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.” Arendt observes that the original use of the word revolution was limited to astronomy,
“designating the lawfully revolving motion of the stars;” the
sense of new creation was notably absent. That is, until the experiences of the
18th century and the Revolutions of America and
to say, the concepts of “novelty” and freedom, as well as revolution, have all
undergone considerable change since their usage two centuries ago. What must be
acknowledged and understood is how these conceptions so often become
instruments of ideology and power, and what implications this has had for the
affairs of our world today. 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
Interpreting the significance of the American Revolution we must begin with a common account; but then, for the sake of truth and sober historical consciousness, we must turn a critical eye.
has long been said that the roots of self-governance were well entrenched in
the original colonies of
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
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
Over the next few
years, hostility grew towards British soldiers stationed in colonial ports to
enforce the acts of Parliament. On
More than a few of
the moments 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
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:
we find amidst the Revolutionary war was at once economic stratification, and
in other regions of colonial
We could certainly
recount the verbal spars at length, but we must recognize that this was not merely
a conflict of words. This was a division which would manifest itself throughout
all the events of the Revolution, from beginning to end, along a wide spectrum
of measures, from conspiratorial to grassroots. And we would do no better than
to begin with that colony which, according to Murray Bookchin,
“more than any other province… was torn by a genuine class war:”
late as 1774,
following month, a constitutional congress would convene producing a document
that would go to show just how radical these Pennsylvanians were. “The
constitution they established was the most democratic that any American state
had created up to that time,” observes Bookchin,
“closing resembling the model [Thomas] Paine had recommended in Common Sense” and Paine
himself lauded the constitution.
Certainly, it had drawn on the principle that, in the words of one unsympathetic
writer at the time, “any man, even the most illiterate, is as capable of any
office as a person who has had the benefit of education.” The
document laid out, in its words, a system “without partiallity
[sic] for or prejudice against any particular class, sect or denomination of
Men whatever.” Indeed, it had done away
with property qualifications for voting, the only colonial constitution to do
so completely between 1776 and 1780. Jesse Lemisch
tells us, moreover, that “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.” Alongside the
constitution, meanwhile, was a Bill of Rights, in which it was 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
enemies called it “a poor man’s constitution,” and
rightfully so – it aimed to speak to all persons (albeit white males),
regardless of riches or social status. Its indictment of property as
“destructive of the common happiness of mankind” was particularly radical, in
an age of conservative constitutions, much like one which it would eventually
be replaced by in 1790. More
typical was a constitution like that of
better was this conservative victory illustrated than in the United States
Constitution of 1789. It was drafted to replace the Articles of Confederation,
which had been ratified in 1781. The Articles was a document that, however
imperfect, maintained considerable sovereignty for each colony. The experience
which had lent credibility to its dismantling occurred in the late summer of 1786
in the western portion of
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
movement for property is what frightened the revolutionary leaders so much. As Straughton Lynd explains, it
should be understood that “popular elements… 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.” It
was in this atmosphere, Murray Bookchin tells us,
that from May 26 to
In a controversial study of the men who wrote the Constitution, historian Charles Beard drew similar conclusions. He found that, of the men at the Convention, all were of wealthy economic status and desired a strong federal government. There were manufacturers who needed protective tariffs; moneylenders who demanded a national currency; land speculators wanting protection on Indian lands; slaveowners in need of federal security for runaways and revolts; and bond-holders in need of nation-wide taxation.
has been written of Beard’s work since its publication at the beginning of the
19th, but no matter what
conclusions one may draw from it, it speaks an undeniable word of truth: the
revolutionary leaders were men of wealth. George Washington, heralded as the
greatest of the Revolutionary heroes, was also the wealthiest man in
This should in no
way diminish, however, the importance of studying the more radical traditions;
traditions of which, it could be argued, hold wisdom far more relevant to our
contemporary situation. As Hannah Arendt explains,
amidst the founding of the
If anything, the
Revolution provided a space for a redress of grievances; that this space still
demands to be made larger is another story entirely. That this conclusion can
come without a discussion of the experiences of women, blacks, and Indians,
who, to those white males in power, failed to even register on the radar of
humanity, would make a critical interpretation of
Note on Bibliography:
I chose to draw largely on the works of Bookchin and Zinn because they are both positioned on the left politically, yet draw very different conclusions. Seeing Bookchin speak this Summer, he flippantly referred to Zinn as “an idiot” – a comment whose origins, I would argue, owe more to Bookchin’s grumpy old age than an actual evaluation of Zinn himself. Nevertheless, this anecdote helps illustrate the differences between the two historians. Zinn’s account is thoroughly negative, while Bookchin’s is both well-rounded and seeks out the positive respects to the Revolution.
The other works I drew from, were from collections whose purpose is to debate certain histories of the Revolution itself, something the titles themselves suggest (Towards a New Past and The American Revolution: How Revolutionary Was It?). I tended to use these for understanding arguments surrounding the Revolution, rather than accounts of events. For the events of the Revolution, I stuck to Bookchin, whose lively history was a welcome, detailed return to many moments I only vaguely remember from my elementary school education.
The addition of Arendt provided considerable food for thought, but in her work she remains wholly concerned with the ideas of “the Founding Fathers” rather than their political and economic context. It should also be mentioned that her work makes for considerably dense reading.
Lastly, I include Milstein in this bibliography, though I fail to cite her in the main work, in thanks to the inspiration and interest in the American Revolution her essay sparked within me.
Hannah. On Revolution.
Murray. The Third Revolution: Popular
Movements in the Revolutionary Era. Vol.2
“The Revolution as a Democratic Movement.” In The American Revolution:
How Revolutionary was it?, ed.
George Athan Billias.
Jesse. “The American Revolution Seen from the Bottom Up.” In Towards a New
Past: Dissenting Essays in American History, ed. Barton J. Bernstein.
Lynd, Straughton. “Beyond Beard.” In Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History, ed. Barton J. Bernstein.
Milstein, Cindy. “Democracy is Direct.” In Bringing Democracy Home, edited by Cindy
Howard. A People’s History of the
 Hannah Arendt, On Revolution. (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 34.
 Ibid, 42.
 Jesse Lemisch, “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), 8.
 Bookchin, 150.
 Ibid, 161.
 Ibid, 166.
 Ibid, 168.
“The Boston Tea Party,” The Path to the American Revolution, http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Ranch/9198/revwar/bostteap.htm
 Bookchin, 173.
 Howard Zinn, A People’s
History of the
 Bookchin, 211.
 Lemisch, 13.
 Ibid, 10.
 Bookchin, 183.
 Ibid, 213.
 Ibid, 216.
 Ibid, 221.
 Lemisch, 13.
 Lemisch, 12.
 Ibid, 12.
 Zinn, 62.
 Lemisch, 12.
 Bookchin, 221.
 Zinn, 82.
 Bookchin, 227.
 Merril Jensen. “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), 84.
 Bookchin, 239.
 Zinn, 95.
 Straughton Lynd. “Beyond Beard,” in Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History, ed. Barton J. Bernstein. (New York: Random House, 1969), 50.
 Bookchin, 240.
 Ibid, 241.
 Zinn, 98.
 See several essays in The American Revolution: How Revolutionary was it?, ed. George Athan Billias. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965).
 Zinn, 91.
 Arendt, 135.
 Bookchin, 206.