The starting point of this project was my consideration of President Obama’s February 12, 2013 State of the Union address in which he said: “It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country—the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead…” The remainder of the quote borrows from Martin Luther King, Jr.—that you can get ahead “no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like, or who you love.” This is a wonderful aspiration. What concerns me most, however, is the general idea that the basic bargain of the United States is getting ahead through hard work and meeting responsibilities. The problem is that the rhetoric of this basic bargain elides history; it forgets that in the nineteenth century there were, for example, enslaved people working hard at, among other things, picking cotton, a commodity that was the driving force of the nineteenth century global economy. Where does that hard work fit into this basic bargain?
In 1760, some fifteen hundred enslaved black men and women— perhaps fewer but probably many more— took advantage of Britain’s Seven Year’s War against France and Spain, to stage a massive uprising in Jamaica, which began on April 7 in the windward parish of St. Mary’s and continued in the leeward parishes until October of the next year. Over the course of eighteen months the rebels killed as many as sixty whites and destroyed many thousands of pounds worth of property. During the suppression of the revolt over five hundred black men and women were killed in battle, executed, or committed suicide. Another 500 were transported from the island for life. Colonists valued the total cost to the island at nearly a quarter of a million pounds. “Whether we consider the extent and secrecy of its plan, the multitude of the conspirators, and the difficulty of opposing its eruptions in such a variety of places at once,” wrote planter-historian Edward Long in his 1774 History of Jamaica, this revolt was “more formidable than any hitherto known in the West Indies.”