by Ellen Isaacs
Was the American Revolution really a noble fight for liberty and justice as we are taught in school? Or was the major reason behind the revolt that England, the mother country, was trying to limit slavery in the colonies by increasing taxes on those in bondage and limit westward expansion onto native lands? In Gerald Horne’s book, The Counterrevolution of 1776:Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, he makes a powerful case for this explanation. “Ironically, the founders of the republic have been hailed and lionized… for-–in effect–creating the first apartheid state(p3).”
Horne does not portray the British as any more noble than the Americans, but only as perceiving their interests differently as 1776 approached. Indeed England had participated heavily in the slave trade from the mid 1600s and imported Africans to its colonies in the Caribbean and on the American mainland. Britain was especially invested in the sugar plantations in Barbados and Jamaica, where slavery was particularly brutal.
In addition, England was involved in ongoing competition with Spain and France, who also had territory in the New World and were rivals for trade, the cause of periodic wars such as the Seven Years War from 1756-63. A shortage of white soldiers from England or the American colonies who were willing to enlist and stay the course to fight these conflicts caused a growing British reliance on black soldiers. They, in turn, needed to be promised something more than a return to brutal captivity in order to fight reliably. England was also busy expanding its empire, most notably to India. Therefore, as the 1700s progressed, the British were anxious to mitigate the cruelty of slavery, as well as limit the growing expense of protecting slave owners or traders from rebellions and westward moving settlers from Native Americans.
Slavery in the future U.S. had several important aspects. One, of course, was that it underlay the purposeful development of anti-black racism in order to justify its existence and separate slaves from poor white indentured servants and farmers (see article by Lerone Bennett on our blog). Second, it was massively profitable to the slave traders and the plantation owners, rising to 60% of the national income (see Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told:The Making of American Capitalism). Lastly, the huge slave population, often in alliance with Native Americans and sometimes poor whites, was a source of constant rebellion and threat to the white owners. Caribbean revolts were the most frequent and successful since the proportion of blacks to whites was the greatest. In Jamaica many escaped slaves lived as a free and hostile force in mountains, foreshadowing the eventual successful slave rebellion in Haiti, begun in 1791 and won in 1804.
Even on the mainland, especially in the South, as the numbers of slaves grew, so did the problem of controlling their efforts to be free. However, the profitability of slavery was so great that the colonists were willing to discount the risks. New England, especially Rhode Island, where slave importation was greatest, felt slavery was essential to its prosperity, with profits up to 1600%. The cotton and tobacco industries of the South, of course, could not exist without slavery. In fact, “The enormous influx of Africans laid the foundation for the concomitant growth of capitalism”(p7). As production and wealth grew in the colonies, so did their trade with England’s Spanish and French enemies, all in the name of more wealth.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and John Hancock, slave holders or traders all, and slavery supporters Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, and James Madison were among those promoters of independence who resented taxes waged by London to pay for its wars and to limit slave importation. These taxes were increasing in the 1760-70s to pay for the Seven Year War and as a policy to slow down the slave trade. To justify the war for independence and the right to continue slavery, the founding fathers composed a Declaration asserting the inalienable rights of man. As one Britisher put it, “one would imagine that the Parliament of Great Britain…had treated the rebels with as great cruelty and as much injustice as they [rebels] treat their Negro slaves(p238).”
Of course, despite the participation of many black troops in the North and the South, who fought against the colonists, the British were vanquished and slavery flourished for another eighty years. Black labor was again enslaved by criminalization and terrorization after the Civil War and through Jim Crow. Now we are in the era of mass incarceration and discrimination in wages and services, all for the enrichment of capitalism. Despite this history of the torture and exploitation of blacks in America, this blog has continually argued that white workers are only fooled if they feel benefited. Indeed, in both England and America, abolitionists played an important role in opposing slavery from a moral point of view. From the 1600s through the Civil War, they helped end this barbarous practice and thousands fought to the death in our 1860s conflict. But today, we must still fight racism together. Not only are wages and services decreased for all by the degradation of blacks, as well as Latinos and immigrants, but we are separated and weakened from fighting back together – the only way to win a decent life for all.