Chapter 4 from A People’s History of the United States, By Howard Zinn
AROUND 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.
When we look at the American Revolution this way, it was a work of genius, and the Founding Fathers deserve the awed tribute they have received over the centuries. They created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations of leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command.
Starting with Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia, by 1760, there had been eighteen uprisings aimed at overthrowing colonial governments. There had also been six black rebellions, from South Carolina to New York, and forty riots of various origins.
By this time also, there emerged, according to Jack Greene, “stable, coherent, effective and acknowledged local political and social elites.” And by the 1760s, this local leadership saw the possibility of directing much of the rebellious energy against England and her local officials. It was not a conscious conspiracy, but an accumulation of tactical responses.
After 1763, with England victorious over France in the Seven Years’ War (known in America as the French and Indian War), expelling them from North America, ambitious colonial leaders were no longer threatened by the French. They now had only two rivals left: the English and the Indians. The British, wooing the Indians, had declared Indian lands beyond the Appalachians out of bounds to whites (the Proclamation of 1763). Perhaps once the British were out of the way, the Indians could be dealt with. Again, no conscious forethought strategy by the colonial elite, hut a growing awareness as events developed.
With the French defeated, the British government could turn its attention to tightening control over the colonies. It needed revenues to pay for the war, and looked to the colonies for that. Also, the colonial trade had become more and more important to the British economy, and more profitable: it had amounted to about 500,000 pounds in 1700 but by 1770 was worth 2,800,000 pounds.
So, the American leadership was less in need of English rule, the English more in need of the colonists’ wealth. The elements were there for conflict.
The war had brought glory for the generals, death to the privates, wealth for the merchants, unemployment for the poor. There were 25,000 people living in New York (there had been 7,000 in 1720) when the French and Indian War ended. A newspaper editor wrote about the growing “Number of Beggers and wandering Poor” in the streets of the city. Letters in the papers questioned the distribution of wealth: “How often have our Streets been covered with Thousands of Barrels of Flour for trade, while our near Neighbors can hardly procure enough to make a Dumplin to satisfy hunger?”
Gary Nash’s study of city tax lists shows that by the early 1770s, the top 5 percent of Boston’s taxpayers controlled 49% of the city’s taxable assets. In Philadelphia and New York too, wealth was more and more concentrated. Court-recorded wills showed that by 1750 the wealthiest people in the cities were leaving 20,000 pounds (equivalent to about $5 million today).
In Boston, the lower classes began to use the town meeting to vent their grievances. The governor of Massachusetts had written that in these town meetings “the meanest Inhabitants … by their constant Attendance there generally are the majority and outvote the Gentlemen, Merchants, Substantial Traders and all the better part of the Inhabitants.”
What seems to have happened in Boston is that certain lawyers, editors, and merchants of the upper classes, but excluded from the ruling circles close to England-men like James Otis and Samuel Adams- organized a “Boston Caucus” and through their oratory and their writing “molded laboring- class opinion, called the ‘mob’ into action, and shaped its behaviour.” This is Gary Nash’s description of Otis, who, he says, “keenly aware of the declining fortunes and the resentment of ordinary townspeople, was mirroring as well as molding popular opinion.”
We have here a forecast of the long history of American politics, the mobilization of lower-class energy by upper-class politicians, for their own purposes. This was not purely deception; it involved, in part, a genuine recognition of lower-class grievances, which helps to account for its effectiveness as a tactic over the centuries. As Nash puts it:
James Otis, Samuel Adams, Royall lyler, Oxenbridge Thacher, and a host of other Bostonians, linked to the artisans and laborers through a network of neighborhood taverns, fire companies, and the Caucus, espoused a vision of politics that gave credence to laboring-class views and regarded as entirely legitimate the participation of artisans and even laborers in the political process.
In 1762, Otis, speaking against the conservative rulers of the Massachusetts colony represented by Thomas Hutchinson, gave an example of the kind of rhetoric that a lawyer could use in mobilizing city mechanics and artisans:
I am forced to get my living by the labour of my hand; and the sweat of my brow, as most of you are and obliged to go thro’ good report and evil report, for bitter bread, earned under the frowns of some who have no natural or divine right to be above me, and entirely owe their grandeur and honor to grinding the faces of the poor.. ..
Boston seems to have been full of class anger in those days. In 1763, in the Boston Gazette, someone wrote that “a few persons in power” were promoting political projects “for keeping the people poor in order to make them humble.”
This accumulated sense of grievance against the rich in Boston may account for the explosiveness of mob action after the Stamp Act of 1765, Through this Act, the British were taxing the colonial population to pay for the French war, in which colonists had suffered to expand the British Empire. That summer, a shoemaker named Ebenezer Macintosh led a mob in destroying the house of a rich Boston merchant named Andrew Oliver. Two weeks later, the crowd turned to the home of Thomas Hutchinson, symbol of the rich elite who ruled the colonies in the name of England. They smashed up his house with axes, drank the wine in his wine cellar, and looted the house of its furniture and other objects. A report by colony officials to England said that this was part of a larger scheme in which the houses of fifteen rich people were to be destroyed, as pan of “a War of Plunder, of general levelling and taking away the Distinction of rich and poor.”
It was one of those moments in which fury against the rich went further than leaders like Otis wanted. Could class hatred be focused against the pro-British elite, and deflected from the nationalist elite? In New York, that same year of the Boston house attacks, someone wrote to the New York Gazette, “Is it equitable that 99, rather 999, should suffer for the Extravagance or Grandeur of one, especially when it is considered that men frequently owe their Wealth to the impoverishment of their Neighbors?” The leaders of the Revolution would worry about keeping such sentiments within limits.
Mechanics were demanding political democracy in the colonial cities: open meetings of representative assemblies, public galleries in the legislative halls, and the publishing of roll-call votes, so that constituents could check on representatives. They wanted open-air meetings where the population could participate in making policy, more equitable taxes, price controls, and the election of mechanics and other ordinary people to government posts.
Especially in Philadelphia, according to Nash, the consciousness of the lower middle classes grew to the point where it must have caused some hard thinking, not just among the conservative Loyalists sympathetic to England, but even among leaders of the Revolution. “By mid-1776, laborers, artisans, and small tradesmen, employing extralegal measures when electoral politics failed, were in clear command in Philadelphia.” Helped by some middle-class leaders (Thomas Paine, Thomas Young, and others), they “launched a full-scale attack on wealth and even on the right to acquire unlimited private property.”
During elections for the 1776 convention to frame a constitution for Pennsylvania, a Privates Committee urged voters to oppose “great and overgrown rich men .. . they will be too apt to be framing distinctions in society.” The Privates Committee drew up a bill of rights for the convention, including the statement that “an enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights, and destructive of the common happiness, of mankind; and therefore every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property.”
In the countryside, where most people lived, there was a similar conflict of poor against rich, one which political leaders would use to mobilize the population against England, granting some benefits for the rebellious poor, and many more for themselves in the process. The tenant riots in New Jersey in the 1740s, the New York tenant uprisings of the 1750s and 1760s in the Hudson Valley, and the rebellion in northeastern New York that led to the carving of Vermont out of New York State were all more than sporadic rioting. They were long-lasting social movements, highly organized, involving the creation of countergovernments. They were aimed at a handful of rich landlords, but with the landlords far away, they often had to direct their anger against farmers who had leased the disputed land from the owners. (See Edward Countryman’s pioneering work on rural rebellion.)
Just as the Jersey rebels had broken into jails to free their friends, rioters in the Hudson Valley rescued prisoners from the sheriff and one time took the sheriff himself as prisoner. The tenants were seen as “chiefly the dregs of the People,” and the posse that the sheriff of Albany County led to Bennington in 1771 included the privileged top of the local power structure.
The land rioters saw their battle as poor against rich. A witness at a rebel leader’s trial in New York in 1766 said that the farmers evicted by the landlords “had an equitable Tide but could not be defended in a Course of Law because they were poor and . . . poor men were always oppressed by the rich.” Ethan Alien’s Green Mountain rebels in Vermont described themselves as “a poor people . . . fatigued in settling a wilderness country,” and their opponents as “a number of Attorneys and other gentlemen, with all their tackle of ornaments, and compliments, and French finesse.”
Land-hungry farmers in the Hudson Valley turned to the British for support against the American landlords; the Green Mountain rebels did the same. But as the conflict with Britain intensified, the colonial leaders of the movement for independence, aware of the tendency of poor tenants to side with the British in their anger against the rich, adopted policies to win over people in the countryside.
In North Carolina, a powerful movement of white farmers was organized against wealthy and corrupt officials in the period from 1766 to 1771, exactly those years when, in the cities of the Northeast, agitation was growing against the British, crowding out class issues. The movement in North Carolina was called the Regulator movement, and it consisted, says Marvin L. Michael Kay, a specialist in the history of that movement, of “class-conscious white farmers in the west who attempted to democratize local government in their respective counties.” The Regulators referred to themselves as “poor Industrious peasants,” as “labourers,” “the wretched poor,” “oppressed” by “rich and powerful . . . designing Monsters.”
The Regulators saw that a combination of wealth and political power ruled North Carolina, and denounced those officials “whose highest Study is the promotion of their wealth.” They resented the tax system, which was especially burdensome on the poor, and the combination of merchants and lawyers who worked in the courts to collect debts from the harassed farmers. In the western counties where the movement developed, only a small percentage of the households had slaves, and 41 percent of these were concentrated, to take one sample western county, in less than 2 percent of the households. The Regulators did not represent servants or slaves, but they did speak for small owners, squatters, and tenants.
A contemporary account of the Regulator movement in Orange County describes the situation:
Thus were the people of Orange insulted by The sheriff, robbed and plundered . . . neglected and condemned by the Representatives and abused by the Magistracy; obliged to pay Fees regulated only by the Avarice of the officer; obliged to pay a TAX which they believed went to enrich and aggrandize a few, who lorded it over them continually; and from all these Evils they saw no way to escape; for the Men in Power, and Legislation, were the Men whose interest it was to oppress, and make gain of the Labourer.
In that county in the 1760s, the Regulators organized to prevent the collection of taxes, or the confiscation of the property of tax delinquents. Officials said “an absolute Insurrection of a dangerous tendency has broke out in Orange County,” and made military plans to suppress it. At one point seven hundred armed farmers forced the release of two arrested Regulator leaders. The Regulators petitioned the government on their grievances in 1768, citing “the unequal chances the poor and the weak have in contentions with the rich and powerful.”
In another county, Anson, a local militia colonel complained of “the unparalleled tumults, Insurrections, and Commotions which at present distract this County.” At one point a hundred men broke up the proceedings at a county court. But they also tried to elect farmers to the assembly, asserting “that a majority of our assembly is composed of Lawyers, Clerks, and others in Connection with them….” In 1770 there was a large-scale riot in Hillsborough, North Carolina, in which they disrupted a court, forced the judge to flee, beat three lawyers and two merchants, and looted stores.
The result of all this was that the assembly passed some mild reform legislation, but also an act “to prevent riots and tumults,” and the governor prepared to crush them militarily. In May of 1771 there was a decisive battle in which several thousand Regulators were defeated by a disciplined army using cannon. Six Regulators were hanged. Kay says that in the three western counties of Orange, Anson, and Rowan, where the Regulator movement was concentrated, it had the support of six thousand to seven thousand men out of a total white taxable population of about eight thousand.
One consequence of this bitter conflict is that only a minority of the people in the Regulator counties seem to have participated as patriots in the Revolutionary War. Most of them probably remained neutral.
Fortunately for the Revolutionary movement, the key battles were being fought in the North, and here, in the cities, the colonial leaders had a divided white population; they could win over the mechanics, who were a kind of middle class, who had a stake in the fight against England, who faced competition from English manufacturers. The biggest problem was to keep the propertyless people, who were unemployed and hungry in the crisis following the French war, under control.
In Boston, the economic grievances of the lowest classes mingled with anger against the British and exploded in mob violence. The leaders of the Independence movement wanted to use that mob energy against England, but also to contain it so that it would not demand too much from them.
When riots against the Stamp Act swept Boston in 1767, they were analyzed by the commander of the British forces in North America, General Thomas Gage, as follows:
The Boston Mob, raised first by the Instigation of Many of the Principal Inhabitants, Allured by Plunder, rose shordy after of their own Accord, attacked, robbed, and destroyed several Houses, and amongst others, mat of the Lieutenant Governor…. People then began to be terrified at the Spirit they had raised, to perceive that popular Fury was not to be guided, and each individual feared he might be the next Victim to their Rapacity. The same Fears spread thro’ the other Provinces, and there has been as much Pains taken since, to prevent Insurrections, of the People, as before to excite them.
Gage’s comment suggests that leaders of the movement against the Stamp Act had instigated crowd action, but then became frightened by the thought that it might be directed against their wealth, too. At this time, the top 10 percent of Boston’s taxpayers held about 66 percent of Boston’s taxable wealth, while the lowest 30 percent of the taxpaying population had no taxable property at all. The propertyless could not vote and so (like blacks, women, Indians) could not participate in town meetings. This included sailors, journeymen, apprentices, servants.
Dirk Hoerder, a student of Boston mob actions in the Revolutionary period, calls the Revolutionary leadership “the Sons of Liberty type drawn from the middling interest and well-to-do merchants … a hesitant leadership,” wanting to spur action against Great Britain, yet worrying about maintaining control over the crowds at home.
It took the Stamp Act crisis to make this leadership aware of its dilemma. A political group in Boston called the Loyal Nine-merchants, distillers, shipowners, and master craftsmen who opposed the Stamp Act-organized a procession in August 1765 to protest it. They put fifty master craftsmen at the head, but needed to mobilize shipworkers from the North End and mechanics and apprentices from the South End. Two or three thousand were in the procession (Negroes were excluded). They marched to the home of the stampmaster and burned his effigy. But after the “gentlemen” who organized the demonstration left, the crowd went further and destroyed some of the stampmaster’s property. These were, as one of the Loyal Nine said, “amazingly inflamed people.” The Loyal Nine seemed taken aback by the direct assault on the wealthy furnishings of the stampmaster.
The rich set up armed patrols. Now a town meeting was called and the same leaders who had planned the demonstration denounced the violence and disavowed the actions of the crowd. As more demonstrations were planned for November 1, 1765, when the Stamp Act was to go into effect, and for Pope’s Day, November 5, steps were taken to keep things under control; a dinner was given for certain leaders of the rioters to win them over. And when the Stamp Act was repealed, due to overwhelming resistance, the conservative leaders severed their connections with the rioters. They held annual celebrations of the first anti-Stamp Act demonstration, to which they invited, according to Hoerder, not the rioters but “mainly upper and middle-class Bostonians, who traveled in coaches and carriages to Roxbury or Dorchester for opulent feasts.”
When the British Parliament turned to its next attempt to tax the colonies, this time by a set of taxes which it hoped would not excite as much opposition, the colonial leaders organized boycotts. But, they stressed, “No Mobs or Tumults, let the Persons and Properties of your most inveterate Enemies be safe.” Samuel Adams advised: “No Mobs- No Confusions-No Tumult.” And James Otis said that “no possible circumstances, though ever so oppressive, could be supposed sufficient to justify private tumults and disorders….”
Impressment and the quartering of troops by the British were directly hurtful to the sailors and other working people. After 1768, two thousand soldiers were quartered in Boston, and friction grew between the crowds and the soldiers. The soldiers began to take the jobs of working people when jobs were scarce. Mechanics and shopkeepers lost work or business because of the colonists’ boycott of British goods. In 1769, Boston set up a committee “to Consider of some Suitable Methods of employing the Poor of the Town, whose Numbers and distresses are dayly increasing by the loss of its Trade and Commerce.”
On March 5, 1770, grievances of ropemakers against British soldiers taking their jobs led to a fight. A crowd gathered in front of the customhouse and began provoking the soldiers, who fired and killed first Crispus Attucks, a mulatto worker, then others. This became known as the Boston Massacre. Feelings against the British mounted quickly. There was anger at the acquittal of six of the British soldiers (two were punished by having their thumbs branded and were discharged from the army). The crowd at the Massacre was described by John Adams, defense attorney for the British soldiers, as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs.” Perhaps ten thousand people marched in the funeral procession for the victims of the Massacre, out of a total Boston population of sixteen thousand. This led England to remove the troops from Boston and try to quiet the situation.
Impressment was the background of the Massacre. There had been impressment riots through the 1760s in New York and in Newport, Rhode Island, where five hundred seamen, boys, and Negroes rioted after five weeks of impressment by the British. Six weeks before the Boston Massacre, there was a battle in New York of seamen against British soldiers taking their jobs, and one seaman was killed.
In the Boston Tea Party of December 1773, the Boston Committee of Correspondence, formed a year before to organize anti-British actions, “controlled crowd action against the tea from the start,” Dirk Hoerder says. The Tea Party led to the Coercive Acts by Parliament, virtually establishing martial law in Massachusetts, dissolving the colonial government, closing the port in Boston, and sending in troops. Still, town meetings and mass meetings rose in opposition. The seizure of a powder store by the British led four thousand men from all around Boston to assemble in Cambridge, where some of the wealthy officials had their sumptuous homes. The crowd forced the officials to resign. The Committees of Correspondence of Boston and other towns welcomed this gathering, but warned against destroying private property.
Pauline Maier, who studied the development of opposition to Britain in the decade before 1776 in her book From Resistance to Revolution, emphasizes the moderation of the leadership and, despite their desire for resistance, their “emphasis on order and restraint.” She notes: “The officers and committee members of the Sons of Liberty were drawn almost entirely from the middle and upper classes of colonial society.” In Newport, Rhode Island, for instance, the Sons of Liberty, according to a contemporary writer, “contained some Gentlemen of the First Figure in ‘Town for Opulence, Sense and Politeness.” In North Carolina “one of the wealthiest of the gentlemen and freeholders” led the Sons of Liberty. Similarly in Virginia and South Carolina. And “New York’s leaders, too, were involved in small but respectable independent business ventures.” Their aim, however, was to broaden their organization, to develop a mass base of wage earners.
Many of the Sons of Liberty groups declared, as in Milford, Connecticut, their “greatest abhorrence” of lawlessness, or as in Annapolis, opposed “all riots or unlawful assemblies tending to the disturbance of the public tranquility.” John Adams expressed the same fears: “These tarrings and featherings, this breaking open Houses by rude and insolent Rabbles, in Resentment for private Wrongs or in pursuing of private Prejudices and Passions, must be discountenanced.
In Virginia, it seemed clear to the educated gentry that something needed to be done to persuade the lower orders to join the revolutionary cause, to deflect their anger against England. One Virginian wrote in his diary in the spring of 1774: “The lower Class of People here are in tumult on account of Reports from Boston, many of them expect to he press’d & compell’d to go and fight the Britains!” Around the time of the Stamp Act, a Virginia orator addressed the poor: “Are not the gentlemen made of the same materials as the lowest and poorest among you? . . . Listen to no doctrines which may tend to divide us, but let us go hand in hand, as brothers….”
It was a problem for which the rhetorical talents of Patrick Henry were superbly fitted. He was, as Rhys Isaac puts it, “firmly attached to the world of the gentry,” but he spoke in words that the poorer whites of Virginia could understand. Henry’s fellow Virginian Edmund Randolph recalled his style as “simplicity and even carelessness. . .. His pauses, which for their length might sometimes be feared to dispell the attention, rivited it the more by raising the expectation.”
Patrick Henry’s oratory in Virginia pointed a way to relieve class tension between upper and lower classes and form a bond against the British. This was to find language inspiring to all classes, specific enough in its listing of grievances to charge people with anger against the British, vague enough to avoid class conflict among the rebels, and stirring enough to build patriotic feeling for the resistance movement.
Tom Paine’s Common Sense, which appeared in early 1776 and became the most popular pamphlet in the American colonies, did this. It made the first bold argument for independence, in words that any fairly literate person could understand: “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government even in its best state is but a necessary evil. .. .”
Paine disposed of the idea of the divine right of kings by a pungent history of the British monarchy, going back to the Norman conquest of 1066, when William the Conqueror came over from France to set himself on the British throne: “A French bastard landing with an armed Bandits and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original. It certainly hath no divinity in it.”
Paine dealt with the practical advantages of sticking to England or being separated; he knew the importance of economics:
I challenge the wannest advocate for reconciliation to show a single advantage that this continent can reap by being connected with Great Britain. I repeat the challenge; not a single advantage is derived. Our corn will fetch its price in any market in Europe, and our imported goods must be paid for by them where we will.. . .
As for the bad effects of the connection with England, Paine appealed to the colonists’ memory of all the wars in which England had involved them, wars costly in lives and money:
But the injuries and disadvantages which we sustain by that connection are without number.. . . any submission to, or dependence on, Great Britain, tends directly to involve this Continent in European wars and quarrels, and set us at variance with nations who would otherwise seek our friendship. . ..
He built slowly to an emotional pitch:
Everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘TIS TIME TO PART.
Common Sense went through twenty-five editions in 1776 and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It is probable that almost every literate colonist either read it or knew about its contents. Pamphleteering had become by this time the chief theater of debate about relations with England. From 1750 to 1776 four hundred pamphlets had appeared arguing one or another side of the Stamp Act or the Boston Massacre or The Tea Party or the general questions of disobedience to law, loyalty to government, rights and obligations.
Paine’s pamphlet appealed to a wide range of colonial opinion angered by England. But it caused some tremors in aristocrats like John Adams, who were with the patriot cause hut wanted to make sure it didn’t go too far in the direction of democracy. Paine had denounced the so-called balanced government of Lords and Commons as a deception, and called for single-chamber representative bodies where the people could be represented. Adams denounced Paine’s plan as “so democratical, without any restraint or even an attempt at any equilibrium or counter-poise, that it must produce confusion and every evil work.” Popular assemblies needed to be checked, Adams thought, because they were “productive of hasty results and absurd judgments.”
Paine himself came out of “the lower orders” of England-a stay-maker, tax official, teacher, poor emigrant to America. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1774, when agitation against England was already strong in the colonies. The artisan mechanics of Philadelphia, along with journeymen, apprentices, and ordinary laborers, were forming into a politically conscious militia, “in general damn’d riff-raff-dirty, mutinous, and disaffected,” as local aristocrats described them. By speaking plainly and strongly, he could represent those politically conscious lower-class people (he opposed property qualifications for voting in Pennsylvania). But his great concern seems to have been to speak for a middle group. “There is an extent of riches, as well as an extreme of poverty, which, by harrowing the circles of a man’s acquaintance, lessens his opportunities of general knowledge.”
Once the Revolution was under way, Paine more and more made it clear that he was not for the crowd action of lower-class people-like those militia who in 1779 attacked the house of James Wilson. Wilson was a Revolutionary leader who opposed price controls and wanted a more conservative government than was given by the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776. Paine became an associate of one of the wealthiest men in Pennsylvania, Robert Morris, and a supporter of Morris’s creation, the Bank of North America.
Later, during the controversy over adopting the Constitution, Paine would once again represent urban artisans, who favored a strong central government. He seemed to believe that such a government could represent some great common interest, in this sense, he lent himself perfectly to the myth of the Revolution-that it was on behalf of a united people.
The Declaration of Independence brought that myth to its peak of eloquence. Each harsher measure of British control-the Proclamation of 1763 not allowing colonists to settle beyond the Appalachians, the Stamp Tax, the Townshend taxes, including the one on tea, the stationing of troops and the Boston Massacre, the closing of the port of Boston and the dissolution of the Massachusetts legislature-escalated colonial rebellion to the point of revolution. The colonists had responded with the Stamp Act Congress, the Sons of Liberty, the Committees of Correspondence, the Boston Tea Party, and finally, in 1774, the setting up of a Continental Congress-an illegal body, forerunner of a future independent government. It was after the military clash at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, between colonial Minutemen and British troops, that the Continental Congress decided on separation. They organized a small committee to draw up the Declaration of Independence, which Thomas Jefferson wrote. It was adopted by the Congress on July 2, and officially proclaimed July 4, 1776.
By this time there was already a powerful sentiment for independence. Resolutions adopted in North Carolina in May of 1776, and sent to the Continental Congress, declared independence of England, asserted that all British law was null and void, and urged military preparations. About the same time, the town of Maiden, Massachusetts, responding to a request from the Massachusetts House of Representatives that all towns in the state declare their views on independence, had met in town meeting and unanimously called for independence: “. . . we therefore renounce with disdain our connexion with a kingdom of slaves; we bid a final adieu to Britain.”
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands . . . they should declare the causes….” This was the opening of the Declaration of Independence. Then, in its second paragraph, came the powerful philosophical statement:
We hold these truths to he self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments arc instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government….
It then went on to list grievances against the king, “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” The list accused the king of dissolving colonial governments, controlling judges, sending “swarms of Officers to harass our people,” sending in armies of occupation, cutting off colonial trade with other parts of the world, taxing the colonists without their consent, and waging war against them, “transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny.”
All this, the language of popular control over governments, the right of rebellion and revolution, indignation at political tyranny, economic burdens, and military attacks, was language well suited to unite large numbers of colonists, and persuade even those who had grievances against one another to turn against England.
Some Americans were clearly omitted from this circle of united interest drawn by the Declaration of Independence: Indians, black slaves, women. Indeed, one paragraph of the Declaration charged the King with inciting slave rebellions and Indian attacks:
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst as, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
Twenty years before the Declaration, a proclamation of the legislature of Massachusetts of November 3, 1755, declared the Penobseot Indians “rebels, enemies and traitors” and provided a bounty: “For every scalp of a male Indian brought in … forty pounds. For every scalp of such female Indian or male Indian under the age of twelve years that shall be killed … twenty pounds… .”
Thomas Jefferson had written a paragraph of the Declaration accusing the King of transporting slaves from Africa to the colonies and “suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.” This seemed to express moral indignation against slavery and the slave trade (Jefferson’s personal distaste for slavery must be put alongside the fact that he owned hundreds of slaves to the day he died). Behind it was the growing fear among Virginians and some other southerners about the growing number of black slaves in the colonies (20 percent of the total population) and the threat of slave revolts as the number of slaves increased. Jefferson’s paragraph was removed by the Continental Congress, because slaveholders themselves disagreed about the desirability of ending the slave trade. So even that gesture toward the black slave was omitted in the great manifesto of freedom of the American Revolution.
The use of the phrase “all men are created equal” was probably not a deliberate attempt to make a statement about women. It was just that women were beyond consideration as worthy of inclusion. They were politically invisible. Though practical needs gave women a certain authority in the home, on the farm, or in occupations like midwifery, they were simply overlooked in any consideration of political rights, any notions of civic equality.
To say that the Declaration of Independence, even by its own language, was limited to life, liberty, and happiness for white males is not to denounce the makers and signers of the Declaration for holding the ideas expected of privileged males of the eighteenth century. Reformers and radicals, looking discontentedly at history, are often accused of expecting too much from a past political epoch-and sometimes they do. But the point of noting those outside the arc of human rights in the Declaration is not, centuries late and pointlessly, to lay impossible moral burdens on that time. It is to try to understand the way in which the Declaration functioned to mobilize certain groups of Americans, ignoring others. Surely, inspirational language to create a secure consensus is still used, in our time, to cover up serious conflicts of interest in that consensus, and to cover up, also, the omission of large parts of the human race.
The philosophy of the Declaration, that government is set up by the people to secure their life, liberty, and happiness, and is to be overthrown when it no longer does that, is often traced to the ideas of John Locke, in his Second Treatise on Government. That was published in England in 1689, when the English were rebelling against tyrannical kings and setting up parliamentary government. The Declaration, like Locke’s Second Treatise, talked about government and political rights, but ignored the existing inequalities in property. And how could people truly have equal rights, with stark differences in wealth?
Locke himself was a wealthy man, with investments in the silk trade and slave trade, income from loans and mortgages. He invested heavily in the first issue of the stock of the Bank of England, just a few years after he had written his Second Treatise as the classic statement of liberal democracy. As adviser to the Carolinas, he had suggested a government of slaveowners run by wealthy land barons.
Locke’s statement of people’s government was in support of a revolution in England for the free development of mercantile capitalism at home and abroad. Locke himself regretted that the labor of poor children “is generally lost to the public till they are twelve or fourteen years old” and suggested that all children over three, of families on relief, should attend “working schools” so they would be “from infancy . . . inured to work.”
The English revolutions of the seventeenth century brought representative government and opened up discussions of democracy. But, as the English historian Christopher Hill wrote in The Puritan Revolution: “The establishment of parliamentary supremacy, of the rule of law, no doubt mainly benefited the men of property.” The kind of arbitrary taxation that threatened the security of property was overthrown, monopolies were ended to give more free reign to business, and sea power began to be used for an imperial policy abroad, including the conquest of Ireland. The Levellers and the Diggers, two political movements which wanted to carry equality into the economic sphere, were put down by the Revolution.
One can see the reality of Locke’s nice phrases about representative government in the class divisions and conflicts in England that followed the Revolution that Locke supported. At the very time the American scene was becoming tense, in 1768, England was racked by riots and strikes-of coal heavers, saw mill workers, halters, weavers, sailors- because of the high price of bread and the miserable wages. The Annual Register reviewed the events of the spring and summer of 1768:
A general dissatisfaction unhappily prevailed among several of the lower orders of the people. This ill temper, which was pardy occasioned by the high price of provisions, and partly proceeded from other causes, too frequently manifested itself in acts of tumult and riot, which were productive of the most melancholy consequences.
“The people” who were, supposedly, at the heart of Locke’s theory of people’s sovereignty were defined by a British member of Parliament: “I don’t mean the mob. … I mean the middling people of England, the manufacturer, the yeoman, the merchant, the country gentleman. . . .”
In America, too, the reality behind the words of the Declaration of Independence (issued in the same year as Adam Smith’s capitalist manifesto, The Wealth of Nations) was that a rising class of important people needed to enlist on their side enough Americans to defeat England, without disturbing too much the relations of wealth and power that had developed over 150 years of colonial history. Indeed, 69 percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had held colonial office under England.
When the Declaration of Independence was read, with all its flaming radical language, from the town hall balcony in Boston, it was read by Thomas Crafts, a member of the Loyal Nine group, conservatives who had opposed militant action against the British. Four days after the reading, the Boston Committee of Correspondence ordered the townsmen to show up on the Common for a military draft. The rich, it turned out, could avoid the draft by paying for substitutes; the poor had to serve’ This led to rioting, and shouting: “Tyranny is Tyranny let it come from whom it may.”
The late Howard Zinn was justifiably called “the people’s historian.”