With a sweeping and widely praised new essay on reparations in the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has challenged Americans to reconsider how they view their country's history and to place the influence of white supremacy front and center. Rather than imagine the damages inflicted against African-Americans by white supremacy as having occurred mainly during the antebellum period, Coates asks us to recognize how Jim Crow in the South and redlining in the North denied black people the means to build real, stable lives for themselves, directly explaining the disproportionate poverty we still see in the African-American community today.
Yet as penetrating as Coates' essay may be, a new book from University of Houston professor Gerald Horne would have our revision of our own history stretch back even further — to the very founding itself. In "The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America," Horne marshals considerable research to paint a picture of a U.S. that wasn't founded on liberty, with slavery as an uncomfortable and aberrant remnant of a pre-Enlightenment past, but rather was founded on slavery — as a defense of slavery — with the language of liberty and equality used as window dressing. If he's right, in other words, then the traditional narrative of the creation of the U.S. is almost completely wrong.
Salon recently spoke with Horne about his book, why the conventional story of the U.S. founding has been so widely accepted, and what this new view of the American Revolution might mean for those still fighting white supremacy today. Our conversation is below and has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's the basic argument of your new book?
The argument is that it is time to revisit the heroic creation myth of the United States of America. My research has convinced me that we need to look more closely at slavery and the slave trade in order to better explicate the founding of a slave-owning republic in 1776. In other words, in June 1772, in London, there was Somerset's case, which seemed to suggest the case’s initial meaning, which of course was for England, could be extended across the Atlantic to the colonies. This caused great consternation in the colonies, not the least since the colonial economy was underpinned by slavery. It was not only the slave trade itself which brought spectacular profits, sometimes as much as 1,600 percent ... But it’s also that these profits are reported to allied industries including banking, shipping, insurance, et cetera. And that, in itself, was developing the productive forces of the colonies, which then began to strain at the colonial leash, and the combination of these factors led to a declaration of independence on July 4, 1776.
What is the "creation myth" that you referred to just now, as you understand it?
The usual story runs — and you will hear it in profusion in about six to eight weeks — is that these Olympian Founding Fathers—capital O, capital F, capital F — in their utmost wisdom, revolted against tyranny from a despotic monarch in London and established a glorious republic with freedom and justice and liberty for all, as embodied in a wondrous Constitution that emerged subsequently. Quite frankly, in a stunning array of ideological diversity, scholars and ideologues from left to right have basically bowed down before that creation myth.
Was this a myth you believed in prior to writing this book? Why do you think it's so powerful?
Coming to this book and writing this book was a process for myself. That is to say, maybe 20-odd years ago, like many who have lived in the United States of America, I had not given deep thought to the creation myth and to that extent I think I can indict myself. With regard to the United States of America, I think the fact that so many Europeans truly were rescued from persecution by the creation of the United States of America helped to blind some to the unavoidable fact that their rescue in some ways was based on and founded upon a country that committed genocide against indigenous people and then enslaved tens of thousands — hundreds of thousands — of Africans.
I think that’s unfortunate because if you look, for example, at the Dominican Republic, you may be aware of their dictatorial leader in the 1930s, Rafael Trujillo, who opened his doors wide to Europeans (particularly those who were Jewish who were fleeing persecution in the 1930s) and yet at the same time he was massacring darker skin Haitians along the border in the thousands. Now, Raphael Trujillo is not hailed and glorified because of the former rescue; that rescue was put into context with his other misdeeds; but somehow there has been a perverse form of affirmative action afforded to the United States of America whereby there has emerged a one-sided analysis that has led many to glorify the United States because of the rescue of so many Europeans and the uplifting of the standard of living of so many Europeans while at the same time giving short shrift to the kinds of atrocities that were visited upon the indigenous and the Africans.
You note in the book that there was a cultural gulf between Londoners and colonists when it came to how they thought of people of African descent and slavery. What was the disconnect — and why do you think it existed?
To be fair, there were only about 15,000 Africans in London in the 1770s. They were not the essential component of the English economy nor the Scottish economy. The exploitation of Africans basically took place thousands of miles away. And thus it became easier, it seems to me, for Londoners to have a more civilized attitude. It became easier for William Hogarth, the painter, to invest Africans with a kind of humanity that was marginally absent in terms of the consideration and contemplation of many in the colonies. And I think this also helps to generate the schism between the metropolis London and the mainland provinces that ultimately leads to an eruption causing a unilateral declaration of independence in July 1776. Increasingly, Londoners were coming to see the colonists as being rather uncivilized with regard to their maltreatment of Africans. This was particularly the case when the colonists showed up in London itself and would engage in beating enslaved Africans on the streets of London and this did not go down very well amongst the Londoners. It did not go down very well amongst the British subjects, generally. I do think that this is a factor amongst many that creates this yawning gap — in some cases wider than the Atlantic Ocean — between the colonies, on the one hand, and the colonial master in London, on the other.
Did you find anything in your research that might explain why, exactly, most historians up to now haven't fully integrated slavery into their analysis of the Revolution?
I think historians have really downplayed the amount of unrest amongst slaves in the colonies — that is to say, in the 13 colonies that formed the United States of America. Even today, if you look at the historiography, there is an ongoing tendency to really downplay the unrest amongst the Africans. There are historians who are earning good livings by seeking to show, for example, that a number of slave revolts really weren’t slave revolts. They were basically hallucinations on the part of slave masters, guilty fears on the part of slave masters. There has been a lot invested in suggesting that these ancestors of today’s African-Americans were not very restive. I’ll leave it to future scholars to try to puzzle out why that has been the case.
Secondly, I think that historians of colonial North America too often have looked at colonial history as sort of pre-U.S. history. That is to say, when they look at colonial history they only look at the 13 colonies; they don’t look at Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados; they don’t look at what was going on there even though these sites were all a part of one empire, even though there was a lot of back-and-forth between those islands and the North American mainland, even though all of them were administered from London, even though a number of leading colonists on the mainland were either born or spent time in the Caribbean (Alexander Hamilton quickly comes to mind but there are many more), even though in the Caribbean there were — even more so than on the mainland — repetitive plots to liquidate the settlements, which at once caused many of the Europeans to flee to the mainland and generated a sort of antipathy towards Africans, the fruits of which I think are still with us. So, I think that part of the problem with previous scholarship is a) as noted, the downplaying of restiveness among Africans on the mainland, and b) the sort of teleological approach where you don’t necessarily expand your gaze to look beyond the 13 colonies.
Was this slavery-based motivation for independence widespread, or were certain members of the founding generation more "counter-revolutionary," to use your language, than others?
The Virginians [were more counter-revolutionary] for sure. The Virginians were the locomotive of the revolt. The Virginians being Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington — all of the familiar figures, many of whom are on the currency in your wallet. I think that also reflects the fact that before the U.S. Civil War, Virginians and slaveowners dominated the White House and dominated the Congress. In other words, they set up a republic to serve their interests, which is wholly understandable. Of course, there are figures who were out of step with these Virginians, most of whom have received short shrift — I’m thinking of Thomas Payne in the first place, whose denunciation by figures like Theodore Roosevelt should not be repeated on a family-friendly website ...
We’re not that, so by all means …
[Laughs] Well, I’m still my mother’s son.
But in any case, I think that this is true even if you look at the figures who ... weren’t Virginians: John Hancock, for example, was a leading slaveholder in Boston, Massachusetts. John Adams, who was the second president, was a leading lawyer and propagandist for slaveowners. But, to repeat, Virginians were the driving force behind this revolt. And when you consider the Virginians, you have to also consider Lord Dunmore, who is a well-known figure in terms of this period. He was the last colonial governor of Virginia and in many ways exemplified the worst nightmare for many of the settlers by seeking to arm the Africans to help to squash an incipient revolt. But Lord Dunmore was not alone. What helps to encourage North Carolina settlers to revolt was the fact that their last colonial governor, Governor Martin, was also accused of acting similarly, and the fact that Governor Martin had had previous experience at Antigua, which was notorious for slave revolts, gave sustenance to this idea that he would engage in the darkest of betrayals by arming Africans to squash the revolt of British subjects.
This brings me to my other point, which is that in order for British subjects to revolt against the crown, it takes something extraordinary. This is not an everyday occurrence. But what I try to outline and suggest is that what was pushing the settlers toward revolt was what I call “The Black Scare.” That is to say, that this fear that armed Africans would come down like a ton of bricks on their head. And this was not necessarily a hallucination because, as pointed out in the book, the Spanish had been arming Africans since the 1500s and from Spanish Florida had been repeatedly raiding colonial South Carolina to great effect ... Indeed going back to the English Civil War in the mid-17th century, you had the Africans involved in that conflict. And when London, the British Empire, had begun to absorb defeat at the hands of the Spanish — which was limiting the territorial expansion of the British Empire — this was not only giving substance to the idea that perhaps the better part of colonial wisdom was to arm Africans, but also it was giving a jolt of adrenaline to the abolitionist movement, which was growing by leaps and bounds in London at the same time.
So would it be right to say that, for people in the U.K. and in the colonies, Africans and slaves played a much larger role in the development of the revolution than what most of us are taught today?
It is correct. We oftentimes lose sight of the demographics [and] how in numerous precincts on the North American mainland, Africans wildly outnumbered Europeans ... When you combine the Native American population with that of the African population, you begin to get an idea of what I mean when I say there’s this fear, if not hysteria, about arming Africans to squash revolts of European settlers.
This ties to my other point, which is that, in order to understand the particular scenario that I just outlined, it’s also useful to understand ... that in order to attract Europeans to what was ultimately a riotous war zone — I’m speaking of colonial America, particularly the 13 colonies — there had to be emollients, there had to be inducements, there had to be enticements. Now, of course, land taken from the Native Americans, stocked with Africans, was one; but there are other inducements as well.
If you're right and if the U.S. was largely founded in defense of slavery rather than in the name of liberty — if that kind of white supremacy is so embedded in our very beginnings — how is it that descendants of slaves were ever able to claim greater rights, first by ending slavery and then dismantling Jim Crow?
I think that there’s a lesson here, and it is that, historically — before the crumbling of Jim Crow in the 1950s — black Americans had sought out allies, beginning with the Spanish in the late 17th century and then the British from the late 18th century until the U.S. Civil War. And then, in the succeeding decades, sought alliances with Mexico, with India (as exemplified by the figure of Martin Luther King Jr. and his creative adaptation of the Indian passive resistance movement) and the African Liberation Movement and on to the present. So I think that there, too, lie lessons as well, particularly for contemporary political activists, who have an anti-racist agenda in mind. Seek allies ... try to lengthen the battlefield, so to speak, and not just be limited to those who carry blue U.S. passports in terms of trying to forge social change and political transformation in the United States.