A new book on black Americans in the revolutionary war of independence reveals the contradictory nature of bourgeois revolution, and rescues forgotten heroes of liberation, argues Neil Faulkner.
Edward Countryman, Enjoy the Same Liberty: Black Americans and the Revolutionary Era (Rowman and Littlefield 2011), xxvi, 187pp.
The American Revolution (1775-1783) had two quite contrary effects on the condition of black people. On the one hand, it ‘opened the way for the strongest slave regime in world history to assemble itself, entirely on its own terms, across the American South’. On the other, it showed that ‘the whole principle of human slavery could be challenged’, such that the revolution meant ‘that slavery’s destruction was about to begin’ (p.28).
With this sharp insight, the fruit of exhaustive scholarship, Edward Countryman, Professor of American History at Southern Methodist University, captures the contradictory essence of America’s long-drawn-out bourgeois revolution. It is a drama in two and a half acts. The American Revolution made the United States an independent country. The American Civil War abolished chattel slavery inside that country. And the Civil Rights Movement turned black Americans into equal citizens.
What Countryman has shown is that there is a black thread running through the whole story right back to its beginnings. The position of black people turns out to be a central question at every stage; a measure of the completeness of the revolution at each and every moment. He demonstrates that what black people did, what gains they made, what standing they achieved alongside other Americans has always been the barometer of progress.
The historiography of the bourgeois revolution is endlessly rich because the revolution itself is so profoundly complex. The proletarian revolution is a revolt from below by the great majority against exploitation, oppression, and violence. The aim is simple enough: smash the state, dispossess the ruling class, and establish the democratic control of working people over economy and society. The proletarian revolution is sharply dichotomous: it is a direct, head-on collision between the haves and have-nots.
The bourgeois revolution is never like that. Always messy, it involves both action from above and struggle from below, and it proceeds jerkily, like a car kangarooing down the road. That is because the contradiction between the main protagonists – monarchy and aristocracy on one side, bourgeoisie on the other – is not unbridgeable. The bourgeoisie, as a property-owning class, is both linked to the old regime by a thousand threads, and always more frightened of revolt from below than of reaction.
The hesitancy, the compromises, the lurching forwards then drawing back, all have their roots in the simple fact that a mill-owner has more in common with a landlord than he does with a factory hand. Revolution is always a last resort, because its very essence is that it destroys the state machine on which the defence of property ultimately depends.
Indeed, when we peer closely at the mechanics of bourgeois revolution, we find that the true agents of change are not bourgeois at all. The Dutch Anabaptists were cobblers, weavers, and bargemen. Cromwell’s Ironsides were recruited from yeomen farmers. And, as Edward Countrymen revealed in his earlier book, The American Revolution (IB Tauris 1985), the Sons of Liberty were more likely to be ‘mechanics’ than merchants, more often farmers from the Vermont backcountry than plantation-owners on the Virginia tidewater.
It is clearest in the Great French Revolution. Without the peasant revolution, the Royalists would have recruited armies in the countryside with which to crush the towns. However, even in the towns, it was not the grandees of merchant capital who drove things forward: they had too much to lose. Nor was it even the lawyers, journalists, and teachers of the Jacobin Club: career professionals, they were cautious in a crisis. It was the sans-culottes, the urban petty-bourgeoisie of artisans and small traders, organised in plebeian clubs and local assemblies, who formed the revolutionary vanguard.
Countryman’s mission in his new book is to reveal more of the makers of the American Revolution than we have seen before, and to discover among them black Americans, women and men, slaves and free, entering for the first time in the shaping of their own destiny. That they did this in the face the cruellest oppression and racism makes it remarkable that they were so many. Enjoy the Same Liberty meshes together four big themes: the size and expansion of the American slave dominion; the process of its disintegration; the way in which the self-activity of black Americans shaped that process; and how it began in the furnace of the American Revolution itself.
‘Slavery bound the whole colonized western hemisphere together,’ explains Countryman, ‘whatever the language, nationality, and religion of the Europeans. Western hemisphere slavery wove several separate strands into a distinctively American pattern. One strand in that pattern was the sociological condition of slavery, which meant the loss of all past and future, all property and family, and all honor. For social purposes, a slave was dead ... A second thread in the pattern was plantation economics, as some human beings forced others to produce luxury or exotic crops for a booming world of commerce, consumption, and merchant capitalism. The only reward the producers would get was being allowed to live ... Slaves grew, harvested, and processed sugar, coffee, tobacco, rice, indigo, and, eventually, cotton as cash crops’ (p.19).
Thus was slavery the living heart of the eighteenth-century Atlantic mercantile economy. Every major city on the seaboard was in some sense a slave port, every merchant captain a dealer in the products of slave labour. The profits were astronomical, the slave interest all-powerful, and, in consequence, racism was seared onto the social order and the body politic like the mark of a branding iron. ‘As western hemisphere slavery developed,’ says Countryman, ‘it fused together social degradation, plantation production, and the beginnings of the idea of race ...’ (p.27).
And yet the struggle to destroy slavery had already begun. In 1760, slavery existed everywhere across colonial America. By 1800, it was dead in New England and dying across the North. In between was the Revolution. When Lincoln, more than half a century later, said that a house divided cannot stand, he was talking about a division forged in revolution three generations prior.
Many slaves won their freedom by rallying to the Union Jack. Here was the Achilles’ heel of the bourgeois revolution revealed: it could not unite the oppressed behind its banner because it was led by exploiters. Nonetheless some, perhaps around 5,000 in all, fought as Americans in the armies of the Revolution. They made a bolder and more radical choice. As Countryman explains it, ‘the people who joined the American army, or who stayed when they could have left, were making a riskier bet for higher stakes. Their wager was that they could build lives of their own in the only land they really knew, and strike at the institution of slavery within the emerging American republic’ (p.56).
For many, the wager paid richly. Most revolutionaries – ordinary white Americans who did their own work – were no great friends of slavery. Often enough, the plantation lords were class enemies, conservative grandees hostile to democracy, if not outright pro-British loyalists. In so far as mechanics and small farmers were free to decide, the Revolution might mean abolition. In the vanguard were the working people of Vermont. In 1777, Vermont had torn itself way from New York in resistance to the latter state’s conservative ruling elite. The Vermonters immediately proclaimed a principle which echoed around the western hemisphere as a clarion call of emancipation: ‘no male person, born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person, as a servant, slave, or apprentice, after he arrives to the age of twenty-one years, nor female, in like manner, after she arrives to the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their own consent’ (p.64).
There it was: any black slave that passed the border of Vermont passed from the reach of the slave-lords to an island of freedom. Others soon followed where Vermont had blazed a trail. Legal action by slaves themselves saw slavery abolished in Massachusetts in 1783 by juridical decision. New England became the great bastion of abolition. But the example of Vermont would spread far further. The pioneers who settled the Mid West carried the working people’s tradition of rugged individualism and personal freedom with them, and as new states were formed, they came into the Union as free states.
Yet the slave empire was also growing. Notwithstanding the Declaration of Independence’s unequivocal proclamation that ‘all men are created equal’ and that ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ are every man’s birthright, slavery permeated and poisoned the Constitution, creating space for the slave-lords to expand their dominion. That space was fully exploited as early nineteenth-century industrialisation created a mass market for cotton just as the spinning-jenny revolutionised its processing. The southern planter-aristocracy grew rich and powerful, and, as James McPherson has shown in his outstanding study of the Civil War period, became giddy with ambition to extend the realm of slavery west and south, and at the same time raucous and pushy in demands for the constitutional entrenchment of their ‘peculiar institution’.
Slaves, free blacks, and white abolitionists fought back. The Haitian Revolution – when a slave army had defeated the French and the British to create a nation of free black smallholders – was the stuff of folk tales in the slave-huts of Southern cotton plantations. Abolitionist papers and pamphlets – like Freedom’s Journal, the first black-owned and black-produced paper in US history, which ran for two years from March 1827 to April 1829 – spread the message. The Underground Railway, operated by free blacks and white radicals, conveyed fugitives from South to North, sometimes all the way to Canada, beyond the reach of the Fugitive Slave Law.
Slaves even mounted desperate, doomed insurrections, the biggest that of Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. The retribution was savage, and repression tightened across the South, with a regime of surveillance, racism, and punishment that seemed to close off the route to emancipation through revolution from below. Some looked to repatriation as the solution. It was, of course, a delusion and a trap, turning radical minds from revolution to flight. David Walker, a free black from North Carolina born as the Revolution ended, probably did more than any other to reset the focus. His book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1830), ‘went through three editions in just one year. Free black people in the North devoured it. Seafarers smuggled copies into Southern ports, sewn into the cheap clothing they bought at Walker’s shop. The mayor of Savannah read the book and wrote in outrage to his Boston counterpart, asking that he silence Walker’ (pp.119-20).
Amongst other things, Walker quoted Richard Allen, another black activist, saying, ‘this land which we have watered with our tears and our blood is now our mother country and we are well satisfied to stay’ (p.119). So it was to be. Allen, Walker, Frederick Douglas, and many more black activists standing foursquare in the tradition of the Revolution, charted the course. Such men, says Countryman, were ‘unimaginable without what the Revolution had achieved, however incomplete it was’ (p.122). Black women, too, helped point the way; women like Phillis Wheatley, a black slave poet in pre-Revolutionary Boston, and Elizabeth Freeman, who fought a three-decade legal battle to win her freedom in protest against the violence of her slave mistress.
Countryman has brought the black activists of the pre-Civil War era into the light of day. He has revealed the precursors of the 200,000 black men who fought for the Union in the 1860s, and the hundreds of thousands of black men and women who marched for civil rights in the 1960s. The struggle is unfinished – the US remains a deeply racist society – but great gains have been made, and the black Americans who have done so much to make those gains, can now trace a line right back to 1775 and before.
As Countryman concludes: ‘the black Americans who began to force slavery open during the founding era, and the black Americans ever since then who have struggled, protested, and fought whenever the country has backslid, deserve as much honor as anybody in the pages of American history. None have earned such honor against greater odds’ (p.124).
Edward Countryman’s two books, The American Revolution and Enjoy the Same Liberty, each of them concise, packed with insight, and beautifully written, provide the essential introduction to pre-Civil War US history. They also offer sturdy antidotes to the miserable ‘revisionism’ currently so fashionable in mainstream academic discussion of the bourgeois revolutions, a revisionism whose main effect is to write the common people out of history and deny their struggles the earth-shaking significance they sometimes have.
To read Enjoy the Same Liberty is to meet the ordinary men and women, white and black, free and slave, who made a reality of their rulers’ claim that ‘all men are created equal’. And it is in meeting them that we discover how the Revolution and the Civil War were won.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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