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The Counter-Revolution of 1776
July 26, 2019
reviewed by William P. Meyers

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title: The Counter-Revolution of 1776, Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America
author: Gerald Horne
publisher: MIF Books, New York
year of publication: 2014
format: hardcover

When I was a Dharma Bum in New York City in the late 1970s I stumbled across an entry in a book in a used bookstore, I don't remember which one. It was in a law book, attractive because of its ancient binding. I did not buy the book. But while I don't have the best memory, I remembered the case. It was the Somerset Case, and it was decided in Great Britain in 1772. The judge said that slavery could not exist on English soil. As a result the person who had been a slave, since he was standing on English soil, was a free man, like anyone else in England.

But 1772, I thought, was leading up to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence proclaimed by the United States Congress. And suddenly certain things fell into place: another Big Lie crumbled in my mind. I knew it: George Washington and crew, who I knew were slave owners, joined in the rebellion because they did not want some judge in England to rule that the American colonies were English soil, and that slavery was abolished with the stroke of a pen. Which would have left Washington, Jefferson, and the other alleged heroes of America impoverished.

Well, I already had a college degree in Political Science, and from Brown University for that matter. How had I missed this astonishing fact?

I have many amusing tales about my Somerset quest, but here I must say it should be at an end, if only Gerald Horne's fine book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776, is widely read.

More clearly than anyone (and other books have been written in the last couple of decades that mention or even focus on Somerset), Gerald Horne puts Somerset, slavery, and the American Revolution in context. He adds some very interesting theories on how the Great Power rivalries of the era impacted slavery, the slave trade, and abolitionist sentiments. He documents how American slaves and slave masters knew about Somerset and how that dynamic became a driving force in the rebellion. I believe that he proves his thesis that what we call the American Revolution was actually a counter-revolution, a move to protect slavery dressed up in pretty words like freedom.

Professor Horne begins well in advance of 1776. He recounts the growth of slavery in the Caribbean and the slave revolts that were the natural consequences. He shows how some British slave masters moved to the mainland colonies, thinking they would be safer from slave revolts, only to find that rebellious Caribbean slaves were sometimes sold to mainland plantations, feeding the cycle of oppression and rebellion.

The slave trade too, had its dynamics. At first limited to a royal chartered company, it expanded explosively when it became legal for independent merchants to enter the trade. Free Trade in Slavery, there is a good summary for the era. Meanwhile rivalries between French, Spanish and English empires meant each had an incentive to free the other guy's slaves in return for their help in changing who owned what land. Horne explains in great detail the role Spanish Florida had in inciting slave rebellions in the British colonies to the north. All the empires ended up with increasing numbers of former Africans in their armies. I did not realize that many of the Redcoats that fought Washington had black skin until I read this book.

Nor did I realize just how many slave revolts there were in the colonies prior to 1776. Some were large, some just a few slaves killing their own master. But they were numerous.

All this background makes it much clearer what was really happening in 1776. Horne does indicate that slavery was not the sole issue of the American Revolution. But the Somerset Case was a ringing bell for freedom in 1776. Horne also recounts earlier cases that lead to it, and cases afterwards that gradually led to the complete abolition of slavery in the British Empire, something I appreciate. For instance, a ruling in Scotland in 1778 showed that the end of slavery was not limited to England proper.

The book caused me to reevaluate John Murray, Lord Dunmore. In American history books Dunmore, governor of the colony of Virginia at the beginning of the revolution (1771-1775), was a paragon of evil. The patriotic Virginians hated him. Why? Well, for many reasons, but ultimately because on November 7, 1775, he issued a proclamation, or Offer of Emancipation. Any slave who joined the British would be freed. Dunmore should be an American hero. Perhaps we should erect a statue to him, in place of the Lords of the Confederacy statues that have been taken down.

Unfortunately the revolutionaries and writers of the Constitution won the Revolutionary War. At the surrender of the Battle of Yorktown one condition was that the British hand over black Americans into slavery, including some belonging to Thomas Jefferson. The counter-revolution was complete. Slavery would remain an American institution until the end of the Civil War.

Read the book. Put it on your bookshelf so that this history, dug up after over two centuries, will not be forgotten.

Note: Somerset v. Stewart had several spellings even at the time it was announced. In various texts over the ages I have seen the man and the case referred to as Somersett and Sommersett. The case is much better known to English historians.

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