The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Ten
As you know, racial prejudice and bigotry are not inherent to the human condition. The history surrounding the American Revolution, for example, appears to bear that out. Racial antipathy had to be consciously taught by settler elites and painfully learned, in a sort of Pahlovian fashion, by the masses.
Left to their own devices, human beings are, apparently, not especially inclined to let a little thing like skin color get in the way of befriending one another, drinking, dancing, and socializing together, making love together and producing and raising children together, running away from or otherwise striking against injustice together, doing business together, or even committing crimes and designing elaborate criminal conspiracies together.
For instance, one scholar of slavery, Kenneth Stampp, has noted that black slaves and white indentured servants of the seventeenth century were 'remarkably unconcerned about the visible physical differences' (1).
A 1661 Virginia law provided that 'in case any English servant shall run away in company with any Negroes,' he would have to give special service for extra years to the master of the runaway black slave. Another Virginia law, of 1691, ordered the banishment of any 'white man or woman being free who shall intermarry with a Negro, Mulatoo, or Indian man or woman bond or free' (2).
The thing to simply note here is just that the tendency to interracial fraternization was so natural in colonial America, that the authorities felt the need to legislate against it. Newspaper notices of runaways in Virginia often warned 'ill-disposed' whites against harboring fugitives. Sometimes black male slaves ran off with white women; and from time to time, a slave might find refuge aboard the ship of a white captain, and perhaps even be made a part of the crew (3).
In 1663 indentured white servants and black slaves, in Gloucester County, Virginia formed a conspiracy to rebel and gain their freedom. However, as was often the case, the plot was betrayed and ended with executions (4).
Bacon's Rebellion: Virginia 1676
This was a revolt by white frontiersmen, joined by black slaves and white indentured servants. This insurrection became so dangerous that the governor had to flee the burning capital of Jamestown. England decided to send over one thousand soldiers, hoping to keep order. The leader of the rebellion was called Nathaniel Bacon (5).
The rebellion began over the issue of how to deal with the Indians, who were a close, threatening presence on the western frontier. Those whites who had been by-passed when huge land grants around Jamestown had been given away, went west to find land. They naturally encountered Indians (6).
The character of the rebellion had been both anti-elite and anti-Indian. The frontier Virginian seem to have felt resentment toward the political class and landed aristocracy, for having pushed them westward into Indian territory and then turning indecisive about fighting the Indians (7).
Historian Howard Zinn made the point that the servants who joined Bacon's Rebellion, had been "part of a large underclass of miserably poor whites, who came from countries that were glad to get rid of them" (8). Twenty-three rebels leaders were hanged (9).
Black slaves often ran away to Indian villages. The Creeks and Cherokees harbored runaways by the hundreds; many became integrated into the tribes, married and produced children. But the combination of harsh slave codes and bribes to the Indians to help put down black rebels, sort of kept a lid on things from the perspective of the settler ruling class (10).
In the Carolinas, for example, they tended to pass laws prohibiting free blacks from traveling in Indian country. Treaties with the Indian tribes contained clauses requiring the return of fugitive slaves. The reason for this, as one of the white rulers said, was 'to make Indians & Negroes a checque upon each other lest by their Vastly Superior Numbers we should be crushed by one or the other' (11).
However, according to Howard Zinn, what really caused nightmares for wealthy planters was always the prospect of poor whites and blacks uniting against them. In 1743 a grand jury in Charleston, South Carolina, denounced 'The Too Common Practice of Criminal Conversation with Negro and other Slave Wenches in this Province' (12).
Aftermath of Bacon's Rebellion
The Virginia Assembly gave amnesty to white servants, but not to the black slaves. Blacks were forbidden to carry firearms; but whites, after their term of service ended, would be given a musket, along with corn and cash (13).
The 1720s Virginia
With the fear of slave rebellion on the increase, white indentured servants were allowed to join the militia, as substitutes for white freemen. Also, slave patrols were established to deal with the 'great dangers that may... happen by the insurrections of Negroes...' Poor white men would make up the rank and file of the patrols and get monetary reward for their efforts (14).
Rhode Island (1708):
A law was passed saying that a free person could not entertain a slave in his or her house, if the slave's master were not present (15).
Complaints about social gatherings of blacks and whites, in private homes, brought on calls for strict regulation. The New York authorities viewed such cross-racial contact as dangerous to peace and 'destructive to the morals of servants and slaves.' One newspaper reported them to be 'the principal bane and pest of the city' (16).
New York City 1712
Slaves and Indians joined forces. They set fires, killed nine whites, and wounded several others. They were repulsed by the militia, but they escaped into the woods. The authorities eventually captured the rebels and tortured and hanged several slaves, burned others at the stake, starved some to death, and broke others on the wheel (17).
Two Indians were executed for their part in the conspiracy. Predictably, repressive laws were subsequently enacted against blacks and Indians (18)..
Another conspiracy involved a group of slaves, poor whites, and others who had been engaged, in what we would today call criminal activity, in New York City. The trial told a story about an elaborate plot that was hatched in taverns and dance halls, frequented by an interracial group of shady people. One of the establishments was a saloon operated by a white proprietor called John Romme (19).
Romme's place was suspected of being a clearinghouse for stolen goods, stolen by several urban gangs (20).
The Geneva Club was a black gang well known in New York's criminal underworld. They gathered at Romme's place regularly to confer with some of the city's interracial and white gangs (21).
He was a white underworld figure, a shoemaker, and the operator of an interracial bar. New York City's authorities had strong evidence that his bar was a front for a fencing operation that served the city's criminals, which included free blacks, slaves, and poor whites (22).
Patron's at Hughson's place were entertained by Margaret (Peggy) Sorubiero, 'the Newfoundland Irish beauty' (23).
On weekends, those slaves who were usually allowed Saturday nights and Sundays off, joined whites and free blacks to dance, enjoy the music and eat good like goose and mutton, and fresh baked bread, and drink strong rum and cider. Occasionally, even off-duty British soldiers joined in on this lively social scene (24).
In Hughson's tavern, Hughson, Romme and his associates, blacks and whites, hatched a devious plot to consolidate all of New York's criminal activity under their control; and to divert attention from the widespread thievery that would ensue by setting fires in the city (25).
The official response was swift and decisive: thirteen blacks were burned at the stake; sixteen other blacks and four whites were hanged; and more than seventy blacks and seven whites were banished from British colonies (26).
Interracial Class-based Economic Action
Sometimes interracial, class-based action took the form of economic protest. Boston's poor workers reacted forcefully to the combination of inflation and rising unemployment they suffered during the 1730s. A minister complained about 'murmuring against the Government & the rich People,' during the harsh winter of 1737. At long last full-scale rioting by 'young People Servants and Negroes' forced colonial officials to adopt measures that diminished the economic crisis (27).
African-Americans, European-Americans, and Native Americans joined forces to oppose the press gangs that came into communities to forcibly remove able-bodied young men and impress them into service in the British navy (28).
1745 & 1747
Boston men stood their ground at the appearance of press gangs. They mounted violent resistance, in what one report called a 'riotous, tumultuous assembly of foreign seamen, servants, Negroes and other persons of mean and vile condition' (29). The group then turned their attention to the colonial troops who had attempted to subdue them. The mob apparently included several men from "the middling classes." The practice of impressment inspired interracial resistance in major port cities throughout the mid-eighteenth century (30).
Summer of 1765 Newport, Rhode Island
Five hundred 'Seamen, boys, and Negroes' took direct action against press gangs that had operated in the city for more than a month. Protests erupted in New York City and Norfolk, Virginia as well (31).
So what did the settler elites do about all of this interracial cooperation directed against them?
Historian Howard Zinn quoted another historian Edmund Morgan.
Dr. Morgan stated this: 'Virginia's ruling class, having proclaimed that all white men were superior to black, went on to offer their social (but white) inferiors a number of benefits previously denied them. In 1705 a law was passed requiring masters to provide white servants whose indenture time was up with ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings, and a gun, while women servants were to get 15 bushels of corn and forty shillings. Also, the newly freed servants were to get 50 acres of land' (32).
Edmund Morgan concluded with this: 'Once the small planter felt less exploited by taxation and began to prosper a little, he became less turbulent, less dangerous, more respectable. He could begin to see his big neighbor not as an extortionist but as a powerful protector of their common interests' (33).
I could not have summed things up better myself. We'll leave it there and go on to part eleven.
Thank you so much for reading!
1. Zinn, Howard. A People's History Of The United States. HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2003. 31
3. ibid, 36-37
4. ibid, 36
5. ibid, 39
6. ibid, 40
8. ibid, 42
9. ibid, 41
10. ibid, 55
11. ibid, 54
12. ibid, 55
13. ibid, 56
15. Horton, James Oliver & Horton, Lois E. Slavery And The Making of America. Oxford University Press, 2005. 38
21. ibid, 39-40
22. ibid, 40
30. ibid, 40-41
31. ibid, 41
32. Zinn, H. A People's History... 37
33. ibid, 38
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