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Andrew Hedden


Political Science 101


            Only where [the] pathos of novelty is present and where novelty is connected with the idea of freedom,” wrote Hannah Arendt in On Revolution, “are we entitled to speak of revolution.”[1] Arendt observes that the original use of the word revolution was astronomical, “designating the lawfully revolving motion of the stars;”[2] the sense of new creation was notably absent. That is, until the experiences of the 18th century and the events of America and France injected the word with new meaning.       

            Needless to say, the concepts of “novelty” and freedom, as well as revolution, have all undergone considerable change since their usage two centuries ago. What does need to be said, demonstrated, and understood, however, is how these conceptions so often become instruments of ideology and power, and what implications this has had for our present standing. The American Revolution, from which several of these ideals are said to be borne, is an excellent example of a moment in history robbed of its complexity, particularly in the popular American mind. This particular revolution had far less going for it – and in some cases, far more – than your typical elementary school education – or your typical nation-state, for that matter – would let on. An important reason to evaluate the worth of the Revolution’s precedents lies in the pressing need to understand the limits it has placed on contemporary understandings of human dignity and well-being. This is particularly relevant in a state of global affairs which finds the United States as the sole global superpower; a power our executive authorities seem hardly reluctant to exercise towards dubious ends. 

            Interpreting the significance of the American Revolution must begin with a common account; but then, for the sake of truth and sober historical consciousness, we must turn a critical eye.      

            It has long been said that the roots of self-governance were well entrenched in the original colonies of America long before the Revolution. The existence of extensive land for settlement in the New World had produced a culture of stalwart and independent yeomanry, the rebellious nature of whom gave way to many a rebellion. One of the more famous uprisings occurred in the colony of Virginia in 1676; known as Bacon’s Rebellion, it was a potent combination of disenfranchised frontiersmen demanding fair taxes from the colonial government, along with armed servants and black slaves.[3] As the decades past, the same elite class against whom these men had rebelled would continue to dominate the assemblies of the colonies;[4] assemblies which, aside from their economic biases, were nevertheless fairly democratic institutions. In this category would fall the famed New England Town Meetings, products of the communal traditions of early Puritan settlements.[5]

            When resistance to Britain began to materialize, it was well at home in these traditions of rebellion and self-governance. Thanks in part to the existence of the town meetings, it was no accident that New England would become, in the words of Murray Bookchin, “the popular center for the Revolution par excellance.”[6]   

            While we should give credit to the American settlers for their innovations, it must also be stressed that there were material conditions, equally important, which helped give rise to the resistance to Britain. The Crown had been formally restrictive in its legislation towards the American colonies for most their existence. As a result of the Navigation Acts, American ships were prohibited from traveling with goods to Non-British ports. Virginian settler’s were even disallowed the formation of new towns, as Britain feared the creation of any industrial rivals to English manufacturers. What was missing from this potentially inequitable equation was enforcement. Smuggling was chronic to the point that it even gained prestige, a fact illustrated by the statistic that in 1763, 97% of all molasses available in Massachusetts was of illegal origin.[7] 

            This potential for inequity was realized in 1763 when, at the end of the French and Indian War, the Crown began to enforce the Navigation Acts, all in an effort to compensate for the massive debts war had incurred. On March 22, 1765, these efforts took the form of the Stamp Act, which required many goods, if they were to be legal, to carry a government-sold stamp. Under the banner of “Taxation without Representation,” opposition to the measure grew swiftly. Clubs were organized, including the famous Sons of Liberty. Demonstrations were called, which often grew into outright riots – tax collectors were tarred and feathered; stamp retailers were burned to the ground; even the mansion of Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchison was sacked. The British parliament would quickly respond with the Declaratory Act, repealing the Stamp Act, while reiterating their “absolute right” to enact legislation “in all cases whatsoever.”[8] But the rhetorical flourish was wasted – popular resistance was well underway. 

            Over the next few years, hostility grew towards British soldiers stationed in colonial ports to enforce the acts of Parliament. On March 5, 1770, troops would fire on a crowd of hecklers in Boston who had been throwing snowballs, an event which came to be known as the Boston Massacre. Meanwhile, an intercolonial boycott on British goods would surface under the auspices of local “Committees of Correspondence.”  In Massachusetts alone, there were 80 towns with such committees, all of which served to not only to coordinate the boycott, but to discuss, articulate, and formulate the political principles of each area – in all, an immense political education for the colonists.[9]

            On December 16, 1773, colonists would dump tea into Boston harbor in protest of the new Tea Act, which provided the East India Company with a monopoly on tea in the colonies.[10] It was the Boston Tea Party. Events had now reached a head: several months later, British parliament would pass the Intolerable Acts, altering the Charter of the Massachusetts government assembly so that the positions of the Upper Council were no longer appointed by election, but instead appointed by the Crown. In addition, Town Meetings were to be limited to once a year. The colonies erupted in action. While riots took place on an almost daily basis, town meetings and county conventions persisted in extralegal fashion. In September of 1774, delegates from all over the colonies convened in the city of Philadelphia for the first Continental Congress. Together as a confederation they formed new governments for each colony, assembled a continental army, and opened American ports to world trade. Hearing of these events, King George III declared “The die is now cast. The colonies must either submit or triumph.”[11] On April 18, Britain deployed its troops. War was on.        

            More than a few of these events leading to the war have been mythologized. Even if their context is misunderstood, events like the Boston Tea Party are certainly familiar to the products of a United States public education. This had led to an unfortunate misunderstanding of the Revolution, as the sweeping manner with which popular accounts treat the war for Independence is hardly true to the actual history. The experiences in America at that time were incredibly diverse, and many of these experiences have been grossly marginalized as they tend to discredit the common conception of a heroic war against tyranny.

            When we explore the composition of the Revolutionary armies and militias, for instance, a complicated picture emerges of institutions which were both surprisingly democratic and exceptionally authoritarian. In many colonies, conscription in the military was strictly mandatory and, at the same time, cognizant of wealth: in Connecticut, one could dodge the draft by providing a payment of 5 pounds. John Shy, in his study of a contingent in Peterborough, New Hampshire, concludes that “Revolutionary America… contained a large and growing number of fairly poor people, and many of them did much of the actual fighting and suffering between 1775 and 1783: a very old story.”[12] Within the contingents themselves, the situation often faired worse. A chaplain in Concord, Massachusetts, observing the exercises of George Washington’s army, would remark “New lords, new laws. The strictest government in taking place and great distinction is made between officers & men. Everyone is made to know his place & keep it, or be immediately tied up, and receive not one by 30 or 40 lashes.”[13] At the same time in Maryland, where large landowners and slaveholding tobacco planters held an iron grip on the colonial assembly, the militias would prove to be an important element in the democratization of the colony, going as far to elect there own officers.[14]

            What we find amidst the Revolutionary war is at once economic stratification, and in other regions of colonial America, the struggle of self-governance for all irrespective of wealth. It would seem, thenm as Straughton Lynd observes, that “the American Revolution (like most colonial independence movements) was waged by a coalition of diverse social groups, united in the desire for American independence but with additional aims that were in conflict.” (Lynd 50)





American Revolution notes-





Contradictions in All their fancy words


“When egalitarianism is the point of division, men such as Hamilton and Adams appear closer to the Loyalists than they do to Paine. Such a conclusion would strengthen the theory that the Revolution was a fight over the ‘true constitution of the British Empire’ rather than a social movement- on the level of leadership.” (Lem 28)


Anti-populism in Constitutions

-bicameral legislatures

-property qualifications

-qualifications higher for electors, members of upper houses higher for the lower houses and terms generally longer


Even if every person could vote, “Throughout America, custom and law dictated the perpetuation in power of a ruling oligarchy similar in profile to the exclusive club which ruled England.” (Lem 8)

“An examination of six pre-Revolutionary legislatures shows that the ‘economic elite’ comprising the top 10 percent of the population held 85% of the seats.” (Lem 8)


Following Locke (and directly quoting him in the Declaration), the Fore Fathers thought revolution “only permissible” after “a long train of Abuses” (Lem 10)


Francis Jennings, in discussion of Indian’s in the American Revolutions, calls the Revolution a “multiplicity of variously oppressed and exploited peoples who preyed upon each other.” (Zinn 88)


“The popular elements in this coalition- small farmers and city artisans- often clashed with their upper-class leaders and fear of what the Declaration of Independence calls ‘convulsions within’ and ‘domestic insurrections against us’ was a principle motive for the formation of the United States constitution.” (Lynd 50)


“What the Revolution did was to create a space and opportunity for blacks to begin making demands of white society.” (Zinn 88) True of society in general.


“Following the natural rights doctrines of the times…” Personal liberty was conflated with social freedom (e.g. ambiguity of the declaration of independence) (book 176)

Distinction not made until socialism in 19th century, “for whom the individual divested of a social context was an abstraction.”


“For the American Revolution, it was a question of whether the new government was to constitute a realm of its own for the ‘public happiness’ of its citizens, or whether it had been devised solely to serve and ensure their pursuit of private happiness more effectively than had the old regime.” (Arr 133)


Emphasis of government shifted “from a share in public affairs for the sake of public happiness to a guarantee that the pursuit of private happiness would be protected and furthered by public power.” … pursuit of happiness “was almost immediately deprived of its double sense and understood as the right of citizens to pursue their personal interests and thus to act according to the rules of private self-interest. And those rules, whether they spring from the dark desires of the heart or from the obscure necessities of the household, have never been notably ‘enlightened.’” (Arr 135)



Whigs like John Locke- men of independent property enjoyed hella freedom

Embodied in Britain’s traditions of monarcy, parliament, saw English system as totally free.

Americans saw monarchy as denying the “rights of Englishmen”

“regarded the royal power as self-aggrandizing, seeking to expand itself at their expense.” (book 177)

In Common Sense, Tom Paine spoke of freedom as a fugitive. (book 180)

BUT “the American analysis of their liberty was based on a fallacy. The colonists had depended much less on the existing English constitution for the preservation of their liberties than on the ‘benign neglect’” (book 180)


Everyone believed in property as a natural right of man but, “The notion that property was sacred was thus highly elastic: it could be used effectively by precapitalist strata (farmers) to hold on to their property as it could by capitalist strata to expand their holdings.” “’Property’ included a man’s life, social status, liberties and personal esteem as well as material holdings.”(book 188)



10% of the white population, large landholders and merchants owned 50% of the wealth (Zinn 80)


Maryland constitution of 1776 (Zinn 82)

-To run governor, you had to own 5,000 pounds of property

-To run for the state senate, 1,000 pounds

-90% of the population excluded from holding office


George Washington was the richest man in America.

Carl Degler says “No new social class came to power through the door of the revolution.” (Zinn 85)


“On the other hand, town mechanics, laborers, and seamen, as well as small farmers, were swept into ‘the people’ by the rhetoric of the Revolution, by the camaraderie of military service, by the distribution of some land. Thus was created a substantial body of support, a national consensus, something that, even with the exclusion of ignored and oppressed people, could be called ‘America.’” (Zinn 85)


Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson tried his best [to deal with slavery], as an enlightened thoughtful individual might. But the structure of American society, the power of the cotton plantation, the slave trade, the politics of unity between northern and southern elites, and the long culture of racial prejudice in the colonies, as well as his own weaknesses-that combination of political need and ideological fixation- kept Jefferson a slaveowner throughout his life.” (Zinn 89)


Jefferson called urban workingmen the “swinish multitude,” said they were “the panders of vice and the instruments by which the liberties of a country are generally overturned.” (Lem 11)


Jefferson, who owned over 250 slaves,


John Adams

“The insistence on bicameralism and on checks and balances within the government is narrow when viewed from the perspective of those who attempted to make government more strictly accountable to the people: if a single assembly is, indeed, ‘liable to all the vices, follies, and frailties of an individual,’ thinkers within a broader vision than Adams would attempt to check it from below- with more democracy- rather than from above, with less… While others were trying to make society over, Adams focused on the ‘depravity’ of human nature and the inequalities among men (which he felt he could perceive in four-day-old infants); certain that there would always be inequalities of wealth and that human nature as it will be was the same as human nature as it has been and is, he proceeded to erect a government structure which, by accepting and institutionalizing the inequalities, in a sense helped to guarantee that they would endure.” (Lem 14-15)


Adams: “The project of county assemblies, town registers, and town probates of wills are founded in narrow notions, sordid stinginess, and profound ignorance, and tend directly to barbarism.” (Jensen 84)



Thomas Paine

Common Sense

1776, January. Reached nearly 100,000 readers.

Saw tyranny as endemic to kings. Monarchy is a “political superfluity.” (book 182)

Called for a republic.


John Adam’s described Paine as “a mongrel between Pigg and Puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a Bitch Wolf.” (Lem 10) complained that this “was so democratical, without any restraint or even an attempt at equilibrium or counterpoise, that it must produce confusion and every evil work.” (book 183) Instead, a month before Declaration of Independence, John Adams preached obedience: “how much soever I may heretofore have found fault with the powers that were, I suppose I shall be well pleased to hear submission inculcated to the powers that are.” (Lem 10)


Lauded the Pennsylvania constitution.


Paine’s “thoughts present an alternative and a standard by which to judge the thought of the other leaders of the Revolution, for most of whom Locke went far enough.”




Internal Revolutions

“All these activities on the part of the disenfranchised, or the hitherto politically inactive, accustomed men to taking part in public affairs as never before; and it gave them an appetite for more. From the beginning of the crisis in 1774 onward, more and more ‘new men,’ which was the politest name their opponents called them, played an evermore active role, both on the level of practical politics and on the level of political theory. They began writing about talking about what they called ‘democracy.’ And this was a frightening experience, not only to the conservative-minded leaders of the colonies but to many of the popular leaders as well.” (Jensen 82)


“The people on the bottom of the conflict were also involved in the struggle for home rule, but their activities have been made to seem an extension of the conduct of the more articulate, who have been seen as their manipulators. The inarticulate could act on their own, and often for very sound reasons.” (Lem 19)


Committee of Safety

Temporary executive authority to meet the growing needs of the revolutionary cause. Officials elected annually, directed local militias, rooted out, dealt with Tories. Served as revolutionary dual power on every level of sovereignty, county, local, provincial.



“As avidly as people all strata of American society united to fight the British for independence, many were also fighting to alter their society at home- to eliminate privilege and create a polity that lived up to the ideals of liberty and popular sovereignty enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.”


What kind of republic??

Assholes like “Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, James Duane, John Dickenson and Robert Morris could have easily became loyalists, so abhorrent were the ‘mob’ and ‘democracy’ in their eyes.” (Book 205)


Radical patriots vs. Consv. Whigs

Radicals asked: “Would the new independent republics retain politically powerful elites that might well become bastions of privilege, corruption and even tyranny in their own right?” (book 205) would they encompass a broad male citizenry?


Whigs asked: “Can we make ‘checks and balances’ to prevent the ‘mob’ from gaining power- and keep an unchecked majority from forming a tyranny in its own right?” “Would the independent republics protect large landholdings and mercantile wealth against ‘the people,’ whom might try to undermine privilege?” (book 205)


In New York

Merchants, landowners had formed Sons of Liberty, encouraged demonstrations against the Stamp Act


Carl Becker, The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776. Phd dist. (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1909), ps. 31-32:


“But when the destruction of property began to be relished for its own sake by those who had property, and the cry of Liberty came loudest from those who were without political privilege, it was time to call a halt… The ruling classes were in fact beginning to be used against themselves as well as the home government. The doctrine of self-government, which for so many years they had used to justify resistance to colonial governors, was a two-edged sword that cut into the foundations of class privilege within the colony as well into the foundations of Royal Authority without.” (book 206)

Dilemma of the conservatives:

“the pattern of maintaining their privileges against royal encroachment from above without losing them by popular encroachment from below.” (book 206)

sought to control the independence movement, ran 51 nominees in the committee of correspondence

“A genuine class conflict existed in New York which the Revolution stoked up into a virtual class war.” (book 209)


Carolinas: Backcountry Loyalism

North Carolina,

-no town meetings,

-“the tidewater aristocracy had constructed a system in which all political authority at the local level rested with officials in the county courts, such as magistrates, clerks, registers of deeds, sheriffs and constables.”

-most county authorities appointed by the governor

-overcharged people for services- scandalous extortion ring

-sheriffs embezzled tax revenues


“associations” (militias) of farmers demanding open public accounting of county finance

1770- invaded the county seat of Orange Country, removed by the justices, tried cases on the docket themselves.


Marvin L. Michael Kay considers the Regulators “class-conscious white farmers in the west who attempted to democratize local government in their respective countries,” referring to themselves as “poor Industrious peasants,” “labourers,” the wretched poor,” “oppressed” by “rich and powerful… designing Monsters.” (Zinn 63)


State assembly passed a riot act, preventing groups of more than ten people. Governor organized a military force, crushed them. As a result, MANY FARMERS SIDED WITH THE BRITISH.


Backcountry Patriots

Famers in Pennsylvania, Maryland


The Example of Pennsylvania

Backwoods yeoman fought for independence, political power from oligarchs in Philly.

“More than any other province, Pennsylvania was torn by a genuine class war.” (book 213)

-as late at 1774, Quakers merchants, lawyers ruled,

-suffrage based on high property qualification for Philly residents, only 1/3 white males could vote

-Western inhabitants grossly underrepresented in colonial assembly

-Quakers, 1/10 population, controlled more than 1/3 of assembly reps

Pennsylvania Whigs had abandoned British boycott in Sept. 1770, which destroyed merchants reputation

When resistance to Britain came, “Pennsylvanians formed local committees and assembled delegates at the provincial convention with such eagerness that one can only conclude that their distrust of the Assembly’s ability to handle the crisis must have been enormous.” (book 216)

In response, Gov. Thomas Penn, who had at first refused to call the assembly, called it after all, and it was dominated by conservative Whigs. At the same time in Philly, there were two competing conventions.

“In time the revolutionary committees become the real government of the colony.” (Book 216)

Militias, “Associations” which formed after Battle of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 brought in poor artisans, journeymen, apprentices, day laborers, even servants. Militias educated people in the democratic process.

The pacifist Quaker elite had failed to conduct the war with Britain effectively,

“In particular, the Assembly insulted the Philly Associators by continuing to deny them the right to vote… Arguments for independence in Pennsylvania were actually direct assaults on the legitimacy of the Assembly and established government by the supporters of committee power.”

May  1776, “The radicals now decided to remove the conservatives from power by force, seize sovereignty in the state, and establish an independent revolutionary government.” (Book 220)

The continental congress was willing to help

July 15, 1776, Pennsylvania constitutional convention

“The constitution they established was the most democratic that any American state had created up to that time… closing resembling the model Paine had recommended in Common Sense.” (book 221)


“…a Privates Committee urged voters to oppose ‘great an overgrown rich men… they will be too apt to be framing distinctions in society.’”

They also drew up a Bill of Rights which stated that “an enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights, and destructive of the common happiness, of mankind; and therefore every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property.” (Zinn 62)


Only Pennsylvania abolished property qualifications completely of the constitutions 1776 to 1780


Lemisch writes, quoting one unsympathic to the constitution, A constitution drawn on the principle that “any man, even the most illiterate, is as capable of any office as a person who has had the benefit of education.” (Lem 12)


It’s enemies called it “a poor man’s constitution,” and rightfully so (Lem 12)


The Preamble and Declaration of Rights laid out a system “without partiallity [sic] for or prejudice against any particular class, sect or denomination of Men whatever.” “Government is or ought to be Instituted for the Common Benefit Protection and Security of the People, Nation or Community, and not for the particular Emolument or advantage of any Single man, Family, or set of Men, who are a part only of that Community.” (Lem 12)


“Various officeholders were made more accountable- to meet ‘the danger of Establishing an inconvenient Aristocracy”-by rotation in office and limits on terms, while other provisions abolished imprisonment for debt and established the rights of the conscientious objector.” (Lem 12)


“Conservative Whigs got it replaced with a convetional ‘checks and balances’ constitution in 1790.” ( book 221)


Shay’s Rebellion and the Constitution of 1789

What kind of republic??

Moderate whigs- strong, unitary centralized republic. John Adams, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay

Hamilton, Morris- constitutional monarchy

Adams, Madison-oligarchical republic in which mainly men of ‘wealth and talents’ would hold power… a republic that contained checks against ‘mob rule.’”

Quasi-confederal republic: Patrick Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Gadsen


Nobody, however, “favored building the new republic upon the institutional machinery of the Revolution, notably the town meetings, popular assemblies, conventions and the far flung committee system.” (book 226)


Few even held the word democracy in esteem


“State governments made resolute and largely successful efforts to replace the town meetings and popular assemblies with a system of mayors and city councils” (book 227)

Christopher Gadsen wrote that any man, “whatever station his country may have put him in during the war,” should fall “cheerfully into the ranks again,” “sacrificing… all resentments and private feelings to the good of the State…” (book 227)


“The conflict over municipal self-government was essentially a dual between the wealthy and the relatively poor: in nearly all cases the commercial and patrician strata of the population furiously opposed civic democracy, while less fortunate artisans, laborers, radical intellectuals, and farmers firmly supported it.” (Book 227)


In Massu., John Adams and James Bowdin- new state constitution

-raised property qualifications for voting by 50% and required sizable estates for holding senatorial, representative and gubernational offices, reflecting merchant and lawyer and the well-to-do’s interests.


Articles of Confederation ratified 1781

Reflected confederalists, not centralists

-preserved state powers against central authority BUT not decentralized to the point where power resulted in towns and countries.


Newburgh- conservative Whigs found Articles. Of Confed. unacceptable. Fears of ‘mob rule.’ Unpaid soldiers who had been promised pensions were angry. Officers met with Gouverneur Morris and Robert Morris

“After exploring their common ground, the officers and financers agreed that the army should not disband until it had been paid, and if it were not paid, the officers should use the military to establish a strong central government which could meet its demands- and, needless to emphasize, those of the government’s creditors.” (Book 230)


Hamilton wrote to G. Washington to lead the troops, takeover, become king

Washington refused, saw to it that the conspiracy was resolved


Shay’s Rebellion

New England yeomanry- independence, strong community interdependence. Barter, not monetary exchange

Early 1780’s- market economy began pentrating. Yeomen began losing landholdings, cattle, homes, furniture. Meanwhile, the Massu. General Court imposed taax burden on land rather than on salable stock.

Many farmers were vets of the Revolution

Resistance broke out, calls for county conventions

The urban commercial centers viewed them as appeals from an archaic world, resisted the peaceful petitions

Late summer of 1786, Massachussets. Yeomanry formed militias, closed down courts. Started calling themselves Regulators. History calls them Shaysites.

Militias organized along libertarian lines, shut down court houses.

“The commercial strata on the seaboard and in the inland market towns responded to these developments with virtual hysteria, raising cries of ‘anarchy’ and actually voicing appeals to replace the Commonwealth with a monarchy.” (Book 236)

Legislature passed a riot act- outlawed any gathering authorities didn’t like

Springfield battle, Shaysites defeated, retreated,

Tracked down by one General Benjamin Lincoln who surprised them at camp with 3,000 troops from Boston

Shaysites: “Their notions of property were imbued by a sense of strong moral responsibilities for the land, the community and communal lifeways and come close to a form of simple usufruct rather than production for gain.” (book 238)


Henry Knox wrote to Washington, “The people who are the insurgents have never paid any or but very little taxes. But they see the weakness of government; they feel their own force and they are determined to make use of the latter, in order to remedy the former. Their creed is ‘that the property of the United States has been protected from the confiscations of Britain by the joint exteriors of all, and therefore ought to be the common property of all. And he that attempts opposition to this is an enemy to equity and justice and ought to be swept from off the face of the earth.’” (Zinn 95)


Alexander Hamilton: “Nothing but a permanent body can check the impudence of democracy.” (Zinn 97)



Constitution of 1789 (defeat for democracy)


The Shaysite rebellion portrayed the Articles of Confed. as unworkable, chaotic

Edmund Randolph: “The chief danger [in the present situation] arises from the democratic parts of our [state] constitutions. It is a maxim which I hold incontrovertible that the powers of government exercised by the people swallows up the other branches. None of the constitutions have provided sufficient checks against the democracy.” (Book 239)


James Madision: “Government is constituted to protect property of every sort. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man whatever is his own.” (Book 240)


“The wealthy and well-educated elite of the new nation… convoked an extralegal convention to create a new, basically nationalistic, constitution. If ‘the people’ could call conventions in the name of preserving liberties, the wealthy felt free to call them in the name of protecting property.” (book 240)


May 26-Sept. 27, 1787 Constitutional Convention, was drawn up in secret

“Given this procedure and all the maneuvering surrounding the Convention, it is not lurid to consider it a conspiracy by a self-interested elite against the people and the governing institutions of the Confederation.” (Book 241)


Patrick Henry declined to attend with the remark, “I smell a rat.”


To James Madison: “pure democracy- a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and conrt results from the form of government itself.”

Practicability of democracy a question of size, scale

“If man were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Therefore, separating and playing powers against one another in government is necessary, creating, at the Constitutional Congress, a centralized state.

The term “federalist” used instead of “nationalist”.

“Thus was an illegal act, the closed and far-ranging Convention, compounded by a demagogic act of misrepresentation.” (book 242)

Federalists undertook radical slogans and measures to gain popular support, like Thomas Paine’s “The government is best which governs the least.”


“Elite and well-to-do sectors of the population mobilized in great force to support an instrument that clearly benefited them at the expense of the backcounty agrarians and urban poor. A powerful centralized government would be able to establish a sound, well-regulated currency, make international treaties that favored commerce, establish a transportation system that penetrated into the interior of the continent with potentially inexhaustible land, and mobilize troops to not only deal with domestic unrest but to wage expansionist territorial wars.” (Book 243)


Charles Beard found that most of the makers of the Constitution had direct economic interest in strong federal government.

-Manufacturers needed protective tariffs

-Moneylenders didn’t want paper money

-Land speculators wanted protection on Indian lands

-Slave owners needed federal security for revolts, runaways

-bond holders wanted nation-wide taxation


“The Constitution, then, illustrates the complexity of the American system: that it serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this base of support are buffers against the blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites. They enable the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law-all made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity.” (Zinn 99)


1798 – Sedition Act under John Adams, a crime to say anything scandalous and malicious against the government, Congress, or the president, with intent to defame them, bring them into disrepute or excite popular hatreds against them.


“That if any person shall write, print, utter. Or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them. or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the constitution of the United States, or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act, or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against the United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.”




“Despite the bourgeois, commercial and later imperialistic society that emerged in the following decades, the American Revolution had produced a remarkably multilayered governmental system: within the centralized republic existed instrumentalities for creating a fairly decentralized democracy. Whether this structure can continue to exist and its democratic features be expounded at the expense of the centralized nation-state remains the most uncertain and undecided legacy of the Revolution to this very day.” (Book 244)




We cannot let ourselves be stifled by political institutions that are good enough. Certainly, the revolutionary leaders went to war over grievances far less pressing than many of those they sought to suppress.


If this be treason, make the most of it!




Introduction: “Reformers and radicals, looking discontentedly at history, are often accused of expecting too much from a past political epoch- and sometimes they do. But the point of noting those outside the arc of human rights in the Declaration is not, centuries late and pointlessly, to lay impossible moral burdens on that time. It is to try and understand the way in which the Declaration functioned to mobilize certain groups of Americans, ignoring others. Surely, inspirational language to create a secure consensus is still used, in our time, to cover up serious conflicts of interest in that consensus, and to cover up, also, the omission of large parts of the human race.” (Zinn 73)




“Only where this pathos of novelty is present and where novelty is connected with the idea of freedom,” writes Hannah Arendt, “are we entitled to speak of revolution. This means of course that revolutions are more than successful insurrections and that we are not justified in calling every coup d’etat a revolution or even in detecting one in each civil war. Oppressed people have often risen in rebellion, and much of ancient legislation can be understood only as safeguards against the ever-feared, though rarely occurring,





The Path to the American Revolution: The Boston Tea Party


Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.      

Bookchin, Murray. The Third Revolution: Popular Movements in the Revolutionary Era.    Vol.2 London: Cassel, 1996.

Jensen, Merril. “The Revolution as a Democratic Movement.” In The American            Revolution: How Revolutionary was  it?, ed. George Athan Billias. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965.

Lemisch, Jesse. “The American Revolution Seen from the Bottom Up.” In Towards a   New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History, ed. Barton J. Bernstein. New          York: Random House, 1969.

Lynd, Straughton. “Beyond Beard.” In Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in     American History, ed. Barton J. Bernstein. New York: Random House, 1969.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York:   HarperCollins, 1999.



















[1] Arendt, 34.

[2] Ibid, 42.

[3] Bookchin, 149. Bacon’s Rebellion is not just example of colonial class conflict; it also marks an unfortunate keystone in the history of American race relations. By importing more black slaves after the rebellion, Virginian elites were, if not consciously, successful in reducing the discontent of white laborers by creating a biracial society. Robert Takaki explores this topic at length in his landmark work of multicultural American history A Different Mirror (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1993). 

[4] Lemisch, 8.

[5] Bookchin, 150.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 161.

[8] Ibid, 166.

[9] Ibid, 168.

[10]The Path to the American Revolution: The Boston Tea Party

[11] Bookchin, 173.

[12] Zinn, 79.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Bookchin, 211.