By Gerald Horne (Guest Contributor)
Though scholars and historians in the U.S. have been astringent critics to a greater or lesser degree of virtually all revolutions–French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban, etc.—there has been a stunning array of unity across the political spectrum, left to right, singing the praises of the revolt against British rule in 1776 leading to the formation of the United States of America.
To gain a better understanding of this epochal revolt, the story should not begin in the 1770s–but, instead, with the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ in England in 1688; inter alia, this led to the undermining of the Royal African Company under the thumb of the Crown and the advance of the rising merchant class, as the profitable trade in enslaved Africans was “deregulated”, leading to “Free Trade in Africans.” At once this created great wealth that propelled capitalist relations in the colonies, making the latter more of an economic challenger to the metropolis headquartered in London but, also, accelerated slave revolts as the number of angry Africans grew exponentially.
As African rebelliousness grew, London was enmeshed in second thoughts about the viability of a colonial project based on slave labor. Moreover, in order to better confront competing empires–e.g. Spain–that were arming Africans, London could not rule out acting similarly, the prospect of which outraged the settlers pushing them toward revolt in 1776.
Incipient abolitionism in London and growing attraction to enslavement in the colonies led to a predictable result: it is well-known that by an order of magnitude Africans–ancestors of those now denoted as ‘African-American’–sided with London, not least since Britain was moving toward abolition of slavery as evidenced in ‘Somerset’s Case’ in 1772, a decision which outraged numerous North American settlers leading directly to the 1776 revolt.
“Somerset’s Case,” which involved the attempt by an African with roots in Virginia to gain freedom in England, seemed to suggest that the decision in his favor would lead to an extension of this abolitionist principle across the Atlantic to the North American colonies. This would jeopardize fortunes built not only on slavery and the slavery trade but, as well, the banking, insurance and shipbuilding enterprises–centered in e.g. New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts–that underpinned the peculiar institution.
Today African-Americans suffer from all manner of ills–including one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world–yet the now archaic unanimity on the alleged virtues of 1776 hinders the ability of history to scrutinize the origins of what became a slaveholders’ republic then a Jim Crow regime in explicating this dire condition.
The Counter-Revolution of 1776 seeks to drive readers to a new understanding of a nation that touts its supposed revolutionary origins–yet has become the leading status quo power in the world, consonant with its less than heroic origins.
Gerald Horne is Moores Professor of History and African-American Studies at the University of Houston. His books include The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (2014), Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Race War!: White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire