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

The Counter-Revolution of 1776History or polemic?

😀 😀 😀 😐

In a simplified nutshell, Gerald Horne’s argument in this book is that the Revolution was in large measure a response to the colonists’ fear of London’s drive towards abolition of slavery.

Horne argues that slavery underpinned every aspect of the pre-1776 economy and as such was seen as crucial by the colonists, even while slave resistance was growing and slave revolts were becoming more common. The Royal African Company’s loss of monopoly over the slave trade in the late 17th century meant that free-traders had entered the slave markets, and the consequent uncontrolled rise in slave numbers led to fears that the slave owners did not have the capacity to stifle such resistance. While London was showing signs of beginning to think that the solution might lie in abolition, (with the added benefit that Africans could then be armed to assist in the ongoing turf wars with Spain and France on the American continent), the colonists feared a situation where Africans could be given some kind of equality or even superiority within the armed forces or, still worse, in civilian life. So, Horne argues, the Revolution was as much about maintaining the institution of the enslavement of Africans as achieving ‘liberty’ for ‘white’ colonists.

Horne makes two further assertions, both leading from this central argument. Firstly, he shows that Africans largely sided with Britain or one of the other European powers in the Revolution and prior to that had often looked to both Spain and France as possible liberators. From this, Horne argues that some Africans saw the war as not just a possible route to freedom but hoped that a victory could lead to some kind of league between themselves, the indigenous people of America and one of the European powers to form a government in place of the white colonists. Secondly, and leading on from that, much of the subsequent ill-treatment of Africans, as slaves or free citizens, can be attributed to them having picked the wrong side…

‘…the ongoing persecution of descendants of mainland enslaved Africans is – in part – a continuing expression of what tends to befall those who are defeated in bloody warfare: often they are subjected to a heinous collective punishment.’

Horne concludes therefore that the general view of the creation of the republic as a great leap forward for humanity is erroneous – an example of history being written by the winners, in this case the white colonists and their descendants.

self-evident truths

On the whole, I found Horne’s arguments partially but not wholly convincing. The book is a strange mix of history and polemic, written by someone who frequently lets his anger show through in the language he chooses to use – ‘…profit-hungry settlers were willing to sell the rope that might be used to encircle their pasty necks’, ‘the supposed trailblazing republic and its allegedly wondrous constitution’ etc; while his desire to avoid the use of the words ‘slaves’ and ‘black’ leads him at points into rather fanciful terminology, my favourites being ‘men of ebony’ and ‘the melanin rich’.

When reading a history of a period of which one has very little existing knowledge, written by a historian unknown to one, the challenge is to decide how much confidence to have in the author’s interpretation of the facts. Really the only way I can ever think to do this is to see what the author says about a subject I do know a little about. Very early on in the book, Horne talks about the influx of Scots to the colonies, and his description of the causes and effects of the Jacobite rebellions was so over-simplified and frankly misleading that it left me gasping and gaping. I was left feeling, therefore, that I would have to take many of Horne’s interpretations with a large dose of scepticism. I also felt strongly that, while obviously Horne was speaking specifically about the impact of slavery, he failed to give enough emphasis to the other causes that combined to bring about the Revolution; and I felt this tunnel-vision approach weakened his argument rather than strengthening it.

The style of writing is somewhat clumsy at times and Horne repeats the same information again and again throughout. He constantly jumps backwards and forwards in time rather than taking a linear approach. And he often refers to places or incidents without clarifying them, which can be problematic for a reader without an existing familiarity with the period and locations. All of these factors combined to make this a book that I somewhat struggled through rather than enjoyed.

Gerald Horne
Gerald Horne

However, despite all of these problems, I still felt that there was a basic validity in much of what Horne was saying, in particular with regards to his main argument. Certainly worth reading to understand why he has extrapolated the conclusions that he has from that, but should perhaps be treated with the extra caution that applies to polemic rather than history.

Gerald Horne is the Moores Professor of History & African American Studies at the University of Houston, and has published over thirty books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, NYU Press.

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21 thoughts on “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by Gerald Horne

    • *chuckling* Yes, I liked that one too.

      Well, he is a University Professor of History and I’m…not, so I don’t like to be too sniffy. But I don’t think he’s studied the Jacobites too well anyway…!

            • Excuse me, sir, but I do hope you’re not including my Darby in the category of ‘bad ones’!? Is it my fault that the Professor might fall into the next lake he passes and end up with a wet shirt? (And possibly, if he’s lucky, an adorable little kiss-curl falling casually over his handsome brow…)

            • Now that you bring it up, it would be neat to rip movies–if I could. Twould be hard.

              So! Darby fell into the lake, did he? And here I always thought he jumped. What a…klutz!

            • Hmm,,,that would be neat, and would remove that pesky need to read books! Why would it be harder than ripping books?

              Hah! How could anyone as…as…Darbyish as Darby possibly be a klutz? Sooo jealous!

            • Hmm…perhaps. Admittedly I find reviewing films much harder than reviewing books, but I always assume that’s ‘cos I don’t watch loads of films. But you seem to watch more films than you read books…

              Had it been the Professor, I’d have pushed…

            • Oh…I’m not sure. The professor is really behind on all films, I think. I do have my favorites!

              *shock* And there would have been retribution! (The professor was never one for being nicer to the girls, you know. I remember one picnic–long ago. I got wet. And the girl that did it wished she hadn’t done it when I’d finished with her.)

            • Well, you should rip all your favourites then…

              (HahaHA! The Professor finally drops his mask of charm and adorableness to reveal the hidden wickedness beneath! I don’t know if I want to know the details of that story – it may be too, too shocking! But…by any chance, was the girl’s name Amelia?)

  1. FictionFan – I very much like your approach to deciding how much credence to set in an author’s arguments. My area of academic background isn’t US history, so just on my own knowledge I can’t say how correct Horne is. I can say though that anything as complex as a revolution has many causes and many angles to it. I’ve found that there is seldom only one reason for which an event like that happens. Certainly Horne may have provided one angle on the events. But as you say, there’s a lot more to the story. And polemic doesn’t really help matters…

    • Yes, I don’t know enough about the period to know how accurate his history was. It’s heavily annotated so I was willing to accept the facts – but the interpretations were more open to question I felt. And the very personal choice of language seemed really out of place in an academic work – though I did love the ‘pasty necks’ line! 😉

  2. Bows, scrapes and genuflects in admiration at the way you carefully pick apart scholarly tomes, and grapple with them in a very clear way. Melanin rich sounds like governmental pussy-foot speech. Or a hair sweet smelling sticky hair conditioner. Oh, sorry, that would be melon rich. And as for the Cornish pasty necks………I think this might not be one to land on my TBR, as I do rather need an excellent writing style to help me stay the course in discursive, analytical reading.

    However its nice to see Fallen Land get another quick heads up due to the excellent ‘similar posts’ widgetty thingy

    • This one wasn’t too hard since he at least spelled out his main argument in his introduction. It’s the ones where you read 600 pages and then realise you still haven’t the foggiest what the author’s point was that are the worry… His language was fun though – so PC when he was talking about the slaves and soooo un-PC when he was talking about the white colonists. I wondered if he was even aware he was doing it.

      Yes, that widget works pretty well usually – I like seeing what it brings up. But I can’t for the life of me think why it’s triggered A Kingdom Far and Clear…

    • Yes, I found it intriguing and was sorry it wasn’t as well written as I’d hoped. Still worth reading though – plenty of food for thought in there.

      Thanks for popping by and commenting! 😀

  3. Goody – one not for my TBR list. Half the trouble in this world is caused by polemisists pretending to be historians.

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