In 1764, Americans thought of themselves as British subjects of King George III. By 1788, they would, by their own decisions and actions, have made themselves the free citizens of a new republic forged in revolution and war.
Many other things were changed. Thirteen colonies became an independent federal state. King and Parliament ruled no more, and in their place were a President, a Senate, and a House of Representatives.
Some men of wealth – ‘loyalists’ who had backed King George – had their fortunes. And other men of wealth – who might once have run their affairs in the manner of feudal barons – found that tenant-farmers no longer doffed their hats.
Women – some at least – had grown more uppity. They read newspapers, founded schools to educate their daughters, conducted themselves with a ‘reverence of self’, and asked their ‘patriot’ husbands ‘Why should I not have liberty?’
For some black people, too, things were very different. The states of Massachusetts and Vermont had abolished slavery outright. Others would follow soon. The few thousand free blacks along the Chesapeake in 1776 would become 60,000 by 1810.
The change, for sure, was not as great as it might have been; far less, in fact, than many had once hoped. For the American Revolution (1775-1783) was not just a struggle for national independence between American colonists and the British Empire. It was also a struggle between different sorts and conditions of Americans; a struggle to decide what sort of republic they were fighting for.
The problems began at the end of the Seven Years War (1756-1763). The British had beaten the French and grabbed their empire in India and Canada. The Americans had played their part, colonial militias fighting alongside redcoat regulars, to secure the western frontier of the colonies.
Victory ended both the French threat and therefore American dependence on British military support. It also left the British government saddled with war debt and set on raising taxes to pay it off.
British taxes on American trade were triple-edged. They were designed to avoid higher taxes on British landowners at home, protect British commerce against foreign competition, and help pay off British debts.
In short, the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765), the Townshend taxes (1767), and the Tea Act (1773) meant siphoning off American wealth in the interests of the British ruling class.
Had Americans continued to pay, economic stagnation and underdevelopment would have been the consequence. That was the danger countered by the famous slogan ‘No taxation without representation’. Threatened with taxes not in their interests, Americans demanded the right to decide.
Between 1764 and 1775, British efforts were frustrated by direct action. There were only three million Americans, and only one in 20 lived in a town. But people came together in a mass movement of resistance that made British taxes unenforceable.
The movement was built by meetings, parades, the burning of effigies, and the erection of liberty poles. Crowds confronted customs men and soldiers. Would-be collaborators were intimidated. Official events were disrupted. Property was sometimes destroyed.
Boycotts were enforced by a militant urban crowd of ‘mechanics’ (artisans), small traders, local farmers, and dissident intellectuals. Leading activists organised themselves as ‘Sons of Liberty’. There were branches in at least 15 towns, and they were knit together in an inter-colonial ‘correspondence’ union.
The pattern was for resistance to flare up, sometimes leading to bloody clashes, and for the British then to back down. But in 1773, after an entire cargo of East India Company tea was dumped in the sea by 100 activists disguised as Native Americans (the ‘Boston Tea Party’), the British decided to crack down.
General Gage was sent out as Governor of Massachusetts, troops were dispatched to enforce his authority, and the Intolerable Acts were passed, decreeing that American activists could be transported to Britain for trial.
A Continental Congress, attended by representatives of all 13 colonies, agreed to maintain the tea boycott. Local committees were authorised to enforce this decision, and colonial militias were mobilised to back the civil power.
The Continental Congress was dominated by big landowners and merchants. So too, at first, were most local committees. But ‘the revolution of the elite’ soon gave way to ‘the revolution of the middle classes’.
Revolution requires mass action in support of radical demands. Men of property have much to fear. Many are tied into the existing economic system, and profit from it. All fear that the common people, once roused against political authority, may be prompted to ask wider questions about the social order as a whole.
The trick was to keep pace with the movement in order to drag it back. For New York landowner and lawyer Robert Livingston, it was a matter of ‘swimming with a stream it is impossible to stem’, and of yielding ‘to the torrent’ in order to ‘direct its course’.
Pushed into revolution by mass action from below, Congress had, in effect, given sanction to the construction of a new state apparatus. Every town now faced a choice: to recognise the authority of either the councillors, judges, customs men, and militia officers of the King, or that of the boycott committees empowered by Congress.
Revolution turns on such choices. ‘Dual power’ – two rival authorities laying claim to political allegiance – is unequivocal. Everyone must choose which to obey. Everyone must take sides.
The first shots were fired at Lexington in Massachusetts on 19 April 1775. British redcoats killed 8 American militiamen and wounded 10 more while on their way to seize arms stored at Concord.
When they arrived, the arms had been removed. As they fell back on Boston, they were harassed by swarms of militiamen, and then found themselves under siege in the city. The war had begun.
The colonial militias were soon supplemented by a ‘Continental Army’. Funded by Congress and commanded by its appointee (George Washington), it became the military expression of the embryonic United States. The militiamen defended their localities, but the Continentals waged a national war.
The British won most battles – the major exceptions were Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781) – but they lost the war. There were three main reasons for this.
First, geographically, the American colonies comprised vast extents of uncleared wilderness; this imposed a heavy logistical burden on the British, and provided ideal terrain for embedded guerrilla resistance by the militia.
Second, the Americans enjoyed strong and growing French support – at first, supplies of arms; later, full-scale military intervention, on both land and sea. The British were left struggling to sustain operations at the end of a long and vulnerable maritime supply-line.
Third, the revolutionaries organised themselves politically and militarily to wage all-out war. The core of the resistance was supplied by the mechanics, small traders, and backcountry farmers who came to dominate the local committees and militias. The British controlled only the territory their soldiers occupied. The rebels, however often they were beaten, could always retreat, recuperate, and return to the fight when ready.
The common people were empowered by their role in the struggle. They fought for what they considered to be ancient, inherited ‘rights’ and ‘liberties’. They fought for a ‘moral economy’ in which each had a role that commanded respect and each worked more for the community than for personal gain. And they fought for a say in public affairs – for a radical democracy where the poor voted as well as the rich.
In the event, the heady ideals of 1776 were diluted by the final settlement of 1788. The Declaration of Independence (1776) had declared that all men are created equal, that they have inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But the Constitution (1788) enshrined not radical democracy and moral economy, but the rule of property, free markets, and a gilded elite of landowners, merchants, and bankers.
The bourgeois revolution was left unfinished. Less than a century later, two-thirds of a million Americans would die in a yet greater war to establish the proposition that ‘all men are created equal’.
The Revolution had set a benchmark against which future generations of Americans – men and women, white and black, rich and poor – would measure their standing.
Not only that: in its own time, it proved to be the curtain-raiser on a new epoch of world revolution. The year following ratification of the US Constitution, the people of Paris stormed the Bastille, smashed a military coup, and launched the French Revolution.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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