The George Collins Book Club
When you’re so desperate for book recommendations that you turn to a bald twenty-something burnout for help. Gods above help you.
Gerald Horne – The Counter-Revolution of 1776
“[White nationalists] have this very naïve view of the United States. They want to cling to this idea of the Founding Fathers and the framers of the constitution and this document that would live forever, when actually it was designed to encode the rights of slave owners and creditors…as long as you don’t come to grips with that, then all other kinds of opportunism come very easily. Because if you can rationalize genocide and you can rationalize enslavement, well, you can rationalize anything!”
– Gerald Horne speaking to journalist Abby Martin.
I remember my indoctrination into U.S. nationalism during my primary school days. Every morning began with reciting the pledge of allegiance to the Chinese-made flag above the door. I never payed attention to what the words meant; “The Republic” was that crew in Star Wars that churned out all the white dudes and “indivisible” just sounded like a cool word. My third-grade teacher punished students who didn’t stand up straight when singing the national anthem. That red white and blue fabric sure pulled a lot of strings.
This began mere months after the events of September 11th, 2001. The whole country was reeling from the shock of the attack as the fantasies we crafted during the 1990s shattered in a single minute. Nationalism was oozing out of every American pore. Hate crimes against Arab-Americans rose 4,000% in the immediate aftermath. President George W. Bush issued his famous declaration that “you’re either with us or with the terrorists.” Siding with the amorphous “terrorists” included such unforgivable sins as protesting the 2003 Iraq invasion or opposing the stripping of civil liberties brought by the Patriot Act months after the attack.
What were we defending? We were told these anti-American assholes in the sandbox “hated our freedom.” After all, the logic went, America is all about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s burned into our creation mythos with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the rest of the crew punching out a tyrannical king in the name of freedom baby! Statue of Liberty gets wet just thinking about it.
Every country has its own creation mythology. These founding stories of nations function like the holy books of religious faiths in that they forge their structures through years of retelling and revision from a few trips through the wringer of political distortion. They often come attached with a streak of patriotism in their retelling, sometimes with a brand that’s tough to distinguish from its roided out cousin, nationalism. It’s an understandable evolution (or devolution) considering the agendas of a political or social elite hellbent on retaining power, but what history is obfuscated in this process? What struggles that took place are hidden in those printed-in-Texas history pages that could act as a source of empowerment for oppressed communities today and how could these movements be replicated in contemporary society?
Considering questions like these make historians like Dr. Gerald Horne some of the most valuable scholars we can read. Horne sits as the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston and has published more than thirty books on black American history. Horne came on my radar well over a year before I cracked open his landmark 2014 work The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. His frequent appearances on the independent news circuit more than showed his chops as a revolutionary historian, and this is a great book to begin with if you’re wanting to dive into his extensive bibliography.
We all know the tale of American independence, but several glaring questions never find answers in the standard narrative. If liberty and freedom from tyranny was the focus, then why, as Afro-Latina activist Rosa Clemente has pointed out, were the Founding Fathers reluctant to grant suffrage to their own white wives, daughters, and sisters, never mind the countless number of enslaved Africans and indigenous people being slaughtered on their own land. Even my more progressive history courses were reluctant to challenge this notion. They would acknowledge that the American Civil War was not over abolitionism, but man, you leave the American Revolution the fuck alone. This phenomenon seems unique to the United States, as even Australia, a country similar to the U.S. in many ways, has seen raging discourse over its imperialist origins in recent years.
Some historians have confronted the narrative that the Founding Fathers had the unwashed masses in mind when crafting the constitution, but Dr. Horne blasts this to bits with devastating body shots throughout this book. From the inception of the slave trade to the 1776 counter-revolution itself, a vast array of sources including legislation, correspondence, and the work of fellow historians of the era offer a compelling case for the racist origins of the American Revolution, creating what Horne calls “the world’s first apartheid state.” There’s a ton to unpack here, but I’ll do my best to hit some of the main points of Horne’s thesis without rewriting the entire book.
First we’re whisked back to the 80s, 1680s that is, when the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in Britain weakened the Royal African Company’s monopoly on the slave trade and paved the way for private traders to begin selling to the planter class in both the Caribbean and mainland colonies. The emergence of the these private enterprises spurred exponential increases in the number of African slaves being imported to the colonies, and European settlers were suddenly confronted with the math over the next several decades: there were a few of them, and a whole lot of infuriated Africans who weren’t so high on the idea of being ripped from their homes and stuffed into a ship to bust ass for whitey all day. Slave revolts and plots erupted all over the colonies. Settlers despaired about being poisoned at dinner or seeing their houses torched. Events like the Maroon uprisings in Jamaica or the Stono Rebellion of 1739 justified these nightmares, but the reckless pursuit of profit driving the motives of both the private slave traders and the elite planter class in the colonies prevented any meaningful slowdown in the slave trade. This thirst for profit over stability incentivized bringing more slaves to the Americas, increasing the number of Africans there and exacerbating the racial skew.
Adding to these fears was London’s insistence on arming Africans to launch offensives against the neighboring French and Spanish colonies, both of whom were already employing free Africans for military service. Think about a settler with fresh memories of the Caribbean rebellions or the slave-driven torching of Manhattan in 1741: the last thing that dude wanted was Africans packing heat.
A sort of subplot that runs through this history is the creation of “whiteness” in the British colonies as an attempted solution to the racial fractions. London called for more “whites” from Europe to even the score against the armies of volatile slaves, but nobody could ever answer the question of where they’d find all these people. Scottish rebellion back across the pond was on fire during this time, and some Scots even helped organize slave revolts and conspiracies in the colonies. The Irish also weren’t keen on serving their oppressors in London and had the double whammy of being a predominately Catholic people, this at a time when it was believed that the Catholic nations of France and Spain were sending moles into the colonies to cause unrest and collect intel. Turns out eliminating ethnic and religious tensions wasn’t as simple as shipping everyone across the water. Confused yet? The whole show was a massive goatfuck, and London could find no escape to what Horne calls this “maze of irreconcilable contradictions” except complete abolition of slavery as a practice. Washington, Jefferson, and all the other slave-holding property owners weren’t so keen on losing their main source of wealth, so what did they do? Fight a war over it. Maybe it was all about liberty, if liberty meant the freedom to continue exploiting the labor of Africans removed from their homes by force.
Besides this takedown of the popular narrative, the book also reveals a chilling truth that carries implications for confronting racial, ethnic, religious, and national divisions throughout the modern world. Historians of pre-independence America documented years ago the allegiance of African slaves to London in the counter-revolution. These Africans understood that while London’s abolitionist fervor took root more in strategic motives than righteous will, it was still better to side with the folks who were looking to cut your chains over those looking to tighten them. London lost that fight, and American white supremacy has never forgotten this betrayal by the slave underclass. The centuries of brutal violence and crushing systemic racism since independence are to be their eternal punishment for this treachery. This idea is backed by historians Kenneth W. Mack and Alice Kaplan, who each noted in their respective works that immigrants from the African continent and American blacks who adopt Spanish or French names are treated more charitably in American cultural and societal systems than domestic-born blacks with English names and English as their primary language. Black conservative scholar Thomas Sowell also noted the higher socioeconomic status of Caribbean black immigrants to the U.S. over those born on American soil. The African support of the redcoats in 1776 acts as an original sin for American blacks that still persists in modern American society.
This principle applies to other marginalized groups around the world. The Scottish in the United Kingdom still chained to the whipping post by a Union Jack-colored leash; the Sikh militants of northern India caught in the crosshairs of Hindu ultra-nationalism and earlier attempts at extermination by Moghul empires; the indigenes of the Americas now confined to ever-shrinking plots of land and meaningless treaties; the African countries carved into being by colonialism and entombed in crushing debt from Western financial giants. These groups dared to envision a future for their people that did not hinge on domination from their oppressors, often through armed resistance and a refusal to lie down and tap out, and their sentence for losing those fights is eternal pressure under the steel-toed boot of that same oppressor’s foot.
Horne’s retelling of the American Revolution through the eyes of the enslaved African underclass reminds us that we must challenge entrenched historical narratives when confronting oppression and predatory structures in our own time.
Without this acknowledgement, we misunderstand how deep we must dig to uproot these jingoistic weeds. It will require, as Dr. Horne concludes in the book, an anti-racist and pro-equality movement of global proportions.