By 1763 the American Colonies had
achieved so substantial a population and "Gross National Product,"
so far away from Britain, that we can ask the question
in retrospect: "What could have held them to the
British Empire?" Our answer would probably be,
"Nothing besides armed force or mutual regard."
To many Americans, England was a drag.
It oppressed typical American minds, their peculiar vision,
a rampant American craving for equality and mobility.
No better reasons could exist for getting rid of the connection,
no matter what the circumstances. And,
so far as losing the Loyalists was concerned, these,
by their very circumspection with regards to the bonding,
were an additional load on the drag of the parent.
Few people in America could go back to unbrutalized
progenitors or recall happy times in the Old Country.
Moreover, half were only step-children anyhow,
non-English by descent.
Yet, before fracturing, relations between the nations
underwent severe contortions, energized by unconscious
psychological drives, and rationalized in terms of ancient
civil rights, high taxes, and severe despotism.
The colonies reached a take-off speed before rebelling.
Back 33 years from 1775,
1742 and thereabouts, the
colonies, as such, could be said to have achieved an admirable
equilibrium bordering upon the Enlightenment
that was now spreading out of France:
Glass-making factories were set up in 1739-40 in
New Jersey by Caspar Wistar, using German and
Belgian craftsmen. In 1740, Parliament
legislated to permit citizenship to
any person resident in the colonies for seven years,
upon taking a loyalty oath; what's more, it allowed
Quakers and Jews to be exempt from oath-swearing,
and let any citizen of the colonies carry his or her
citizenship from one colony to another,
significant of a sense of togetherness of the colonies and
foreshadowing the Constitutional provision that extends the
rights and immunities of a citizen of one State to all States.
In 1741 the number of fishing boats operating out of
New England alone approached 2000.
The American Philosophical Society was
established in Philadelphia in 1743 for the purpose of
scientific inquiry, with Thomas Hopkinson as President and
Benjamin Franklin as Secretary. In Bethlehem,
a Collegium Musicum was founded for the production of musical
concerts by Moravian churches. (Moravian John Antes
composed the first American chamber music,
trios for strings.) In 1747 the
College of New Jersey, now Princeton University,
opened its doors at Elizabethtown. And so
colonial culture followed upon the heels of Europe.
The British government had its own way of behaving. It had been
having a jolly successful time in the world by the standards then
prevailing: winning wars, cashing in on heathen loot of the true Indies,
luxuriating, reveling in memories of a century of revolutions thankfully
completed - acting overall as if it would live forever.
The London mob was a nuisance, it is true.
In 1768, for instance, numerous
crowd demonstrations, riots, and strikes occurred,
usually protesting against high prices of necessities of life.
The lessons of such events were not lost
upon American agitators.
Remarkably, the elite, when they had to consider American problems
at all, were almost unanimous in believing that the Parliament, and the
King when the Parliament was not offended, had sovereign rights over
the colonies. That the Americans spoke a kind of English should only
make it easier to get the message across to them. The elite - titled,
rich, or both - and respectable upper middle class had a
condescending interest in the colonists, who were generally of the
poorer class of people, who provided a great lot of raw material - as
any third-world country should - who bought greedily more than they
could afford from the merchants of England. There was no higher
culture to import; an occasional Indian in regalia was fun.
We have treated the Americans very well, they thought.
Until now the colonists had experienced no great problems coming out
of Britain. Royal governors had been increasingly running affairs; there
were more of them, too; but the colonial legislatures were gaining in
experience, corporate confidence and power. Nor was there even
much reason to concern themselves with the Old Country except as a
giant "Post Exchange" and a depot for receiving their exports and
crediting their accounts at the going rate. They bought English books
and other printed material in large quantity, yet, here, too, they were
publishing too much to be readily controlled by authority, religious or
political. Whatever legislation and customs duties applied to them
were not onerous or could be evaded. Also, giant Post Exchanges
existed in other countries.
Was it then success that spoiled imperial harmony? Certainly the fatter
the chicken, the more solicitous the farm wife. Every index of
American economic growth rose rapidly. Could not the Home
government now reap a reward for its patience? What good is a colony
unless there was some government revenue to be obtained from it?
History at this point could become a tale of a score of attempts to
extract funds and obedience from colonials and an equal number of
tactics to ward them off. In the end would happen the Revolution.
But Revolution, at least this one, that ushered in the Modern World,
requires a thoroughgoing explanation. Indeed we need to go into
abstruse considerations of psychology and sociology to explain what
happened.. There comes first the traditional causal sequence of highly
visible causes marching along from 1763 to 1776, boom, boom, boom.
Attached to these, but extending farther and deeper, come perceived
and unperceived but reasonable explanations. Then I would point out
the kinds of tactics used in pushing the revolution forward -
quite extraordinary, even brilliant - and the responsive tactics of the
British authorities - these being stupid and torpid on the whole and
exhibiting a contemptuous disregard of what
might be motivating the colonists.
Finally I would offer an overall explanation of how it flared up.
Until the very end of this third type of explanation, it will simply not be
conclusive that there should have been a Revolution. No causes
seemed to have been sufficient in themselves or in combination to
bring it about. The Revolution, I think, had to come out of something
peculiar about the American people at that time, something that we
will understand better because we have laid the
foundations for it in earlier chapters.
Already familiar with most of the background factors that tended
toward independence by revolution, we need only allude to them
briefly in order to understand how they worked. The fiercely
individualistic, almost anarchistic, Leveller influence of the mid-1600's
revolts in England spread their contagion to the New England and
Pluralist colonies; "every man a king" in his own ego-circle. Colonial
governments had not given into the directly and fully democratic
government that these ideas implied, but the pressures were being felt
all along the line.
Locke, in his well-read Second Essay on Government, developed the
notion that government was a social contract among individuals, and
this idea too played into the already developed idea of written
constitutions being the basis and authority of government; Locke also
developed beautifully the value of personal property (preferably lots of
it) in perfecting human happiness and fulfilling human nature. There
occurred the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, which affirmed the right
of Parliament to have the last word on legislation and verily on the
person who should be King, and promulgated encouraging words
about individual liberties. (Actually, this Revolution was the
self-serving work of a gang of military men seeking to preserve their
careers, elevated during the Protestant rule.) Britain's behavior, as well
as its philosophers, was setting a momentous example for the colonies.
In the middle 1700's, the philosophers continued their work of eroding
the basis of British authority: the New Radicals picked up where the
Levellers had left off, and added the big idea of
"Happiness of the Greatest Number"
(an idea of Giuseppe Beccaria that was developed in political science
by Jeremy Bentham, whose Fragment on Government
occurred in the fateful year of 1776). From France came
the justification of a government such as the English, whose
departments - executive (monarchical), parliamentary, and judicial -
are separately independent and capable of balancing off one another,
with excellent effects, according to the author of the theory, Baron de
Montesquieu; his theory was exaggerated and therefore dubious, but
sales of his Bordeaux wines to flattered English customers
picked up markedly.
In a very different way, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was promoting
revolution by advocating a return to nature, with books of
anthropology, The Social Contract, and on education, like Emile. He
gave man natural rights to liberty and gave legitimacy only to
governments formed under contract or something similar thereto. (He
also advised mothers to nurse their own infants, which so affected the
upper class that they could be seen at the Opera suckling their babes;
and his return to nature appeal was heard by Queen Marie-Antoinette,
who took to farming, and milking her own cows in the
Versailles palace gardens.)
One can appreciate how Benjamin Franklin, très chic in a beaver cap,
wooed the ladies of the French court; but he never kept his eye off the
main chance, which was to get the French government to come out
openly in alliance with the Americans rather than to feed the
Revolution unofficially. Together Locke and Rousseau provided the
natural state of man as the blank tablet on which to write the
Declaration of Independence and the numerous
constitutions of 1776 and thereafter.
Hardly had the year 1776 begun than Tom Paine, a trouble-making
New Radical, who had left his native England for America only two
years before, published Common Sense: the book swept Americans off
their feet; a hundred thousand copies were quickly sold. The War was
already on, even without a complete weaponry against the King, so
Paine's breathtaking propaganda tract against the institutions of
monarchy and colonial dependency mobilized thought, and incited
many ordinary people to action.
By the mid-1700's the Enlightenment was in full swing in France and
spreading around Europe and into England and the Colonies. Diderot
and D'Alembert were furiously preparing their Encyclopedia of how to
do everything in science and society. Voltaire, the scourge of religion
and bigotry, who may have been the world's premier social critic,
was in full vigor. People like Franklin and Jefferson were all ears to
these superb noises. No one could well avoid fetching notions of the
rationality and perfectibility of mankind, the possibilities inherent in
science and invention, the need for reasonable arrangements of the
machinery of government instead of the hodge-podge of institutions
that had come down from medieval times. In the forefront of
Enlightenment ranks were the Freemasons, multiplying rapidly all over
America. Although spawned in Britain, they found American waters
deliciously energizing. Through Jackson, excepting John Adams, the
Presidents were Masons, and later on, too.
Thus we had fighting for the independence of the Colonies some fresh
major ideas of the modern age quite up to the moment: the urge to
egalitarianism and individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness, the doctrine of popular consent to government, the
justification of resistance to tyranny and the value of a republican
government of separate and balancing branches, the need for a real
elective rather than an elite's "virtual" representation of a considerable
part of the population.
I shall merely mention the American pamphleteers who belabored
these points. Their big job was to relate all of the world-shaking ideas
to the proximate needs of the American colonists. They began with
James Otis in 1764 speaking of the rights of the colonists as British
subjects. Daniel Dulany, publishing a year later, was intent upon
obtaining full and equal representation for the colonies. John
Dickinson, a Philadelphia lawyer, aforementioned, published in 1767
his "Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer." James Wilson, also from
Pennsylvania, published a similar pamphlet, as the crisis deepened.
John Adams, in Massachusetts, the same who defended the British
charged in the Boston Massacre, turned ponderously into a Patriot
with his own pamphlet.
No worthy theorist should ever have disputed that the power to
govern includes the power to tax, and that the power to tax is the
power to destroy. These are sacred principles to even a moderately
observant politician. Yet both English and American advocates wasted
much ammunition in banging away at these statements, as if the
smithereens would compose an answer to
what ailed British-American relations.
To cap the propaganda process, Thomas Jefferson joined with
Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to write a
Declaration of Independence of the United States of America
in Congress Assembled
of July 2, 1776. (The two-day difference from July 4, when it was
published, could be called an administrative delay. The names of the
actual signers from the Continental Congress were not made public
until some months later.)
In the context of revolutionary propaganda, the Declaration was a
masterpiece. It made the signers feel it worthwhile to put their lives
and fortunes on the line; it ennobled the whole rebellious operation; it
made the British King, Parliament and officialdom appear to be a
heinous crowd; it made armed rebellion seem to be the only way out
for a large oppressed population. It provided so many accusations that
anyone who proposed to defend the British cause would be
overwhelmed by the charges at the start.
But once again, we must remind ourselves that the War was already on
at this late date, and return to its intermediate-range causes. For many
historians, the rise of the merchant class in the colonies and the
restrictions put upon them by the Crown adequately explain the
Revolution. I would say yes to the first and no to the second. The
Revolution would not have occurred if the merchants had been few,
poor and weak. Instead they were numerous and increasingly wealthy
and powerful; more than that, they were not a particularly peaceful
class, engaging, as they did, in privateering, the slave trade, and
wholesale smuggling. Too, they had acquired worldwide experience
and profit. They were not country bumpkins.
Indeed, many a merchant feared more than anything the strict
enforcement of the laws against smuggling, entailing confiscation of
his boat, fines, and possible imprisonment as the alternative to paying a
tax that might be several times the cost of the bribes for smuggling
safely. But the corruption of British officials - almost down to a
man, they had to be paid off - created as bad a situation as the
thousand American jurisdictions where pay-offs have been de rigueur
in contemporary times. So did their procedures - red tape, delays,
sneering at all and sundry. Most annoying, but hardly ever a casus
belli: substantial merchants usually could send
minions to wait in line and be snubbed.
Could the merchants and their media of opinion have been
so indignant at the smaller sums that they had to pay
in bribes of customs officials and all the others,
that they were ready to pay an honest tax honestly administered?
There is no sign of that. Could some of these Americans
have been so devious that they wanted Independence so that they
could have for themselves and their own friends the customs and tax
collection jobs and the proceeds of bribery?
However, rather than answer this question, we might go on to
ascertain the other nodes of discontent. On the frontier, more than
anywhere else, there was an ethnic dislike or at best a tolerant
indifference to the British. I speak of most Scots-Irish, many Germans,
and various other nationalities who had poor memories of the British
at home and who were expecting the British to side with the Indian
tribes "in preference to their own people" on issues of warfare, land
rights, and civil rights. The land speculators got a big scare in 1763
with the Royal Proclamation that took all of the land West of the
mountains into Royal hands and put it under the jurisdiction of the
unreliable Quebec authorities.
The evangelistic and independent Protestant sects were numerous and
often small, and they feared that one day the Crown would decide to
build up the Anglican Church in America, send over a horde of priests,
and make the Church of England the official church of America. The
same elements had aroused large sections of the American people to
heights of religious ardor. A "national" spirit had developed. Now, if
those with this ardor and spirit were tired of revivalism and looking for
another exciting experience, and if those who had not received the
religious message but wished they had received any kind of message at
all were also looking for excitement, what better than a resistance
movement and a revolutionary movement to provide a second Great
Awakening! The religious spirit was in abeyance in
much of the population.
The age of veneration of elders was passing, too. Patriarchal authority
had began to attrite upon its New England landings. The population
was now not only in large part long divorced from Old Country ties,
but composed of brash youth - with most of the population under the
age of 16. The Revolution was to be of youth against age. Family
relations had undergone a fundamental change in America, and to a
degree in England. Tie-ins between parental and political authority are
close. When the one moves, the other follows.
Such has been known since Plato wrote The Republic.
One may wonder, however, at the increasingly sophisticated and
powerful planter class, firmly in control over most of the South. Why
should they be inclined to resent the British? Here the evidence is
striking, though rarely brought forward. The planters as a class were
near bankruptcy. They owed a great deal of money to their British
agents and bankers. They had splurged on gadgets and consumer
items. They had suffered, as farmers always will, years of insects and
droughts and floods, during which they ran up debts, and, being
premature Keynesians, they had borrowed so as to spend during the
bad times in anticipation of the good times, but, of course, as all the
Keynesians should have known, in good times they spent even more.
They were not savers; to the contrary, they had run up by 1775 total
personal debts with accrued interest, according to the main group of
British merchants reporting in 1791, of 4,137,944 pounds sterling and
of this amount, 2,305,408 pounds were owed by Virginians. The
Southern personal debt came to five-sixths of the total all-American
debt of 4,930,656 pounds owing to British merchants. The planters'
homes, lands, slaves, and forced laborers were mortgaged to a small
number of British merchants. Nor could they protect themselves
against dispossession, as, say, they might have done if they were truly
feudal lords operating under the English feudal code of laws.
To make the cheese more binding, the merchants were of the class of
religious Dissenters who had thrown some of the planters' Cavalier
ancestors of the previous century out of England. Speak what one will
of the necessity to pay one's just debts - and the planters were not the
best audience anyway for such moral righteousness - the conditions of
survival personally and as a class dictated that the planters enter upon
a revolution to separate themselves and preserve
themselves from Britain.
Thomas Jefferson, as he composed the Declaration of Independence,
owed a Glasgow firm and a London firm a total of about ten thousand
pounds. This could have been a reason either for or against his
amending John Locke's natural rights of man to life, liberty, and
property in favor of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Half
a dozen considerations becloud the issue from either side, and I would
warn both the naive and the cynical reader against a
The crisis of the revolution lasted from 1763 to 1774 and the War
from 1775 to 1783. The Royal Proclamation of 1763, giving the
western lands back to the Indians and forbidding settlement (with
perhaps a hundred thousand Europeans already scrounging around the
vast region) marked a big split in the interests of the American and
British allies. Although the Proclamation was soon amended, a hostile
suspicion was aroused. This could be called the first of various
measures that were taken by the British government and considered in
the end so evil that all the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence
would be justified. In 1768 and 1770, British officials concluded new
treaties much to the disadvantage of the Iroquois and Cherokee
Nations, taking from them most of the Near West.
The colonists of course were pleased.
In the year 1763, the British government decided that it ought to
enforce the Navigation Acts for a change. These measures were typical
of the authoritative economics of the age in Europe: "keeping all
profits to one's own nation" by directing all trade to pass internally and
be taxed before being allowed to move into international commerce.
Americans could not ship directly to France, but had to pass through
English customs and often unload and sell in England for transhipment,
with or without processing, to France. The system called for blocking
imports from foreign lands as far as possible, whether to the colonies
or the motherland. The amended Acts also set up a Vice-Admiralty
Court at Halifax to try cases of smuggling. Even though this meant
trial without jury, there was nothing unusual then or
now about the procedures.
Not only were the Navigation Acts typical of
state conduct generally, but the extent of smuggling and bribery
were already so great as to return to the British Treasury
in a given year no more or even less than was spent on
setting up and carrying on the system. While one
American trader was complaining at the corruption, another was
engaged in corruption. One searches practically in vain
for American pamphleteers urging Americans to obey
the laws against smuggling and bribery - or, for that matter,
against any criminal activity to the disadvantage of the
motherland. One must wonder, in the great war of
1756-63, whether the colonies
traded more with Britain than with France, Spain, and Holland.
Yet no sooner had the War ended and the British
government begun thinking about reducing the national debt,
and taxing also the colonies for their part in a War that
benefitted them greatly, than a great hullabaloo arose.
In 1764, as part of a Revenue Act,
Parliament cut the duty on molasses in half,
in order to compete with the lower charges for bribery, and
to collect more money. It imposed new duties
on textiles, wines, coffee, indigo and sugar.
The express purpose of the tax was to raise revenue;
hitherto taxes were considered incidental to the regulation of
trade, not levied for general governmental revenues. The
distinction incited a long bitter debate, which to this day is
incomprehensible, no one having been able to
make a clear or even a useful distinction.
Again in this year that so annoyed many colonists and gave them an
inkling of the privileges of Big Brother Abroad, the colonies were
ordered to cease to print paper money. Naturally this resulted in a
deflation and depression. It also kept the colonies from building
enormous debts, from causing a heavy inflation, and from
In 1765, we had the Stamp Act. This foolish kind of tax, much favored
by many nations up to this day, sells stamps to put on documents of all
kinds, and playing cards, chewing tobacco and other items. It was a
sort of a "value added tax," or "sales tax" on consumption. The
colonists raised such a row that one would think the world was
coming to an end. To this day the history books speak excitedly about
this invasion of the sacred rights of British subjects. The
Massachusetts Assembly called for an all-Colonial Congress. Some 27
delegates from 9 colonies appeared and denounced the law and the
purposes imputed to it. The Stamp Act was
repealed by a baffled British government.
Also in 1765 Parliament passed the Quartering Act that required all
colonies to feed and house British Army troops. (Note that the soldiers
need not be lodged under the same roof with your family; your town
could provide a barrack for them; rent would be paid for private
lodgings.) Rumor had it that a total of 10,000
troops would be permanently stationed in the colonies.
Many colonists wondered why.
In 1767 Prime Minister Townshend, who was quite learned but
considered to be one of the more stupid statesmen of the period,
instigated the Townshend Acts, which a) provided three new admiralty
courts (not until the 1920's would special courts against smuggling
have so much business); b) raised taxes on several colonial imports; c)
created a strong Board of Customs Control at Boston to keep a tighter
rein on sea traffic; d) declared that Customs would pay the salaries of
top colonial officials instead of the assemblies, which had been doing
so hitherto but often withheld money, paying too little and otherwise
seeking to restrain and direct official conduct by their power of the
purse; e) finally, New York's Assembly, which had refused to provide
quarters for troops, was suspended. Townshend was cracking down.
Elements of the population were giving the British soldiers a hard
time. "People of the better sort" hardly cared, or even encouraged the
"bad sort." In 1770, pestered seemingly beyond endurance by a few
ragamuffins, citizens, and, who knows, "patriots," a British sentry
called for help, was reinforced, and amidst flying snowballs and jeers
and curses, let fly a volley of real bullets, producing from the five dead
and several wounded the infamous "Boston Massacre."
Notwithstanding that the ringleader, named Shattucks, shot dead, was
an escapee from slavery, the South as well as the North declaimed
indignantly at this killing of Americans.
Several soldiers were tried in local courts under due process
of law, and acquitted, with the exception of two who were found
guilty of manslaughter and branded lightly. They had a good lawyer -
John Adams! In the Gaspée incident, two years later, when a gang of
Rhode Islanders boarded a stranded British coast guard cutter and
burned it to the waterline (ostensibly in revenge against the inequitable
application of a licensing law to a shipper), the British sought in vain
for a jurisdiction and a court and jury suitable to
arrest and try suspects.
One waited, now, while the clock of crisis ticked away, for two years.
In 1773, the British Prime Minister, in a diabolically clever mood,
decided how to help save the huge East India Company that was going
bankrupt and had enormous tonnage of tea on its hands. He would
have it transported to America, there to be sold at a price that would
wipe out all the smugglers, at the cost of a few honest traders, alas;
at the same time, he would ingratiate himself with the colonists, who
would relish buying tea at a small fraction of its former price. (This is a
typical ploy of an unrestrained monopoly to destroy competition; the
price could be raised later when the enemy is destroyed, the tea is
disposed of, and the East India Company is saved.) Moreover, he
would use the opportunity to sell the tea through friends of the
government, rather than employing the usual distributors.
Here was perhaps the fatal error. Historians are prone to explain that
the colonists recognized the whole arrangement for what it was: but
what was it? Nothing terrible; rather good, indeed. But definitely not
good for two groups who were rapidly becoming most Patriotic:
smugglers and regular tea distributors. Just the people who, in the
name of the people and liberty, could set up a "Tea Party."
First, throughout the land, newly appointed receivers of tea were
intimidated and resigned their commissions as sellers of tea. At the
docks, captains and crews were threatened until they sailed off. In
Boston, the three boats carrying tea waited for a propitious moment to
land and dispose of their cargoes at the warehouses of persons
rewarded with contracts to receive the tea for resale - two relatives, it
happens, of the Royal Governor, Hutchinson, already a hated man,
whose house had been burned down by a
mob in a previous incident.
Gangs of Mohawk Indians appeared out of nowhere - although some
said that they could recognize Sam Adams and John Hancock, two
influential and notorious troublemakers, among the "Indians", and
other locals as well - and dumped 75 tons of tea, all there was of it,
into the sea. (The true Mohawk Tribe, led by Chief Joseph Brant,
sided with the British when war came.) The "spontaneous" gang was
none other than the old "South End Mob," reinforced.
There was rejoicing throughout the colonies (but we are far from
hearing a unanimous voice of the colonies yet). The British
government soon came up with several Coercive Acts (1774-5)
designed to bring the Yankees and everyone else to their senses. The
Port of Boston was closed. Any trials of British officers, high and low,
for offenses in the colonies would henceforth be conducted in Britain.
Troops were to be lodged in private homes where the colonial
governments would provide no other quarters.
Local government in Massachusetts, that had been conducting
elections and flourishing with some vigor for over a century, was
suppressed in favor of appointed officers of the Governor, and this
man would now be a military governor. Enter Governor General
Gates. Enter also a large army and fleet. These laws were referred to
by many colonists as The Intolerable Acts. In most of the colonies, a
general boycott of British goods was engineered.
With the dissolution of the Massachusetts legislature, the
representatives formed a Provincial Congress to agitate further. The
Virginia Assembly, itself dissolved for treasonable activity, reconvened
informally at popular Raleigh's Tavern, and called for a Continental
Congress of all the colonies to organize and carry on the resistance.
The call was generally heeded. The end of the Crisis was nearing and
the War about to begin in earnest.
Half the War for Independence was over. The Colonials had won it. A
comparison of the tactics displayed by the British Empire and by the
Americans will reveal how it happened.
The Home Government needed funds and peace on the borders of the
colonies. It had guaranteed peace in the North and South, in
Canada and Florida, and had made excellent treaties with the Indians in
the West. There was plenty of room for colonists to engage in a
controlled expansion over the mountains and to the South and North,
so that this vast frontier should have been manageable. But its
management required troops and money.
It all came down to a reasonable need for money, most of which, if not
all or more than all, would be spent to keep law and order in the
colonies, and assure peaceful commerce and law enforcement on the
seas. We note that taxes were assessed that were not at all
burdensome. The colonial elite was rich and getting richer in the North
and Middle Colonies. The personal possessions of more and more
people were extending; wealth was trickling down. In the South,
reckless spending made a difference; the planters were indebted and
putting pressure on their own debtors, but the Southerners below the
top were as well off as the Northerners.
We are still, of course, talking about the upper classes, a slim
percentage of the total around the colonies. But it was some of these
or aspirants thereto who were apparently seeking trouble with the
British, not the vast majority living at the subsistence level.
The British sent troops from time to time, but hardly so many as to
give reasonable grounds for threat. They as often acted to appease the
colonists as to punish them. They asserted various arguments,
legal, logical, economic, authoritarian and fraternal. This was their
counter-propaganda. Parliament argued that its authority was supreme and
binding over the colonies "in all cases whatsoever" (1766, after
repealing the Stamp Act). No precedents or laws forbade its powers.
They protested against the part the colonists played in smuggling, and
the corruption of the customs and other services of the Crown. They
attempted reorganization of the courts and services. As the crisis
matured, the government, supported time after time by heavy
majorities in Parliament, warned and threatened and cajoled, then
ordered colonial assemblies to disband. Other late tactics of
suppression were detailed above.
What had His Majesty's Government not done? It might have instituted
a merit system in the choice of Governors and other officials. It might
have given its troops instructions in manners and deportment in regard
to the civil population. It might have urged on and subsidized the
potential loyal element in some form equivalent to the rebellious
associations. It might have bought up some of the colonial newspapers
and used them as mouthpieces, as many a democratic government has
done. It might have imposed a larger censorship, never mind the
precedent of the Zenger case.
It might have distributed titles of nobility to some of the more famous
men of the colonies, who would then serve in the still powerful House
of Lords. It might have allotted seats in the House of Commons to the
colonies, but then a quarter of the House might have come from
America and more as time went on. Unless a mere quota of seats were
granted, soon Britain would have been torn apart by domestic and
overseas factions and the monarchy threatened once again. Anyhow, it
would take another two political generations before the English
rationalized the apportionment of the Commons and extended the vote
to a larger portion of the middle class; the Great Reform Act of 1832
was achieved only after prolonged debate, many riots, petitions,
demonstrations, and group pressures on Parliament and King.
I have used some modern terms here, for ironic contrast, but
none of these steps were impossible and several were vaguely
attempted, even the election of members to Parliament..
Meanwhile we have only to review the tactics of the independence
element to understand their victory, and to see why
the next century would be the age of the bourgeoisie.
They were superior propagandists. Not only were their pamphlets very
well tuned to middle class aspirations, but they were couched in
symbols that at the same time in some cases - freedom, liberty,
equality, fair trials, anti-militarism, etc. - held appeal to all classes.
They simulated loyalty from time to time, and up to the last minute
hypocritically pleaded with the King, whom they already had
converted into a monster, to make peace.
Their proclamations were often superb: the Virginia Resolves (Patrick
Henry et al, 1765), the Massachusetts Letter to the Colonies of the
same year and of 1768, the Stamp Act Congress Declaration of Rights
and Grievances of the Colonies and its petitions to the King and to
They used the docks, the multitude of taverns and newly
originating cafés, the town squares, and all other places,
official and informal, where people congregate, to agitate.
Achieving a critical determinant of who is to win a revolution,
they took control of the streets.
They were experienced in all these ways of getting people organized to
influence others and use their economic, psychological and ultimately
forceful pressure to gain their ends. They intimidated the opposition by
threats and by force. Already early in the crisis, they were beating up
opponents, burning houses, looting warehouses, and marching about in
gangs. They were heckling the enemy at every turn - British and
Loyalists alike. They used the law to try British soldiers for minor
offenses. They burned boats and dumped cargoes overboard, what
would be called propaganda of the deed. It is notable that assassination
and murderous terrorism were not practiced.
At the end of the crisis, however, they frightened the British governors
and officials into flight abroad and this was sufficient to send many
thousands of Loyalist Americans into exile. This incredible feat was
the equivalent of winning several major battles. We stress that, far
from the myth of history, it was not the rural guerrillas that caused the
imperial power to shrink from sternness, so much as the
The American rebels were experienced and clever at organizing
conferences, assemblies, crowds, and conventions. They also organized
permanent groups: Committees of Correspondence,
beginning in 1772, that maintained contact with rebels all over the
continent, and sent information and suggestions. They organized the
Sons of Liberty, a perfect name with a double meaning, friends of
freedom, but also freedom from England.
They despatched envoys and hired agents in other countries to obtain
intelligence, cultivate friends of colonial rights, and finally to inveigle
these nations to enter the fray on their side. Years before the struggle
at arms began, the French and Spanish governments let it be known
that they were favorable to American independence.
They organized major economic boycotts that hurt English trade
badly, with the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act resistance the year
after, at the time of the Townshend Acts in 1767, and at the time of
the "Intolerable Acts" in 1774-5. Public mass boycotts, whether by
consumers or producers, were strikingly original forms of aggressive
resistance. Just as the they were well ahead in the use of propaganda
by print, the Americans were avantgarde with their boycotts. In the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the boycott would often be tried
and occasionally worked in England, France, and India, for instance,
and became part of the populists' bag of tricks.
As the crisis progressed, the colonial leaders doubled the training of
their colonial militias and stocked arms and munitions here and there.
They began, then, the second and fighting phase of the Revolution
with troops and supplies. For a century and more they had experience
with the militias in the field, in Indian conflicts and with European
opponents and allies. No nation in the world then had a people so
adept at force of arms as the American colonials. They did not have to
depend upon the treason of professional troops or some disaster
occurring in the Home Country.
The American War of Independence burst forth at a time when the
Empire was in excellent shape in most regards, with a stable
government, an experienced king, cabinet and parliament, a fleet
second to none in the world, and securely-held peripheral lands and
overseas colonies. England also had four times the
population of America.
Britain even had its public opinion on the side of its
governmental policies. (Very few voices favored the colonials,
although among them was eloquent Edmund Burke;
his was a double-edged sword inasmuch as he also
advocated persuasively the theory of "virtual representation,"
not only because he proved the theory by siding with the colonists,
who cast no votes for him, but because he represented,
in Parliament, a "rotten borough" and was responsible to
only one man, who "owned" the seat.)
Yet the winning of the propaganda, economic, and insurrectionary
war, the first phase of the Revolution, effectively set up the victory
that would come with the second phase.
I have been using a "they" for the revolutionaries and probably should
define more clearly the elements composing them. For perhaps the first
time in modern history, a thoroughly secular and
socially mixed aggregate organized a large-scale revolution.
From what we have said of causes of the discontent,
one should have little difficulty in recognizing these groups
and their place. The mix was composed, first and foremost,
of the merchants and shippers, with the lawyers and employees
who were tied to them. This large mercantile element,
perhaps the largest and certainly the most prestigious of its kind of any
land, with the exception of the Netherlands (which had a semi-monarch),
was intra-communicative from Canada down to Florida and
into the wilds of the trappers. It had few aristocratic ties and
could hope for none, nor particularly sought them,
for it had a low regard for the feudal class.
It supported a vigorous lot of newspapers, as readers, owners and
advertisers, and with common needs for more information on every
subject that affected trade and commerce. It supported the militias, as
guarantees against riots. It lived in the environment of incipient
industry and mechanics; it could sense the Industrial Revolution, and
what it would mean in production for sales and profit.
The mechanics and artisans, in turn, wanted to obtain, with slight
compensation, and by hook or crook, as many devices, inventions,
tools, and industrial processes as they could from the Old Country and
Europe, and resented the laws and officers of England that sought to
forestall and frustrate them.
Next, the politicians of the day found their votes among the people of
means, and only these could vote in many places; politicians also
waxed strong when the power of the royal governors waned. Other
groups who supplied leadership were the militia officers, anti-Anglican
religious sect leaders and secularists,
real estate dealers and speculators in land, and the
planters - for reasons that I mentioned
earlier and because they had more to gain by political power vested in
the local and colonial governments than a government
supplied in large part from London.
Despite its multiple competencies, the potentially fully-empowered
American elite was a small minority of the population. This is to be
expected; no political movement is conducted by a majority or even a
large minority. It always devolves upon a small minority. If we were to
consider the stance of various elements of the population in relation to
activating and fighting the Revolution, we would arrive at the
following estimates in percentages of the total population :
Active "patriots" & direct supporters....5%
Loyalists (Tories) Active.......................5%
Indentured servants, convicts...............2%
Women and children under 14... .......70%
I have set aside woman and children to strip down the elements to
their realistic numbers. There were notable women and many opinion
leaders among women generally. They are counted within the two
categories of Patriots and Loyalists, but not in the other categories.
Boys and girls over fourteen were capable of working and fighting for
a cause, usually that of their parents, unless they were already
out in the world.
Noteworthy are the equal proportions given to Patriots and Loyalists.
Given a population of 2.5 millions, each group would number about
125,000 men. About a third of the Loyalists fled before the fighting
began, fearing for their lives; a third stayed to agitate or fight actively
for the British cause; a third became tacit supporters or underground
helpers on occasion. They included at least half of the professional,
ministerial, and well-to-do classes of the towns of the pluralist middle
colonies, and nowhere were an insignificant number.
About as many Loyalists volunteered for service in the British army as
there were Patriot volunteers in the American army. But Loyalists
were less energetic, less skilled at organizing, agitating,
propagandizing, improvising, and financing illegal operations.
Very few had a "fire in their belly."
Generally they called for law and order,
and relied upon the British government and armed forces
to put down the rebellion.
To examine the causes of the Revolution and events leading
up to it is to be impressed by the solidity and mildness of British rule.
Of stupidity there was abundance, but hardly enough to
generate and justify warlike passions. Taxes seem to have been
reluctantly, belatedly, imposed, and to have been affordable.
Freedom of assemblies and of the press were very much
in evidence except in dire confrontations. Few suffered in dungeons
or under a false arrest, nor were people beaten, tortured, or sent into
exile. No one's property was confiscated without trial. Impressments
of sailors occurred unjustly on occasion. Most measures of the British
government were slow reactions to provocative
conduct of colonial groups.
Therefore, when one reads the Declaration of Independence in the
light of what had been actually transpiring in the American colonies,
one can divide it into a theoretical statement of the sources of human
governance and authority, which one can hopefully agree with, as do I,
but which was fairly hypocritical on the part of most of the signers of
the Declaration, and then into a statement of 28 generalized grievances
that are incredible. (Jefferson initially thought even to put in an
allegation that King George had forcibly transported Africans to
become slaves; considering the heavy participation of Americans in the
slave trade and the indispensable part of the Southern economy and
culture that slaves had become, this would have been idiotic;
anyhow, slavery advocates in the group refused it.)
With respect to the long list of grievances, if they are accepted as
truths, they are a just cause for rebellion, unless one is a pacifist or
hopeless optimist. But if read as gross exaggerations or premonitions
of what might have occurred or might occur, they are a marvelous
catalogue for purposes of propaganda. It is particularly notable that no
item in the catalogue is tied to a specific incident. All items are
generalizations of types of events: quartering troops upon the people
(the British tried not to put soldiers in homes), burdensome taxes (no
worse than in England), etc.
Returning, now, to a thought that occurred to us
at the beginning of this chapter, we wonder once again at the
strength of the emotions generated among a large
number of colonials calling themselves "Patriots."
We mark in this regard a single passage from the
Declaration of Independence, that "when a long train of abuses and
usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to
reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty,
to throw off such Government, and to provide
new Guards for the future security."
Here occurs the key word "design." It suggests that we look for an
underlying psychic system at work among the accusers, that some
might term an ideology, but is one level more obscure than an
ideology. Call it perhaps a paranoiac system, paranoia; a considerable
number of influential and active Americans thought that the British
elite was conspiring against their rights, their persons, their liberties,
their property. (The elite is personified late in the Crisis and in the
Declaration strikingly as the King himself, not the Parliament nor the
ruling class nor the Anglican Establishment - whereupon we remind
ourselves of how Tom Paine's book a few months before had shown
how to strike directly at the devil King and Monarchy; as the modern
journalist professor would say, "personalize your target" )
Civilized Christian men almost never wage a war positively, but must
persuade themselves that they are victims or about to become victims
of an evil force. "Right and proper" people never wage a war until they
have convinced themselves that they are the victims of aggression and
despoliation. The themes are pounded into people's minds, their own
minds: There is a British elite conspiracy against the American
colonists! The British government is utterly corrupt! The King is about
to make slaves of us!
Remember now, that we are dealing with people who not too long
before were burning witches, and who very recently were participating
in incredibly great mass religious revivals at which they were called to
account for their sins and to take Jesus onto themselves. Now we are
speaking of prosperous Christians who deal in rum and slaves and
smuggle goods of many kinds. We are treating with slaveholders who
are heavily in debt. We are speaking of untutored frontiersmen
rightfully afraid of their Indian enemies and the mysterious friends of
the Indians. We allude to the finally and just recently experienced wave
of consumerism, which brought luxuries to people who had hitherto
lived in a hand-hewn culture.
Here they are, conspiring by all means, fair and foul,
against the British establishment. Recall how lowly the
origins of so many, how discriminated against were the
religious practices of many of them,
how tough a time so many had in finding a foothold in a land few
wanted really to enter. More than ever, too, the British ruling class
was as foreign in manner, motive and interests as
There are too few rational material reasons to explain the full
Revolutionary fervor; unconscious motives must be introduced to
blow them up to life size. It is then that one begins to smell and taste
the Revolution. The unconscious gives the seemingly "understandable"
and "sufficient" motives their initial character and enduring drive. The
paranoiac formula is that guilt and sin and bad feelings about oneself
are displaced to other people or objects or ideas in order to alleviate
one's inner sufferings. What one has been feeling about oneself
becomes what one asserts that other people are like and other people
are doing. And, finally, of course, these other people are wicked and
should be punished. We Americans are not the conspirators; we are
not the corrupters; we are not the enslavers: You are conspiring to
steal our liberties and property; you are corrupt; you are going to
make us your slaves; you hate us! Therefore, in the name of
all that is good and holy, we resist your aggression and
declare ourselves freed of you.
The War is on!