Revolution or Counter-Revolution?

Black and white print of slave revolt with a man wielding a sword and disarray around a table.

“Above all, he was flabbergasted by their constant prating about liberty while continuing the enslavement of tens of thousands” 
Gerald Horne (writing about Samuel Johnson’s feelings about the colonists) 

If you’ve ever wanted more information on the events leading up to the American Revolutionary War, Gerald Horne’s got you covered. His 2014 book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, will help you fill some of those gaps.  

Horne argues that the strongest driver of the revolutionary war was the African slave trade. He further claims that the American Revolution was not, in fact, a progressive victory for the good guys, but rather a regressive counter-revolution to the constant revolutions of the rapidly growing number of enslaved Africans on the continent and in the Caribbean. Through a mountain of primary source material, Horne documents the macro- and micro-events in the mainland colonies, Jamaica, and Barbados in the years leading up to 1776. 

In my opinion, Horne’s only flaw is his love of outrageously long and convoluted sentences. Horne is clearly of the Miltonian school of prose and sometimes seems to be attempting unmatched feats of sentence length: 

Perhaps, rather than seeing these men as having novel conceptions of allegiance to London or even as ungrateful hypocrites, it might be better to see them as ‘premature’ U.S. patriots; that is, economic logic was impelling them like a swift river current toward secession; while London was seeking to restrain their business dealings driven by the luscious bounty of African enslavement, Paris and Madrid had burst the dam and were more than willing to encourage settlers’ shady bargains, and, thus, these mainland men chose not to fight this trend but embrace it, along with the pretty profits it delivered (160).

Nestled within that labyrinthine sentence is the heart of the book: colonists were driven to war with England by the economic logic of slavery. The book is well-researched, well-argued, and compelling. In many cases, Horne uses the colonists’ own words to illustrate how the immense wealth they could accumulate from the enslavement of Africans drove them to madness. Horne writes, “Africans, in short, were a major antagonist, but mainlanders were reluctant to curb the seemingly ceaseless flow of Africans who were arriving, which was raising searching questions in London about their judgment, if not their sanity” (154). In my opinion, this book provides crucial historical context and should be required reading. 

Ben’s suggested pairings: 

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Gates deals with the same theme of powerful men doing whatever they can to keep unjust systems in place.  (also available as an ebook and eaudiobook)

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates touches on many of the same themes as Horne. The sections on the “invention of racecraft” will be particularly interesting to readers of Horne’s work.  (also available as ebook and eaudiobook)

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi. Kendi’s book provides the reader with suggestions for how to move forward. (also available as ebook and eaudiobook)

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s