In great historic cities like Charleston and Savannah, it is all but impossible to avoid memories of the Revolutionary War. At every turn, you find commemorations of the triumphs and disasters of those years, of the heroes and villains of the national struggle. On my recent journeys, though, I have seen those monuments and plaques with a new and troubled eye. Might that glorious historical memory be ready for a catastrophic overthrow? Clearly, this era is now set to be the next battlefront of historical revisionism.
We think, for instance, of the recent transformation of the Civil War, which only a few years ago was remembered in such heroic terms, but where the toxic issues of slavery and race have now had such an impact. Who, today, is prepared to stand up for those who fought for the cause of human enslavement? (Do not, please, argue about the actual causes of the war, a theme I have addressed previously.) But surely, we might think, the Revolutionary War is an utterly different matter. Was it not a paradigmatic struggle for human liberty and national aspirations, embodying at once the highest goals of Christian humanism and the Enlightenment? So we might think. But as an intellectual exercise, let us explore a worst-case scenario, so that we might prepare for future national debates.
Look at the successes of revisionism in the very short space of just the past three or four years, and imagine how they might be extrapolated through 2020 or so. In short, why should that process stop at the Civil War? Already, the recent film bearing the title The Birth of a Nation has placed racial conflict at the heart of the national narrative during the Nat Turner rising of the 1830’s.
But go back further. Place yourself in the position of an activist planning new campaigns against white supremacy and racial oppression. What about the Revolutionary War? The temptation seems almost irresistible. Virtually all the great leaders from Southern states were slaveholders and plantation owners, many on a very large scale. That taints not just Washington and Jefferson, but such paladins as the Madisons, Monroes, Lees, Rutledges, Harrisons, and Randolphs. Even if the Northern patriots rejected slavery, were not all sections combined in a common political cause?
Well yes, you might object, those Southern patriots did indeed hold slaves, but slavery as such was not a core issue in that war, as it would become in the 1860’s. Slavery was a regrettable fact of the time, but in no sense was this a war for slavery. But that point brings us to John Murray, the fourth earl of Dunmore, of whom we can expect to hear a good deal in the next few years.
A Scot, Lord Dunmore was the last royal governor of Virginia, where he struggled mightily to resist the revolutionary upsurge. As part of that effort, in November 1775, Dunmore issued a proclamation that included these ringing words: “I do hereby further declare all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels), free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining his Majesty’s Troop.” Those fugitive slaves were not just to be freed, but armed.
In the context of a slave-owning society terrified of slave revolt and bloody insurgency, this was the nuclear option, and as such, the proclamation was widely and furiously condemned. But it had a potent effect. Through the war years, and not just in Virginia, many slaves did indeed abandon their masters and seek British protection. Black Loyalists became a potent element within British armed forces throughout the American colonies, where they constituted such individual units as the Royal Ethiopian Regiment, the Black Brigade, and Black Pioneers. Finding refuge for those thousands of Loyalists posed massive problems for the British at the end of the war.
Not for a second am I presenting Lord Dunmore as an abolitionist visionary. He owned slaves himself, and had refused pressure to ban the slave trade. But the fact remains that his proclamation and other similar local actions did, arguably, make slavery a major issue of the war, and one in which, so to speak, the British were on the side of Truth, Justice, and the Anti-American Way.
Will the next campaigns for historical commemoration be waged against all the heroes of that revolutionary struggle, and certainly all the Southerners? Such a move would be far more sweeping in its implications than the present anti-Confederate movement, which has targeted leaders in revolt against the national government. But this next phase would seek to discredit and remove the nation’s founders—in effect, to cast the whole project of national independence as a manifestation of white supremacy. And in their place, all we would have to celebrate would be British commanders, such as Lord Dunmore himself.
Far-fetched, you think? Come back in a couple of years, and we will see.