“I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America, if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery.” — Marquis de Lafayette, French military leader who was instrumental in enlisting French support for the colonists in the American War of Independence
Historians have long grappled with the contradiction of a revolution under the banner of “all men are created equal” being largely led by slave owners. Once free of England, the US grew over the next 89 years to be the largest slave-owning republic in history. But the July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence was in itself a revolutionary document. Never before in history had people asserted the right of revolution–not just to overthrow a specific government that no longer met the needs of the people, but as a general principle for the relationship between the rulers and the ruled: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government…”
And yes, “ all men are created equal” excluded women, black people and the indigenous populations of the continent, and was written by slave owner Thomas Jefferson with all his personal hypocrisies. But the words themselves have been used many times since to challenge racism and other forms of domination and inequality. Both the 1789 French Revolution and the 1804 Haitian revolution–the only successful slave revolt in human history–drew inspiration from this clarion call. In 1829 black abolitionist David Walker threw the words of the Declaration back in the face of the slave republic : “See your declarations Americans !!! Do you understand your own language ?” The 1848 Seneca Falls women’s rights convention issued a Declaration of Sentiments proclaiming that “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal”. Vietnam used these very words in declaring independence from France in 1946. And as ML King stated in his 1963 I have a Dream Speech, it was “a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Americans are taught to see the birth of our country as a gift to the world, even when its original defects are acknowledged. The Declaration along with the Constitution are pillars of American Exceptionalism–the belief that the U.S. is superior and different than all others, holding the promise of an “Asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty” in the words of Thomas Paine. Historian Gary Nash has made a case that upon winning independence, the conditions for at least the gradual abolition of slavery throughout the 13 colonies were present but lacked political leadership. “One of the lessons of history is that in cases where a fundamental change has been accomplished against heavy odds, inspired leadership has been critically important” and “Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were strategically positioned to take the lead on the slavery issue. All three professed a hatred of slavery and a fervent desire to see it ended in their own time.” (The Forgotten Fifth, 91, 95 ). For all their lofty rhetoric, none of them lifted a finger to bring that about. Perhaps though a different question might be asked : what if the British had won, had defeated the colonists’ bid to break from the mother country ? Is it possible that the cause of freedom and the ideals of the Declaration would have been paradoxically better served by that outcome?
England’s Victory Over France Had Unintended Consequnces
It was, ironically, England’s victory over France for control of the North American continent in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) that laid the basis for their North American colonies to revolt just 13 years later. As the war with France ended, the British 1763 Proclamation prohibited white settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains in an attempt at detente with Native Americans – bringing England into conflict with colonists wanting to expand westward. More serious still were the series of taxes England imposed on the colonies to pay off its large war debt : the 1765 Stamp Act, the 1767-1770 Townshend Acts, and the 1773 Tea Acts among others. As colonial leaders mounted increasingly militant resistance to these measures, so too did British repression ramp up.
And while “No taxation without representation” and opposition to British tyranny are the two most commonly cited causes propelling the colonists’ drive for independence, recent scholarship (Slave Nation by Ruth and Alfred Blumrosen, and Gerald Horne’s The Counter-Revolution of 1776 in particular) has revealed a heretofore unacknowledged third major motivating force –the preservation and protection of slavery itself. In 1772, the highest British court ruled in the Somerset decision that slave owners had no legal rights of ownership of other humans in England itself, declaring slavery to be “Odious”. Somerset eliminated any possibility of a de jure defense of slavery in England, further reinforced by Parliament refusing a request at the time by British slave owners to pass such a law. While Somerset did not apply to England’s colonies, it was taken by southern colonists as a potential threat to their slave power. Their fear was further reinforced by England’s final say over any laws in the colonies as made explicit in the 1766 Declaratory Act and the “Repugnancy” clause in each colony’s charter. Somerset added fuel to the growing fires uniting the colonies against England in a fight for independence.
Among the list of grievances in the Declaration is the rarely scrutinized “He [referring to the king] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us”. This grievance was motivated by Virginia Royal Governor Lord Dunmore’s November 1775 proclamation stating that any person held as a slave by a colonist in rebellion against England would become free by joining the British forces in subduing the revolt. While 5,000 mainly free Black people from northern colonies joined with the colonists’ fight for independence, few of our school books teach that tens of thousands more enslaved black people joined with the British, with an even greater number taking advantage of the war to escape the colonies altogether by running to Canada or Florida. They saw they had a better shot at “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” with the British than with their colonial slave masters. General George Washington never matched the British proclamation by offering to free slaves who joined his Continental Army.
To further put these numbers in perspective, the total population of the 13 colonies at the time was 2.5 million, of whom 500,000 were slaves and indentured servants. While there is some debate about the numbers, an estimated 25,000 slaves escaped from South Carolina, 30,000 from Virginia, and 5,000 from Georgia. Among them were 30 of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, 20 of George Washington’s, and good ole “Give me liberty or give me death” Patrick Henry also lost his slave Ralph Henry to the Brits. It was the first mass emancipation in American history. Evidently “domestic insurrection” was legitimate when led by slave owners against England but not when enslaved people rose up for their freedom—against the rebelling slave owners !
Before There Was Harriet Tubman There was Colonel Tye
Crispus Attucks is often hailed as the first martyr of the American revolution, a free black man killed defying British authority in the 1770 Boston Massacre. But few have heard of Titus, who just 5 years later was among those thousands of slaves who escaped to the British lines. He became known as Colonel Tye for his military prowess in leading black and white guerrilla fighters in numerous raids throughout Monmouth County New Jersey, taking reprisals against slave owners, freeing their slaves, destroying their weaponry and creating an atmosphere of fear among the rebel colonists–and hope among their slaves. Other black regiments under the British fought with ribbons emblazoned across their chests saying “Liberty to Slaves “.
One might compare Col. Tye to Attucks but if Attucks is a hero, what does that make Tye, who freed hundreds of slaves? Perhaps a more apt comparison is with Harriet Tubman who escaped slavery in 1849 and returned to the South numerous times to also free hundreds of her brothers and sisters held in bondage.
So What if the British had won ?
At no point though did the British declare the end of slavery to be a war goal; it was always just a military measure. But if the Brits had won, as they came close to doing, it might well have set off a series of events that went beyond their control. Would England have been able to restore slavery in the 13 colonies in the face of certain anti-slavery resistance by the tens of thousands of now free ex-slaves, joined by growing anti-slavery forces in the northern colonies ? As Alan Gilbert puts it in Black Patriots and Loyalists, “Class and race forged ties of solidarity in opposition to both the slave holders and the colonial elites.” Another sure ally would have been the abolitionist movement in England which had been further emboldened by the 1772 Somerset decision. And if England had to abolish slavery in the 13 colonies, would that not have led to a wave of emancipations throughout the Caribbean and Latin America?
And just what was the cost of the victorious independence struggle to the black population? To the indigenous populations who were described in that same grievance in the Declaration as “The merciless Indian Savages”? Might it have been better for the cause of freedom if the colonists lost ? And if the colonists had lost, wouldn’t the ideals of the Declaration of Independence have carried just as much if notmore weight ?
We do know however the cost of the colonists’ victory: once independence was won, while the northern states gradually abolished slavery, slavery boomed in the South. The first federal census in 1790 counted 700,000 slaves. By 1810, two years after the end of the slave trade, there were 1.2 million slaves, a 70% increase. England ended slavery in all its colonies in 1833, when there were 2 million people held as slaves in the U.S. Slavery in the US continued for another 33 years, during which time the slave population doubled to 4 million human beings. The US abolished slavery in 1865; only Cuba and Brazil ended slavery at a later date. And the colonists’ victory also further opened the gates to the attempted genocide of the indigenous peoples over the next 125 years.
The foregoing is not meant to romanticize and project England as some kind of abolitionist savior had they kept control of the colonies. Dunmore himself was a slave owner. England was the center of the international slave trade. Despite losing the 13 colonies, and its defeat in Haiti, England maintained its position as the most powerful and rapacious empire in the world until the mid-20th century. As England did away with chattel slavery, it replaced it with the capitalist wage slavery of the industrial revolution. It used food as a weapon to starve the Irish, conquered and colonized large swaths of Asia, Africa and the Pacific.
We often see the outcomes of history as predetermined, as inevitabilities, and think there were no other outcomes possible. We look back 240 years later and for most it seems unquestionable that the American revolution was good for the world, a step, perhaps somewhat tortured , towards progress and freedom. But as historian Gerald Horne puts it, “ Simply because Euro-American colonists prevailed in their establishing of the U.S. , it should not be assumed that this result was inevitable. History points to other possibilities.”
The American Revolution was not just a war for independence from England. It was also a battle for freedom against the very leaders of that rebellion by hundreds of thousands of enslaved black people, a class struggle of poor white tenant farmers in many cases also against that same white colonial elite, and a fight for survival of the indigenous populations. But the colonists’ unlikely victory was to lead to the creation of the largest slave nation in history, the near genocide of indigenous populations and a continent-wide expansion gained by invading and taking over half of Mexico. The US went on to become an empire unparalleled in history, its wealth origins rooted largely in slave labor. The struggles for equality and justice for all that the Declaration promised continues of course, a task that remains undone, Martin Luther King’s promissory note unfulfilled to this day.
The late Chinese Premier Chou en Lai was once asked his assessment as to whether the French revolution was a step forward in history. His response was “It’s too soon to tell”. Was the founding of the United States a step forward in history? Or is it still too soon to tell ?
Keith Brooks is a long time political activist and organizer and recently retired NYC high school educator. He has been published in the Nation, Baltimore Sun, Amsterdam News, and other progressive and mainstream venues. This essay is from a book Keith is writing, MythAmerica