In the recent period, the so-called Tea Party movement has laid claim to the legacy of the American Revolution. With their tri-corner hats and abstract appeals to patriotism and freedom, they have seized headlines, aided by generous coverage by the corporate media. This has led to tremendous confusion when it comes to the real class roots of this world-shaking event. Unfortunately, for many Americans, the Revolution has been reduced to a summer barbecue on the 4th of July, flag-waving, fireworks, and images of George Washington heroically crossing the Delaware River.
In school we learn about the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party, the Stamp Act, Paul Revere’s ride, the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Declaration of Independence, the hard winter at Valley Forge, the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and about Ben Franklin’s inventions and adventures with the ladies in London and Paris. This is all well and good, but it is a superficial understanding of what happened and misses the real essence of the question.
Unfortunately, most historians, and even some so-called Marxists, present a caricatured version of the American Revolution. Some even deny that it was a “real” revolution at all. It is often presented as little more than a power struggle between two groups of white property owners, with the eventual victory of the colonial upstarts, who then merely took over the reins of political and economic power, and with this or that cosmetic adjustment, established themselves as the new ruling class. Now, there is an element of truth to this—but only on the surface. Our task as historical materialists is to delve beneath the surface, to unravel and understand the inner contradictions, the fundamental forces, processes, and class struggles that motivated and drove the revolution.
In actual fact, the American Revolution was a far more dialectically complex, far-reaching, and fundamental social movement and transformation than most give it credit. It was not a mere colonial rebellion. It was a profound political and social revolution, which rooted out most of the remaining traces of monarchic rule and feudalism inherited from the only partially complete English bourgeois revolution. The Americans carried through the bourgeois democratic revolution on a scale never before seen in history.
As Marxists, we are not economic determinists; but we understand that in the final analysis, the mode of production is the foundation, the infrastructure, upon which rests the superstructure of society: ideology, religion, philosophy, intellectual life, political parties and currents, legal statutes, societal and cultural norms, aesthetics, etc. These all interact with and condition one another, and at nodal turning points in history, quantity is transformed into quality, and vice versa.
As Marx outlined in his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”
This must be our starting point in analyzing the dynamics of the American—or any other revolution—including those we are living through and preparing for today.
Feudalism vs. capitalism
The American Revolution was a prelude to the Great French Revolution, anticipating what was to come soon thereafter across Europe. At the heart of the revolution was the antagonism between the remnants of feudalism, planted artificially on the shores of the Americas, and incipient bourgeois society. In a way, one could say that feudalism broke at one of its weakest links, in a place where capitalist relations had developed to the point where they could challenge the feeble remains of the old society and actually supplant it. Because, although feudalism did not develop organically in the Americas, and although there were not centuries of the rule of lords and kings and the colossal entrenched power of the church to smash, there were many aspects of that system that were alive and well in Britain’s American colonies.
For example, there was the system of entail and primogeniture, designed to keep property within a single family line. There were also huge landed estates, many on a scale surpassing the great feudal estates in Europe, with some as large as 6 million acres, or around one-fifth the current state of Virginia. In areas such as New York’s Hudson Valley, huge manorial properties existed, with those who worked the land mere tenants farmers, not individual property holders. Enormous tracts of land in the west were reserved exclusively for the Crown, with the tallest and straightest trees reserved for the King and his Navy. And in some cases, quit rents and other feudal dues were imposed and collected from those who worked the land.
In addition, there was an established and state-financed church in nine of the thirteen colonies. The big landholders and large merchants on the coast aspired to live as a kind of pseudo-nobility, with the airs and manners of the aristocrats in Europe’s royal courts. It was very much a society based on social obligations and a clearly defined social stratification and hierarchy.
And talk about uneven and combined development! You had chattel slavery and indentured servitude on a mass scale, a combination of pre-feudal, semi-feudal and semi-capitalist relations, all plopped on top of a vast, unplowed continent teeming with natural resources, inhabited by millions of primitive communists speaking thousands of different languages.
A new society develops
By the late 17th century, the English had established a fairly firm grip on North America, having edged out the Dutch, Swedes, Finns, Germans, and others who had tried to gain a foothold in this part of the New World. Up until the Revolution, Americans generally considered themselves loyal subjects of the British Crown. They may have had this or that disagreement with the mother country over the years, but they came to see themselves above all as Englishmen, especially in relation to the French, who still occupied a significant portion of the continent.
Nonetheless, though mostly English, the part of the continent that was to become the United States was an ethnic and cultural—not to mention class—melting pot from the beginning: with Dutch, French, English, Scottish, German, Spanish, Native Americans, Africans, and more. People of all classes and of all backgrounds came to make a new life: soldiers, artisans, farmers, millers, bakers, machinists, criminals, lawyers, skilled and unskilled craftsmen, traders, trappers, merchants, bankers, preachers, fishermen, smugglers, rich, poor, religious outcasts and on and on, 35% of whom were indentured servants or slaves.
All of this was grafted onto a very different, and as yet unregulated, wild and often hostile environment with a diverse climate, flora, fauna, and geography, not to mention millions of Native Americans. This inevitably led from early on to the creation of unique social, cultural, political, religious, and legal institutions, which over time diverged further and further from the institutions of the mother country. In addition to being Englishmen, the future Americans increasingly identified themselves as being a Massachusetts man or a Virginian.
Over time, the peculiar institutions developed to adapt to this new world put their stamp on the character of the country and its people. The “rugged individualism” and “frontier spirit” typical of many Americans has its roots in this period. As there was so much land available, it became increasingly difficult to keep free laborers working for you when they could move further west and set themselves up with their own property, despite the hardships this entailed. This led to an increased dependence on slave labor and indentured servants, and to even greater tensions between the classes.
Incidents such as Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, in which black and white indentured servants united to fight against their common exploiters, and even burned down the Virginia state capital of Jamestown, also had an effect on the course of the country’s development. Fearing this class unity across racial lines, and as blacks would be more easily identifiable than whites, different standards were applied when punishing the rebels, and preference toward the importation of African slaves grew.
But through all this there was a growing national identity, a common history, a diverging language, and eventually and inexorably, the need for greater political and economic independence. Over a period of centuries and decades, almost imperceptible to those living through it, a new society “matured within the womb of the old.” And once the material, objective conditions had ripened sufficiently, the subjective factor—the revolutionary consciousness and radicalism of the nascent U.S. bourgeoisie, and above all, the willingness of the laboring masses to fight to change society—accelerated dramatically.
Historian Charles Andrews succinctly explains that (quoted in Aptheker):
“On the one side was the immutable, stereotyped system of the mother country, based on precedent and tradition and designed to keep things comfortably as they were; on the other, a vital dynamic organism, containing the seed of a great nation, its forces untried, still to be proved. It is inconceivable that such a connection should have continued long between two such yoke-fellows, one static, the other dynamic, separated by an ocean and bound only by the ties of a legal relationship.”
So you had a young, fresh bourgeoisie sitting on enormous economic potential just waiting to be unleashed. But in order to unleash that potential—for the benefit and enrichment of the American capitalists and not the British—they required the more efficient and stable confines of their own nation state. For their part, the British—still headed by a monarch despite having already had their own bourgeois revolution—wanted to maintain the traditions, stability, and profitability of their robust and growing empire. They ensured this by exerting strict control over their colonial satellites when it came to access to markets, credit, manufacturing, ship building, trade, etc.
However, this was not the only antagonism brewing. In addition to the growing tension between the colonies and their master, the struggle between the producing and exploiting classes was alive and well from the earliest days in American history.
Many of the first colonists were political or religious exiles, with strong revolutionary democratic traditions. They established institutions such as the Town Hall community meetings, armed people’s militias, and a relative degree of religious tolerance. But a ruling class lording it over the majority also existed from the beginning, and conflicts periodically erupted. Slave rebellions and other uprisings of the oppressed, such as Bacon’s Rebellion, erupted periodically. In the struggle between the classes within the colonies themselves, the British were always on the side of reaction, defending the propertied interests and the status quo.
Revolution vs. reaction
In short, the British Empire was a historically regressive power, while the emerging American colonies were a historically progressive force, fighting for national self-determination, greater political democracy, and a wider scope for their economic activities. Increasingly, they saw themselves as a new and separate nation, a sentiment that cut across class and colonial state lines. The up-and-coming American capitalists were laying the foundations for the eventual unprecedented explosion of the productive forces that followed. From the Marxist perspective, this was an historically progressive development, as it has laid the economic foundations upon which we can now build socialism.
To be sure, the British would continue to dominate the planet for another 100 years or more. But the seeds of its eventual fall from worldwide preeminence were contained in the separation of its American colonies. These became a new rival power, eventually outshining their former master.
By the middle of the 18th century, America was no longer a peripheral backwater. By 1776, one in every four Englishmen lived in the American colonies, which had a population of 2.5 million people. It was an important economic component of the vast British Empire, especially when it came to trade and shipping. The Americans had long enjoyed the privileges and protections of being part of the Empire. But at a certain stage, they outgrew their baby clothes and wanted to stand on their own two feet. The colossal potential to become a mighty commercial and maritime power—like the British—was increasingly hemmed in by the restrictions imposed by the mother country.
The colonies were to forced to buy and sell only to British merchants, instead of being able trade freely with whomever offered them the best opportunities. They were forced to import expensive British goods, instead of producing them at home, where natural resources abounded and the ability to do produce quality goods was growing. They were forced to borrow from British banks, and many were deeply in debt with no possibility of ever getting out. The many tariffs, duties, and taxes, led to a growing boom in smuggling, and many new fortunes were made by skirting the laws. But eventually, even this was not enough. Taxes imposed from 3,000 miles away by a Parliament in which the colonists had no voice became intolerable.
As has already ben mentioned, for most of their existence, the relatively weak and defenseless colonies had relied upon the protection of the British Crown, both on the high seas and on land, especially against the French and the Native Americans. But after the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 (also known as the “Seven Years’ War”), that threat was more or less removed. At precisely that same time, the American colonies’ economy was starting to come into its own. And also precisely at that time, the British Parliament decided that the Americans should pay more for the protection they afforded them, and to re-fill the coffers drained by their war with the French.
It is interesting to note the well-calculated role played by France during the American Revolution. It had nothing to do with “freedom” and “democracy,” and everything to do with strengthening the monarchy and weakening its British nemesis. They saw in the colonial revolt an opportunity to strike a blow at their rival across the channel. They also wished to strenghen their own foothold in the Americas, and would not have not at all minded making the Americans subordinate to themselves. However, in one of the wonderful dialectical twists of history, the expenses incurred in backing the Americans accelerated the bankruptcy and eventual demise of the French monarchy in its own revolution just a few years later.
Diverse interests converge
By the 1760s, broad layers of Colonial society were gradually uniting against the British—but for different class reasons. Although Americans paid just 1/25th of the taxes paid by subjects of the Crown living in England, the wealthy merchants and indebted plantation owners bristled at every infringement on their ability to profit without restriction. Why should they take all the risks and face economic ruin just to enrich the elites living safely and comfortably in London? Of course, many of the wealthy Tories remained loyal to the Crown, especially in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. After all, they were doing very well for themselves as representatives of the Empire, richly rewarded with land and power for governing the colonies on its behalf.
But the majority of those living in the 13 American colonies were clearly in favor of change. However, the question was: what kind of change and in whose interests? The rich, feeling claustrophobic within the strait jacket of the Empire, wanted the freedom to make even greater profits on their own terms. The working masses, discontented with their lot in life, found an enemy in what was increasingly seen as foreign occupation of their country. So for a time, the interests of the rich and of the poor coincided, and the anger was aimed at the external enemy. This was the case during the movement against the Stamp Act in 1765.
But as the fundamental interests of these two groups were not at all the same, splits were inevitable, and this temporary unity was eventually torn apart by the growing class polarization in society. It was a classic example of reformism vs. revolution, of cosmetic changes vs. a thorough-going social transformation, of Jacobins vs. Girondins, Bolsheviks vs. Mensheviks.
In addition, the ways the different layers in society expressed their frustrations were very different indeed. Whereas the rich wanted merely to negotiate better terms for themselves vis a vis the British, the masses of urban workmen and rural farmers increasingly took things into their own hands. While the rich at first wanted to cynically incite the masses to use them as leverage against the Crown, the protests took on a life of their own, and often turned violent. As Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. put it (quoted in Braverman): “It became apparent that their agitation for commercial redress was unloosing social forces more destructive to business interests than the misguided acts of Parliament.”
Boycotts led to riots and the destruction of commercial property, the burning down of tax and other government offices, and the tarring and feathering of Tories and government officials by mobs. As in all revolutionary processes, the masses’ consciousness was rapidly transformed. From reformism to revolution, the demands grew clearer, and the political programs and representatives thrown up by the movement were tested by events, as the masses continued to orient to ever-further to the left. As the historian J. Franklin Jameson explains (quoted in H.B.):
“Allowance has to be made for one important fact in the natural history of revolutions, and that is that, as they progress, they tend to fall into the hands of men holding more and more advanced or extreme view, less and less restrained by traditional attachment to the old order of things. Therefore the social consequences of a revolution are not necessarily shaped by the conscious or unconscious desires of those who started it, but more likely by the desires of those who come into control of it at later stages of its development.”
Layer after layer of society was drawn into the growing movement, expressing pent-up frustrations against British rule and against society generally Not only the urban masses—the artisans, mechanics, laborers, craftsmen and shopkeepers—but also the Husbandsmen, the farmers, the western frontiersmen, who were less bridled by the class stratification of the East Coast. Many Southern plantation owners, facing economic ruin due to their debts, also threw their weight into the struggle. Since they tended to live far away from the aroused urban masses, many slave owners were surprisingly bold in their agitation against the British.
The masses begin to organize
Taverns, coffeehouses, and Town Hall meetings, particularly in New England, became hotbeds of revolutionary agitation. Although only 1,500 citizens of Boston were entitled by property qualifications to attend and vote, the radicals had a gallery installed and thousands crowded the meetings to hear people like Samuel Adams speak. There were clear elements of dual power in these and similar meetings throughout the colonies, as the masses expressed themselves directly and took decisions in open defiance of the British-installed governors and legislatures. The printing and circulation of radical papers and pamphlets such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, also increased dramatically, as the masses’ thirst for ideas grew exponentially. This is a clear example of the need for and role of the revolutionary press, to spread revolutionary ideas and unify the struggle nationally.
Faced with this radicalization, which threatened to get “out of control,” more and more big merchants who had flirted with the revolution, lost their nerve and passed to the side of reaction, notwithstanding the fact that they would be the eventual beneficiaries of the revolutionary overthrow of the old rulers.
Of course, the main participants were not always consciously aware of all of the underlying factors that motivated them. The fundamental interests were expressed as a battle of ideas, presented in terms of “freedom” and “democracy” vs. “tyranny,” etc. Independence was not necessarily the intent of many of the leaders or of the masses themselves, right up to the summer of 1776, and even beyond. But necessity tends to find a way of expressing itself, and events soon snowballed and took on a life of their own.
Above all, it was the decisive entry of the masses onto the stage of history that stamped this process as a revolution. Whether they were entirely clear about what they were doing or not, the formerly passive and even “apathetic” masses awoke to political and social consciousness, seized their destiny in their hands, and embarked upon a heroic struggle against both British impositions and their own native ruling class.
The aspirations of the poor masses and of the “middling types”—as the rising petty bourgeoisie was called—were expressed in the increasingly radical and revolutionary ideas, words and deeds of people like British-born Thomas Paine; Virginia planter Thomas Jefferson; renaissance man Benjamin Franklin; and the unrivaled revolutionary agitator, organizer, and brewer from Boston, Samuel Adams. Their piercing logic, eloquence, and clarity represents some of the best revolutionary writing ever put to paper. They were part of the worldwide ideological offensive of the then-historically progressive capitalist class, against decaying feudalism and the Church. Despite efforts at censorship, there was more scope for expressing these ideas in America, as the authors and printing presses were thousands of miles from the state authorities in Europe.
Over time, the demands and actions of the masses became increasingly coherent, and began to coalesce around an increasingly radical program and organization. As explained by Harry Braverman, it was Sam Adams who staged the Boston Tea Party, coordinated the mass boycott of British goods and of American merchants selling those goods, who called for the convening of the Continental Congress, and was a key “mover and shaker” behind the scenes at those meetings. Sam Adams had spent his entire life as a consistent revolutionary democrat, preparing for just such a moment. He also organized the Sons of Liberty and the Committees of Correspondence, a network of radicals that spread from New England, helping to unify and coordinate the rebellion throughout the colonies. In Massachusetts alone, there were some 300 Committees of Correspondence, in a state that had only 450,000 inhabitants at that time.
This was as close to a revolutionary vanguard or party that we can find in that epoch of revolution. Sam Adams understood the need for a bold, far-sighted leadership, for a revolutionary program, and for discipline and organization. He also understood better than anyone the need to connect revolutionary ideas with the movement of the masses, and he was sublimely skilled at it. As Adams put it, “Our business is not to make events, but to wisely improve them.”
It is no surprise then, that Sam Adams was the most hated man in Tory America. In fact, the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord began because the Redcoats were on their way to arrest Adams to prevent him from attending the Continental Congress, which eventually issued the Declaration of Independence and raised an army in defiance of British rule.
In the final analysis, it was the development of the productive forces in the Colonies, especially in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, that made revolution not only possible but necessary. Out of the developing economic base rose the human forces that could throw off the Colonial yoke. For example, mass bocotts of British goods would not have been possible without the ability to produce the necessities of life without importing them. It is therefore no accident that Boston was the initial nerve center for the revolution. It was one of the largest cities, the most important port, and had a proto-working class and petty bourgeois composition, with strong revolutionary democratic traditions.
The revolutionary masses and the “armed people”
As has been explained already, from the perspective of historical materialism, the American Revolution was far more than the War of Independence. It contained within it both external and internal components: the anti-colonial, national struggle against the British Empire; and a struggle within the colonies between the classes for a more democratic and egalitarian order. It was a long, protracted process, with decades of building contradictions, small rebellions, a war between England and France, trade and tariff disputes, protests, threats, and sabotage, eventually leading to an 8-year war, with the first battles taking place in 1775, before the actual Declaration of Independence in 1776. There were many defeats but also some important victories for the colonists, with the war finally ending in 1783 with the aid of the French and the surrender of British general Cornwallis at Yorktown. Then it was 6 more years before the Constitution and then the Bill of Rights were adopted. And then a further period of consolidation through the terms of the first few presidents, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison.
Bourgeois history tends to focus on the “great men” of the world, and the American Revolution is no exception. These individuals certainly played important and often contradictory roles, and we do not deny the role of the individual in history. But as we will see, in the American Revolution, as in all bourgeois revolutions, it was not the bourgeois themselves who did the bulk of the fighting and dying for the ideals of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. It was the ordinary masses who were the backbone, the driving force of the revolution, although in the end they did not reap all the rewards they thought they would.
Although the full aspirations of the masses for greater political and economic democracy were betrayed, for the first time in history, a colony of a European power not only rebelled, but won its freedom from the most powerful military and economic force on the planet. All other such rebellions had been put down by force. The American Revolution, inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment, in turn served as an inspiration for the European bourgeois revolutions. These were revolutionary wars against the domination of feudalism and its derivatives, the most classical example being the Great French Revolution that began in 1789. But the ripple effect of the American Revolution went much further, influencing and inspiring the masses in their struggle against Spanish, French, Dutch, and Portuguese rule in Latin America and the Caribbean.
These days in the U.S., the word “militiaman” conjures up images of right wing, neo-fascist gun nuts dressed in camouflage, patrolling the U.S. border for undocumented immigrants. But in the American Revolution, the militiamen—also known as Minutemen, as they were ready to go fight at a moment’s notice—were a true example of “the armed people,” a volunteer army of the masses, organized to fight against oppression.
The British Army was the most professional fighting machine on the planet, an intimidating and deadly force. And yet, a rag-tag bunch of poorly trained irregulars did far more than just harass the Redcoats with guerrilla, Native American-style tactics; they actually defeated them on a handful of occasions in set battles. Most importantly, they won key victories at crucial moments in the war, which even though they did not represent a strategic threat to the British occupation, were tremendous morale boosters for the rebel cause.
After the first skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, as many as 20,000 armed men from as far away as Vermont and New Hampshire flooded the Boston area and besieged the city. These were ordinary workingmen, farmers, the poor, and small artisans. This was a true, mass armed uprising, in open defiance of the state, an anticipation of the early armies of the French Republic.
The formation of the Continental Army under George Washington was an attempt to bring some systematic order—and hierarchical control—into the colonial forces’ ranks. But it was always a far less professional fighting force than was fielded by the British. However, the colonists in revolt—the poorest and most disenfranchised layers of that society—were inspired by the ideals of genuine freedom and the promise of a better life for all. They contributed more than just soldiers for the field, but in provisioning and supplying the army, manufacturing muskets, cannons and ammunition, smuggling goods through the British lines, and buying bonds from the Continental Congress with their meager savings to fund the resistance effort.
Revolutionary war and civil war
However, like all revolutionary wars, this was not simple, linear affair, with the “good colonists” on one side, the “bad British” on the other. It was a living struggle of forces, with many ebbs and flows, and the result was not a foregone conclusion. See Canada for example: they still have the British Queen on their money! Many were indifferent to the struggle either way, and simply wanted peace, quiet, and stability, no matter who was in charge. It has been estimated that roughly one-third of the colonists were for independence; one-third for the Crown; and one third vacilating between the two poles.
Diverse and diverging class interests were at stake, so it is not surprise that the war was not only against the British; it was also a civil war between the Americans themselves. It is estimated that around 400,000 Americans served in the armed forces during the course of the conflict. But as many as 50,000 of these served on the British side, supplementing the British regulars. This is a significant number, given that Washington’s forces never exceeded 90,000 at any one time, and were often as low as 12,000 or 15,000.
Washingtons’ forces were also plagued by disease, starvation, desertions, poor leadership, corruption, and a squabbling Continental Congress that deprived them of funds and supplies. The soldiers were also mutinous on many occasions, given the harsh treatment and conditions they endured while Washington and co. wintered in relatively luxurious comfort like the warrior kings of old. Nevertheless, the pro-independence colonists soldiered on, eventually receiveing support from thousands of French troops and the French navy.
It is true that U.S. forces were greatly outmatched against the British regulars, the Americans trained by and fighting for the British, and the Hessian mercenaries brought in by the British Crown. The colonists lost most of their battles and were usually forced to “fight like Indians”—a guerrilla war. George Washington was a conceited, pompous, bastard, and he was certainly no Napoleon. But he understood the need to play to public opinion and the role of morale in war. For their part, the British generals were exceptionally incompetent, often far more concerned with preparations for the next society ball in Philadelphia or New York than the next battle with the rebels.
Key victories by the Continental Army, such as the Battle of Trenton, had tremendous moral value, and showed that regular British and mercenary forces could be defeated. Many believe that the hundreds of Hessian troops involved in that battle on the day after Christmas were either drunk or hungover, but there is evidence to the contrary. Either way, just one week before Washington’s gamble in crossing the Delaware and attacking the garrison at Trenton, the Continental Army seemed on the verge of collapse and the rebel cause snuffed out. But the victory re-energized the colonial resistance, and the rest, as they say, is history.
It should also be noted that especially toward the end of the war, there was much fighting in the Southern colonies, some of it quite brutal, although the most famous battles took place in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Canada.
Ultimately, the side of right and of history were on the side of the Americans. The colonial rebels were fighting for a revolutionary ideal and for material improvements in their lives, whereas the British conscripts and mercenaries were fighting to preserve the wealth and privileges of the American Tories and the Crown. With England engaged in wars in Europe and preoccupied with protecting the rest of its empire, it was eventually worn down, especially after the French threw their weight behind the rebel cause and forced the surrender of a significant part of the British army at Yorktown.
Say what you will about the pretentious, aristocratic Washington and the rest of the so-called Founding Fathers, but it took no small amount of calculated courage to rebel on that scale and to aim for total separation, facing execution for treason if the effort failed.
But far more important was the role played by the ordinary masses, or, as Sam Adams described them: “the two venerable orders of men styled Mechanicks and Husbandmen [farmers], the strength of every community.” After all, a general without an army is not likely to win many battles.
The revolution prevails
The social transformations that resulted from the revolutionary war and its aftermath were significant. It was in this sense, a true social, and not merely a political revolution. In fact, in relation to the size of the economy and population, the American Revolution resulted in one of the biggest expropriations of private property in world history.
Entail and primogeniture were done away with within a few years. In the state of New York, all lands and rents of the Crown and over 2.5 million acres of manorial estates were expropriated, including the Van Rennsalaer manor, which was two-thirds the size of the entire state of Rhode Island, and the Phillipse estate, which stretched over 300 square miles. In North Carolina, the estate of Lord Granville, comprising ⅓ of the entire colony was also expropriated. The situation was similar in states like Pennsylvania and Virginia, where the Fairfax estate of 6 million acres was taken over, although Lord Fairfax was not a Tory loyalist.
These estates were then broken up into thousands of small plots, a far-reaching land reform, one of the cornerstones of the national-democratic revolution. Thi resulted in the rise of a large class of small, independent farmers. Millions of dollars of other forms of property were also expropriated—without compensation. Many of those who had their property confiscated and who did not flee the country altogether, were thrown back into the heap of “regular” folks who had to work for a living.
In addition, the property requirements for suffrage were loosened up, with property in land no longer required in order to be able to vote. The official churches that existed in some of the colonies were also cut off from state funding as separation of church and state eventually became the law throughout the colonies. And although slavery got a new lease on life after the invention of the cotton gin early in the next century, it was abolished in six of the colonies immediately, and thousands of slaves were granted their freedom, also in the south. In addition, the slave trade was legally prohibited—though in practice it continued for decades to come.
A nouveau riche and new ruling class sprung up almost overnight, as lawyers, skilled craftsmen, merchants, and bankers rose up to fill the vacuum left by the fleeing Tories and British colonial officials. It has been estimated that at least 100,000, and perhaps as many as 200,000 Tories fled the country, mainly to Canada, some to Britain. In relation to the population of the country, it was perhaps the most massive political and economic emigration in modern history; 10 times as many per capita as fled France during the “Reign of Terror” in 1790s. These emigres represented the cream of the colonial crop, with as many as half of the most educated and wealthy property owners in New England and New York hotfooting it away from the revolution.
Capitalist property relations find fertile soil
But it wasn’t all milk and honey for the new ruling class. Economic crisis and a period of adjustment followed the war, as wartime speculation and smuggling came to an end. In addition, the preferred credit and trading status of being a part of the British Empire meant less access to foreign banks and ports. Shays’ Rebellion, a mass uprising of discontented Massachusetts farmers and ex-Revolutionary War soldiers, contained within it echoes of the “Levellers” of the English Revolution, demanding that those who had fought for freedom and equality should also have economic equality. This scared the living daylights out of the new leaders of the at-that-time deeply dis-united states, and led to the adoption of a new Constitution.
The new Constitution, adopted in 1789 and still in force to this day, featured a much more centralized federal structure than the previous Articles of Confederation. Other uprisings, such as the Whisky Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania, were thereafter handily put down in a show of force by the new national state.
The young American bourgeoisie now had power firmly in its hands, and it proceeded to establish structures, laws, and institutions to enrich itself and defend its interests. It used the state power to root out the remnants of the old system and to build solid foundations for its eventual rise to world preeminence. Previously, the merchant capitalists, who bought cheap on the world market and sold dear at home, predominated. Now, the groundwork was laid for the development of the means of production and manufacture on a larger scale in the former colonies themselves, and the eventual rise of industrial and later finance capitalism.
The first national bank and a system of national credit and debt were established. Alexander Hamilton was the first Secretary of Treasury. This was like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. Hamilton was exemplary, albeit amoral, political-animal-battering-ram of early American capitalist property relations. He relentlessly laid the foundations for the system we still live under today. Great fortunes were made when he convinced the new U.S. Congress to pay in full the war bonds issued by the old Continental Congress during the war—but only after his speculator pals had bought the formerly near-worthless bits of paper up from the original owners for pennies on the dollar.
In short, the basic elements of the national-democratic revolution were carried out, establishing the conditions for the flourishing of capitalism on the American continent: a united territory, language, currency, legal system, a military to defend from foreign invders and to put down internal rebellions, etc. With an entire continent to occupy and exploit, there was plenty of room to extend the country and the capitalist system it was based upon.
Aspirations of the masses betrayed
The potential outcome for the revolution was necessarily limited and conditioned by the stage of development of the productive forces and of the classes in society at that time. It could not have been anything more than a bourgeois revolution, and as far as bourgeois revolutions go, it was well ahead of its time.
Nonetheless, in many other ways, the revolution was only partially completed. Even the political democracy side of it remains incomplete to this day. The institution of the Electoral College means that the highest office in national government, the presidency, is not directly elected by the people. Thousands of other officials are appointed, and are not elected or accountable to the electorate. The Senate is a kind of “House of Lords” with more political power per capita for the less-populated, more rural, and politically retrograde states. To this day, women do not have the same rights as men. And the continued existence of slavery necessitated a second social revolution—the American Civil War—to end slavery and establish a system of free labor throughout the country, finally allowing for the untrammelled domination of capitalism across the entire continent.
Given the objective conditions of the time, many of the ideals expressed by the Founding Fathers and radical pamphleteers who spurred the masses on to fight and die for the revolution were ultimately unrealizable and Utopian. Nonetheless, a body of marvelous revolutionary literature was produced, which put into eloquent words the aspirations of the masses, words which continue to receive a powerful echo to this day. How can we forget the stirring lines of the Declaration of Independence, with its premise that “all men are created equal” (except of course for slaves, Native Americans and women)? Or its assertion of the “inalienable rights of man,” and the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?
Now, the original draft referred to Life, Liberty, and the right to property. But Benjamin Franklin and others opposed including “defense of property” as one of the virtues of government in the Declaration. Franklin was a thinker and political economist ahead of his time. He believed property to be a “creature of society,” and that it therefore should be taxed as a way of financing civil society. So the more poetic “Pursuit of Happiness” made the final cut.
And of course there is the Declaration of Independence’s bold statement that
“whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Thomas Jefferson also believed that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure.” He was also in favor of regularly revisiting, revising and redrafting the Constitution, every 20 years or so, if necessary. These were bold ideas, especially in a world dominated by Kings, the Church, and centuries-old feudal obligations and hierarchies.
But economic reality and the needs of the system asserted themselves and the U.S. Constitution became the supreme guarantor of private property rights. Its is a remarkable model of bourgeois democracy—of democracy for the rich. It is cleverly balanced and designed to give the impression of genuine democracy, without ever letting the rabble have a real say in anything. Most of the Founding Fathers were fans of the old Roman Republic, and saw themselves as modern versions of the noble patricians, wisely ruling over a mass of ordinary plebeians. We all know how that ended: with the consolidation of power in fewer and fewer hands and the rise of the Roman Empire.
Third American Revolution needed
Like all bourgeois revolutions, what began as a highly progressive development was eventually transformed into its opposite. The U.S. is now the most reactionary power on the planet, not to mention one of the most undemocratic and economically unequal societies on earth. In one of history’s many ironies, the Americans are now engaged in occupying foreign countries and fighting against guerrilla insurgencies and enemies that “don’t fight fair.” They have even hired the modern version of the Hessian mercenaries—corporations like Blackwater—to do their dirty work for them. But that too will be dialectically transformed into its opposite in the coming period. Of this we can be absolutely confident.
The real revolutionary roots of these earth-shaking events should inspire us, just as they once inspired hundreds of thousands of ordinary American men and women to fight and die to change society. As Lenin put it in his Letter to American Workers:
“The history of modern, civilized America opened with one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars of which there have been so few compared to the vast number of wars of conquest which, like the present imperialist war, were caused by squabbles among kings, landowners or capitalists over the division of usurped lands or ill-gotten gains. That was the war the American people waged against the British robbers who oppressed America and held her in colonial slavery, in the same way as these ‘civilized’ bloodsuckers are still oppressing and holding in colonial slavery hundreds of millions of people in India, Egypt, and all parts of the world.”
And this is precisely why the historians of the ruling class have stripped the American Revolution of its real class content. They do not want us to remember that, as in all social revolutions, it was the masses who pushed the process forward at every stage. Nor do they want us to remember the significant infringements on the private property, power, and privileges of the then-ruling class that were unleashed by the revolution. The American Revolution was the first “clearing of the decks for capitalism,” a process further completed and consolidated by the Civil War.
Now the ground is being prepared for the third American Revolution—the socialist revolution, which will liberate the whole of humanity and transform human history forever.
Minneapolis, October 31, 2011
- Herbert Aptheker, The American Revolution (1763-1783)
- Gore Vidal, Inventing a Nation
- Harry Braverman, Sam Adams and the American Revolution
- Grant S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution
- Alan Woods, Marxism and the USA
- Leo Huberman, Man’s Worldly Goods
- Harry Braverman, America Also Had A Revolution, a Review of J. Franklin Jameson’s The American Revolution Considered As A Social Movement
- V.I. Lenin, Letter to American Workers