chafed under London’s rule….This business benefited handsomely some entrepreneurs in New England—notably in Massachusetts and Rhode Island—where the trade flourished. This region contained the “greatest slave-trading communities in America,” according to Lorenzo J. Greene: “the profits from the slave trade were almost incredible….gross profits [were] sometimes as high as sixteen hundred percent,” as “the slave trade easily became the most lucrative commerce of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (5).
Then there were the continuing revolts by slaves in every colony. Horne touches on the most significant of these in his chapter called “Revolt,” but again, the problem is that we do not get a narrative that convinces us of their importance. We learn that in 1712, there was a major slave revolt in lower Manhattan, with nine settlers murdered and 70 slaves arrested, but this hardly seems the colony-periling event Horne alleges. Horne does succeed, though, in horrifying us with the punishments and responses to this revolt: in New York, “some were burnt, others were hanged and broke on ye wheele.” He also convinces us of the desperation of the colonists to convince European “whites” to migrate to America to raise their numbers relative to rising numbers of slaves. And he also makes clear the terror that seems to have gripped slaveholders in Carolina, where in the same year, 1712, a bill was introduced asking for more severe measures to restrain the “murders, rapines, and inhumanity to which they [the slaves] are naturally prone.” The measure: “every owner or overseer must have his Negro house searched every 114 days for runaway slaves and mischievous weapons.” A similar response occurred in Virginia in 1733, when settlers, alarmed at increasing “insurrections” among Africans, also revised their “insufficient punishments.” One new punishment Horne cites was that recalcitrant slaves had “one ear nailed to the pillory and there to stand for the space of one hour and then the said ear to be cut off; and thereafter the other ear nailed in like manner and cut off”—all this for providing false testimony (86). Finally, Horne tells us, settlers devised another strategy: that every man should “bring his arms to church on Sundays and Holydays lest they should be seized by the Slaves in their absence” (70). Now we perhaps better understand the passion Americans display for their firearms, for when an entire population knows that it is brutalizing another population and therefore fears uprisings by the oppressed, guns in the hands of the brutalizers must seem as innocently logical as aspirin.
Finally, Horne provides us with the more immediate causes of the counter-revolution. First was the Stono uprising in 1739 in South Carolina. Here, 29 settlers were slaughtered by Africans, many of them from Angola (leading to the suspicion that since they spoke Portuguese, these slaves must have been in league with the hated Spanish and their nearby stronghold in St. Augustine, Florida.) The suspicion of Spain was not altogether imagined either, because three years later, a Spanish force—including the ultimate horror, hundreds of armed Africans led by African officers—did invade Georgia and South Carolina hoping to eject the English. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Spanish were defeated there, and, within another fifteen to twenty years, ousted from Florida altogether. This, plus the English defeat of the French in the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War, 1756-63) might have relieved the American settlers because it got rid of safe havens for escaped slaves. But according to Horne, “when pressure was eased on mainland settlers, they seized the opportunity to revolt against the Crown with ample aid from the Catholic powers [i.e. Spain and France].” Then came the two incidents in 1772. One was the Gaspee riot, wherein British officers in Newport, Rhode Island boarded a slave ship, the Gaspee, in response to which 500 settlers rioted, burning a British ship. The case was heard in London, and even worse than the British interference with “free trade” was the fact that “the chief witness against the rioters was a Negro,” Aaron Briggs. Briggs testified that he had seen a slave trader named John Brown (after whom Brown University, to its everlasting shame, was named) “fire a musket killing the captain.” To the settlers, this left no doubt that England, in allowing a Negro to testify against whites, was moving towards the abolition of slavery. The same signal was intensified only days later when James Somerset, a slave owned by Charles Steuart of Norfolk, VA, became the central figure in an abolition case. In December of 1771, abolitionists found Somerset shackled in a ship on the Thames, about to be shipped to Jamaica and sold. The abolitionists drew up a habeas corpus petition demanding that his body be produced in court. In June of 1772, British Judge Mansfield rendered his decision that Somerset must be released. His argument (unaccountably not provided by Horne) said:
The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law [statute], which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged. (Wikipedia.)
This decision incensed the colonists in America, who had the temerity to argue that Great Britain was actually treating them like slaves. Countless pamphlets of the time repeated this same argument—ironic in light of the actual slavery they themselves were perpetrating—that the only recourse of colonists being oppressed like slaves was rebellion. One other major element may be said to have lit the fire of revolution: the threat, in November 1775, by Virginia governor Lord Dunmore, to arm Africans in order to suppress the gathering revolt against the British Crown. This, according to Horne, was the last straw, turning even moderates into radicals. As Horne puts it in summary, this decision
solidified opposition to London, ushered into existence a new republic, and ossified for decades to come a caste-like status for Africans, seen widely among settlers as thinly disguised revolutionaries eager to collaborate with foes of all sort to subvert the status quo. Understandably, the only fitting rebuke for revolutionaries bent on abolishing private property—albeit in themselves—was a steely counter-revolution (211).
That is to say, in the eyes of American settlers, African slaves, with London as their abolitionist ally, were planning a revolution against their enslavement and therefore against private property. The revolutionary response of the thirteen colonies was thus a counter-revolution against the slaves and their allies in London who were stirring a dreaded “servile revolt.” What added even more fuel to this fire was another event in 1775, when a debate occurred in Parliament about whether “all slaves in American should have the trial by jury” as a first measure to “extirpate slavery from the face of the earth” and “establish the fundamental rights of liberty to all mankind” (231). This sounds like something our revered Founding Fathers would have said or supported themselves, but instead it enraged them to the point of declaring independence and war on those who had said it.
The coda to all this comes from one of the great writers of the English language, Samuel Johnson, of dictionary fame. Horne quotes Johnson, a proud abolitionist, as asking, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”
That, in my opinion, is the question that should have been asked more and more urgently, and long before this: How is it that the alleged humanitarians who framed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights could rant and rave endlessly about British tyranny and their emotional yearning for liberty when in fact they were sanctifying a system worse than any tyranny and enforced by the most brutal regime of oppression ever devised—one whose effects have hardly abated to this day? How in the world could they have borne so painful a contradiction? It truly is something to ponder.