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Book Review: Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America

April 21, 2014

As a graduate student, my comprehensive exam lists were filled with books that reinterpreted the history of slavery using new documentary sources, revealing a history where slaves exercised agency and resisted the harsh conditions in which they lived. While the history of slavery during the antebellum period has been extensively analyzed and documented, the history of slavery during the colonial period has been paid far less attention by historians. As Gerald Horne points out in The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (published on April 18th), this is because paying attention would force historians (and, by extension, Americans) to acknowledge the very deep relationship between slavery and the American Revolution—a relationship that is uncomfortable to examine, because it forces a reevaluation of the very meaning of that revolution.

Horne, a prolific writer and the John and Rebecca Moores Professor of History and African-American Studies at the University of Houston, builds on Atlantic World scholarship and the history of slavery to pose a compelling thesis: because slavery was the foundation of the economy of the colonial Western Hemisphere, the history of the American Revolution is not centered on 1776, but 1688. The Glorious Revolution helped make possible the rise of a merchant class whose wealth was based in the slave trade (as traders or planters), and slavery throughout the British colonies, both in the Caribbean and North America, increased accordingly. The end result was instability, as both slavery and the resistance to slavery grew.

The ramifications of this instability, however, played out differently in the colonies and in London: London moved toward abolition and a realization that free Africans allied to Britain could be useful in playing the game of imperial politics against Spain and France, while the merchants of North America, realizing that the institution of slavery was threatened, moved toward “independency.” Meanwhile, Africans, caught in the middle, pursued alliances with indigenous peoples and with Britain’s imperial enemies, conducting slave revolts on their own—a cycle that would later prove disastrous for those Africans remaining within the territorial bounds of the newly formed United States. Independence, Horne points out, was not the story about Enlightenment ideals of liberty as espoused by the Founding Fathers, but was a conservative counter-revolution. Americans were fighting for the right to keep and increase slavery (thus making the later Confederate claim for being the true heirs of the American Revolution plausible, but that’s a story for another day).

Horne rightfully points out that the story of the American Revolution as it is so often told (as a progress narrative where freedom and democracy inevitably won out in the end) only favors the winners, and misses the larger context of the politics of the British Empire during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This empire was global, not limited to North America. And British colonies in the Western Hemisphere were built on the economic basis of slavery. Africans were major players in this world—not just “helpers” in the Patriot cause. By restoring this larger context, Horne demands that we imagine a far more complicated world than that usually given to us in our history books. This picture, however, is profoundly uncomfortable, as it should be.

I did not find this book an easy read, and not just for the subject matter. In part, I suspect it was because I was reading an ARC, and there were several places where I assumed changes would be made before final printing (hopefully including Horne’s use of state nicknames, which got old quickly). I also had some trouble with Horne’s argumentative style, which kept circling around to pick up themes and events from earlier in the book. Once this style sunk into my brain, however, I was able to appreciate the significance of what Horne was arguing. So my advice would be to stick with the book until the end, because the payoff is worth it. My hope would be that Horne’s book will have a readership beyond academic circles, although I know that there are far too many people out there who won’t even brook a discussion of the Founding Fathers having motives beyond Enlightenment-inspired altruism. But the book is out there. And the fight goes on.

Source: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley

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