Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2904

The revolt by ‘colonials’ that launched the US

Here the great socialist communicator Duncan Hallas outlines a Marxist approach to the American Revolution
Issue 2904
John Trumbull, American, 1756-1843 "The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776" painted 1786-1820

Signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

 
 “We hold these truths to be ­self‑evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… 
 
“That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it…
 
“That these united ­colonies are, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent states, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”  
 
The men who put their names to this, the American Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776, were the leaders of the first successful colonial revolution.  
 
From the point of view of the British ruling class and—what is much the same thing—in the eyes of the law, they were traitors.
 
“We must all hang together,” said one of them, “or we will all hang separately”. That was literally true.
 
Treason, of course, is a political crime but a rather special one because, as the old saying has it, “Treason never prospers; for if it doth it is no longer treason.”
 
The traitors of 1776 were successful. They became the founding fathers of the United States of America. They were, for the most part, rich men.
 
Like the ­leaders of the English Revolution in the previous century, they became revolutionaries to protect and increase their wealth.
 
They believed, with good reason, that it was threatened by ­continued British rule.
 
An American historian wrote of the delegates to the first Continental Congress, “They were the American aristocracy; the merchants, the ­lawyers and the great planters of the South.”
 
This was clear enough to the British rulers of colonial America.
 
“The plan of the people of property,” wrote the British General Gage, “has been to raise the lower classes…without the influence and instigation of these [the wealthy] the inferior people would have been very quiet.”
 
And an English Tory drew the attention to a very peculiar fact about the American ­advocates of the “Rights of Man”.
 
“Why is it,” he asked, “that the loudest yelps for ­liberty come from the drivers of slaves?”
 
It was partly true. George Washington was a slave owner. So was Patrick Henry, the radical who proclaimed, “Give me Liberty or give me Death.”
 
The developing capitalist class in America, for that was what the revolutionary leaders represented, was not oppressed by a semi-feudal monarchy.
 
That had been destroyed in Britain in the 17th Century revolutions.
 
It was oppressed by the ­“colonial system” operated in the interests of British ­capitalists.
 
The colonies were run as sources of raw materials for British industry and markets for British manufacturers’ surplus.
 
The colonists were ­forbidden to manufacture ironware of any kind. That was reserved for British ironmasters.
 
The Americans could make iron, but only for export to Britain. They were forbidden to manufacture woollen goods and even hats and caps.
 
No competition with the most important English textile industry was allowed. The Americans must buy British.
 
The British Board of Trade spelt out its policy in a ­statement some 20 years before the revolution.
 
“Encouraging ­manufactures which in any way interfere with the manufactures of this Kingdom, has always been thought improper, and has ever been discouraged.”
 
Equally important was the British control of trade. The most important colonial exports—tobacco, cotton, rice, indigo, iron, timber and, after 1776, even fish and flour—could be legally sent only to Britain.
 
British merchants naturally took advantage of their monopoly position.
 
And imports from countries other than Britain were either forbidden or ­subject to such heavy taxes that they could not compete with British goods.
 
The Americans had to pay the extra prices. In these circumstances smuggling became a major American industry.
 
For example, sugar and molasses—for making run—could be bought in the French West Indian islands for up to 40 percent below the British prices.
 
Respectable fortunes were made by smuggling in illegal French molasses and sugar in exchange for the equally illegal export of American goods.
 
Some idea of the scale of this criminal activity can be seen from the estimate that in 1763 some 15,000 hogsheads of molasses were imported into Massachusetts and only 500 of them paid the tax.
 
The men who operated this huge defiance of the law were not petty criminals.
 
They were highly ­respectable citizens, great merchants and ship owners, such as John Hancock of Boston.
 
He signed the Declaration of Independence in extra-large letters so that, as he said, the King of England would read his name without using spectacles.
 
The revolutionary crisis was sparked off, as commonly ­happens, by the government.
 
In 1763, at the end of the seven years’ war with France, the British government permanently took over French Canada, thus freeing the colonies of the threat of the French and their Indian allies and so making British rule less acceptable.
 
It then went on to tighten its control over American trade. It reinforced its naval patrols against smugglers.
 
More troops were sent to America to enforce “law and order” of the British ­capitalist variety and new laws were introduced to tax the American colonists so that they might pay for the privilege of being oppressed.  
 
“No taxation without ­representation” became the popular slogan. But in fact the more radical colonial leaders did not want representation in the British parliament.
 
There they would be a ­permanent ­minority. They wanted independence.
 
One thing that helped them win the support of large numbers of poorer Americans was the “Proclamation” by which the British government forbade the colonists to move across the Allegheny mountains into what is now the Middle West.  
 
Poor men were prevented from getting land of their own. The radicals developed political organisations, the Sons of Liberty and the Committees of Correspondence.
 
They organised protests and riots, like the Boston Tea Party, to destroy British goods. They clashed with British troops.
 
And gradually they gained the support of a large active minority of the colonists.
 
It was on 19 April 1775, at the little town of Lexington near Boston, that in the words of the American poet, Emerson, “The embattled farmers stood and fired the shots heard round the world.”
 
The British regulars were beaten at Lexington. Not many of them it is true, for the famous battle was a very small affair. But the moral effect was tremendous.
 
From then on all compromise was impossible. The men who fought at Lexington were not merchant princes or great planters. They were poor men.
 
And throughout the long hard struggle until the decisive defeat of the British at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781 “the men of the revolutionary army, for the greater part, were plain people, the small farmers, the frontiersmen, in short the poorer classes”.
 
They fought because they believed they were fighting for a new world.
 
And basically, in spite of slavery in the south, in spite of the fact that the revolution was “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight,” they were right.
 
It was a rich man’s war, but it was not only a rich man’s war. 
 
The men who came to rule the new American republic were not “plain people”, they were the American capitalist class.
 
But the republic was undoubtedly an advance, politically and economically, even for the majority of poor Americans.
 
The American Revolution was a capitalist revolution—a bourgeois revolution in Marxist language—but it was a ­capitalist revolution at a time when capitalism was still a progressive system, the best then possible.
 
It was a step forward in America. And not only in America. 
 
The ideas of the Declaration of Independence, of the Rights of Man, soon came back to a Europe that was still, Britain and a few small countries apart, semi-feudal. 
 
They came back with the prestige of a successful revolution behind them. They helped to ignite the great French Revolution.

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