The Counter-Revolution of 1836: Texas Slavery & Jim Crow and the Roots of U.S. Fascism
International Publishers, $24.99 (cloth)
U.S. history is a strange, exceptional field of play where, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor’s famous sign-off from Lake Wobegon, all the revolutions are strong, all the revolutionaries are kind, and even the civil wars are above average.
In the orthodox telling, there was only one revolution that mattered, after all. The fact that American revolutionaries won their independence in part because the French intervened in their British civil war has often been narrated as at most a useful irony. Certainly Africans or Natives had nothing to do with it, except as desperate fighters for their own marginal purposes: defined out of the story partly because they lost but mostly because, well, they were defined out of the story. Yet the century-long debate between “Progressive” (read: radical) versus “Whig” (liberal and conservative) historians about whether ordinary white people benefitted or whether elites did has begun to seem almost beside the point: there was more at stake for others than republicanism or nationhood.
The certainty that “the people” and their liberties triumphed and set the stage for future progress doesn’t seem sufficient as history anymore. Casting the U.S. Civil War as a second good revolution—a resolution of unfinished business that finally ended slavery (how stubborn it proved!) and created a real nation-state—leaves many questions unanswered. If Revolutionary-era ideas and Civil War identities are so powerful and bend so decisively toward justice, why are the wrong ones winning? No wonder the settler revolutionaries of 1776 realized that the first priority was spin—or as Thomas Jefferson put it so delicately in the Declaration of Independence, “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.”
The United States claimed to be the first self-determined nation, a model for anti-monarchy and anti-colonialism. In a nationalist, liberal world, this was everything, and in particular a beacon against reaction. For socialists it was primitive, if not worse than nothing: a bourgeois mirage, or just an exception (the too-often unappreciated subtext of the famous question, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?”). Marxists have long kept a cordon sanitaire around the American Revolution, focusing instead on the resulting nation’s imperialism; their inquiries were dominated by the French, Russian, and decolonizing revolutions. The real problem may have been the inability to see counter-revolution as something that could happen here.
That tide has slowly been turning. For two decades Gerald Horne, the Moores Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, has been building a well-documented argument for rethinking the entirety of U.S. history in terms of empires and insurrections and counter-revolutions. With his latest book, The Counter-Revolution of 1836, he has given us a distinctive magnum opus: the longest and perhaps most challenging of his many books. Horne places Texas and its revolution at the center of the national story that now stretches, in his series of studies, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, with occasional instructive asides about how unsurprising the right-wing resurgence of our era ought to be to anyone with an unblinkered knowledge of history. Instead of a sanguine trajectory from Jamestown or Plymouth to Obama, it’s the story of Christopher Columbus to Trump, with the loss of redemption that this should imply and then some.
Professional historians of a paler shade have mostly kept their distance from Horne, while his work has become essential reading among some thinkers and activists on the left. Even as he has been rewriting earlier U.S. history he continues to publish carefully documented narratives on increasingly various topics, most recently expanding into jazz, boxing, and the history of Black journalism as well as continuing with studies of foreign relations and Black radicals (and one fascist). But unlike journalists and so-called “presidential historians” who churn out pop histories based on what seems to them a sufficient number of easy-to-find printed sources, Horne delights in obscure and neglected sources from manuscript collections, political pamphlets available only in research libraries, and dissertations and masters’ theses from smaller regional schools that even specialists may not have noticed. He’s been accused of being partisan and ideological (as has every historian on the left), and one book is particularly controversial (more on that below), but he is arguably more thorough than most.
A lawyer and an activist before he became a professor of history, Horne files his detailed briefs with an urgency that match his commitment to a Black anti-capitalist internationalism. He’s made many contributions, especially to the history of the left in the twentieth century, but lately his broad and ambitious accounts of an earlier United States in a hemisphere of empires and enslaved people have scaled up, giving readers a more synoptic and honest account than we have been getting from the doyens and the textbooks.
A major theme in Horne’s work has been the importance of Black political engagement, from the left, with other nations. As he put it in 2011, “the fate of those now known as African Americans has been shaped indelibly by the global correlation of forces, or what older scholars once termed the ‘motion of history,’ and we ignore this reality at our peril.” While he has kept writing books like Black and Brown: African Americans and the Mexican Revolution, 1910–1920 (2005), Cold War in a Hot Zone: The United States Confronts Labor and Independence Struggles in the British West Indies (2007), and Mau Mau in Harlem? The U.S. and the Liberation of Kenya (2009), he began during the early 2010s to follow the story back to the nineteenth century. In studies like Negro Comrades of the Crown: African Americans and the British Empire Fight the U.S. Before Emancipation (2012), Horne went so far as to argue that “the alliance between London and Africans within the republic was probably the single most important threat to U.S. national security” facing the early United States. (Horne takes John C. Calhoun at his word on some things, much as Eugene Genovese did on others.) Later Horne published Confronting Black Jacobins: The U.S., the Haitian Revolution, and the Origins of the Dominican Republic (2015) and volumes on the United States and Brazil and more recently Cuba in the nineteenth century, forming parallels to his treatises on Black radicals and foreign policy vis-a-vis South Africa, Zimbabwe, China, Japan, India, and Kenya.
One might be skeptical that careful scholarship could be turned out so prolifically, almost every year. Sometimes the writing does suffer from passive constructions and repetitions. Horne reads like a writer who rarely revises even in response to criticism from peer reviewers, and he is decidedly uninterested in complications that are not essentially material or geopolitical. But all this is not as uncommon as it might sound. I think the better explanation of Horne’s neglect in some arenas is that he writes in implicit (when not explicit) dialogue with a Communist tradition with international and Black audiences in mind and never presumes that his primary audience is white. (The Counter-Revolution of 1836 is published by International Publishers, perhaps best known as the in-house of the CPUSA, publisher of translations of Marx and Lenin and the Communist historian Herbert Aptheker. Horne also publishes regularly with Monthly Review Press, a socialist house, as well as New York University Press.) A lot of historians today talk about transnational history: Horne simply does it, taking for granted how much is at stake for ordinary Black people in war, imperial conquests, liberation movements abroad, travel, and both official and unofficial diplomatic ventures. In some ways he’s an old-fashioned imperial historian, with a sense that clashes of empires affect everyone. Where he differs is in his focus on what Black Americans, indigenous peoples, and their allies abroad have made of those imperial clashes, and what that history has made of those potentially and sometimes actually revolutionary meetings.
Like no one else who writes about the American Revolution or the Civil War, however, Horne has now combined his Black Marxist internationalism and his realism as a historian of empire, building out of it the rudiments of a grand theory of U.S. history—all of it. It deserves the attention and careful consideration it is getting, and which it might get from the academy or the mainstream press if it was all spelled out in one grand volume (not that I think he cares about getting this attention, or should). The theory has emerged gradually as Horne worked his way backward in time and broke out of some standard chronologies and began to grasp a truly hemispheric early American history. “Part of the problem is that today’s historians are so siloed, narrowly focused on an era, such as 1750–83 or 1850–65, that they remain oblivious to preceding events—even ones as momentous as 1688, 1776’s true precursor,” he wrote last year in The Nation. “These scholars mimic the uncomprehending jury in the 1992 trial of the Los Angeles police officers whose vicious beating of Rodney King was captured on tape. Instead of allowing the tape to unfold seamlessly from beginning to end, sly defense attorneys exposed the jury to mere fragments and convinced its members that the disconnected episodes hardly amounted to a crime.”
Horne’s 1688 is not mainly the “Glorious” Revolution triumph of England’s Parliament over absolute monarchy: it’s when the merchants triumphed over the Royal African Company to deregulate the African slave trade. In The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (2014), after summarizing the expansion of slavery and of enslaved restiveness in the Caribbean and southern mainland, Horne pivoted to argue that rising British antislavery, in response to slave rebellions and disgust with North American and West Indian greed, motivated planter-rebels and their merchant allies to mount the ensuing civil war in the British empire. The real revolutionaries, in other words, were the enslaved; the vaunted American Revolution was nothing less—or, nothing more—than a counter-revolution against the strivings of the truly oppressed of America and their budding alliance with the metropole. We don’t have to wait for C. L. R. James’s “Black Jacobins”—the focus of his 1938 study of the Haitian revolution—to find enslaved rebels rocking the new world.
This was a stunning about-face from the conventional wisdom, and in some respects it was overstated. Horne took arguments made by historians like Woody Holton—that slavery was one among several key motives, sometimes an ineffable and often ironic and contradictory factor in the making of the imperial controversy, the war for independence, and the outcomes of a long revolutionary era, but particularly for white Virginians and South Carolinians—to a different, if not necessarily higher, level: one of simple cause and effect. It’s also a stretch, because opposition to slavery wasn’t yet strong or even English per se, and American rebels had plenty of other economic motives, not all of which can be reduced to slavery. Horne is also unimpressed by the advance of antislavery in the northern colonies before 1775, whether it was motivated by passions for liberty, accusations of hypocrisy, or fears of armed slaves. Nor does he think much of the thousands who fought for the patriots and, like during the later civil war, undermined racial slavery by doing so. This is unsurprising given his sense of the Gulf South and Caribbean as the motors of U.S. history.
Still, Horne makes it clearer than it has ever been that powerful people perceived Africans as part of the play of alliances and events, before as well as after Lord Dunmore offered freedom to enslaved Virginians who would enlist to fight the rebels. There was no halcyon early America without resistance to slavery, racial boundary-marking, and the potential for more. The older conjoined images in U.S. history of North American Black people as beaten-down slaves—rare heroic individualists who ran away by themselves, or the even rarer insurrectionists—blinds us to how normal it was for people from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century to understand Africans as present or future political actors who might do things with others, including take advantage of turmoil in the empire, to improve their collective condition.
At the time the book was published, only specialists and aficionados remarked on how uncompromisingly Horne pressed his view of the American Revolution as a British civil war that functioned to shut down rather than inspire Black liberation. This changed in late 2019, after Nikole Hannah-Jones relied on Horne’s strongly worded argument, though without at first mentioning him, in the lead essay for the New York Times’s 1619 Project. Her assertion that a desire to hang onto their slaves was “one of the primary reasons” colonists “decided to declare their independence” provoked a firestorm, with major, celebrated historians like Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz joining with right-wing outlets and Trotskyists alike to denounce Hannah-Jones as falsifying history. Of course, had the same historians engaged with Horne’s book—or any others that did not mainly celebrate the Revolutionaries’ antislavery ideals—they could not have acted so shocked that there are other ways of looking at its relationship to slavery. Instead, they had to rely on the World Socialist Web Site to publish their denunciations in a series of posts and podcasts that proved the truth of Horne’s frequent observation that alliances tend to reflect political convenience at least as much as they cement ideological affinities.
Since COVID-19, Horne has been in increasing demand for Zoom talks, which seems not to slow him down at all: in 2018 and 2020 he filled in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century backstories to his eighteenth-century narrative in The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism and The Dawning of the Apocalypse, respectively. These books narrate settler invasions as revolutions against indigenes that garnered support from some of the native nations against others. They were class alliances as well as imperial ventures. They were contested. There were variants. Eventually, a particularly genocidal and capitalist Anglo version evolved based on cynical uses of race. Indigenes and Africans resisted violently, and sometimes succeeded in the short term, especially when they could join together or find allies among competing empires at the borders of one colony or another. Meanwhile, successive English revolutions and civil wars, of the 1640s–50s and of 1688, led to expansions of the British slave trade. Finally, in the British colonies, settlers realized that their imperial overlords were not always their friends over against other subjects. The “revolting spawn” of Britain, not just planters but also merchants, committed counter-revolution—revolting against crown and against the threat from below—to increase their control over land and people. (Horne’s use of “spawn” throughout his books rebukes the happy “birth” and organic “growth” of the republic in conventional histories.)
For Horne, 1836 is as much a linchpin of this history as 1776 because it turns the original Caribbean and coastal dynamics of settler colonialism into a continental force that has endured up to our own age of rising neo-fascism. Here the counter-revolution is against Mexico, which had infuriated the Anglo settlers it had warily welcomed by intermittently abolishing slavery by law as well as by failing to protect its northern provinces against the Comanche and other native nations. The revolutionary republic of Texas (1836–45), in this sense, anticipated the dilemma of the southern states after gradual emancipation in the northern United States: they had abolitionists at their door, not to mention the threat—or opportunity—of scheming British and French empires looking to limit the growing United States, whether that meant safeguarding slavery or liberating slaves. The very fluid borders that enabled slave drivers to move to Texas continued to beckon fugitives and raiders of cattle and persons.
Texas was born in border crisis and civil war that repeatedly slid into race war in the name of nation-making. Gary Clayton Anderson called it a fifty-year war that amounted, as he put it in the title of his 2005 book, to The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land. The dynamic of border, or really regional, violence has also been captured more recently by Brian DeLay and Pekka Hämäläinen with emphasis on the role of the Comanche. Andrew Torget’s Seeds of Empire (2015) portrayed the contest for Texas in light of the rise of cotton, and in South to Freedom (2020), Alice Baumgartner has analyzed the role of fugitive slaves in shaping southern border politics all the way to the Civil War. Horne brings these insights together at great length, tracing how Texas followed upon Indian removal in Georgia in combining corrupt theft of land with the rapid expansion of slavery.
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In Texas and bordering Indian Territory as well as New Mexico, Native refugees suffered and sometimes exacerbated the pattern of civil wars and enslaving ventures. This counter-revolution by slavers might as easily be called a Mexican civil war over slavery, since Mexico’s insistence on abolition only stiffened in the ensuing years. Northward, the sheer disorder, and the distinct possibility of international intervention (British, but also French) became an excuse to argue, anew, for annexation to the United States. White Texans displayed only a very conditional loyalty to the United States, though: pushing for security for their property, they bought off and slaughtered Natives on their own terms regardless of federal policy. Like the Virginians and Carolinians of 1776, they dominated a slavocracy that, Horne implies, provided just enough incentives, or American dreams, for poorer whites who stuck around.
Much of this long book is a retelling of the sheer violence and brutality of early Texas, “bent” as it was “on dismembering Mexico” and exterminating Natives in order to sustain an economy built on land speculation and slave labor. The period of Texas independence was characterized by “incessant warfare,” “an overall culture of rampant violence that has yet to dissipate.” The United States, wisely or not, rode to the rescue of Texas from its own contradictions in order to establish facts on the ground, goaded by the dubious threat that a hostile or even pro-British Mexican or independent neighbor would have posed to the nation (or really, the southern states and their property in humans). The more enslaved people (and refugees of native dispossession and war) who entered Texas, though, the wealthier—but less secure—the new state seemed. Here, “repression . . . was so severe in part because of the resistance encountered.” The threat of foreign subversion, the continued, mutually reinforcing conflict with Natives, and resistance by the enslaved bred an extreme form of racism and insistence on local control.
With story after story, building on many histories of Texas written since the turn of the century, Horne paints a convincing picture of an essentially violent order that was imperialist, capitalist (based in heavily leveraged land purchases, seeking new markets for cotton), generatively racist and genocidal by the 1850s, and bent variously on swallowing California, New Mexico, and in some versions all of Mexico itself. The liberals of Texas like Sam Houston talked about good Indians and the need for reservations, but they were more than balanced by the extreme haters whose names grace other cities and institutions, like Stephen Austin, John Baylor, and Francis Lubbock.
Never satisfied with enough fertile land or slaves, ever nervous about its borders, Texas ultimately set the stage for the next counter-revolution by enslavers in 1861. In the standard history, the Civil War represents the most fundamental break with the American past; for Horne, Texas is the Civil War exception that proves the rule. Planters flocked to Texas with their slaves from the threat and reality of Union occupation; after the war, Confederates made it their base, along with French-occupied Mexico. The “real and imagined indignities” of having their property expropriated by government-sponsored emancipation (if not for the refugees among them) “fed a terrorist insurgency” and white Texans’ enduring hatred of the federal government “that propels politics even today.” That government also armed Black people, though the protections offered to Black Texans by the Union Army suffered from deployments west to put down Natives.
Black and indigenous people fought the war after the war heroically but were “bound to be overwhelmed,” Horne argues, to the extent that they could not join together or win some kind of international support. The ensuing “race war” that was Reconstruction in Texas was as bad or worse than anywhere in the South, including Louisiana. Many African Americans refugeed to Indian Territory, where by the 1870s they often had familial ties. But the violent transition to Oklahoma statehood turned that state into a laboratory for Jim Crow, which Horne describes at one point as a kind of “internal exile.” Without allies until the nation again became embarrassed on the world stage for its hypocrisy during and after World War I and II, people of color faced a form of oppression that became the explicit model for European fascists, including Hitler. Texas became not only the largest state but the home of the most rabid anticommunism, funded by oil wealth. It all goes back, in this telling, to settler “rage” at the revolution that was abolition, and fear that the counter-revolutions of the past could be overturned. If there was another Texas—the populist, producerist, sometimes radical Texas in Lawrence Goodwyn’s books—it’s hiding over a distant horizon.
The basic pieces of this story are not new, Horne acknowledges. Like most historians writing from below, Horne hangs the oppressors with their own web of words. (It’s easier to do for Texans in the 1800s, who seem to have written each other constantly about their fears, than for Northerners in 1776; the likes of Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin actually had liberal ideals and had to worry what the British and the French would say, given that the entire justification of colonial protests and eventually rebellion rested not just on traditional English liberties but on “natural rights.”) What’s new and worthy of careful consideration is the framing. Horne is not interested in explicit theorizing: when he sees a concept that’s useful, like settler colonialism, he adopts rather than refining it. He avoids talk of “racial capitalism,” but he gives it empirical grounding. Texas renewed and turbo-charged the relationship between settler colonialism, enslavement, capitalism, and racism.
Most of all, Horne is breaking out of a certain hardline Marxist reluctance to view the United States as anything but capitalism liberated from feudal restraints. That rigid attitude isn’t exactly popular among U.S. socialists today—it hasn’t been since at least the 1960s, and especially since Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism (1983) gained a wide audience—but it still exerts a historiographic pressure and rears its head in perennial debates over the relation between race and class. Horne’s strategy isn’t to repudiate Marxism but to evoke (though not explicitly) Marx’s theory of political reaction—the Marx of the Eighteenth Brumaire (1852), where history returns as tragedy and then as regime-changing farce, but with no less suffering for the absurdity. If revolution is defined as not-necessarily-successful liberatory struggles from below aided by outside forces in a world of competing empires, and counter-revolution is what shuts it down, then fascism is the politics that sacrifices everything to the unity and rule of the blood-defined class: racial capitalism with few restraints. It is always complaining about borders even as it occupies others’ lands, and it is ever identifying enemies, foreign and domestic. It tends toward extreme corruption as the economy is not recognized to have any independent existence beyond the political rule that sustains it and its small ruling class. Violence is continually justified and celebrated. It’s not inherently European: maybe Germany and Italy were the exceptions, the late wannabe empires. It’s a politics of nouveau-riche property owners and slavers: settlers let loose and threatened from all sides. It is home grown.
Since 2016 some American left intellectuals have vigorously attacked this home-grown fascism thesis. In the crudest cases, the attitude seems to be that it can’t possibly be right—or at least shouldn’t be expressed too loudly in the press—because many Democrats call Trump a fascist but do nothing to dismantle neoliberalism (to say nothing of capitalism). If we talk of fascism, these critics seem to worry, we might forget to tax the wealthy or otherwise lull ourselves into centrist complacency—satisfaction merely with beating the GOP, instead of with real change. Whatever one thinks of the Democrats, the limitations of this kind of rhetorical critique should be obvious enough; anyone can bend language to their own ends (witness what philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò calls the “elite capture” of identity politics), and even left political scientist Adolph Reed, an unsparing (if pragmatic) critic of the Democratic Party, has come around to asserting “the whole country is the Reichstag.” What we do about fascism is one thing: whether it exists, and who advances it, is quite another. The inference from any talk of U.S. fascism to support for the pre-Trump status quo is a symptom of the broadening tendency to turn substantial questions of analysis into tests of political affiliation, yet even construed that way the attitude is perplexing. If you use the F-word, we must not share the same goals, these critics conclude—as if antifascism has no radical heritage, in the past or present.
For his part, Horne is at his most persuasive in stressing the long origins and long effects of what happened in 1836, and he is very clear that the implications for our times are disturbing. The United States is “fundamentally right-wing” because of this legacy, he concludes, so much so that “traditional political labels tend to lose meaning.” We couldn’t be much further from hoary invocations of American liberalism—but that’s what’s so valuable here, as that venerable tradition seems unable to grapple with racial domination as anything other than irony, contradiction, or paradox.
Thanks in part to the influence of a slew of antiracist histories that inform Horne’s synthesis, American educators are at an impasse: Does the Revolution (or the Civil War for that matter) still represent a usable past? Can it explain anything about where we are, except as an example of failed revolutionary change? The 1619 Project exposed this impasse yet largely ignored early America, vast or English, outside of its invocation of early-bred anti-Blackness. But however constrained, and despite the limitations of its desire to replace one founding year with another, it showed which way the wind is blowing.
The Civil War or the Revolution may turn out to have decisively placed the United States on a very long-term antislavery and antiracist trajectory, punctuated by revolutions, civil wars, emancipations and reconstructions, all of which had counter-revolutionary dimensions or aftermaths. But Texas’s past and present—as avatar of both “cataclysm” and reaction, of independence and secession, of prison-state and right-wing resurgences, even above all as symbol of the future as well as the past—suggests that the story isn’t over yet. Horne’s opening up of the matter of revolution and internationalism, to a distant past where people were just as partisan and just as violent as we are, in a Texas and America just as diverse and conflicted and hypocritical as we are, is likely to spawn. It’s easier to understand these people in a tradition of counter-revolution than of liberal-republican consensus based in enlightened reason and equality for all. Horne doesn’t deny the Revolution and the Civil War mattered. He rather brings out their counter-revolutionary dimensions and remembers neglected episodes that may have been just as or more important in, for example, Texas. Though he doesn’t explicitly say so, his Gulf South–oriented U.S. history is a rejoinder to several varieties of north-south or east-west ways of looking at our past. Instead of Texas exceptionalism, it’s America as Texas.
What a stirring if depressing counterpoint this is to the lyrical, similarly bracing, yet in the end optimistic brief version of Texas-as-American-history offered by Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth (2021). It isn’t an accident that Horne is inclined to mock the pretentions of Juneteenth as a national holiday if it reduces emancipation to a day that a Union General rode into Galveston. His Texas is more like Walter Johnson’s St. Louis in The Broken Heart of America (2020), where “much of American history has unfolded from the juncture of empire and anti-Blackness” and the changes reveal essential continuities. The point isn’t to be fatally pessimistic—to view the future as foregone conclusion—but to see the challenge clearly. Horne’s broader framework and oeuvre demand our attention as the most far-reaching such exercise on offer today.