Book Review - "The Counter-Revolution of 1776"
Hypocrisy Resolved: Why "democratic struggles" in the U. S. have so often not included African Americans and Native Americans
The Counter-Revolution of 1776
Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America
In the years leading up to 1776 the British colonies of North America were in flames. They were not the rebellious flames of settlers chaffing under the yoke of a tyrannical monarchy. They were the flames of rebellion by hundreds of thousands of Africans who had been uprooted and enslaved to bring hitherto unheard of wealth to the free traders who plied the seas with their cargo of human chattel and their customers, the purchasers of these enslaved men and women and their forced and uncompensated labor. It was these flames, and the fear thereof, that spurred the growth of political and legal opinion in the English mother country that challenged slavery in these colonies. It was the fear of these flames that motivated the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
All my life I have been deeply troubled by the hypocrisy of a group of white men who could so nobly set forth the proposition that "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" while simultaneously owning, trading, and profiting from the unpaid labor of African men and women whom they possessed as they would horses, cows or pigs. All my life it has gnawed at my soul that in the name of democracy and human progress my country launched and virtually completed the extirpation of the native peoples and nations of the North American continent. And the vital economic and political connections between these two crimes, committed by these "democrats", completely eluded me.
Well, the mystery is for me no more, and while my soul is no more rested it is greatly strengthened in a fight for justice and freedom for all people in the United States and the world. Because I have seen the beacon of historical reality that shines from the pages of the latest work by historian Gerald Horne[i]. This is a book that everyone should read, especially every "white" person.
I had known about the 1772 Somerset Decision by the Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Mansfield, who declared that "The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, . and therefore the black [James Somerset] must be discharged" from his enslavement on British soil. I had read "Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution" by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen, where I first learned of this decision and it's affect on the slave trading and slave holding settlers in all the North American colonies, who with good reason feared the application of Somerset to their own property in human flesh.
But what I had not known were the dynamic forces the propelled this decision. The Blumrosens' account makes it sound like it arouse from precedents of British Law and the good will of the British courts. What Gerald Horne does is demonstrate the international, economic and political forces that virtually required this decision and propelled the movement for abolition in Great Britain. Not that it was easy - Horne documents the very sharp, life and death contradictions within the emerging British imperialism that lay beneath the surface. The inspiring story of the steadfastness and tireless work of British abolitionists so well documented in "Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery" by Adam Hochschild tells only part of the story. What's missing is the untaught history of a countless number of slave rebellions and uprisings throughout North America and the Caribbean that actually propelled it and made it possible.
What emerges from "Counter-Revolution" is a picture of courage, heroism and betrayal. Most importantly, it is a history that accounts for the fact that so many "advances" of democracy in the United States have been at the expense of Africans and their descendants, people brought in chains to the shores of the United States. What emerges is a glimmer of understating why white supremacy in the United States is so virulent, so hard to eradicate, so much worse than in any other country. What emerges is an account of how the very founding of the United States of America was motivated by white supremacy and a rejection of the basic humanity of Black people.
Why were Europeans recruited en masse in the early days of the U. S.? To offset the hundreds of thousands of Africans who were brought here in chains and constituted a fundamental "enemy within" the body politic of the emerging republic. How was the myth of a "white race" forged in the so-called melting pot that blended English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and Eastern European and excluded Africans and indigenous peoples of North America? Why does this myth and the oppression of African Americans persist today as a seemingly intractable crisis for millions of Black people? Read Gerald Horne, and begin to get an idea of the truth of our history and its reality for Black people.
Horne brings together the history of African enslavement, the trade in human flesh, and the machinations and contradictions between world powers, which propelled the North American English settlers toward independence. While these internal and external contradictions gave hope to enslaved Africans this hope was inevitably betrayed, and left Africans in conditions worse or no better.
Thus, although it appeared that Britain and its colonial appendages were acquitting themselves well in the race to enchain Africans, a growing chorus of voices in London and the Americas disagreed, asserting that actually the race was being lost to European competitors. A tendency was rising that came to define the emerging republic: as retrograde forces grew in strength, they complained and whined paradoxically about their weakness-as if they realized deep in their hearts that the reactionary nature of their conquests would inexorably generate a fierce and debilitating response. Thus, these flesh peddlers felt that their opponents were grabbing the hearty Africans, leaving to London-it was emphasized - the "tender, effeminate" Negroes, who were "absolutely unfit for the hard labour of the Sugar Colonies," meaning these slaves "must always be a loss and disappointment to the Planters." For the planters, this also meant "one great cause of their being now deeply in debt; and must be their ruin." London was losing, it was thought, in the race to enslave "Gold Coast" and "Whydah Negroes" places where the French were "powerful competitors" of the British and "by the various encouragements given" in Paris "are enabled to pay a higher price than [British] private traders."[ii]
Spain and France encouraged enslaved Africans in the Carolinas and Georgia to escape their agony by fleeing to Florida and Louisiana, where they held out promises of freedom. They formed armed contingents of freed Africans in their assaults on the Carolinas and Georgia in their seemingly never-ending war with Great Britain. Horne illuminates the real factors that motivated to so-called "French and Indian War" of 1754 to 1763. Yet both Spain and France practiced slavery in their colonies, both engaged in the trade in slaves and profited immensely from it.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and all of our country's so-called Founding Fathers were not reluctant slave owners who regretted their trade in human chattel, as we are taught in school. They were, in fact, as Horne documents so thoroughly, willing slavers who rebelled at the very thought that the British might move to abolish their property. Indeed, some colonial settlers saw writing on the wall, that abolition of property in human beings could ultimately lead to the abolition of productive capitalist property in its entirety. In the Declaration of Independence, taken in context, it is quite clear that when they wrote "that all men are created equal" they meant white men, not Africans, not Indians, and not women. "Washington was joined by Jefferson in reversing field in that in the heralded Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776 he sought to include language upbraiding the Crown for inciting enslaved Africans."[iii] Remaining in the Declaration, however, was the charge that The Crown "has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."
The history of the 1776 counter-revolution provided by Horne provides a glimpse of the real meaning of today's "strict constructionist" legal thinking by the current U. S. Supreme Court majority and the Tea Party far right today. What these people are seeking is the strict construction of a Constitution in which the supremacy and privilege of "white" people was a founding principle of the United States of America.
No short review can begin to illuminate the depth of the legacy of white supremacy and anti-African racism that still permeates U. S. society at every level. Gerald Horne can only give us a window on that reality. The profound distrust between the descendants of Africans and Europeans that persists today is founded on the exclusion of Black people from the very concept of humanity upon which our nation was founded and continues today.
Every person, especially every "white" person, committed to the struggle for racial justice, liberation, and equality, and who struggles every day with the difficulties of forging unity between Black and white, needs to read this book. It cannot make you understand, but it can be a powerful tool to help.
[i] "The Counter-revolution of 1776 - Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America," By Gerald Horne, New York University Press, 2014
[ii] "Counter-Revolution," page 168.
[iii] "Counter-Revolution," page 238.
[Ted Pearson is an activist in the Chicago area and Co-chairperson of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org ]