Q: What is the Fourth of July about? A: Slavery.

On the Fourth of July we should recall that the American War of Independence (1775-83) was caused by the fear on the part of the economic elite of the British colonies in North America that British law (notably ‘Somerset’s Case,’ 1772) and commercial rivalry would bring to an end the ‘peculiar institution’ (slavery) on which their prosperity, North and South, depended.

The first American wounded in the first battle (Lexington Green, 19 April 1775) was probably Prince Estabrook, an armed member of the Lexington militia, a black man owned by the Estabrook family. (He survived and was a member of Washington’s army throughout the war, despite Washington’s effort to remove blacks from the Continental army.)

Although the Americans began the war to defend slavery, it was not a war about ‘white supremacy’: it was about how labor was to be exploited.

“Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations — as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco. One historian has gone so far as to call slavery ‘the ultimate segregator’. He does not ask why Europeans seeking the ‘ultimate’ method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose, when they could have achieved the same end so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa.

“No one dreams of analyzing the struggle of the English against the Irish as a problem in race relations, even though the rationale that the English developed for suppressing the ‘barbarous’ Irish later served nearly word for word as a rationale for suppressing Africans and indigenous American Indians. Nor does anyone dream of analyzing serfdom in Russia as primarily a problem of race relations, even though the Russian nobility invented fictions of their innate, natural superiority over the serfs as preposterous as any devised by American racists.”

–Barbara Jeanne Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” NLR I/181, May-June 1990

See also “How Race Is Conjured: The fiction of race hides the real source of racism and inequity in America today,” by Barbara J. Fields & Karen E. Fields, Jacobin 6.29.15


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