Gerald Horne’s “The Counter-Revolution of 1776”

Gerald Horne’s basic thesis is implicit in his title: the real revolution of the 1770s was the British turn against slavery represented by the Somerset case of 1772, and the rebellion in the North American colonies was a counter-revolutionary reaction to that revolution

Like all monocausal theories invoked to explain complex historic events, Horne’s theory does not convince. It does not help his case that he explicitly throws in the towel on page 4 of his “Introduction”:

“Assuredly, as with any epochal event, the ouster of London from a number of its North American colonies was driven by many forces—not just slavery and the slavery trade—a point I well recognize.”

But he doesn’t really mean it. His final chapter is “The Counter-Revolution of 1776.” Evaluating his claim is important because it is the foundation for a subtext that runs through the book denigrating the Declaration of Independence, both the document and the action.

To have a counter-revolution you must first have a revolution.

Horne asserts that the revolution was embodied in the decision rendered in June of 1772 by Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of Great Britain, in the case of Somerset v Stuart. Somerset was Stuart’s Negro slave, purchased in Virginia and brought to England. Somerset was a troublesome slave, so Stuart planned to sell him in Jamaica, and to that end had him shackled aboard a ship for transportation. Anti-slavery activists obtained a writ of habeas corpus. Somerset was released, and Stuart sought to assert his rights as owner in the English courts.

Lord Mansfield was acutely aware of the significance of any decision he made, and he urged the parties to settle to avoid the consequences. The parties pushed for a decision, and after a month of deliberation Lord Mansfield delivered his decision. The crucial passage is the following:

“The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law [statute], which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case [Stuart’s claim to Somerset] is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”

Technically this decision is very narrow, applying only to the case of James Somerset. It does not outlaw or ban slavery in England. It says only that nothing in English law supports slavery.

Does the Somerset decision mark a “revolution”?

As early as 1693 the Quakers of Pennsylvania began to question the morality of slavery. In that year An Exhortation & Caution to Friends Concerning the Buying or Keeping of Negroes was published by the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting. In 1702 the Lord Chief Justice of England, Sir John Holt, stated that “as soon as a negro comes to England he is free; one may be a villein in England, but not a slave.” (However, slaves continued to be bought and sold at markets in Liverpool and London.)

In 1758 the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting appointed a committee to “visit those Friends still holding slaves.” (, 27 March 2015). 1775 saw the organization of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

In 1778 Virginia outlawed the importation of slaves. In 1790 Vermont organized itself with a constitution prohibiting slavery, and by 1804 every state north of the Mason-Dixon Line (the southern border of Pennsylvania) had decreed the end of slavery, all be it effective at various future dates. In 1807 the United States outlawed the importation of slaves, effective January 1, 1808, the earliest date possible under the Constitution. England moved to abolish the slave trade in 1807, with an effective date in 1814. Slavery itself was not abolished by England until 1833.

Where along this historic continuum did a “revolution” occur

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Somerset’s case was that it was the first major direct clash between slavers and abolitionists as self-identified interest groups: Somerset was supported by early English abolitionists and Stuart’s action was funded by “West Indian Planters and Merchants.”  Both sides were already organized for the fight.

The decision’s great power resides, however, less in the legal pronouncement than in the moral condemnation of slavery on which the decision is based:  “It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law [i.e. statute].” And no such positive law existed in England. Somerset was freed.

To reinforce his “counter-revolution” argument, Horne associates it with the proclamation in late 1775 by Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, to free and arm any slave who would join the English in controlling the colonists. That was a disastrous mistake, but in any case the revolution was well advanced by then. As the Declaration of Independence stated in 1776, “These United Colonies ARE [emphasis added], and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” (Horne repeatedly uses as a contemptuous sneer the term “Unilateral Declaration of Independence,” as if any self-respecting declaration of independence could be anything but unilateral.) The Boston Tea Party was held in 1773, and by the time of Lord Dunmore’s edict, the Continental Army (such as it was) was besieging Boston, whose port had been closed by the British Navy since 1774. The battles of Lexington and Concord had occurred in April of 1775. And by January of 1776 not one royal governor was sitting on American soil; several remained nearby aboard British men-of-war (as was true of Lord Dunmore), but none was effectively governing.

And in June 1772 occurred the Gaspee Affair, which Horne discusses briefly but incorrectly. The H.M.S. Gaspee was a British customs schooner (not “a brig arrived from Africa,” as Horne has it, implying that it might have been a slaver) under the command of Lt. William Dudingston. Since early in the year, Dudingston had patrolled the waters of Rhode Island, irritating powerful merchants by seizing their ships and cargos (usually sugar, molasses, or rum) and irritating everyone, from the governor on down, with his arrogant manner and abusive behavior. A series of escalating incidents led, in June of 1772, to a sloop called the Hannah luring the Gaspee into shallow waters, where it ran aground. After  midnight, when the moon had set, a well organized force of colonials boarded the vessel, plundered it (even stealing its silver spoons), rowed the crew to shore, then set fire to the ship, which was utterly destroyed.

American colonists were thus well on their way to revolution in June of 1772, the same month as the Somerset decision. The Somerset decision may have been a revolutionary step in the emergence of abolitionism, but the American Revolution was in no meaningful sense a counter-revolution against it. Our Revolution did not occur on July 4, 1776. The cultural revolution that made independence imperative had been under way for a generation or more (see, for example, Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution). The Declaration’s second paragraph articulated the political philosophy that had emerged from those changes.

The truly fatal flaw in Horne’s argument, however, is this: both the abolition movement and the colonists’ declaration of their independence were integral parts of the long historical process in which monarchy and hereditary hierarchy were giving way to the more fluid, individualized culture of the modern world. That revolution started long before 1776, and it remains an ongoing exploration of the meaning of human political equality. We don’t have it right yet, but the process is still at work.

In dealing with American history it is good to join Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and “become acquainted with ambivalences.”

This entry was posted in Book Review, Declaration of Independence, Equality, Human Rights, Inequality and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Gerald Horne’s “The Counter-Revolution of 1776”

  1. If 1776 was a counter revolution to maintain slavery in the 13 colonies why didn’t the British subjects in the Caribbean also revolt as slavery was even more important to their economies?

    • Gene, Thanks for the comment. It’s a good question. My guess would be that the very small English population in the islands made any thoughts of independence hopeless. They depended on the British navy for protection from the French and Spanish. They also lacked the leavening influence of New England–it was Boston that precipitated the crisis.

      I’ve taken a quick look at your site. Quite impressive. I need to give it more time at a later date.

      Are you a Vermonter by origin? I lived in Newport 1943-1951 and have borne the mark ever since.

      Dick Baldwin

      • Dick. Thanks for your response. I’m not a native Vermonter but used to own a second home in the Mad River Valley. I’ve spent a lot of time in the state and it feels like home. Hope you enjoy my site!

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