On the American Revolution

January 13, 2015

 

Here’s a (somewhat oversimplified) one-sentence summary of the origins, trajectory, and outcome of the American Revolution: it “ended in reaction as the Founding Fathers used race, nation, and citizenship to discipline, divide, and exclude the very sailors and slaves who had initiated and propelled the revolutionary movement.” In general, mutatis mutandis, that’s how revolutions go. Class struggle is the original and essential meaning for most of the population, but the leadership that takes over uses ideology to justify setting up a new hierarchy, a new authoritarian structure. One elite takes the place of another—and so the vicious cycle of history continues. In the case of the American experience, the Progressive historian Carl Becker pithily observed that the Revolution wasn’t only about home rule but also about who would rule at home. For example--as Terry Bouton describes--during the revolutionary turmoil of the 1770s farmers and urban tradesmen in several colonies forced the ruling elite to pass radically democratic laws and constitutions meant to protect debtors and the economic independence of all “commoners.” The Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 actually abolished property restrictions on voting, created a unicameral legislature with members elected for one year, created a judiciary appointed by the legislature for seven-year terms but removable at any time, and eliminated the post of a governor who could veto laws, installing in his place a twelve-member Supreme Executive Council that would administer the government. The Thermidorian reaction to all this “irresponsible” democratizing occurred in the 1780s, when bondholders and other anti-debtor, anti-farmer groups forced governments to roll back many of the rights previously won by the people, in the name of “fiscal responsibility.” Our now-revered federal Constitution, far from being “revolutionary,” was but the culmination of Thermidor. Throughout these years “ordinary farmers agitated for a more accountable, localist, and responsive government because they accurately perceived the class agenda behind the new federal Constitution.” Of course they basically lost the fight, as democrats usually do (except in the long run).

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