Response to Gerald Horne’s recent book portraying the American Revolution as a pro-slavery rebellion by Alan Gilbert, author of Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens. Originally appeared in Journal of American History – Editors.
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 ) 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.