Another July 4th has passed, and the myths surrounding that popularly celebrated national holiday seem as potent as ever on the 239th anniversary of the American colonies’ war for independence from Great Britain, even among those who should know better. Fortunately, there are a small number of honest and dedicated historians out there who are not afraid to delve deeper into the actual historical record and expose the so-called “American Revolutionary War” for what it actually was, and the picture they paint is the antithesis of everything we’ve been conditioned to believe about the founding of our ‘Republic’. Most prominent among these New Age historians is Gerald Horne, the Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston.
Gerald Horne’s groundbreaking new book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: slave resistance and the founding of the United States of America, was published by New York University Press in April of last year and was slept on by most of the mainstream media and all but ignored in even the more liberal outlets like the Huffington Post. This is due to the fact that understanding the war for American Independence through such a radically different lens than the one we’re used to uproots many of the nationalist and patriotic notions most still have about this country, and would undoubtedly lead some to question the very legitimacy of the United States of America. Horne, whose extensive research includes viewing and reading the actual records of the former colonial legislatures as well as the letters and opinions of rebels and Loyalists alike, demonstrates without a shadow of a doubt to any sensible reader “that preserving slavery was an impelling motivation for colonial secession” and that “because slaves (and indigenous people) were perceived as a subversive element during the war, the rebel victory cast them in the longstanding role of ‘intense enemies’ of the state.” Though his conclusion is a radical one, it is supported overwhelmingly by documentary evidence.
Conflict between the Royal Crown of Great Britain and the plantation-owning elite of her settler colonial class in the western hemisphere regarding the theft of African bodies to be held in bondage was present almost from the beginning. Neither was opposed to the immensely profitable enterprise, far from it! The conflict was over who should and should not be able to maximally profit from it. During the 16th century, Great Britain had granted the Royal African Company sole proprietorship over what was called the transatlantic slave trade, and harsh punishments were ostensibly to be handed down to those who thwarted this monopoly. However, the desire for chattel – forced, enslaved labor – was so immense among the “New World” settlers that a merchant class of private, illegal traders conducted their own sort of black market, kidnapping black bodies directly from Africa and bringing them over to the mainland colonies and Caribbean Islands. This was much to the consternation of the British Mother country, for the illegal trade being carried out by these merchants was undermining the officially sanctioned Royal African Company by cutting deeply into its profits. The conflict appeared to subside for a brief time with the so-called “glorious revolution” in England of 1688, which essentially ran the Royal African Company into the ground when it came to being a major player in the slavery enterprise. With the R.A.C.’s power diminished, the slave trade thrived as never before, with an entire class of elites making themselves rich off the kidnapping and selling of stolen African bodies without the necessary approval of the Crown. Even though the R.A.C. was out of the picture, however, the power Great Britain held when it came to its progeny’s cruel but profitable enterprise was not eliminated by any means. It still collected immense profits from the merchants’ and settlers’ slavery-based economy in the form of Tariffs, Taxes and various other regulations, all of which angered the settler elite and proved to be a determinative factor in their later decision to rebel.
The importation of enslaved Africans was not without serious repercussions. For starters, Africans had demonstrated time and time again that they were not going to submit to a subordinate position without putting up a formidable amount of resistance. Nor were the Indigenous going to give up the land they’d inhabited since time immemorial without a long, brooding fight. Slavery was a double-edged sword in a way, though we are not accustomed to viewing it that way. While more slaves generate more profits through unpaid labor, it is also true that those who make up this brutalized labor force are likely to strike their oppressor when an opportune moment arises, as demonstrated by numerous slave rebellions, insurrections, and intentional poisonings that took place. This kept the settlers in a constant state of panic and fear, and put Britain in the awkward position of trying to limit the amount of potential insurrectionists brought in to the New England colonies while also ensuring that the slavery-based economy continued to grow. Exacerbating these problems ten-fold were the rival European colonial powers, France and Spain, who were each a constant thorn in the side of London. Spain, after all, was in complete control of the Florida peninsula, and from its base at St. Augustine carried out a policy of providing sanctuary for escaped Africans as well as the Indigenous, supplying them with arms and weaponry so that they were able to mete out their revenge on the colonists further north. This reached a climax with the French and Indian War in the 1750’s-’60’s, which saw Paris ally itself with Native American Indian tribes in opposition to Britain’s American colonies. And since the New England settlers were reluctant to participate in actually fighting to defend their colonies (instead relying almost solely on Mother Britain), Britain made the decision to enlist a number of Africans from the Caribbean in the British Red Coats during the war. This became a huge source of antagonism with the New England colonists, whose blood boiled with rage upon seeing those who they were conditioned to see as their divinely appointed slaves in a status equal if not superior to their own. The settlers also took issue with being taxed to pay for the defense of their colonies, developing a sense of entitlement to the whole North American continent that would become a hallmark of their republic upon establishing independence.
By the end of the Seven Years’ War, London had succeeded in repelling the French and the Indigenous tribes for the time being. It also succeeded in ousting Spain from Florida as a condition for the return of Cuba. The biggest losers of this war were no doubt both the Africans and the Indigenous, whose base of rebellion in St. Augustine, Florida was eliminated. From 1763 onward, according to a contemporary witness, “exterminating Indians became an act of patriotism.” Incredibly ironic is the fact that Great Britain, in succeeding and winning the war, also lost in the long-run. Though the Red Coats had rescued the British colonies from annihilation, they’d also laid the groundwork for these very same colonies to stab them in the back a decade later. At the heart of the conflict was the fact that London, after fighting and winning a very deadly and costly war defending the colonies, was seeking to prevent as much as possible for the time being having to involve itself in any further wars with Indigenous tribes. It was also determined not to encourage further revolts or acts of mutiny on the part of rebellious enslaved Africans, which would be exceedingly difficult to do as long as they continued being imported in unchecked numbers. The Crown had good reason to worry, as the Indigenous peoples no longer had any illusions as to the ultimate goal of London’s colonial-expansionist project, as evidenced in the tone of a letter sent from London to the Governor of Georgia. The letter, dated March 16, 1763, states that, despite Spain no longer occupying the Florida peninsula, “the French and Spaniards in Florida & Louisiana have long, and too successfully inculated the idea amongst the Indians, that the English entertain a settled Design of extirpating the whole Indian race, with a view to possess & enjoy their lands.” [Horne, Gerald. The Counter-revolution of 1776: slave resistance and the origins of the United States of America. Page 195] Of course it wasn’t necessary for the Spanish or French to “inculate” any such ideas into the heads of the Indigenous peoples at all, for they’d had over a century to observe and learn the true character of the colonialists, and had come to the rightful conclusion that the settlers would stop at nothing until all the Natives were either landless or exterminated. Now, with the Seven Years’ War ended, the settlers were more determined than ever to speed up the process of “Indian removal” from lands even further west of the colonies, “with the rapt desire to enslave Africans to toil on this very same land.” [Horne, 185.]
The sense of a unifying cause among the white settler population that caused them to loathe Great Britain was not formed overnight. In fact, in the earliest days of colonization of the North American continent the various ethnicies and religious sects of Europe were constantly at each other’s throats. Nowhere was this hostility more pronounced than in the shared hatred Protestant England and Roman Catholic Spain had for each other. “Whiteness” was able to become a unifier only in the context of enslavement of Africans and genocide of the Indigenous. To put it another way, the concept of whiteness became a great unifier for people of vastly different origins in the face of fierce resistance shown by Africans, who refused to accept being enslaved, and indigenous American Indians, who refused to be eliminated. These two groups violently resisted the even more brutal violence that was being inflicted on them, every step of the way. (*) Had it not been for the new all-inclusive definition of whiteness – one that included among others the English, Dutch, Irish and French – many of these “whites” would have had little reason to fight a war which served to benefit mainly a rich, wealthy class of property-owning elites. Considering how, only a few years prior to the rebellion against Britain, a staggering 44% of all the wealth being generated in the New England colonies was accumulated by just 1% of the property-owing population, it’s difficult to understand without the racial context how a largely impoverished population of white indentured servants could find common cause with the relatively small plantation-owning class. Being offered the privilege of “whiteness” however was an offer the average poor European migrant couldn’t resist. Whiteness became a tool of the ruling class to instill in the rest of the settler population a sense of racial superiority that allowed them to believe that, no matter how humble their origins, they were still of a superior racial stock than that of the non-white Africans and Indigenous Indians. One of the most demonstrative examples of how this process played out is the decision made by the elite in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1675, when lower-class white men were suddenly “given guns and allowed a certain amount of freedom and control over black bodies, instilling in them a sense of importance and ownership they had not felt when they were simply laborers.” A century later, in the build-up to the American Revolutionary War, a prominent anti-London “patriot” and slave-owner named Christopher Gadsden played a crucial role in consolidating this cross-class white racial solidarity. It was Gadsden’s assertion “that the prospect of slave insurrection should remind the white poor of their presumed identity of interests with their racial brethren, who happened to be filthily wealthy planters and merchants.” [Horne, 199.]
Finally, whatever amount of reverence the New England settlers had left for Britain was irrevocably tarnished when a heretofore inconceivable concept – abolition – became a point of serious discussion among certain echelons of British society. What began as a small fringe movement suddenly reached a feverish pitch in 1772 with a decision handed down by Lord Mansfield in the infamous Somerset v. Stewart case in England, which effectively outlawed slavery in the British mainland. Though this decision did not address slavery as it related to Britain’s overseas colonies, the elite plantation owners and slave merchants in North America concluded that the decision in the case would eventually lead to exactly that. Immediately following this verdict, which proved to be a groundbreaking decision, colonialists in the American colonies took to newspapers and magazines to express bitterness and outrage over the ruling, with many writers writing without a trace of irony that Great Britain was treating them – the slave-holding settlers – as if they were slaves! One Richard Henry Lee even opined that the plight of the white settlers was akin to being held in “Egyptian bondage.” [Horne, 217.] Leading abolitionist voices coming out of London hardly offered any words to assuage these overblown fears. In fact, the shrill, hypocritical protests of the slave-holding settlers immensely contributed to the ascendant political awareness of London’s growing abolitionist community and the radicalization of more than a few of them. One of the most radical denouncements of New England slavery appeared in a London abolitionist pamphlet the same year as the Somerset verdict titled Britannia Libera or a Defense of the Free State of Man in England against the Claim of Any Man There as a Slave; Inscribed and Submitted to the Jurisconulti and the Free People of England. Within the pamphlet it is predicted that a time would justly come “when the blacks of the southern colonies on the continent of America shall be numerous enough to throw off at once the yoke of tyranny to revenge their wrongs in the blood of their oppressors and carry terror and destruction to the more northern settlements” and spreading to the Caribbean Islands a “merited carnage” which “may end to the disadvantage of the whites.” [Horne, p. 217-218]
With London now preventing the settlers from expanding westward, and levying more burdensome taxes on the importation of enslaved African laborers (to avoid sparking further battles with the Indigenous, and to limit the potential importation of mutinous slaves), the settler population felt they had no other option but to take up arms against their colonial matriarch. Earlier, when it came to defending their colonies from attacks from France and Spain, these same settlers were more than happy to let the British Red Coats do all the fighting. Now, when it appeared Britain might possibly halt the expansion of slavery to the west, they were more than willing to lay their lives down for the cause. What began as a small and in many ways elite rebellion was greatly (and unintentionally) aided by an edict delivered in November, 1775 by the Royal Governor of the British Colony of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, promising to emancipate and provide arms to any enslaved African who would desert his master and join Dunmore’s newly-formed contingent for the purpose of crushing the white settler rebellion. According to historian Graham Russell Hodges, Dunmore’s edict “did more than any other British measure to spur uncommitted white Americans into the camp of rebellion”, especially after more than 200 Africans immediately responded to Dunmore’s edict by risking their very lives to run away and join the Virginia governor’s fighting force. For this, Lord Dunmore was designated public enemy #1 by the white rebellion who burned him in effigy as far south as the Carolinas and as far north as Rhode Island. A Maryland preacher who would eventually become known as one of the so-called “founding fathers” named Patrick Henry railed against Dunmore from the pulpit for “tampering with our Negroes” and “enticing them to cut their masters’ throats while they are asleep.” He pondered how “men noble by birth and fortune should descend to such ignoble base servility.” [Horne, p. 224-225; 323.]
The colonial New England elite, among them “founding” slave-owners such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and John Adams, were able to successfully ensure that those they viewed as part of the lower or peasant classes would make up the foot soldiers in their war against Britain by instilling in them a sense of overwhelming patriotism, framing the fight as one for freedom as opposed to tyranny. Understandably, the Africans in this war “almost universally sided with England and were hoping for an English victory, which they believed would deliver them from slavery.” In actuality, the American “Revolutionary” War was fought on the American side for the benefit of wealthy proprietors, landowners and plantation masters. What the lower class whites got out of this was the establishment of a regime they believed would preserve the doctrine of white supremacy for all eternity. That this so-called “revolution” was never intended to establish a democracy for anyone other than the minority ruling elite is apparent from the way the electoral process was set up and the ways in which it is controlled by those with the most money to spend, up to the very present.
* The hatred that white people have historically and in fact continue to have for Black Americans is very much rooted in the latter’s resistance to slavery. Hatred for Black people was not the cause of slavery, at least not initially. The extreme antipathy is a result of the resistance to being enslaved on the part of Africans. The constant rebellion and acts of mutiny that comes with the territory of trying to enslave and oppress an entire race of people puts a deep fear into the hearts of the oppressor, and fear more often than not morphs into hatred. Living in constant fear and dread over when the next potential rebellion or insurrection was going to break out caused the white population to become even more vicious, brutal and oppressive in their tactics. In other words, had Black people (or the Indigenous) simply submitted to slavery and subordination (which no self-respecting people will ever do), the vicious amount of hatred whites developed for Black people would likely not have been as intense. Whites would have been content and happy were Africans to accept a status of inferiority, had they simply resigned to being enslaved, and in later eras segregated and ‘Jim Crowed’. But Black people did not and never will accept that, and thus the doctrine of white supremacy is still prevalent among the white population. This is not to say that racism only manifests itself in forms of antipathy. There’s also the false belief on the part of all too many whites that white people are in fact superior to non-white people. This belief emerged from the very act of enslavement itself, not the reaction to it on the part of the enslaved. After all, in order to consciously set out to enslave and degrade another human being (or class of human beings), one must convince himself that the one he is subjugating is his inferior in order to justify such cruelty.