Since reading Gerald Horne's earth-shattering book, "The Counter-Revolution of 1776," I have been on a vain search to find respectable (i.e., non-pandering) historical treatises that would overthrow his thesis: that the so-called "American Revolution" was in fact little more than a slyly-staged counter-revolution against the threat that the "patriots" might be forced to end slavery.
So far, I have come up empty: Every respectable piece on history of the period, including this book, simply further confirms Horne's mind-bending thesis. Here Alan Taylor, another award-winning American historian, in this book, "The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia 1772-1832," confirms virtually everything Horne sets forth in his thesis -- and then raises him a thesis or two by giving us the context with all of the missing moral nuances.
There are two parts to the book: The story in the foreground about how the slaves in Virginia reacted to the shameful contradictions of the impending calls for "freedom and liberty" by the white slaveholding founding fathers (the Virginia quartet in particular of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Mason), as the American Revolution approached.
The slaves simply gathered as many of their family members as they could in canoes and rowed in the middle of the night out to the British ships anchored in Norfolk harbor and joined the Revolution and fought for the other side. Prominent among them were 800 slaves from Jefferson, Paine, Madison and Washington's own plantations. Others grabbed their children and as a family jumped into the sea, committing mutual suicide rather than enduring the horrors of slavery for the rest of their lives.
And then there is a second story, the one in the background, the subtext of events, the psychological state of mind -- the thinking, planning and plotting of Jefferson, Madison, Randolph, Paine, Washington, and others -- as they went about the business of building a libertarian case for a revolution against the British, while at the same time were very self-consciously and violently repressing every instinct of liberty and freedom in their own black slaves.
On page 83, for instance, Randolph summarizes the situation about as aptly as it can be done, when he says that "slavery is a social system that distorts the morality and justice of otherwise decent men ... It could not have endured without the support of attentive husbands, good fathers, pious churchgoers, and conscientious citizens ... It holds good men as well as slaves as its captives."
It is thus inescapable that the Virginia patriots proceeded along this morally bankrupt path willingly -- with their eyes wide open, and with a mixture of greed, deep fear both of their slaves and their God, yet with self-serving moral blindness and laxity towards a goal they claimed was about freedom and liberty.
These men knew from the start that there simply was no way of squaring the circle between the barbaric practice of treating human beings as property, and also maintaining a self-respecting humanity for themselves. Yet they proceeded to prove themselves world-class hypocrites, while discrediting their humanity for all times.
From these two stories, juxtaposed against the wider geopolitical and moral context of the revolution, the reader gets two stark pictures, the moral implications of which can no longer either be denied or defended, for it is not just unmistakable but also impossible to misread:
In order to maintain slavery in a steady state, living morally blind and contradictory lives, there is no other way to put it except to say that our founding fathers had to be "much diminished moral human beings." And thus in the end, history too must ultimately judge them, as men of their own times judged them, as moral ingrates: moral villains instead of heroes -- men corrupted by greed for profits, hubris, racial prejudice and a lack of any sense of moral decency or accountability.
In short, this book clears out all of the moral underbrush and leaves our founding fathers exposed, naked, out in a fully contextualized moral clearing. Unlike many other historians, who rationalize and make excuses for them (as Professor Roger Wilkins did below for instance), in both parts of this book, the author leaves the primary architects of the American Revolution, hanging in the wind, to sink or swim based only on the degree of their own moral culpability.
He allows them no escape routes as he nails all of the facts down securely, giving us not just the facts -- as cold-blooded as they are -- but leaving nothing to chance. He also gives us their context with associated nuances. In doing so, he lays the facts out end-to-end, without commentary or sentimental editorializing, allowing them to fall where they may, so that the reader can connect the dots and determine for himself, once and for all, whether the Virginia quartet were indeed heroes or villains.
In this regard, I am repeatedly reminded of a similar book called "Jefferson's Pillow," by the nephew of Civil Rights leader Roy Wilkins. In it, Professor Roger Wilkins tried vainly to square the same moral circle of contradictions between the immorality of slavery and the false claims the American patriots made that they were fighting for freedom and liberty against a colonial tyranny. The best argument Professor Wilkins could proffer in the end to support his case was the old familiar cliched trope that "they were simply men of their times?" The irony that at the time he wrote the book, Dr. Wilkins was himself a Professor of Political science at "George Mason" University, did not escape me.
But to this author's credit, that old dog "they were men of their times," will no longer hunt. Alan Taylor made the buck stop with this book: He never used that excuse here. For here the moral context of the times is laid bare for all to see. And the American patriots are condemned by the very men of their times, men like them who also had once been engaged in the degenerate business of buying and selling humans and then sitting back and living off the profits of their free labor.
Moreover, all three of the major contending powers, France, England and Spain had freed their slaves and had agitated for ending the transatlantic slave trade. And while it is true that they were greatly urged along in these pursuits by the slave revolts that lit up the Caribbean, their hearts as well as their policies consistently leaned in the direction of freedom for everybody: If freedom was good for the white man, they all argued, then it was also good for their slaves too.
Not so for the American Revolutionaries, as they consistently argued that even freed black men in America -- including those who had fought for the revolution on the side of the patriots, no less -- had no secure place of freedom in revolutionary America.
In fact it was the French revolution that sparked the revolt in Haiti that would bring both France and Britain to their knees. And while Jefferson was busy fighting a coalition of French, Spanish and Indians on his western and southern borders, he nevertheless saw the slaves' revolution for freedom in Haiti as the much greater threat. So much so that he viewed his own slaves as "internal enemies," possessing the potential of exploding into revolt against the planters at any minute.
As a result, Jefferson, among many other things he did to advance the causes of maintaining the slave system in place, also reversed the policy towards freedom in Haiti of the previous administration. Whereas John Adams had assisted the Haitian slaves' fight for freedom (as much as a way of undermining French efforts in the hemisphere, as to support the causes of freedom there), Jefferson, on the other hand, reversed Adam's course and did just the opposite, lending support to the very enemy he was busy fighting on his southern and western borders?
Equally unconscionable, even while the British were giving citizenship, full pay and freedom to all slaves who would come over to their side and fight against the American Revolution, (as later was to happen in the Civil War), only when they were losing badly did the Americans allow freedmen and slaves to be armed to fight.
And while some 500 slaves would be granted their freedom as a result of fighting for the American side, about 8000 who fought for Britain, began new lives as respected citizens in both Canada and Britain after the war. Some even wrote letters back to their old masters, telling them that they were doing much better in Canada than even their masters were doing back on the plantations in America.
But for the blacks who had won their freedom by having fought for the patriot cause and were on the winning side, a free black man living in Virginia was almost as bad off as were Virginia slaves. The Virginia quartet made it clear that freed black men were a greater threat to the peace than the slaves were themselves. In fact, Jefferson argued at the time, (as Lincoln would do too during the Civil War), that all blacks, both slave and free, should be shipped off to another country.
However, this did not prevent Jefferson or other slaveholders from producing an annual crop of mulatto babies by raping their female slaves. Six such mulattoes acted as house servants in Jefferson's mansion. They were often mistaken by visitors as family members. And if recent DNA tests can be trusted, the chances are good that they were.
To his credit, this author does not lean in either direction -- towards our founding fathers being either heroes or villains -- but allows the facts to speak for themselves. And when they speak, they roar like a 400-year old cold wind, howling against the deaf conscience of men claiming to be seeking freedom from British tyranny, but who in fact, only sought to continue the comforts that the barbarous and brutal system of slavery had provided for them.
If the American patriots were indeed "men of their times" as Professor Wilkins claimed they were, then the "contradictions of those times," hit our founding fathers right between the eyes like a moral lightening bolt, leaving them stunned with nowhere to hide. There was no moral cover or shelter to be found between their professed rhetoric about liberty and freedom, and their everyday barbarous practices of slavery.
The case against the American patriot has never been better put than the eloquent speech made by Frederick Douglass on July 4, 1852 in Rochester New York, where he ends his speech with the following flourish: "Your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings -- with all your religious parade and solemnity-- are, to him (the slave), mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy, a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the Earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour."
I would say to Professor Wilkins, that Douglass himself too was a man of those times.
Neither the comfortable shelter of historical lies about American exclusivity; nor the shelter of high and mighty but empty rhetoric about cherished principles of liberty and democracy, can continue to plug the holes in the moral dike. Our founding fathers are not heroes at all, but just as Lord Dunmore, another man of those times, put it on page 21: The American patriots were just "shameless, canting hypocrites who preached liberty while practicing slavery."
They were barbaric corrupt racist villains, and nothing more, period. Five stars