The Counter Revolution of 1776? What Do We Really Celebrate on the Fourth of July?

By Joseph Orosco

For a long time, the progressive approach to the Fourth of July has been to follow Howard Zinn’s lead and think of the US American revolution not merely as a revolt of the landed gentry against England, but as also having a component of working class insurgency.  The revolution was not just about the various Founders and their Enlightenment ideals, but about small farmers and merchants fighting against the wealthy and their enclosure of the commons.  In short, there could be something even for progressives to celebrate on July 4th.

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A new book by Gerald Horne, The Counter Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (2014), raises some serious questions about what the revolution stood for.  Horne is the John and Rebecca Moores Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston.  He encourages us to think of the US American revolution in the context of the political economy of the entire Atlantic and the relations of England to the other colonial powers of the era, namely France and Spain.  Horne’s thesis essentially is that the revolution was not primarily a struggle for liberty, or Enlightenment ideals, but a revolt of slave holding economic interests who saw England making gestures toward abandoning slavery and the slave trade.  According to Horne, England saw the possibilities of freed Africans as allies in the struggle for control of the Atlantic against France and Spain.  The merchant class of North America, however, saw the abolition of slavery as a loss of their power and pushed them to fight for independence.  The US American revolution, in other words, was actually a regressive counter-revolution in the historical struggle for liberty and democracy.

If Horne’s thesis is justified, then the US American revolution could be taken as a precedent for another major revolt by slave holders in North America.  The Texas War for Independence from Mexico in 1836 began for similar reasons.

The first attempt to abolish slavery in Mexico occurred in with the declaration of independence by Jose Maria Morelos in 1810.  Slavery was finally abolished legally in 1824 with the new constitution. After its independence, Mexico encouraged immigration from the United States into its northern territories that were sparsely populated.  Many of these first colonists to Tejas were slave holders from the US South.  Indeed, it is estimated by Alwyn Barr (in Black Texans [1996]) that by 1834, there were over five thousand slaves in Tejas.

Starting in 1830, the Mexican government started to issue orders for the Anglo-Mexicans in Tejas to comply with the constitutional prohibitions against slavery, or face military intervention.  The Anglo-Tejanos felt these orders were tyrannical edicts by the federal government against their natural property rights, and they quickly organized to defend themselves, leading to hostilities in 1835, and secession of Texas in 1836.

Horne suggests that the Revolution of 1776 can be seen as a victory in the global struggle against monarchical power, but it is better understood as an attempt to build an apartheid state in service of the economic interests of a few.  This white utopian experiment, he suggests in an interview with Democracy Now!: “succeeded until the experiment crashed and burned in 1861 with the US Civil War, the bloodiest conflict, to this point, that the United States has ever been involved in.”

It seems clear, though, that the spirit of ’76 was also a key source of inspiration for the violence in Northern Mexico that eventually led to the partition of the country after its war with the United States in 1848.

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