😀 😀 😀 😐
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.
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.
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.