The Counter-Revolution of 1776

Is the racist far-right the true heir to the ideals of the American Revolution?

The founding father costumes, the Gadsden flags, the rhetoric about “liberty,” the idea that the President of the United States is a secret Muslim who was born in Kenya, liberals often dismiss the Tea Party as “AstroTurf”, as well-funded corporate propaganda that popped up out of nowhere in 2009 after the election of Barack Obama. To people on the left who still admire Thomas Jefferson, slavery was an abomination, but no reason to throw out the Declaration of Independence. What Lexington and Concord began, Gettysburg and Antietam, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King fulfilled.

How then do you explain the persistence of white supremacy in the United States?

In his new book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, African American historian Gerald Horne spells out exactly what the Tea Party means when they say “we want our America back.” The American Revolution, he argues, was not a revolution at all, but a pre emptive coup by what would eventually become “the slave power.” The idea wasn’t life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was to head off a coming push by the British Crown to abolish slavery. The United States was not founded as a democracy, but as a republic of plantation owners. What the “founding fathers” had in mind was much closer to Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence for Southern Rhodesia in 1964 than it was to the French or Russian Revolution.

I found “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America” emotionally satisfying but intellectually unconvincing. While it’s tempting to look at the subversion of democracy by the corporations, the corrupt media, the gigantic prison industrial complex, and the brutal police state as as the inevitable outcome of a country founded on slavery and genocide, I also think it’s important to avoid reading our current political failure back into colonial history. The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America is a fascinating attempt to re-frame history, but it’s more of an essay than a book, a proposal to write a PHD thesis more than the finished dissertation you would defend in font of a doctoral committee.

I do, however, think Gerald Horne has laid out the path for future historians of the American “revolution.” He starts by taking the focus off New England. The founding of the United States, he argues, can only be understood by examining the history of the original thirteen colonies in the context of the Caribbean slave trade. The Haitian Revolution was not some bolt from the blue that shocked the colonial elites in 1804. Rather, it was the culmination of a 200-year-long nightmare that had its roots in the basic economic reality of white, settler culture in the western hemisphere. South Carolina, with its black majority and its orientation towards Barbados and Jamaica, was the key. The Spanish, from their strong base in Saint Augustine, Florida were constantly trying to stir up a slave insurrection against their English rivals in what would eventually become the United States. The Stono Rebellion in 1739, the suppressed uprisings in New York City in 1712 and 1741, the growth of maroon and free black communities in Jamaica, Africans in the western hemisphere were far more dangerous, and far more rebellious than mainstream historians usually give them credit for being. The English colonial presence in North America, was a tentative, fragile endeavor that was by no means guaranteed to succeed.

It is, in fact, hard to avoid seeing the Tea Party’s fears that Barack Obama is a secret foreign invader bent on setting up a black dictatorship over whites as the barely suppressed subconscious memory that many southern whites have of a Spanish funded army of free blacks crossing the narrow straights from Havana to set up an African republic in Florida and South Carolina. While the threat from the Spanish and French was eliminated after the Seven Years War — a threat for white settlers but a hope for enslaved Africans — the slave power quickly discovered a new foreign power to fuel their paranoia, the British themselves. From 1763 to 1776, Horne argues, the British crown was laying the foundation for the abolition of slavery in their American colonies. Lord Mansfield’s decision in the Somerset Case in 1772, where he concluded that slavery had no foundation in English Common Law, was the culmination of of everything the planter class feared, and everything the slaves could have hoped for.

The proclamation of Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, that Africans in the 13 colonies were free to take up arms against the rebels went far beyond Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. But this is where I found Gerald Horne’s case less than convincing. His arguments are very strong when he maintains that the Gaspee Affair, where Rhode Island slave trader and founder of Brown University John Brown led an attack on a British customs sloop, is more important to the history of the American “revolution” than the Boston Tea Party. Brown was very obviously defending his “liberty” to trade slaves against the coming attempt by the British crown to abolish it. But I don’t think he explains why Lord Dunmore’s attempt to use Africans to suppress the rebellion failed so dismally. He seems to think it was more about smallpox than a lack of British will.

Why didn’t the British make a more earnest attempt to use Africans to suppress the American Revolution? Lincoln, after all, used German and Irish immigrants, and then emancipated blacks to suppress the Confederacy. The Republican war effort, which began as a conservative program to save the union and keep control of the Mississippi, evolved into a genuinely revolutionary war against slavery. My guess would be that the failure of Lord Dunmore’s campaign to arm African slaves had a lot to do with how the incipient British Empire feared “setting a bad example,” of establishing a precedent where a non-white, colonized people successfully threw off their oppressors. Perhaps the British chose to let the white American slave power go rather than do anything beyond a token attempt to stir up an insurrection among their slaves. Horne doesn’t rule out the possibility, but he stops short before he explores it in enough detail to nail down his case that the American Revolution was, in fact, a counter-revolution.

In other words, while I found The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America an interesting attempt to re-frame colonial history, Gerald Horne hasn’t convinced me that the traditional Marxist view — that the American Revolution was a bourgeois revolt against feudalism that laid the foundation for socialism and radical democracy — is worth discarding. Rather, like J. Sakai’s “Settlers” Horne has laid out a “third worldist” case that more orthodox Marxists have to confront. Why has democracy failed so dismally in the United States? Why are we currently sliding back towards feudalism? Gerald Horne asks the right questions. I hope enough people read his book and follow up on his arguments to provide the right answers.

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