In Negro Comrades of the Crown (2012), Gerald Horne showed that armed African Americans allied with Britain posed a major challenge to U.S. security, from independence through the Civil War. The Counter-Revolution of 1776, which can be read as a prequel, argues that American patriots seceded to preserve slavery against the combined threat of English abolition and African rebellion. The landmark court decision freeing James Somerset in 1772 declared chattel slavery incompatible with English law and reinforced the fears among slaveholders that this “incipient abolitionism” (p. 158) might affect the colonies. The last straw came in 1775, when governor of Virginia Lord Dunmore offered to free the slaves who would desert their masters to fight for the king.
Horne’s book joins a growing list of revisionist studies of the American Revolution, including Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution (2005), in which legal scholars Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen advanced a similar thesis. Yet what distinguishes Horne’s argument is the omnipresence of black activity and militancy. British impulses to emancipate or enlist slaves responded to the actions of Africans themselves, who relentlessly attacked the colonists in arsons, poisonings, murders, and insurrections. “Convincing settlers that Africans would rise and murder them all,” concludes Horne, “was a charge that did not seem far-fetched in light of Manhattan 1712, Antigua 1736, Stono 1739, Manhattan 1741, Jamaican Maroons, and all the rest” (p. 229).
All these revolts, and more, are covered in a narrative that pushes the temporal and spatial boundaries of American independence to place it within a broader context. Horne’s proslavery “counter-revolution” began in the late seventeenth century. As slave unrest in the West Indies forced white colonists to settle the mainland, the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 weakened the monopoly [End Page 735] of the Royal African Company, opening a “free trade in Africans” dominated by private merchants. Slave imports and profits soared as a result, and with them the risk of uprisings, which prompted the need for European immigration and white unity. Yet, until the British victory in the Seven Years’ War removed French and Spanish possessions from eastern North America, the Catholic powers harbored and even armed African runaways and insurgents. Spanish Florida, in particular, was such a haven for rebellious blacks that it justified an antislavery buffer in Georgia.
To demonstrate how the geopolitics of rebellion influenced the fragile development of slave economies, Horne takes the reader on a dazzling tour of Caribbean and mainland sites of African insurgency, from Jamaica, Barbados, Cuba, and Antigua, to Quebec, Florida, and Cartagena. While surveying reactions in England, the author privileges a regional rather than a strictly transatlantic perspective. This allows him to analyze the involvement of various northern and southern colonies in the slave trade, the plantation economy, and illicit activities such as smuggling and piracy.
Horne’s polemical writing, which multiplies counterfactuals and often-anachronistic analogies, does not always make for an easy read. His overarching thesis and broad scope also lead him to paint certain events and groups with little nuance. By contrast, Woody Holton’s Forced Founders (1999) distinguished between Virginia’s smallholders, who favored an unregulated slave trade, and elites, who, eager to raise tobacco prices and limit the risk of rebellion, threatened the interests of British merchants by petitioning to tax and even ban slave imports in 1772. These quibbles aside, The Counter-Revolution of 1776 remains a fine addition to the radical history of colonial America and a welcome counterpoint to studies of black loyalists. Although Horne only uses English sources, his documentation is impressive and effective, and it offers a gold mine of references for future works on slave resistance. [End Page 736]
YEVAN ERWAN TERRIEN is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Pittsburgh. His dissertation studies the interrelated issues of labor recruitment, forced migration, and desertion in colonial Louisiana.