Review of Counter-Revolution of 1776

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by Gerald Horne presents the argument that the predominant rationale for the Founding Father’s mobilization for a war of independence was because it allowed what would become the United States to maintain slavery. While this sort of historical reading flies in the face of a number of inherited and taught assumptions on the fight for Colonial self-governance, Horne present a rather compelling case for the American Revolution being a “counter-revolution” or the armed mobilization of a dominant class that feel threatened.

The threats from within and without the slowly expanding colonial borders made the elites and settlers constantly fear a wide variety of political actors. There were the nearly ever-present concerns of Native Americas attacking over the dispossession they were facing. There were also the Latin countries, France and Spain, which laid claim to large and desirable swathes of land and would harass people in or near it. There were the slaves as well, who would sometimes escape. However as more time passed the American elite increasingly viewed the U.K. as both a hamper to their development and an unjust master. In regards to the former, England sought to maintain their agreements with indigenous tribes and forego Western expansion. Regarding the latter, England felt compelled to tax the colonies after having just exhausted it’s treasury fighting the Seven Years War to maintain hegemony, obtain concessions and protect it’s colonies.

While the closing off of westward expansion – a notion antithetical to a slave economy – and the increased taxation to pay for defensive wars that maintain territorial sovereignty – necessary to trade’s continuation may seem like small, bitter pills to swallow. These conditions helped the slave-owning elite increasingly see themselves in terms of the master/slave dialectic with themselves on the less unattractive side. Those owners of chattel slaves came to view Britain not as the country’s progenitor, protector, and benevolent master – not to mention a cultural aspiration – but a hurdle to the type of creative destruction that would rapidly accelerate the accumulation of domestic capital.

Compounding these problems were the spread of rebellious slaves. Following numerous uprisings in the Caribbean due to the unforgiving ratios of slaves to masters on the islands, slaves with a knowledge of poisons and rebellion were offloaded into the continent. Pacifying the Caribbean became so difficult that her Majesty’s forces had to entered into agreement with the Maroon leadership in Jamaica in order to maintain a modicum of peace. Such practices smelled of weakness and, to the slave-owners, offered a dangerous precedent.

As Colonials increasing felt that dictates given them were onerous they broke them, trading with whomever and resisting taxes. All this happened while British troops increasingly faced Africans armed by the Spanish and French. This created a problem for the British – how to successfully defend their claims without recourse to doing the same, i.e. arming Africans while at the same time preventing their colonialists from revolting?

The fear that the capital abducted from Africa in the form of slaves would not just be negated by even turned against them became an increasingly real threat.
While this began from just the enemy nations, it soon became a possibility from Britain. Faced with a legal ruling in England that made slavery illegal within her shores was frightening enough. The sudden emancipation of slaves would not only mean the dissolution of the single-most heavily invested commodity in the Colonies but would also mean generalized economic downturn due to secondary industries becoming effected.

Compounding this concern were several pronouncements by representatives of the Crown, such as Lord Dunmore, that suggested they would arm Africans in order to wage a war against the unruly “americans” if they continued to be unruly towards their duty to return the funds spent by London to ensure the Catholic/Native/Negro alliance did not disrupt resource extraction to serve the Manchester looms.

It’s this conflation of interests and contradictions that would lead to the Counter-Revolution of 1776. While the rhetoric of the revolution was universal, it was clear that the continuation of slavery and the up to 1600% profits of it was one of the driving forces of the Declaration. While I found the book to be at times a little redundant – the short closing argument of the book I think presents a correct appraisal of the works context for leftist political activists in that it calls into question the heritage – legal and economic – of the U.S. in such a way as to bring suspicion to it’s emancipatory character. This book, in fact, shows that while there were some greater benefits to this type of society than others formed long ago in Europe, it is hardly the model for the world that ought to be admired and that there is still much work to be done.

If you’d like to hear a variation of the above description of his work from the man himself I’d suggest watching this interview with Amy Goodman. The thrust of the back and forth addresses many of the points that I raise above.