GERALD HORNE, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (New York, N.Y.: New York UP, 2014), 363pp.
Amerikastudien/ American Studies 60.4
The election of Barack Obama promised the emergence of a post-racial society in which Americans are no longer divided along black-and-whites lines. However, the upheavals against racism, white police brutality, and legal injustice against African Americans following the deadly shooting of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson have drastically demonstrated that this hope was premature. In his new book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America Gerald Horne, professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston and one of the most prolific Marxist historians of slavery, imperialism, American race relations, and the African American freedom struggle, traces the genealogy of American racism back to its colonial beginnings. Horne makes the startling case that racism and slavery were not only founding pillars of the American Republic, but also a major cause for American independence. Thus, Horne considers the much-celebrated revolt of the North American settlers not as a triumph of freedom and democracy but as a last minute counter-revolution to rescue slavery and white supremacy in the face of pressing dangers from slave insurrections, Native American resistance, and British abolitionism.
While some of Horne’s arguments seem familiar from the more recent revisionist literature on slavery and the American Revolution stressing the importance of slavery at the founding of the American Republic, Gerald Horne builds on and expands this scholarship. Horne ably integrates the arguments about the centrality of slavery and African American agency in the American Revolution into a coherent narrative and manages to locate it within the overall history of early capitalism and the geopolitical rivalries among European powers in the Caribbean and the Americas. Due to its broad sweep, the book is not always an easy read and sometimes hard to follow. However, the reader is rewarded by a wealth of information on slave rebellions and thought-provoking arguments challenging the conventional wisdom about the relationship of racism, imperialism and the egalitarian spirit of the American Revolution. Horne sets out from the premise that it “is an error to view the history of colonial British North America as simply ‘pre-U.S. history’ in a teleological manner” (viii) and that “a number of contingent trends led to 1776” (3). As far as enslaved African Americans and the soon-to-be displaced Native Americans were concerned, the victory of the white North American settlers in the American War of Independence was probably the worst possible outcome because it meant the perpetuation of slavery and territorial dispossession in what Horne polemically refers to as the world’s “first apartheid state” (4).
The book begins with a chapter on the question why Caribbean slavery was imported to North America in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Horne suggests that it was not simply the lack of arable lands in the West Indies and the hunger for additional acreage for the cultivation of plantation crops, but the dual problem of countless slave revolts, constant European warfare, and foreign attacks on the British island colonies that brought slavery to the mainland. According to Horne, the small Caribbean islands with a black majority population provided the few white settlers hardly any retreat areas in times of slave insurrections. Moreover, mutinous slaves were able to use the fragmented and intransparent island world to their advantage by fleeing to maroon communities or defecting to islands controlled by rival colonial powers. In the second chapter, Horne examines the economic effects of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Horne considers the Glorious Revolution a crucial turning point for North America and the British Empire as a whole because it not only strengthened the powers of Parliament against the king, but also led to the rise of a new class of English overseas merchants. These entrepreneurs from both sides of the Atlantic rapidly undermined the Royal African Company’s monopoly on the Atlantic slave trade, “igniting a quantum leap in the slave trade which at once developed immensely the economy of the Americas—and, likewise, engendered ever more angry resistance from the enslaved, causing ever more anxious settlers to migrate to the mainland” (viii).
The following four chapters deal with slave revolts in the Caribbean and North America and the failed attempt to establish Georgia as a slave-free “buffer colony” against Spanish Florida. Horne argues that insurrections such as the New York Slave Revolt of 1712 signaled to colonial administrators in London and the local white population that it did not require an African majority like in the West Indies to spark violent slave rebellions. The English mainland colonies in the South harbored large quantities of restive slaves and were threatened by the Spanish presence in Florida. Spanish Florida not only posed an external military menace, but also served as a refuge for runaway slaves from the English colonies and intentionally incited devastating slave rebellions there, e.g. the famous “Stono Rebellion” of 1739 in South Carolina (110-135). Thus, on the southern mainland, circumstances increasingly resembled those in the Caribbean where the combined “internal” and “external” threats seriously endangered the British colonial project.
This predicament resulted in what Horne calls an “arms race” (14) between Madrid and London which involved the competition for the affection of the black population in the colonies. Soon, no colonial power could do without enlisting African soldiers, constituting a crucial military factor in eighteenth-century struggles for empire. Horne makes the case that for the British, this meant not only negotiating with rebellious maroon communities in Jamaica and seeking an “entente” with Africans, but eventually also discussing dismantling the slave system (217). In contrast, the British mainland colonies opted for an economic development model based on the slave trade and the mass enslavement of Africans. In the southern English mainland colonies, there was no alternative to slave labor and thus there could be no “escape hatch” similar to Spanish Florida for fugitive slaves from Spanish and French America. Moreover, the socio-economic constellation on the British North American mainland propelled the need for European unity against Africans and Indians. This affected a notion of “whiteness” that smoothened tensions among immigrants from varying European ethnicities (152) and laid the basis for the emerging white settler solidarity and racially exclusive democracy (228).
Horne then turns to the aggravating tensions between Great Britain and its North American colonies after the Seven Years War and attributes them in large part to disagreements over slavery. He describes how plans for the circumscription of the slave trade and the abolition of slavery emanating from London (unwittingly) propelled the North American settlers towards secession (184-208). This rising abolitionist sentiment is most prominently reflected in Lord
Mansfield’s famous decision in Somersett’s case which was often thought to have ended slavery in England in 1772 (209-233). Clinging tenaciously to slavery, the white settlers in North America had not only much to lose economically, but also feared that London, in the manner previously practiced by Spain, could turn their slaves against them. This “black scare” (227) proved to have a rational basis when, in 1775, Lord Dunmore, the last colonial governor of Virginia, promised freedom to the slaves of American Patriots who fled from their treasonous masters and joined the British military (234-252). It is thus hardly surprising that in the American War of Independence, the majority of Africans and African Americans sided with the British Empire.
There is much to debate about Horne’s passionate and fierce attack on the American Revolution. Not every reader will agree with the importance Horne attaches to the slave revolts on the North American mainland, his reading of Somersett’s case, or his presentist analogies, e.g. when referring to “a kind of Cold War between Catholics and Protestants” and “the equivalent of a kind of ‘Sino-Soviet’ split” between Madrid and Paris (3). Moreover, Horne does not discuss the unintended social egalitarian impulse of the American Revolution, the isolated instances of criticism of slavery and the slave trade in the North and the northern movement towards (gradual) emancipation after the revolution, or the motivations of black Patriots like Lemuel Haynes. However, in the end, one cannot but be impressed by Gerald Horne’s vast erudition and excellent command of the sources. The Counter-Revolution of 1776 is a challenging contribution to the debate about the American Revolution and a valuable addition to Horne’s previous book on African American-British alliances before the Civil War.
Mannheim Dominik Nagl
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Horne, Gerald. Negro Comrades of the Crown: African Americans and the British Empire Fight the U.S. Before Emancipation. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Print.