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).

Everything Hamilton

Antique paper background with black image of heroic figure pointing to the sky from on top of a star.

Review by Cherise T.

Alexander Hamilton.

My name is Alexander Hamilton.

And there’s a million things I haven’t done

But just you wait, just you wait…

If this stanza makes your heart beat faster or maybe even brings tears to your eyes, then Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, is the book for you. “Splurge” and download the audiobook as well since Mariska Hargitay’s narration is outstanding. Like the musical itself, words come at the reader fast, and it’s an adventure deciding where to plunge in first. The text, the personal side notations, the primary source materials, and the graphics are a treasure and a joy. The libretto alone would fill a Hamilton fan’s heart, but the book also includes an abundance of stories about the creation of all aspects of the musical. We see the development of the show from the perspectives of creatives and cast members. The vintage-style photographs of the cast taken by Josh Lehrer using a camera lens from the mid-1800s are gorgeous. The book is a celebration of the full arc of the production’s evolution, from Lin’s first rap for the Obamas in 2009 at the White House, through the off-Broadway production, and all the way to opening night on Broadway in 2015. There’s nothing like being in the room where it happens.

On July 13 at 7 pm, author Richard Bell is going to discuss some of the history surrounding Alexander Hamilton. Register with an email address to receive an immediate registration confirmation. You will receive the link to the online class in the confirmation email. If you prefer to call in by phone, please register for the class online, then email askhcls@hclibrary.org to request the dial-in information at least 1 business day in advance.

With Disney+ streaming Hamilton this July, University of Maryland Associate Professor of History Dr. Bell explores this musical phenomenon. He discusses what this amazing musical gets right and gets wrong about Hamilton, the American Revolution, the birth of the United Sates, and about why all that matters. It includes an examination of the choices Hamilton’s creators made to simplify, dramatize, and humanize the complicated historical events and stories. We will also talk about Hamilton’s cultural impact: what does its runaway success reveal about the stories we tell each other about who we are and about the nation we made?

Dr. Bell is the author of Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped Into Slavery and their Astonishing Odyssey Home. The book tells the gripping and true story about five boys who were kidnapped in the North and smuggled into slavery in the Deep South – and their daring attempt to escape and bring their captors to justice. The book is available to borrow as a physical book and as an eAudiobook via Overdrive/Libby.

Cherise T. is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. When not immersed in literary fiction, Cherise can be found singing along to musical theater soundtracks.