“[W]hat country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time that [the] people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants”. (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Col. William S. Smith, 1787.)
Nowadays, the public in the U.S.A. is taught to fear and hate revolutions. Like communism, they are regarded as un-American, something alien and a threat from without. In actual fact, from its very beginnings America has always been nourished by foreign revolutions, with waves of immigrants fleeing political repression in search of a better life. However, the above quotations show clearly that revolution is an idea that is far from foreign to the native soil of the U.S.A., which owes its very existence to a revolution. When the American colonists raised the flag of revolt against the English Crown, this was a very revolutionary act. It was this that served as the source of inspiration for the French Revolution that broke out just over a decade later. Thus, the flame of revolution in Europe was first kindled in America.
The young American bourgeoisie was rankling under the onerous rule of a foreign power based some thousands of miles away, which could introduce painful taxes, limits on trading and other burdens that hampered the free development of the American bourgeoisie. These fetters had to be broken and they were broken by revolutionary means. The imposition of the Stamp Act in 1765 was the event that set the whole process in motion. But it was only the accident through which necessity revealed itself, as Hegel would have said. In fact there were many other Acts that stoked the fires of resentment: the Navigation Acts, which regulated and restricted American commerce, the prohibition of settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains, and the Tea Act, designed to prevent the East India Company from going bankrupt.
A revolution necessarily means the eruption of the masses onto the arena of politics and can only succeed in its objectives to the degree that it involves the mass of “ordinary people” in activity. The American Revolution was no exception to this rule. In order to succeed, the bourgeois leaders must arouse the masses and lean on them to strike blows against the enemy. Although the official histories emphasize (and over-emphasize) the role of men like George Washington, what really guaranteed the success of the revolution was the active involvement of the masses – the artisans, carpenters, apprentices, the small farmers and trappers and the elements of the lower middle class, lawyers and journalists inspired with revolutionary ideas, who spurred them on to action.
The bad conditions and absence of rights produced a ferment of discontent in the lower orders of society. So when the merchants of the colonies rebelled against the impositions of the British administrations that hampered trade and made their life impossible, the lower classes joined in with gusto. Trotsky explains that poverty alone is not enough to make a revolution. If that were the case, the masses would always be in revolt. But it is not the case. The “mob” in America already existed before 1776, but was capable of doing nothing more than to cause occasional disturbances. Now things were different. The poor and dispossessed now had a focal point for their discontent, a banner and a rallying cry, even if it was not exactly their own.
A decisive role was played by revolutionary agitators like Samuel Adams of Boston, the most outstanding figure of the American Revolution. His energetic agitation for the revolutionary cause struck a responsive note among the masses. He was the most able of the class of agitators but there were many unsung heroes like him whose names have not come down to us. The immediate target of the agitation was the hated Stamp Act which required all legal documents, licenses, commercial contracts, newspapers, pamphlets, and playing cards to carry a tax stamp. Stamp distributors were hanged in effigy and their houses torn down. Packages of stamps were burned in bonfires to wild cheering and the beating of drums.
The class basis of the American Revolution was well understood by the British colonialists. General Thomas Gage who was head of the British troops in America wrote in worried tones to the King’s Secretary of State on December 21, 1765:
“The Plan of the People of Property has been to raise the lower Classes to prevent the execution of the Law […] with the view to terrify and frighten the people of England into a Repeal of the Act. And the Merchants, having Countermanded the Goods they had written for unless it was repealed, they make no Doubt that many Trading Towns and principal Merchants in London will assist them to accomplish their Ends.
“The Lawyers are the Source from whence the Clamors have flowed in every Province. In this Province, nothing Publick is transacted without them, and it is to be wished that even the Bench was free from blame. The whole body of Merchants in general, Assembly Men, Magistrates, etc., have been united in this Plan of Riots, and without the influence and Instigation of these the inferior People would have been very quiet. Very great Pains were taken to rouse them before they stirred. The Sailors are the only People who may be properly Stiled Mob, are entirely at the Command of the Merchants who employ them.”
These lines undoubtedly contain an error. It is always a characteristic of the police (or military) mentality that it attributes strikes, disturbances and revolutions to the work of “agitators” who are so inconsiderate as to stir up the masses. The latter would otherwise, according to this view, continue meekly to submit to the yoke. Agitators there were, of course, and very talented ones, such as Sam Adams. But to imagine that they could have such a dramatic effect on the masses, unless the latter were already prepared to hear their revolutionary message, is a self-evident stupidity. The relatively small number of revolutionary agitators organized in illegal societies like The Sons of Liberty, only succeeded because the people were already preparing to move, motivated by their own experience.
Role of the Masses
“If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home from us in peace. We seek not your counsel, nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you; May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.” – Samuel Adams
The official histories of the Revolution, as always, play down the role of the masses and concentrate on the upper strata – the wealthy Boston merchants and landowners like Washington, who were pursuing their own interests, as general Gage understood quite well. But in order to succeed in their struggle with the colonial administration, they were compelled to rely on the masses, who did all the fighting. It was the workmen in the towns who organized in the Sons of Liberty, wrecked the houses of the hated stamp agents and threw their furniture onto the streets and burned them. It was they who tarred and feathered informers. It was they who translated the speeches of the leaders into action. Later on it was the small farmers and trappers who played the decisive role in fighting against the English army of occupation.
The fact is that the American Revolution would never have succeeded unless the masses had intervened in a decisive way. It is a matter of record that the wealthy American merchants who had set the ball rolling with their clash with the City of London on questions of trade and taxation soon recoiled from the Revolution when they saw that the poor people were getting active and taking matters into their own hands. The aims of the wealthy merchants and landowners, however, were narrow and egotistical. They aimed to destroy the rule of the British Crown in order to replace it with their own rule. This was not a very inspiring prospect, and hardly a program to set the masses on fire. More idealistic slogans were necessary. Cromwell promised the masses in England the installation of the reign of God on earth, no less, while Robespierre proclaimed the rule of Reason and Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. The American Revolution also required a banner to rally around and a program they believed in.
All this is not to say that the men who led the American Revolution did not believe what they preached. They sincerely believed that they were fighting for the sacred principles of Liberty set forth so movingly in the Declaration of Independence. A man like Thomas Jefferson, the most outstanding of the well-known leaders of the Revolution, was a product of the Age of Enlightenment, well schooled in the ideas of Locke, Hobbes, Newton and Bacon. For such a man, the fact that the American colonies were ruled by a despotic foreign power must have embittered the very depths of his being.
However, while the speeches were being made on the top, the mainspring of the revolt came from the bottom. Before the Revolution the workers – the “men of no property” – were generally deprived of political rights. Power was in the hands of wealthy merchants and magistrates who could do pretty much anything they liked. The rate of wages was decided usually by an association of owners or masters in the same trade. These were almost always on a subsistence level. The workers had no say in the matter. Associations of workers were forbidden by law. Those who owned no land had no right to vote in any of the colonies. James Truslow Adams wrote:
“It was only as the Revolution approached that these unfranchised elements […] wrested political control of the colonial government from the class of propertied freemen, and then largely by illegal, violent and terroristic methods.”
The merchants were terrified that the masses would “go too far” and therefore attempted to reach a compromise with the enemy. In the moment of truth the rich American “patriots” had much more in common with their class brothers in England than with the working class and poor farmers of their own country. Many wealthy citizens deplored the actions of the “mob”. Such a man was Henry Laurens, a wealthy planter and merchant of South Carolina. For this “leader of public opinion”, things were getting out of hand. He asked “what would become of our estates without law, particularly ours who depend on commerce?”
While the respectable merchants fretted and dithered, the masses took decisive action from below. Hitherto the bourgeois had restricted themselves to a voluntary boycott of British goods. But the “Boston Tea Party”, when a group of colonists thinly disguised as Mohawks, resorted to direct action, dumping British tea chests into the sea, threw down a bold challenge to the British. British public opinion was outraged. London reacted by attempting to starve Boston into submission through the imposition of a naval blockade that closed the port. But this only radicalized the whole situation. Once a revolution has aroused the masses, they are not easily intimidated even by the greatest power on earth.
Even in the moment of its birth, America was faced with the crying contradiction between rich and poor – that is, with the class question. From the very beginning there has been a contradiction between the theory and practice of American democracy, an immense gulf between words and deeds. While the people were fighting for the Rights of Man, the merchants and landowners of America were really only concerned with the Rights of the Rich. Governor Morris expressed the feelings of the rich when he wrote:
“...These sheep, simple as they are, cannot be gulled as heretofore. In short, there is no ruling them … the heads of mobility [the mob] grow dangerous to the gentry and how to keep them down is the question.”
It has been the question for the American ruling class ever since. As early as 1772 – before the outbreak of hostilities with England – Sam Adams wrote in The Boston Gazette:
“Is it not High Time for the People of this Country, explicitly to declare whether they will be Freemen or Slaves […] Let us […] calmly look around us to consider what is best to be done […] Let it be the topic of conversation in every social Club. Let every Town assemble. Let Associations and Combinations be everywhere set up to consult and recover our just Rights.”
What is this but a call for the setting up of what the Russians were later to call soviets (which in the Russian language signifies “committee” or “council”)? The American revolutionaries set up something that approximates to soviets – that is, revolutionary committees – over one hundred years before the Russian workers thought of it. They established their Liberty clubs and Committees of Correspondence, which kept the revolutionary fighting groups in contact with one another.
The town laborers detested the whole colonial system and looked forward eagerly for its destruction. They could hardly be worse off! One of the most famous of the revolutionary secret societies was The Sons of Liberty. To disguise their identity they blackened their faces and dressed up as Indians or used other disguises. They used passwords and secret signs. Their favorite weapon was tar and feathers. They also tore down houses. Unpopular customs officers and Tories (that is, supporters of British rule) would end up tarred and feathered or have their house demolished, or both.
The activities of The Sons of Liberty and other similar groups gradually became bolder, to the point where armed clashes with the redcoats became inevitable. On March 5, 1770, a clash between a mob and British soldiers led to the “Boston Massacre” when the redcoats panicked and fired into the crowd, killing four people. The murderers were let of with minor punishments. This was the spark that lit the fuse. Sam Adams worked incessantly day and night writing letters to far-flung settlements denouncing these deeds. Paul Revere – a Boston engraver and a member of The Sons of Liberty – produced an engraving of the massacre that was distributed far and wide.
The irony was that the masses who led the revolt were fighting for demands that would benefit merchants like Laurens, not themselves. These men of no property would never have to put a Stamp Act tax-stamp on a document in their lives. Not for the first or the last time, the masses were fighting and risking their lives to fight someone else’s battle. As W.E. Woodward correctly points out:
“The discontent of the workingman was very real, and very bitter, though it had long been inarticulate. This dissatisfaction had nothing to do with British rule, though the illiterate mob was made to believe that Britain was the cause. The protest of the working classes was, in reality, an unconscious revolt against their position in the colonial world.
“The chief defect of colonial civilization – in respect to the common man – was not overregulation; the free white men of the time had more personal liberty than the common people in England. Its deficiency lay rather in underregulation, in a general neglect of all social problems. The higher classes had no time to give to the consideration of such matters. Their entire attention was fixed on land and money. They never made any serious attempt to better working conditions, or to establish minimum wages or hours of labor, or to consider the poor as anything else than servile dependents on the rich.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 131.)
The Declaration of Independence
In 1774 the delegates for the Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia. Hostilities had already broken out and the delegates, although all from the wealthier classes of society, were under pressure to adopt a more radical stand. Originally the majority of the upper class Americans did not want independence. But the mood of the masses made all thought of compromise impossible. The situation was explosive and this favored the most radical elements in Congress. As a result, on July 4, 1776, the Thirteen United States of America declared their independence from Great Britain.
The task of drafting the declaration was given to a committee composed of John Adams (cousin of Samuel Adams and future President), Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Thomas Jefferson, a 33-year-old Virginian landowner and left-winger, was charged by the committee to write the declaration. He wrote one of the most inspiring revolutionary documents in history.
Here was an act of tremendous boldness and one that required great courage. The revolutionaries had thrown down the gauntlet to the most powerful imperial state in the world. Their lives were now forfeit and could only be saved by outright victory and they knew it. There could now be no turning back, as Benjamin Franklin pointed out when he uttered the famous words: “We must hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately”. Later, when Jefferson was the American ambassador in France, he wrote:
“‘If our country, when pressed with wrongs at the point of the bayonet, had been governed by its heads instead of its hearts,’ he asked, ‘where should we have been now? Hanging on a gallows as high as Haman’s. You began to calculate and to compare wealth and numbers: we threw up a few pulsations of our warmest blood: we supplied enthusiasm against wealth and numbers: we put our existence to the hazard, when the hazard seemed against us, and we saved our country.’“
The Declaration of Independence, with its ringing endorsement of the idea of liberty and equality for all, was a clarion call to the downtrodden and oppressed everywhere. It was as revolutionary in 1776 as The Communist Manifesto would be in 1848.
This document seems the more remarkable because of the state of the world in which it was written. In 1776 there were kings on the throne of England, France, Austria and most of the other great powers of Europe. Russia was ruled by a tsar (or tsarina), the Ottoman Empire by the Sultan and China by its imperial dynasty. Democracy was therefore a novel and highly revolutionary doctrine.
This epoch-making document still has the power to inspire today. In it the idea of liberty is magnificently expressed. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are proclaimed as inalienable rights. But no citizen of Russia, China or the Ottoman Empire could say the same thing. Nor could the citizens of France, Austria or Prussia, and even England was a monarchy ruled, in practice, by a corrupt and reactionary oligarchy of wealthy landowners. The Declaration shook the world. When it was announced, it caused a tremendous stir in every American city. It was read aloud to exited groups of citizens on the streets of Philadelphia. Here was something really worth fighting and dying for! “And for the support of this Declaration”, Jefferson concluded, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
The document would doubtless have been even more radical had it not been for the fact that it had to be subscribed by all thirteen colonies, including the slave-owning colonies from the South. In fact, the most obvious and glaring weakness of the document is that it does not deal with the issue of slavery at all. There was a considerable slave population – 539,000 or one fifth of the total population of the colonies. It seems that Jefferson wanted to include a reference to slavery and made several proposals for its abolition, but all were rejected. Finally, following the protests of the slave-owning states, all mention of the institution of slavery was omitted from the final draft. Jefferson began to temporize on the issue, postponing it to some unspecified future date. In this way, the seeds were laid for a bloody Civil War and a second American Revolution.
On the thorny question of religion, however, Jefferson was implacable. He insisted that, though the citizen had the right to hold any belief he or she chose, governments did not have the right to favour any faith. Therefore the state and religion must be radically separated. At the time when this democratic principle was proclaimed, the states had their own laws on religion, mostly of a retrograde character. Some states prohibited Roman Catholicism. In Jefferson’s own state, Virginia, heresy was a capital offence. The radical separation of the state and religion is a basic democratic principle, but it is now under attack from the so-called religious right. These people wish to introduce religion into the schools and interfere with the curriculum to teach the First Book of Genesis instead of the scientific theory of evolution. These elements wish to throw America back to the Dark Ages, to the age of superstition and the Salem witch trials, and to ditch an essential feature of the Declaration of Independence.
Today the principles of the Declaration of Independence are the heritage of every American citizen. All Americans believe in these principles – at least, they would like to believe in them. Yet, if we are to be honest, there are contradictions in the very text of the Declaration and the American Constitution itself. When it is said that all men are created equal, this is clearly not in accordance with the facts. Although we may come into this world in a more or less equal state as human beings, there is inequality from the very start. The world is divided into rich and poor, and the former rule over the latter, exploit and oppress them. This was already the case when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and it is a million times truer today.
In the 18th century, it was still possible to dream of a democratic republic comprised of small farmers (this was Jefferson’s ideal), in which the differences between rich and poor would be reduced to a minimum. Over 200 years since the American Revolution, the U.S.A. is entirely dominated by a handful of giant corporations that act effectively as a law unto themselves, much as the old aristocracies of 18th century Europe did. Although theoretically the U.S. is a democracy and a republic, in fact all the important decisions are taken by small groups of unelected persons. Moreover, the power of the President, and the clique that surrounds him, is colossal and tends to constantly encroach on the rights of the citizens, the law and the Constitution itself.
For the wealthy merchants in Congress, freedom meant first and foremost freedom of trade and free enterprise. But free enterprise, as Marx explains, always begets monopoly, and today, the U.S.A. is more monopolized than any other country on earth. In place of Jefferson’s democracy of small farmers we have the dictatorship of Big Business. The roots of this contradiction can already be found in the 18th century, as we shall show.
First Shots of the Revolution
The revolutionary agitation gathered strength continually, impelled by the movement from below. There were attempts at compromise but they all broke down. It is not a question of the incompetence of lord North or the madness of George III, as some historians have tried to imply. Once the contradictions in society have reached a critical point, nothing can prevent an explosion. It is not a question then of this or that action by this or that government minister but of profound forces that, having matured over a long period, must break out onto the surface. Actually, the intention of the leaders was not to win independence from London but to reach a compromise that would lead to the abolition of the Stamp Act and other restrictive measures. When the First Continental Congress met it was overwhelmingly composed of wealthy landowners and merchants. The men of no property – the workers, artisans and dirt farmers – were conspicuous by their absence. The outlook of the majority was conservative:
“The spirit of colonial independence had not yet sunk deep into their convictions. Independence was too great a leap to take at once; they were less radical in temperament than the people who had sent them there. Why? Because all of them – or nearly all – represented some kind of vested interest and they moved with the customary caution of men of property. They regarded the Congress as a meeting of protest rather than of rebellion.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 145.)
We find a similar situation at the beginning of the French Revolution and the English Revolution. These were objectively bourgeois revolutions, but in practice the bourgeois elements that stood at the head of the movement in the initial stages were striving for a compromise with the old order. In every case the Revolution only succeeded to the degree that the leadership was taken out of the hands of the bourgeoisie and passed to the masses of proletarians, semi-proletarians and plebeians. If the bourgeois elements had retained control, it would have led to defeat. But that was not to be the case.
Events on the ground soon destroyed all attempts at compromise at the top. On April 18, 1775, events were brought to a head by the attempt of the British army to arrest two revolutionary leaders – John Hancock and Sam Adams. Warned in time by Paul Revere who rode out of Boston ahead of the troops, the pair escaped. Revere also warned the local militia commander at Lexington that they were in danger of losing their powder. The British, under the command of Major Pitcairn, arrived at Lexington to be confronted by some fifty armed Minutemen of the Massachusetts militia on the village green. When ordered to disperse, they stood their ground. In the ensuing fire fight, eight militiamen were killed. The first shots of the American Revolution had been fired.
The British may have won the first round but it was a pyrrhic victory. On the way back, the redcoats found themselves under fire from an invisible enemy. Farmers came straight from the fields, their clothes still caked in mud, and hid behind trees as they shot down one British soldier after another. By the end of the day, the militia had lost 93 men and the redcoats 293. Once the Revolution began it attracted all the slumbering forces of revolt that had lain dormant in the entrails of society. There were the backwoodsmen, for instance. They were not concerned with things like the Stamp Act but rather with the issue of land. For such men as these, Revolution was not just to kick out the British but also to break the power of the land companies – most of which were owned by Americans. These were the men who formed the most combative sections of the revolutionary militia – the sharpshooters whose guerrilla tactics drove the redcoats to desperation, attacking without warning and then disappearing back into the impenetrable forest.
Despite everything, the leaders continued to resist the demand for independence. Although the colonies had been advised to form temporary governments, Congress insisted that these provisional governments were to “continue only during the present unhappy and unnatural conflict.” (See W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 150.)
There were many traitors who did not want the revolution to succeed. Benedict Arnold was not an isolated case. Even those in Congress who reluctantly accepted the need to fight (when the British left them with no alternative) were more afraid of the masses than of the British redcoats. In their heart of hearts many of them desired some kind of deal. In fact, most of the American aristocracy were pro-British Tories. The strength of a revolution lies in the energy, the conviction and the active participation of the masses. The period of revolutionary ascent always corresponds to the period of greatest activity of the masses. That is why a revolution is democratic by its very nature. The same is true of any strike. A strike will succeed to the degree that the rank and file workers take the running of the strike into their own hands. Bureaucratic control is the kiss of death.
The psychology of the American elite was brilliantly conveyed by Gore Vidal in his novel about the American Revolution, Burr:
“‘I hate the enemies of England.’ There was real passion in her voice. ‘I hate what your Virginia dolt is doing to our world.’
“I assured her that it would still be our world when the war ended; but without the inconvenience of paying taxes to England. She would not believe me.
“‘It will not be ours but theirs, those wild men from the woods, from the water frontage, from the worst stews of the towns. They’ll take everything.’” (Gore Vidal, Burr, p.135.)
These lines perfectly express the mentality of the wealthy Americans who were terrified by the forces unleashed by the Revolution. The men of property – even those who hated the English – were afraid that by rousing the mass of poor and dispossessed Americans to fight the English, they would put in danger the sacred rights of private property. The American ruling class in its heart has always feared democracy and done its best to curtail democratic rights because they fear that a real “government of the people, by the people and for the people” would lead to the overthrow of the dictatorship of Money. All their actions have been governed by this fear – from 1776 right up to the present day.
Expropriation of Property
The ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence were extremely revolutionary for their day: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” This proclamation of equality was like a revolutionary manifesto. In earlier documents the “inalienable rights” of Man were usually stated to be “life, liberty and property.” The last point was of particular interest to the wealthy merchants and landlords who now stood at the head of the Republic. However, Thomas Jefferson substituted for this the phrase: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” leaving out any reference to property.
This was clearly a significant change the represented the pressure of the lower classes. In fact, the revolutionary government took measures that violated the sacred rights of property when it confiscated the estates of the pro-English landowners – the Tories. The estates were then broken up and sold to small farmers. In the process many of the big estates were broken up and something like an agrarian reform was carried out. This, along with independence, was one of the main gains of the Revolution. W.E. Woodward writes:
“The seizable property of the Tories, or loyalists, must have been about one-third of the total property value of the colonies. This is merely an estimate, and it is probably too low. Nearly all Tory property was confiscated, and the Tories were treated with the utmost rigor. Washington called them ‘abominable pests of society,’ and declared they should be treated as traitors. Their confiscated property was usually sold at auction, and it seldom brought more than a small fraction of its current value. The proceeds went into the state treasuries.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 166.)
The amounts of land confiscated by the revolutionaries were considerable. The Fairfax estate in Virginia covered six million acres. The Phillipse estate in New York extended for 300 square miles. Sir William Pepperell could ride for 30 miles along the coast of Maine without ever leaving his own land. Yet despite the demand from Britain that the loyalists should be given compensation, not a single cent was ever paid to them:
“Then came the question of compensation to the loyalists whose property was confiscated during the war. The American commissioners declared that the loyalists’ property had been confiscated by the various states, and that Congress had no power to compel the states to make restitution. As a compromise the Americans agreed to include in the treaty a clause which would ‘recommend’ the states to compensate the Tories. It was also agreed that private debts owed to British creditors were still valid. The compensation clause was futile; none of the states paid any attention to it.” (ibid., pp. 211-212.)
The same point is made by other authors:
“Loyalists were tarred and feathered, ridden on rails, flogged, even executed. The term ‘lynch law’ probably originated from the proceedings of one Charles Lynch, a justice of the peace in Virginia, who achieved a certain notoriety for his treatment of Tories.
“In addition to the brutal treatment they received, Tories had their property snatched from them by the newly formed revolutionary governments. Many Tories were forced to seek shelter behind British lines. These actions reflected not only a tradition of social antagonism but also a strong desire among revolutionaries to achieve a united front. By the war’s end, nearly one hundred thousand colonial inhabitants had gone into exile in Canada and England. Their banishment brought profound psychological alienation – ‘a dismal gloom’, reported one unhappy exile from London.” (P.N. Carroll and D.W. Noble, op. cit., pp. 117.)
George Washington Restores ‘Order’
The main concern of Congress was to keep control of the movement and limit its scope. On June 15th, 1775, three days before the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress assumed control of the militia that was besieging Boston as well as all the other men under arms in the colonies. Colonel George Washington, a rich landowner, was promoted to the rank of general and made commander-in-chief. This choice was no accident. The gentlemen in Congress needed an aristocrat as a guarantee against the “mob” in Boston. Discipline was to be restored. Order was to prevail. The wealthy property owners in Congress were more frightened by their own supporters than of the British army.
Washington must have been shocked at what he saw in camp. As befits a revolutionary army, there was an egalitarian spirit and a marked lack of rank. Ordinary soldiers spoke to their officers on familiar terms. They did not bother to shave and talked in the ranks. Men could come and go as they pleased. Washington soon sorted that out. He introduced courts martial. Lieutenant Whitney was convicted of “infamous conduct in degrading himself by voluntarily doing the work of an orderly sergeant.”
Did these methods give better results? Actually, they did not. The men that Washington criticized so bitterly were the same American militiamen who had inflicted a terrible defeat on the British army at Bunker Hill – a defeat so resounding that after it the redcoats stayed under cover for nine months. The American troops never achieved such a result anywhere else, despite all Washington’s discipline and courts martial.
George Washington was in fact a very mediocre figure. His role in the American Revolution has been greatly exaggerated, while the role of real revolutionaries like Sam Adams has been played down. “Discipline is the soul of an army” was one of Washington’s favorite maxims. True – but the discipline of a revolutionary army is not the same as the discipline of any other army. Broadly speaking, every army reproduces the structures and is motivated by the spirit of the society that produced it. The army of a democracy will not be the same as the army of a fascist regime. The army of a class society needs a ferocious discipline – a reign of terror in fact – because it is maintained by force.
The discipline of a revolutionary army, on the contrary, is a voluntary discipline because it is necessarily an army of volunteers. The armies of the French Revolution, although they were composed largely of untrained volunteers, dressed in rags and barefoot, swept the best trained and equipped mercenaries in Europe before them and scattered them like the wind. The difference is that they knew what they were fighting for. They believed in it and were willing to die for it. This made them virtually invulnerable.
A revolutionary army must be run on democratic lines. This does not at all contradict the requirements of discipline in the battlefield. The Russian Red Army under Trotsky was very democratic. The Bolsheviks abolished the saluting of officers and all the outward trappings of command: the medals and gaudy uniforms. The officers and men ate in the same canteens and the soldiers were no longer required to use the polite form (vy in Russian, like vous in French or usted in Spanish) when addressing an officer. But when in battle strict discipline was expected and all orders had to be obeyed. The Red Army became a formidable fighting force while maintaining the norms of proletarian democracy. By the way, a similar regime existed in Oliver Cromwell’s Model Army during the English Revolution in the 17th century.
The aristocratic Washington, who was very much in favour of pomp and circumstance, medals and smart uniforms, and who tried to impose strict (bourgeois) discipline in an army of revolutionary volunteers, did not make them a more effective fighting force but rather the opposite. In the same way the Stalinists in Spain in the Civil War of the 1930s, using the same arguments as Washington, actually destroyed the basis of the revolutionary army and undermined its fighting spirit, leading to its defeat at the hands of Franco’s fascist army.
Far from improving the military efficiency of the revolutionary forces, Washington committed a major blunder. The strength of the revolutionary army lay in its guerrilla tactics, combining flexibility with great mobility. They could inflict considerable casualties on the British and then vanish into thin air. The farmers’ boys and backwoodsmen were fine sharpshooters, but could not stand a bayonet charge by regular troops. Washington attempted to turn them into regular soldiers and made a mess of it. Charles Francis Adams, who was a soldier in the revolutionary army as well as a historian, wrote:
“Washington measured himself and his army up against his adversary at the point where they were strongest and he was least so. He offered infantry to infantry; oblivious of the fact that the British infantry were of the most perfectly organized kind, while his own was at best an extemporized force.”
The main problem was not military but political. Both Washington and the bourgeois and landlords in Congress lacked the will to pursue the fight against the British to the finish. They admitted there was a war but denied it was a war against the king! As a result the war dragged on inconclusively for years. Washington was a careerist, more suited for political intrigues and manoeuvres at the top than fighting the enemy. As Gore Vidal wittily (and correctly) says:
“[…] though Washington could not defeat the enemy in battle, he had a fine talent for defeating rival generals in the Congress.” (Gore Vidal, Burr, p. 73.)
There can be no doubt that the British were actually winning the war before the French came in on the American side. The French were motivated not by the love of liberty (they lived under an absolutist monarchy a hundred times more oppressive than the British equivalent), but by hatred of England, their old rival. This tipped the balance in favour of the American colonists. Britain was already worn down by the costs of a prolonged war that was draining them financially and disrupting trade, especially when Spain and Holland also joined in.
In 1781 the British general Cornwallis found himself trapped in Yorktown, with the American forces in front of him, and the French fleet in his rear. There was no escape. He was forced to surrender. At this time the ruling administration in London was led by men who were unenthusiastic about continuing the war. They added up their sums and concluded that it was costing them more to hold down the American colonies than what they could ever hope to get back. They decided to pull the British army out. The war was over.
Washington’s alleged military skills therefore had little or nothing to do with the victory. The war itself was really mainly a series of inconclusive skirmishes. As a military chief his record was very poor. In the first three years he lost every single engagement, except for a small victory at Trenton, and that was achieved more by luck than judgement. In a Christmas Eve skirmish in the middle of a snowstorm, he managed to defeat a whole brigade of Hessians. It helped a little that the Hessians, who had been celebrating the Festive season, were blind drunk at the time and did not know what they were doing.
Other revolutionary generals were more capable and more successful than Washington. And the most successful actions of the revolutionary forces were carried out by the guerrillas, whom he despised. The reason that Washington’s image has been boosted by the official historians of the Revolution is that he represented the most Conservative wing of the leadership – a “moderate”, a respectable man of property – a man in the image of the present-day rulers of the U.S.A., with whom the modern bankers, capitalists and Republican leaders can feel comfortable.
The attempts of Washington to control the revolutionary army from the top and impose a ferocious military discipline were not dictated by military necessity but rather by the wish of the bourgeois and landowners in Congress to police the revolutionary masses and prevent the revolutionary movement from getting “out of hand”. Even in the course of hostilities, the men of property were preparing for the moment of victory, when it would be necessary to reassert their “sacred right to rule” and crush the very people who had won the victory.
The New Oligarchy
“Democracy has never been and never can be so desirable as aristocracy or monarchy, but while it lasts, is more bloody than either. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.” (John Adams)
The fears of the “Moneyocracy” were fully confirmed by what happened after the British were driven out. With the removal of the common enemy, the class divisions emerged with renewed force. The wealthy upper class was itself divided between the Whigs, who supported the Revolution, and the Tories, the most conservative wing of the bourgeois and landowning aristocracy, who had supported the British Crown. But after the defeat of the English and the departure of the Redcoats, the Tories had no alternative but to throw in their lot with the winning side.
Although the right to vote was extended to include new layers of property owners, it was still highly restrictive. A new oligarchy was being created, in which the rich and powerful joined forces in a reactionary bloc against democracy and the demands of the lower orders. They attempted to give the most restrictive interpretation to the Constitution, stressing property rights above all else. Their model was the principles of the British government – that is, an aristocratic constitution that excluded the bulk of the people from government. The common people had shed their blood to drive the British out, while the American ruling class conspired in Congress to reintroduce the corrupt and undemocratic British system of government. For them, all the rights and privileges were the monopoly of the rich, while all the obligations and duties were for the poor. As long as the rich were all right, everybody was assumed to be all right. (The same idea is basically behind what is today called the “trickle-down” theory.)
A section of the bourgeoisie favoured a strong central state, while others wanted a weaker centre. From this arose the Federalist and anti-Federalists. Some of the Whigs became anti-Federalists, while others like Hamilton (who was really a monarchist in disguise) became strong Federalists. Tory Federalists became Republicans, while anti-Federalist Republicans became Jeffersonian Democrats. The Tories were in favour of strong central government in order to protect property, although previously they had been opposed to any government since they supported the British Crown.
The fact is that Alexander Hamilton and John Adams were conspiring to reintroduce an English-style monarchical system. The differences between Jefferson and Hamilton were between the right wing of the bourgeoisie, who wanted a deal with the counter-revolutionaries, and the more radical wing that was prepared to lean on the masses for support, but without surrendering an atom of real power. Of the 13,000 men who lived in New York City, only 1,300 owned enough property to qualify as voters. In the election of 1789 there were over 200,000 residents in New York State, of whom only 12,000 were eligible to vote for governor. In Massachusetts the property qualifications for voters were twice as high as under British rule. The Federalists were firm supporters of oligarchic rule and in essence opposed to democracy:
“Supporters of the new Constitution – people who styled themselves Federalists – argued that state governments were too susceptible to popular control, that the masses did not respect the interests of property, that liberty threatened the stability of the republics. The Federalists appealed to people with interstate interests – merchants, commercial farmers, public creditors, and urban workers whose livelihoods depended upon the prosperity of their employers. They also attracted politicians who lacked power within the existing state governments, men who hoped to supplant the entrenched political groups. As defenders of property, the Federalists saw a strong national government as a bulwark against the caprice of popular politics.”
“In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,” Madison declared, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” These lines strikingly express the attitude of the oligarchy to the people. The first task of government is not to represent the people, but to control them. The real attitude of the ruling elite was shown by the words of John Adams, who together with Hamilton had founded the Federalist Party (though he later described Hamilton as “the bastard son of a Scotch peddler”).
Party lines constantly shifted and the arguments between the rival factions were acrimonious at times, but in the last analysis, the entire ruling class was united against the demands of the workers and the poor. Having aroused the masses to fight against Britain, it was not easy to get them to accept the rule of a privileged oligarchy after the redcoats had left. In fact, for all the talk of “Liberty”, the victory of the Revolution had only transferred power from a corrupt and reactionary colonial government to an equally corrupt and reactionary American oligarchy.
The Revolution proclaimed the inalienable Rights of Man, but these did not include women, slaves, Native Americans or the great majority of the population who owned little or no property. When the revolutionary armies were disbanded, there was no money to pay the arrears of wages. Some of the men were paid off in land warrants, which were later sold to speculators for paltry amounts. Half the members of Congress had their pockets full of these warrants. George Washington was one of the big buyers. As President, Washington tried to give the impression of standing above classes and party strife. But in practice he represented the oligarchy, whose interests and psychology he shared:
“He was a practical man, not troubled much by unrealizable ideals. His intellectual outlook was that of an industrialist or a banker. It was what we call today the ‘banker-mind.’ The banker stands for stability, and Washington was for that. The banker is for law and order, for land and mortgages, for substantial assets – and Washington believed in them too. The banker wants the nation to be prosperous; by that he means that he wants the common people to have plenty of work and wealthy people to have plenty of profits. That was Washington’s ideal.” (W.E. Woodward, op.cit., pp. 255-6.)
In every great revolution we see more or less clearly defined stages, which recur with a strange regularity and with uncanny similarity. The initial stage, which corresponds with the first awakening of the masses and the growth of their self-awareness, is characterized by a mood of euphoria and a spirit of unity. But gradually this illusory unity dissipates and there is a growing division between the more revolutionary elements and the more moderate party. The period of revolutionary ascent is marked by a movement to the left, in which the more revolutionary wing and the most audacious leaders gain the upper hand and sweep all before them.
However, as Trotsky explains, revolution is a powerful devourer of human energies. As the masses become exhausted by their exertions and sink into passivity, the conservative wing tends to regain control and elbow the revolutionaries to one side. This happened in every bourgeois revolution in history, and corresponds to the inevitable dialectic of such a revolution. The Declaration of Independence stated that all men were born free, and proclaimed the equality of all men as “self-evident.” These were ideals worth fighting and dying for. But once the British had been defeated, the American bourgeoisie soon made it clear that all men were not equal, and that they intended to rule and exploit the people, just as the British had done before them.
There is a stage in every great revolution when the masses – or at least the most militant section of the masses – begin to feel that they have been cheated of the fruits of victory, that power is slipping through their fingers and they have to act to prevent this from happening. A desperate minority moves to take power and is crushed. This marks a decisive turning point in the revolution, where the conservative wing crushes its former allies and proceeds to consolidate its power as a new ruling class. This stage in the American Revolution was Shays Rebellion.
When the cannons had fallen silent and the smoke had finally cleared from the battlefields, the small farmers, workers and artisans who had done all the fighting looked around them and saw that they had gained nothing from the Revolution. They were crushed by debts and taxes. Interest rates were charged at up to forty percent. Poor settlers, crossing the mountains in search of land, found the best farming country in the hands of land companies. All the power was in the hands of the rich –the merchants, the landowners, the moneylenders. Runaway inflation made money worthless. To make matters worse, the war was followed by a deep trade depression that lasted from 1783 to 1788. Prices and taxes soared. As a result, thousands languished in debtors’ prisons. In Massachusetts alone, 90 percent of those in prison were debtors. The discontent of the masses reached boiling point.
There were serious uprisings in Massachusetts. In New Hampshire a mob of several hundred men marched to the legislature with clubs, stones and guns to demand relief. The rebels assumed (erroneously) that the problem was a shortage of currency. “Print money and lower the taxes” was their slogan. But there is no doubt that the high taxes fell disproportionately on the poor. They particularly targeted the courts where moneylenders would secure eviction orders against poor farmers who had fallen into debt. In the New York Picket of September 11, 1786 we read:
“On Tuesday the 29th [of August] … the day appointed by law for the sitting of the Court of Common Pleas […] there assembled in the town from different parts of the county four or five hundred people some of whom were armed with muskets, the others with bludgeons, with the professed intention to prevent the courts from proceeding to business […].”
This movement culminated in what was known as Shays’ Uprising – an armed insurrection led by Captain Daniel Shays, a former officer in the revolutionary army, and now, like so many others, a ruined small farmer. About 1,000 men armed with muskets, swords and clubs, succeeded in closing the courts for several months. Leo Huberman writes:
“The upper classes throughout the country were thoroughly frightened at this armed uprising of the poor people. There was no money in the treasury to pay the state troops, so a number of rich people contributed enough to do so. Shays and his followers headed for Springfield, where there was a public storehouse containing 7,000 muskets and 13,000 barrels of gunpowder, stoves, camp kettles and saddles. They were stopped by the state troops, a few shots were fired, and the mob dispersed.” (Leo Huberman, We the People, p. 94.)
It was at this time that Thomas Jefferson made his famous remark that the Tree of Liberty must be watered from time to time by the blood of patriots. He also wrote that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” However, this view was anathema to the majority of the American ruling class. Again, Gore Vidal accurately expresses the views of the oligarchy in the following imaginary dialogue between George Washington and Aaron Burr, a controversial figure in the American Revolution and the central figure in his novel of that name:
“Washington spoke through me, but not to cut me off: he was going deaf and did not hear half what was said to him. ‘When word came to me of the treasonous acts of a certain Captain Daniel Shays – a dirty fellow once known to me – it was apparent that we must have a strong government to protect our property. Mr. Hamilton concurred with me and we summoned a constitutional convention at which I, at great personal sacrifice, let me say, presided. I regard, Sir, that convention as the most important event of my own career. Because had we not invented this federal government, they would have taken away everything.’
“The face was dark with sudden color. The hands that were stretched to the fire trembled. ‘By now that Massachusetts rabble would have divided all property amongst the worthless classes. Not even your French have dared go so far. This is not natural, I said at the time. This must be stopped. We did not fight and win a war with a despot across the sea to be in turn tyrannized by a bloody mob whose contribution to our victory, if I may say so, was considerably less than that of those gentlemen who sacrificed all that they had in order that we be a separate nation. So what we won in that war we mean to keep, Colonel Burr. And I am sure that you agree with that sentiment.’” (Gore Vidal, Burr, p.192.)
The true significance of Shays’ rebellion can only be understood in class terms. Later general Knox wrote to George Washington to explain the dangerous character of the ideas of the insurgents. In particular, Knox said that the rebels believed that “the property of the United States has been protected from […] Britain by the joint efforts of all and therefore ought to be the common property of all.” He added: “Our government must be braced, changed, or altered to secure our lives and property.” (Quoted in W.E. Woodward, op. cit., p. 228, my emphasis, AW.)
The rebellion was crushed and fourteen of its leaders, including Shays, were sentenced to death, though later pardoned. In Shays’ rebellion, the masses, feeling that the power that they have fought and died for is slipping from their hands, tried desperately to seize the initiative again. But the movement was doomed to defeat. The class nature of the American Revolution of the 18th century was objectively bourgeois. It could not go beyond the limits prescribed by the capitalist mode of production. Consequently, the attempt of Shays to do so was condemned in advance to failure, as the similar attempt of the English Levellers and the Left Wing of the Puritans was condemned to defeat over a century earlier in England.
The challenge thrown down by Shays terrified the oligarchy that was quietly concentrating political and economic power into its own hands. They understood the need to create a strong state power immediately as a bulwark against the masses. At the same time they were under the pressure of the masses.
When the 55 delegates met in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation, not one of them was from the working class or the class of small farmers. The class that had done all the fighting and dying in the Revolution was rigorously excluded from the decision-making process. So were a number of the most prominent revolutionary leaders. Patrick Henry was not there. They asked him to serve, but he would have nothing to do with it. Nor was Samuel Adams, the most outspoken of the revolutionaries. Nor was Christopher Gadsden, of South Carolina, organizer of mechanics and laboring men. Their day had passed; the moving spirits of the convention did not want any organizers of rebellion, or leaders of the populace. Thomas Jefferson, idealist and democrat, was in France serving as the American ambassador.
The men who drafted the American constitution were all moneylenders, merchants, manufacturers, bondholders or slaveholders. They met behind closed doors, and all the delegates were pledged to secrecy. When the Constitution was finally announced most people were surprised. They knew nothing about it. The secrecy with which the Constitution was drawn up is no accident. It is possible to draw a parallel between this phase of the American Revolution and the Thermidorean counterrevolution in France, that is to say, the beginnings of a conservative reaction against the egalitarian spirit of the Revolution in its flood tide. In the sense that it marked the inevitable stage of stabilization when the men of money, the big landowners and wealthy merchants grabbed power out of the hands of the plebeian radical wing, this is a fair comparison. That is precisely why the proceedings had to take place behind the backs of the people.
Gradually, the voice of the radical elements was drowned out by the men of property. Hamilton was openly contemptuous about democracy. He was not the only one. Listen to what Madison had to say: “In future times a great majority of the people will not only be without landed, but any other sort of property. These will either combine under the influence of their common situation; in which case, the rights of property and the public liberty will not be secure in their hands, or, which is more probable, they will become the tools of opulence and ambition; in which case there will be equal danger on another side.”
These lines are perfectly clear. The fierce debates that raged over the Constitution were the parting shots of class conflict. The central contradiction may be simply stated: most of the authors of the Constitution did not believe in the equality of man, but the common people certainly did. It required a second revolution (the Civil War) to get the question of the suffrage included in the Constitution in the Fifteenth Amendment of 1870. But at that time the question was left up to the individual states. This meant that three quarters of the free white men in all states except two or three were excluded from voting because they did not posses enough property. However, at the proposal of Jefferson and other Left-wingers, a Bill of Rights was approved.
The discussions on the Constitution dragged on for months. The disputed questions were numerous: should large states have more say in the national government than small states? Should black slaves be counted as white people? And so on. But there was one question upon which they all agreed: that those with little or no property should not have too much power. In the end, the Constitution of the United States was only approved after bitter argument and even then was only passed by a narrow margin by those few who were eligible to vote, as these figures show:
New York 30 27
New Hampshire 57 47
Massachusetts 187 168
Virginia 89 79
The American Republic at its birth was a revolutionary power that owed its existence to the workers and small farmers and was, at least in the beginning, under their pressure. Later, as the lava of Revolution cooled, the big landowning and merchant interests prevailed. But in the beginning, the American Revolution was a beacon of hope to the entire world.
America and the French Revolution
The international significance of the American Revolution was far greater than what most people realize today. The connection between the American and French Revolutions was very close. That great English-American revolutionary Thomas Paine lived in France and developed the most radical ideas. The proclamation of The Rights of Man was a most revolutionary idea for its time. People like Thomas Paine were the most advanced revolutionary democrats of their day. The ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity that they advocated shook the ruling classes of all Europe.
What is even less understood is the impact these revolutionary ideas from America had on the infant workers’ movement in Britain. Tom Paine’s writings were passed from hand to hand in underground workers’ groups known as corresponding societies. Nowadays, the British establishment likes to parade its democratic credentials. But this is a blatant lie. The British ruling class fought tooth and nail against democracy. They opposed every attempt to establish the right to vote. This was conquered in struggle by the British working class, which paid a heavy price in martyrs, with imprisonment, deportation and even death as its reward. In those dark days when the working class of Britain was struggling to win the most elementary rights, when the trade unions were illegalized by Pitt’s notorious Combination Acts, the flame of freedom was kept alight, not only by the example of revolutionary France, but by the revolutionary democratic ideas of Thomas Paine, who for generations was the hero of British workers.
The American Revolution provided a stimulus for the French Revolution of 1789-93. But in its turn the French Revolution had a considerable impact on America. The news from Paris exacerbated the split between Right and Left inside Washington’s cabinet, especially after the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in April 1793. Jefferson, who stood on the Left, welcomed it, but the Conservative wing recoiled in horror, probably picturing themselves on the steps of the guillotine. Although the French Revolution appalled the American Conservatives, much as the Russian Revolution did later, it inspired the Left Wing and reaffirmed their revolutionary identity and aspirations. Even before 1789, Thomas Jefferson was strongly anti-monarchical in his views. He was sent as ambassador of America to Paris – probably to get him out of the way.
While in Paris he had occasion to note that France was divided between sheep and wolves, with an abyss separating rich and poor. Among all that aristocratic gang he felt like “a savage from the woods of America”. It was not therefore surprising that Jefferson greeted the Revolution enthusiastically. “Was ever a prize won with so little human blood?” he asked, answering the attacks of the enemies of the Revolution who (as they always do) tried to portray it as an orgy of bloodletting.
The French Revolution opened up a deep rift that expressed itself on party lines. The Jeffersonians were pro-French in foreign policy and advocated a loose confederation of states in America with less power for the centre. It based itself on the support of the small farmers and proletarian and semi-proletarian elements in the cities. The Federalists, on the other hand, were pro-British (their opponents called them “the English Party”), stood for a strong central government and represented the interests of the big merchants and manufacturers.
In October 1789 Jefferson returned to America. Revolutionary France was attacked by the reactionary powers of Europe: England, Austria, Sardinia and the Netherlands. The Democratic-Republicans wanted war against England, whereas the Federalists wanted war against France. The Democratic-Republican Party at that time stood on the left. They were pro-French, anti-British, and argued for greater egalitarianism. The leaders included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Clinton and Aaron Burr.
The Federalists were the right wing and included many former Tories. This was the party of the oligarchy par excellence, and was backed by Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, John Jay, and (surreptitiously) by Washington himself. However, realizing that for America to unite with Britain against France was politically impossible, Washington insisted on strict neutrality.
The impact of the French Revolution in America was tremendous. It gave fresh heart to the revolutionaries and the Left Wing and threw the Conservatives into a panic. They feared that the example of the Jacobins would lead to a second Revolution in America that would lead to the overthrow of the oligarchy. This did not happen because the vast open spaces to the West provided a safety valve. The energies of the downtrodden that in France were the mainspring of the Revolution, in America could be channelled into the movement to the West. Nevertheless, the contradictions remained and would burst to the surface in the Civil War.
The French Revolution, with its slogan Liberty, Equality, Fraternity also inspired an uprising of black slaves in Santo Domingo. This terrified the big landowners of the Southern States even more. Gabriel Prosser led an uprising of slaves in America, which was put down with great ferocity. Thousands of black slaves were slaughtered in Virginia.
The war in Europe had serious repercussions in America. Both the British and French seized American vessels. This was used as an excuse to bring in the Alien and Sedition Act that gave the executive the power to arrest and deport any foreigners and arrest citizens for criticizing the government. Here we see the beginnings of an attempt to limit and even undermine the democratic rights established by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Act was used to harass, arrest and imprison anti-Federalist elements. We see exactly the same thing now with the anti-democratic Patriot Act legislation introduced after September 11. Jefferson and others attempted to resist the attacks on democracy by insisting on states’ rights. Although the same demand was later filled by a reactionary content – to defend the right of the southern states to keep slaves – at this time it had a progressive character.
Federalists and Anti-Federalists
The struggle between Federalists and anti-Federalists was in essence the struggle between the American Thermidorean counter-revolutionaries and those who sought to uphold the original aims of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson even spoke openly of the need for a second Revolution. This was actually what took place in the Civil War. The third – and greatest – American Revolution is currently in the process of being prepared. The victory of the conservative faction led to a state of affairs which had very little to do with the revolutionary-democratic ideals of 1776. P.N. Carroll and D.W. Noble point out:
“The importance of the legislatures made questions of political representation more pressing than ever before. In organizing republican governments, American politicians assumed that the legislatures represented specific constituencies and spoke for that amorphous group they called ‘the people’. They agreed, nevertheless, that the power of the people could easily degenerate into anarchy and destroy the governmental balance. To reduce the likelihood of mob rule, the state constitutions restricted political participation to male property owners and often established still higher property qualifications for officeholding. Despite occasional demands for wider democracy, the older habits of elitist politics prevailed. Consequently political representation remained with the more affluent citizens even though there is some evidence that members of state senates were slightly less wealthy than the councillors of the colonial period.
“The conservative nature of these changes tells much about the American Revolution. Despite the revolutionary implications of the Declaration of Independence – the demands for government by consent of the governed and the assumptions about political equality – power generally remained in the hands of moderate leaders who were concerned as much with the interests of property as with the cause of liberty.” (P.N. Carroll and D.W. Noble, op. cit., pp. 120-21.)
Needless to say, the Federalists attacked Jefferson viciously, using exactly the same kind of language the U.S. reactionaries later used against socialists. When he stood against Adams in the election of 1800, it was said that a Jefferson victory would destroy religion and undo the bounds of society, and that a vote for Jefferson was a vote against God, etc. However, the people showed that they would not be bullied and voted for Jefferson, risking the wrath of the Almighty in the hopes of achieving justice in this life.
Even the geography of the new capital was a reflection of the class struggle. By moving the capital of the Republic to Washington, the Federalist faction clearly intended to remove the government and Presidency from the pressure of the masses of New York. The new capital, conveniently situated near to the conservative agrarian states of the South, was a place where hardly anybody lived. The scale and style of the White House and Capitol suggested grand imperial ambitions. Jefferson, who was allergic to monarchy, commented ironically that the White House was big enough to house “two Emperors, one Pope and the Chief Lama.”
To his credit, Jefferson immediately took measures to counteract the Federalists’ attempt to move in the direction of monarchy. He banned the use of his image on coins, forbade the celebration of his birthday and opened up the White House to anyone who wanted to visit him. He dressed so modestly that a visiting diplomat took him for one of the servants. This is quite in the spirit of the Bolshevik leaders who after the October Revolution would take no more wages than those of a skilled worker, walked the streets without armies of bodyguards and were easily accessible to anyone who wanted to meet them.
When the famous English writer Arthur Ransome visited Moscow in 1919 he met Bukharin, who at that time was a key figure in the revolutionary government. He gave Bukharin a packet of sugar, and the Bolshevik leader was delighted because he did not have any sugar. This was absolutely typical of all the Bolshevik leaders at that time. The situation only changed after the Stalinist political counterrevolution, itself the result of the isolation of the Revolution in conditions of frightful poverty and backwardness.
This democratic, egalitarian spirit of the founders of the American Republic stands in stark contrast to the conduct of America’s present-day political leaders. Thomas Jefferson was a true son of the Enlightenment with a classical education and a healthily sceptical attitude to religion. He dressed like a servant and when he died he did not have enough money to pay his debts. George W. Bush is an illiterate billionaire who cannot utter a single coherent sentence and has a brain that is chock-full of the crudest religious superstition. He also has pretensions to imperial grandeur to rival those of Nero or Caligula. We leave it to the reader to decide whether this represents progress or regression.