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Andrew Hedden

11/27/02

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 limited to astronomy, “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 Revolutions 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 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 United States as the sole global superpower; a power our executive authorities seem hardly reluctant to exercise towards ends of dubious intent. 

            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.      

            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 passed, 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 refusal. 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 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 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. As part of a larger story we will return to, similar circumstances prevailed in Pennsylvania.[14]

            What we find amidst the Revolutionary war was at once economic stratification, and in other regions of colonial America, the struggle for self-governance for all irrespective of wealth. Ideologically, we may categorize it as a struggle between radicals and conservatives, the former exemplified by Thomas Paine, the latter by men like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Paine was the author of the pamphlet Common Sense, which reached levels of circulation as high as 100,000 during the years of the Revolution. According to Jesse Lemisch, “Paine is one man whom we should not be timid about calling a ‘democrat’: when he spoke of freedom or rights, he meant ‘a perfect equality of them,’ and he was quite literal about it. A unicameralist in an age of checks and balances, he was also an abolitionist, an internationalist, something of a feminist and anticolonialist, and one of the few leaders of the American Revolution to apply his egalitarianism to the plight of the poor.”[15] As Lemisch’s last remark implies, Paine stood in marked contrast to his Revolutionary peers; so much so, that John Adams would venture to describe him, with resentment, as “a mongrel between Pigg and Puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a Bitch Wolf.”[16] Adams, along with his fellow conservatives, was at odds with Paine’s ideas, which he complained as being “so democratical, without any restraint or even an attempt at equilibrium or counterpoise, that it must produce confusion and every evil work.”[17]

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:”[18] Pennsylvania.

            As late as 1774, Pennsylvania was still overseen by a moneyed oligarch of merchants and lawyers. Because voting qualification was based on such high property ownership, only a third of the white males in the colony could vote. Its Western population was doubly disenfranchised, lacking any semblance of representation in the colonial assembly. Nor had it helped that in 1770, the colonial government had dumped the popular boycott of British goods. The situation hit boiling point when the calls for independence from Britain began to be heard from the other colonies, and organized resistance took shape. To Bookchin, “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.”[19] As the Revolutionary War progressed, those in power continued to deny the population voting rights, particularly angering the local militias, or “Associations.” These Associations, as they were a composite of poor artisans, apprentices, day laborers, even servants, essentially showcased a disenfranchised lot who had begun to enfranchise themselves. In May 1776, with the backing of the Continental Convention, these radicals moved to take power from the established oligarch, who refused to declare the colony’s indepedence.

            The 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[20] and Paine himself lauded the constitution.[21] 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.”[22] 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.”[23] 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 every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property.”[24]

            Its enemies called it “a poor man’s constitution,”[25] 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.[26] More typical was a constitution like that of Maryland, where property qualifications prohibited 90% of the population from holding any sort of public office.[27] In Massachusetts, a new state constitution drafted under John Adams was similar, raising property qualifications for voting by 50%, while requiring sizable estates for holding senatorial and representative offices.[28] A sort of anti-populism was the rage, which oversaw the creation of constitutions full of checks and balances and high property qualifications, especially for upper echelons of the government. Adams, always the eloquent mouthpiece for the conservative schema, put the matter bluntly: “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.”[29] Edmund Randolph would go further, claiming that “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.”[30]

            No 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 Massachusetts. Known as Shay’s Rebellion, it was an armed movement of farmers – many of whom were veterans of the Revolution – seeking to relieve themselves from a tax burden which had seen the confiscation of everything from their landholdings to their furniture. At the time of the uprising, General Henry Knox had written 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.’[31]

 

            This 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.”[32] It was in this atmosphere, Murray Bookchin tells us, that from May 26 to Sept. 27, 1787, “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.”[33] The concentration of wealthy men at the convention was so great, the secretiveness so strong, that Bookchin himself concludes “it is not lurid to consider it a conspiracy by a self-interested elite against the people and the governing institutions of the Confederation [under the Articles].”[34]

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.[35]

            Much has been written of Beard’s work since its publication at the beginning of the 19th,[36] 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 America.[37] Moreover, we must acknowledge that those with the riches were most often those found among the conservative elements; and having seen victory, the prejudices of these elements are those most often reflected in our history books.

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 United States, the emphasis in government had 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.” So it was that the pursuit of happiness elucidated in the Declaration of Independence came to be “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.’”[38] In this sense, as Murray Bookchin, explains “the doctrine of self-government, which for so many years [had been] 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.”[39]

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 United States history seem ever the more pressing.  Together we might aspire towards a more complex understanding, one from which we can proceed to write our own history – reclaiming politics for the realm of the public and redefining government as a means to public happiness, not an end for the mere protection of property. While it is questionable whether we would really want to employ the word revolution in an age of Ché Guevera soda pop, the tradition behind the word, as Hannah Arendt understands it, should be more desirable then ever: a sense of the new, wholly interconnected with the ideal of freedom. If we consider all that the last few centuries have taught us about power, ideology, class, race, gender, et al., the circumstances under which the colonialists undertook revolution, one can only say, seem far less imperative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Bibliography:

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.

 

Milstein, Cindy. “Democracy is Direct.” In Bringing Democracy Home, edited by Cindy

Milstein. Plainfield, VT: Institute for Social Ecology, 2000.

 

“The Boston Tea Party,” The Path to the American Revolution, 

http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Ranch/9198/revwar/bostteap.htm

(25 November 2002)

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution. (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 34.      

[2] Ibid, 42.

[3] Murray Bookchin, The Third Revolution: Popular Movements in the Revolutionary Era. Vol.1, (London: Cassel, 1996), 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] 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.

[5] Bookchin, 150.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 161.

[8] Ibid, 166.

[9] Ibid, 168.

[10]“The Boston Tea Party,” The Path to the American Revolution,  http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Ranch/9198/revwar/bostteap.htm (25 November 2002)

[11] Bookchin, 173.

[12] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 79.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Bookchin, 211.

[15] Lemisch, 13.

[16] Ibid, 10.

[17] Bookchin, 183.

[18] Ibid, 213.

[19] Ibid, 216.

[20] Ibid, 221.

[21] Lemisch, 13.

[22] Lemisch, 12.

[23] Ibid, 12.

[24] Zinn, 62.

[25] Lemisch, 12.

[26] Bookchin, 221.

[27] Zinn, 82.

[28] Bookchin, 227.

[29] 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.

[30] Bookchin, 239.

[31] Zinn, 95.

[32] Straughton Lynd. “Beyond Beard,” in Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History, ed. Barton J. Bernstein. (New York: Random House, 1969), 50.

[33] Bookchin, 240.

[34] Ibid, 241.

[35] Zinn, 98.

[36] See several essays in The American Revolution: How Revolutionary was  it?, ed. George Athan Billias. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965).

[37] Zinn, 91.

[38] Arendt, 135.

[39] Bookchin, 206.