Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
History books have painted a narrative of the U.S. founding that any student can recite: Colonists, straining against the tyranny of the British crown, revolted in the name of freedom, liberty and justice for all. But in recent years, historians have revisited that conventional story, examining the important role slaves played for Britain in its quest to quell colonists. Now, in a new book, historian Gerald Horne argues it was the desire to maintain slavery that was the prime motivator of the uprising. Kojo and Horne revisit the period leading up to 1776 to find out how slavery in North America and the British colonies influenced the revolution.
- Gerald Horne Professor of African American Studies, University of Houston; Author "The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America"
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America” by Gerald Horne. Reprinted with permission from NYU Press. All Rights Reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAsk any student what the American Revolution was all about and the answer might go something like this, colonial settlers, angry over years of unfair taxes and punitive laws by the British crown, rebelled to pursue freedom as an independent nation. But what if this classic story of liberty and justice for all wasn't entirely complete? What if history books said slavery paid a central role in driving the American Revolution? It's a provocative argument that's getting a lot more academic scrutiny by historians on both sides of the pond.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd now a new book places colonial slaves, their growing desire for freedom and white settlers fear of that freedom at the heart of the American Revolution. So what role did slavery really play in the story of 1776? And what important history have our textbooks overlooked?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to talk about this is Gerald Horne, professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston and author of the book, "The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America." He joins us from the studios of WUNC, in Chapel Hill. Gerald Horne, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. GERALD HORNEThank you for inviting me.
NNAMDIGerald Horne, putting slavery at the heart of the U.S. Revolution isn't necessarily a new idea for historians, but it's still got shock value when you put it before the American mainstream. Most Americans grew up with history books that said the U.S. Revolution was a revolt against tyranny and taxation by the British crown, which eventually gave birth to a democratic republic. I grew up in a British colony and the history books there told a slightly different story. But why did you feel this needed to be reexamined?
HORNEIt needed to be reexamined in part because, as I scan today's headlines, I see many stories that need deeper interrogation. Stories like, for example, the high and disproportionate incarceration of black Americans, their over-representation on death row, stories like a Department of Education study that suggested that black preschoolers are suspended in a spectacularly higher rate than other preschoolers, academic studies that suggest that black pedestrians are mowed down by drivers more than other pedestrians.
HORNEIt seems to me -- it seemed to me and seems to me that we need a deeper investigation of these kinds of normalized examples of bigotry. And it seems to me, as well, that we have to go back into history to get a truer picture of what's going on today.
NNAMDIWell, your historian colleagues have explored how enslaved Africans in the colonies fled to British lines in exchange for freedom under the crown. But what have they been missing, research-wise, that you wanted to explore?
HORNEI think that unfortunately -- and perhaps for understandable reasons -- when historians examine the origins of the United States of America, they examine it in part as a pre-U.S. history story. That is to say they look at what's going on in the 13 colonies before 1776, at best. Whereas, as you well know, Britain had a sprawling colonial empire in the Americas. And part of my story seeks to basically weave in the story of many of those colonies, Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados, in particular, into the larger story of how slavery influenced 1776.
HORNEAs well, I think that many of the previous historians have not not necessarily, believe it or not, done as much research in London as they should have, which is rather shocking because, of course, if you're going to write about post-1898 Puerto Rico, I assume you would have to do some research in Washington, D.C., or the mainland of North America in general. So I think that's part of what I tried to bring to the table.
NNAMDIHow were you able to get to the original research to put yourselves in the shoes of colonial enslaved blacks and their overseers? Tell us about that process.
HORNEWell, as you well know, the sources from the 17th and 18th century are overwhelming the sources of planters and slavers and merchants. Few are the sources, quite frankly, that come from the enslaved themselves. But, needless to say, if you read these sources rather closely and read them against the grain, a surprising story emerges. Point number one, the short answer, in terms of how slavery influenced 1776 is Somerset's case. June 1772, in London, where Lord Mansfield, who happened to be of Scottish origin, made a ruling that suggested that slavery in England would no longer obtain.
HORNEThis led to a logical corollary on this side of the Atlantic, that if slavery no longer obtained in London, then why should it obtain on the James River or in the Chesapeake region, for example. This enraged and outraged many planters whose fortunes would have been jeopardized as a result, helping to spark a revolt -- led, interestingly enough, by slave owners like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, etcetera. The longer story stretches back to 1688 and the so-called Glorious Revolution London.
HORNEWhereby the monarch, the king had to take a step back, as against the rising power of the merchants, not least with regard to the African slave trade, theretofore, under the thumb of the royal African company, this leads to what I refer to as the de-regulation of the African slave trade, the era of free trade in Africans, as numerous merchants plunge into this trade, descending on the African continent, with the maniacal energy of crazed bees, chasing down and manacling and handcuffing and dragging across the Atlantic every African in sight.
HORNEThey're drawn, in the first place, these Africans, to the Caribbean, which quickly has a population ratio that favors them, which creates favorable conditions for slave revolts, of which there are many in Jamaica, Antigua and Barbados in particular. This leads…
NNAMDIWell, I need to interrupt to mention that I am originally from what was British Guyana and is now Guyana. And the national hero of that country, mentioned in your book by the way, is a slave by the name of Cuffy, who led a slave rebellion there against the Dutch in 1763, that involved 2,500 slaves rebelling against them. So they had the advantage of numbers in those colonies, did they not?
HORNEYou are absolutely correct. And as we well know, that advantage finally eventuates 1791 to 1804 with the Haitian Revolution, one of the radical, transformative projects of any era in history. And by the way, I'm writing a book about that as we speak. But in any case, these slave revolts are exploding in particular in Antigua, 1709 and 1736, leading many of the settlers to make the great trek to the mainland, including, by the way, Abraham Redwood.
HORNEWhen I was doing research in Newport, R.I., the epicenter of the African slave trade on the mainland, I found that the central library there to this very day is named after Abraham Redwood, who fled to the mainland with his enslaved Africans in tow. And so what happens is that up into the mid part of the 18th century, London sees the Caribbean as being more valuable than the mainland. But that begins to change, not least because in Jamaica, which in some ways is the leading British colony in the Caribbean, you have the Maroon phenomenon, whereby…
HORNE…the 1730s it seemed that the Africans were about to dislodge British rule. And Britain was faced with the prospect of either making a rather measured march to abolition or a helter-skelter retreat from slavery, which could mean not only losing investments, but losing their lives. This measured march to abolition -- which, as noted, culminates in June 1772, with Somerset's case -- helps to deepen a preexisting split and fissure between the metropolis in London and the provinces in the Americas, eventuating in 1776. And the rebellion is against British rule, which leads to the United States of America.
NNAMDII find it fascinating that the 1772 Somerset case, which involved a British judge, William Murray Mansfield, was probably known more to historians like yourself, than anyone else until the movie, "Belle," came along recently, in which that relationship is heightened and where people like me got to learn a little bit more about that case in popular culture. What did you think about that movie, by the way?
HORNEWell, full disclosure, this past weekend I was in Atlanta for the unveiling of the DVD of "Belle," where I made friends with the director and the star and so probably a little prejudice, so therefore I should say with preface that I found the movie very compelling.
NNAMDIYeah, so did I.
HORNEAnd I recommend it highly.
NNAMDISo did I, as a matter of fact. We're talking with Gerald Horne, he is a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston, author of the book, "The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States." You can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Do you think that reexamining important historical events is necessary to understand them fully?
NNAMDIWas slavery ever mentioned when you were learning about the Revolutionary War? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Gerald Horne, I'd like to get back to the reason why you made this investigation of history in the first place and how you connect it to all of the events that are going on involving race relations and the African American community in the present time.
HORNEWell, part of the story I tell, particularly in the footnotes of this book, is that I don't feel that the term racism -- which I use all the time, including in this conversation. I think it's a necessary, but inadequate explanation of the fate that has befallen, in particular, the descendants of mainland enslaved Africans.
HORNEAs we well know, during the bad old days of Jim Crow, you had people like the musician born as Lee Brown, eventually Babs Gonzales, who masqueraded or passed as South Asian or as Mexican because he felt that being marked as a descendant of enslaved mainland Africans would lead to a worse fate. Angela Davis talks about growing up in Birmingham, Ala., during the Jim Crow days where she -- if she wanted to get adequate service in a department store, she would come in and speak French, so that she would not be marked as a descendant of a mainland enslaved African.
HORNEIt seems to me that if racism were the sole explanation for our fate, then speaking French should have nothing to do with getting better treatment. I think what's happened is that there was a contestation in the 18th century between Africans and indigenous on the one hand and Europeans settlers on the other hand throughout even the period after the formation of the States. The former, that is to say the indigenous and the Africans oftentimes allied with foreign powers to the detriment of the settlers. This happened when we were first regarded as, quote, "Negroes," unquote, which was Spanish for black, which suggested our alliance with Spain.
HORNEWhich, by the way, put competitive pressure on London by arming Africans as early as the 1500s, which put pressure on London to do the same, which in turn enraged the European settlers on the mainland. And August 2014 marks the 20th anniversary, by the way, of the sacking of Washington, D.C. by the red coats during the War of 1812...
HORNE...where they were joined by numerous black Washingtonians who, in a sense, engaged in a form of reparations by (word?) the White House. It seems to me that we can't even begin to understand what's going on today unless we understand the past. Just like if you go into a doctor, you have to have a medical history before an adequate diagnosis can be made.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Mimi (sp?) in Upper Marlboro, MD. Mimi, you're on the air, go ahead please.
MIMIHi, thank you. He just mentioned something that I was calling in about. You know, we're coming up this weekend to the anniversary of the sacking of Washington by the British during War of 1812. And there are many reports, many histories that talk about how the British soldiers freed some blacks. And -- but I just was wondering if he had any idea of the number and where those people went.
MIMII'm suggesting they wouldn't stay in Washington if they have been freed by the British, afraid that Americans would re-enslave them. That a lot of them moved to Canada. Just any kind of history related to that period. I'm really fascinated by what happened to those African Americans that were freed by the British soldiers.
HORNEYes. Let me say that two years ago I published a book, "Negro Comrades of the Crown: African and the British Empire Fight the United States Before Emancipation." And in the book there's a chapter which details how hundreds of Africans not only from the Washington and Chesapeake area, but stretching all the way down to Savannah allied with the Red Coats. And then after the war is over, many of them are transported to Britain's new colony, that is to say Trinidad and Tobago.
HORNEWhen I was doing a book signing in New York a couple of years ago, some of the descendants of those enslaved Africans came up to me because it turns out they are still in -- the descendants were still in Trinidad and Tobago and, of course, they became, in part, part of the ruling elite to this very day in Trinidad and Tobago. I should also say that Alan Taylor of the University of Virginia and his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Internal Enemy," also has some documentation in detail on this phenomenon.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. But you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, where you can read an excerpt of the "The Counter-Revolution of 1776" by Gerald Horne. That's at our website, kojoshow.org, where you can also ask a question or make a comment. But you can still call, 800-433-8850. Do you think history books have downplayed the role slavery played in the founding of this country? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Gerald Horne, professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston, and author of the book, "The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America." You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Did slavery violate the core ideals of the American Revolution?
NNAMDIYou can also go to our website, kojoshow.org. Read an excerpt of the book or ask a question or make a comment there. Gerald Horne, we got an email from Will in Adelphi who writes, "There were very few slaves in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, so why were those colonies at the forefront of the revolution?"
HORNEGood question. You need to know that there was a division of labor with regard to slavery. The slaves -- the Africans themselves were deposited south of what we refer to as the Mason-Dixon Line in places like Maryland and Virginia and Carolinas and, of course, Georgia, which plays a key role in my story. But the slave trade was financed from north of the so-called Mason-Dixon Line.
HORNENewport, Rhode Island, for example, which between 1690 and about 1760 was the epicenter of the financing of the African slave trade. New York which as late as the 1860s was a center of the financing of the African slave trade. Massachusetts as well. And many of the seafarers who were on the slave ships hail from these places.
HORNEAnd so, therefore, when you had shipboard insurrections, as you frequently did as detailed in my book, this tended to unite both north and south on the altar of bigotry against people of African descent. And I think that's a story that needs further elucidation and clarification because it's unfair to put the entire weight of slavery on the backs of Dixie.
NNAMDIYou talk about the insurrections that took place on slave ships or slips -- ships transporting slaves. You devote an entire chapter to the poisonings and the arsonings (sic) -- arsons that went on in Hispaniola, the island that now encompasses both Haiti and the Dominican Republic during the 1750s that made the Europeans very nervous. Can you tell us a little bit more about why that was or what happened there?
HORNEWell, what's interesting is that -- I feel like, with all due respect, previous historians, even some in your metropolitan area have really tended to downplay the pace and measure of restiveness amongst enslaved Africans, particularly on the mainland. So in my book, I had to sort of make a corrective and my editor thought I was going overboard by telling all of these stories about arson and murders and shipboard insurrections and slave conspiracies and all the like.
HORNEAs a footnote, I should mention that women in particular -- enslaved women -- were specialists in poisonings not least because they seem to be in the category of, quote, ethanol botanists, for example, having detailed knowledge of various plants. But oftentimes as they were (unintelligible) with slave families as maids, if you like, in the household. And these plots reached a kind of peak in Hispaniola, as you noted, in the 1750s when there was the plot to basically poison the settler population.
HORNEThat was a precursor of what happens in August 1791 and, of course, we're marking that anniversary, too, this month. When you have the onset of what we now refer to as the Haitian Revolution, which is argue and the book at hand and a previous book and the book I'm writing now marked the onset of what I refer to as the general crisis of the slave system whereby the contradictions of the system became so sharpened that these contradictions can only be resolved and dealt with by the system's collapse, which it did in North America as we know -- we all by the 1860s.
NNAMDIHow did those incidents in places like Hispaniola affect both slaves and colonists here in North America?
HORNEYou need to know that before 1776, there was major investment by mainland settlers and colonists in Hispaniola. You should know that there was this ongoing antagonism, which may exist to this very day between Paris and London. And therefore, the French felt it was in their interest to weaken the British by helping the settlers under the Union Jack revolt on the mainland, as you know, in the Battle of Yorktown.
HORNEThe culminating battle in the so-called revolutionary war leading to the formation of the United States of America. There were French troops there fighting alongside the troops of the settlers. And so, therefore, early on, there had developed this commercial relationship between mainland settlers and the colony that became Haiti to the point where when the Haitian Revolution erupts in the 1790s, part of the reason which leads George Washington and his Cabinet to intervene so forcefully, at least in the first instance on the part of the settlers in Hispaniola, was because of the fact that a number of U.S. nationals were being massacred by Africans in Haiti.
HORNEAnd this, of course, helps to explain why there was so much antagonism in the United States towards Haiti when the United States didn't recognize Haiti diplomatically until the U.S. Civil War when basically it was forced to recognize it because Haiti was one of the few places in the Caribbean which opened its ports to Union ships and barred the Confederate ships. Unlike, for example, Spanish Cuba port, to cite one example amongst many.
NNAMDIA lot of people want to talk to you, but I do have to get this in. Your thesis, obviously, will rub a lot of people the wrong way, a lot of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin owned slaves, but they made important efforts, it would seem, to end slavery after the revolution and slavery ended or was reduced in the north after the war. How powerful or lack or not was the abolitionist movement in the colonies before the war?
HORNEThe abolitionist movement and the colonies was heavily dependent upon its counterparts in Britain, number one. The abolitionist movement, in any case, not only in these colonies or in the mainland of North America but in London as well was driven not only about moral concerns but also by the fact that Africans were on the march. They were rebelling and revolting. And you either had to move towards abolition of slavery or you run the risk of losing your investment or losing your life.
HORNEGiven that, it seems to me, that puts into context this abolitionist movement. And I should also say, there is also an argument floating out -- floating out there that suggests that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that emerges after the formation of the United States of America, in many ways, provides a template for human rights advances by, say, people of African descent.
HORNEBut given the controversy in Ferguson, MO and given what we know about the United States, I don't think we should take an easy approach to how simple it has been to apply constitutional protections to people of African descent in the first place. And indeed, as I argue in my book, part of what drives what is oftentimes referred to bourgeois democracy is the demographic challenge that exists in the mainland of North America, where the settlers had to attract those who were defined as white to a combat zone so they can countervail the indigenous and the Africans.
HORNEAnd they had to have enticements and emoluments and inducements, part of which were a passel or package of democratic rights that perhaps they did not enjoy -- the settlers would not enjoy in the European continent.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Charlie who says, "What evidence has Gerald Horne found that slave-holding Americans were discussing the Somerset case prior to 1776 and had expressed fears that the ruling would be extended to Britain colonies, to which it did not apply under Lord Mansfield's decision? Without such argument, Gerald Horne's argument is basically rewriting history," I guess is what he wants to say.
HORNEWell, I would urge and encourage the email writer to look at the footnotes in my book, where in the chapter wherein I discussed Somerset's case, even in the introduction to the book, because the book starts with that case. I talk about the newspapers. There are newspapers that discuss this case at some length. There are people who are confiding to their diaries and writing letters at length about the Somerset case because we all know how law works.
HORNEThat is to say, a precedent has been established and then the precedent is then extended. That's how the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. works to this very day. So it should not come as a shock and surprise that there was great concern on the mainland amongst settlers about the extension of Somerset's case.
NNAMDIHere's Stephanie in Washington, D.C. Stephanie, you're on the air, go ahead please.
STEPHANIEYes, I'd like to know if Dr. Horne has considered how we go about revising textbooks to include the information that he is sharing with us.
NNAMDIPolitics, Gerald Horne, politics.
HORNEThat's a very difficult question. Your introduction suggests, I teach in the state of Texas where K through 12 history is a battlefield right now, not only are the history textbooks in the state of Texas not moving to what I'm suggesting, they're moving away from the traditional interpretation. That is to say they're moving towards a downplay of slavery, for example. And since Texas is the second largest state in the Union and textbook manufacturers are loathe to write a special textbook for Texas and then another textbook for, say, Washington, D.C. and California.
HORNEThe Texas model then becomes a national model. So what the caller suggests also implies that it's an uphill climb to get accurate history into our K through 12 textbooks.
NNAMDIHere's Louise in Silver Spring, MD. Louise, you're on the air, go ahead please.
LOUISEYes. This is a great show. It's so fascinating. I was listening to your comments about the War in 1812. And I come from Canada and my understanding is that there were African American enslaved people who fought for the British and in return were given free land in Nova Scotia. And those people are still there. There's black communities in Nova Scotia and Brunswick, among the oldest black Canadians in -- the oldest black populations in Canada.
LOUISEAnd they are descended from people who fought for the British in the United States. I don't know if you heard about that. If you can comment on...
HORNEYes, that's in my previous book, "Negro Comrades of the Crown." You should know that Britain moved to abolish slavery decades before the United States did, that is to say in the 1830s. You should also know that an impetus for the abolition of slavery was not only the rising moral concern about slavery as evidenced in the fact that people were worried about losing their lives and light with a dagger plunged into their heart by an angry African.
HORNEBut also, after Britain was ousted from the mainland colonies in 1776 during the war, that basically eroded Britain's major market for the African slave trade and in turn allowed the nation, the U.S. nationals, to then gain the leadership of the international African slave trade. By the 1790s, the U.S. was leader of the African slave trade to Cuba and leader -- by the 1830s, the African slave trade to Brazil.
HORNEWhereas Britain, in order to block the U.S. movement into Canada, had attracted black people from the United States and elsewhere to Canada where they stationed them along the border as militias with -- to confront any invading U.S. forces. And as I tell in the story, the War of 1812 was driven in no small part by the effort of the United States to take Canada in order to remove that sanctuary that Britain had established for fleeing property. That is to say for enslaved Africans -- human capital -- fleeing across the border. So the caller is right on the money with her comment.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Gerald Horne, we're almost out of time. Within 30 seconds or so, can you tell us about the book you're currently working on?
HORNEIt's a follow-up to Black Jacobins by C. L. R. James...
HORNE...which deals with the Haitian Revolution, 1791 to 1804. I extend the story to the failed annexation of the entire island of Hispaniola, including Haiti, which was contemplated by President U. S. Grant in 1870, 1871. And I also tell the story about the origins of Dominican Republic, a striking story driven in the 1840s in no small part by the question of race and racism and the desire to punish Haiti for gumption of rebelling against European colonialism and slavery in the 1790s.
NNAMDIGerald Horne is a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston. His book is called "The Counter-Revolution of 1776." Thank you so much for joining us.
HORNEThank you for inviting me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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