The American Revolution from an Anti-Racist Viewpoint
by Haider A. Khan
Although far more Blacks fought on the British side in the U.S. War of Independence, those Africans that sided with George Washington turned out to be his best soldiers. The white settlers won, but Blacks lost. “If the American Revolution had liberated slaves not only in the North but also in the South, its model might have inspired social revolution.”
The American Revolution from an Anti-Racist Viewpoint
by Haider A. Khan
Review: Alan Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.
“The failure of rebels from below to force gradual emancipation in the American South crippled the first revolution’s international impact.”
The story of the American Revolution has been told many times. Yet until Gilbert’s book about looking at the role of black escape from slavery and recruitment to the American and British sides it has been virtually unknown how the blacks became the leading fighters at Yorktown and gave their lives to secure freedom for the US. This is a forgotten and perhaps never-told-before tale. As Hilary Putnam of Harvard has written: “Most of us think we know the story of the American Revolution, but after reading Alan Gilbert's amazing book I realize that what most of us know is less than half of the story. Gilbert's account rests on years of careful research, and on the ability to keep track of events whose actors were moved by complex and often contradictory motives. Gilbert shows that there were two revolutions going on in the American colonies at the same time: the revolution for independence, that succeeded, and a black revolution for emancipation whose goal was not achieved until decades later. And Gilbert shows how the consequences of the “forgotten” black revolution extended far beyond those years, and beyond American shores, to Canada, to Sierra Leone in Africa, as well as to the liberation of Haiti from France, and reinforced the struggle for abolition of slavery in the British Empire that was to succeed in 1833. This is an important book as well as an attractively written example of significant and morally engaged scholarship.”
“There were two revolutions going on in the American colonies at the same time.”
After reading the book from cover-to-cover, one has to agree with Putnam’s assessment.
The book plays on many registers – from the domestic scenes of revolutionary wars to the democratic internationalist resonances of the second American revolution. As the historian Gary Nash has put it: “Alan Gilbert has deftly welded together the white American political revolution for independence with the black American social revolution for freedom from slavery. In exploiting a wide range of primary sources, he has given voice to the thousands of enslaved (and sometimes free) blacks who sought 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' with the British. Gilbert’s signal contribution to the fraught question of how many blacks fled to the British compels the attention of every student of the American Revolution.”
In nine beautifully written chapters the book covers a vast amount of archival research and critical scholarship. As a political theorist who has written about democratic individuality, the historical scholarship displayed in these pages have great theoretical reach and depth as well.
As Gilbert himself explains, describing both his research and his humanity: “I have no sympathy for racist idioms. I often question the language of those active in the events and subsequent historians. This history of two revolutions honors the efforts of blacks to free themselves, and of anti-racist whites, such as James Otis and John Laurens, to make American freedom genuine.... Hegel envisioned all history as the working out, in the social and political institutions of a state and internationally, the insight that all humans are free. These struggles illuminate his thought.” (p.xiii)
“He has given voice to the thousands of enslaved (and sometimes free) blacks who sought 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' with the British.”
It is important to remember this when reading Gilbert’s book. He has done painstaking historical research; but he does not pretend to be looking at these events with some artificial scholarly objectivity. Rather, what he shows is a kind of moral objectivity that celebrates the struggle of freedom because this type of moral realism can offer arguments for the existence and validity of freedom. More importantly, freedom is a human concern and all humans regardless of their origins, race or gender have an equal moral capacity for freedom. The tragic irony was that slavery was not abolished and the fight for freedom by the blacks and their allies would be long and hard, continuing on to the American Civil War and beyond.
As Gilbert perceptively points out, both Said’s and Foucault’s work give us an insight into how much underlying preconceptions – often not even articulated since these are taken to be common memories and common sense – and certainly never criticized, continue to dominate scholarship shaping our intellectual disciplines. Gilbert ably questions such prejudices. He does so with both great theoretical rigor and original archival historical research.
Chapter one sets the groundwork and describes the independence movement in Virginia and South Carolina. Chapter 3 looks at among other things the early anti- racist movement. Chapter 4 gets to the crux of the matter by describing how the black patriots were recruited to fight for freedom. Chapter 5 continues with the story of British recruitment. Chapters 6, 7 and 8 describe with great subtlety, the motivations, the events and processes and the postwar black search for freedom. Chapter 9, with its thesis of democratic internationalism, injects yet another significant and unremembered dimension of the Black fight for freedom.
“Slavery was not abolished and the fight for freedom by the blacks and their allies would be long and hard.”
Gilbert points out how the Dunmore declaration of emancipation in exchange for serving the British royalist cause unnerved George Washington and other thoughtful patriots. When in 1778, short of troops at Valley Forge, Rhode Island recruited the first all black and Narragansett Indian regiment, the fight for freedom in the New World took a new turn that could have led to early emancipation of slaves. Rhode Island freed slaves by compensating their owners. But no general emancipation took place. But for five years, these soldiers fought heroically, outperforming most Americans. Gilbert points out that “ In contrast, most whites served in militias for but ten months. Foreign observers like Baron von Closen recognized the First Rhode Island Regiment, accompanied by the Connecticut black regiment, as “the most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise in its maneuvers.”
However, as the book uncovers with great care, a general emancipation of slaves did not happen even as the British were defeated. Gilbert also leads the reader through a deep analysis of the causes.
The book well repays the patient reader with numerous insights. But for the present reviewer, chapter 9 is the most inspiring of all. This chapter, “Democratic Internationalism and the Seeds of Freedom,” begins with the end of the first American Revolution which really was also a temporary defeat of the fight for black emancipation. It quickly takes the reader through the ambiguities of “liberal” abolitionist movements and in Foucaultian terms, disciplinary proposals by Franklin and others before contrasting these in a sophisticated – many sided way – with genuine Democratic Internationalism and further revolts.
Gilbert’s balanced contrast between the American and the French Revolutions in their respective Democratic Internationalist aspects is particularly incisive: “The American Revolution had many features, including political institutions for popular influence, formally equal liberties, and judicial independence that others may have wisely adopted. If the American Revolution had liberated slaves not only in the North but also in the South, its model might have inspired social revolution ...” (AG:256)
“The first American Revolution was also a temporary defeat of the fight for black emancipation.”
Although people like Henri Christophe, who became a leading historical figure later in the Haitian revolution, fought in the American Revolution with the French and the patriots, “the failure of rebels from below to force gradual emancipation in the American South crippled the first revolution’s international impact.”
Gilbert contrasts this with Jacobins’ outlawing of slavery during the French Revolution throughout the French empire. The Haitian revolt led in 1800 to Gabriel’s revolt in Virginia. Thomas Jefferson, once the apostle of universal freedom was unnerved. As Gilbert puts it: “The sprouting of seeds of freedom in Haiti shocked Thomas Jefferson.
He had once admired the Shays’s Rebellion and had spoken of the need to water the tree of liberty every twenty years”with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Now he feared the insurrection in Saint Domingue against the French slave owners and encouraged reaction....” (AG:256)
It is appropriate here at the end to quote from Gilbert’s work a black leader of Gabriel’s Revolt in 1800, which nearly burned down Richmond, who remarked at his trial: “I have nothing more to say than what George Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put on trial. I have ventured my life in an endeavour to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice in their cause.” (Gilbert:257)
By rekindling such revolutionary memories, Gilbert not only has performed honestly and responsibly a historian’s duty, he has also placed the fight for freedom in its proper Democratic Internationalist context.
Haider A. Khan is a professor of economics at the University of Denver.