The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Thirty-One: The Usual Suspects
Let's take a look at some of the traditional reasons for the American Revolution of 1776-1783. However, before we even start, I must say that their basic problem is that they start the story in the 1770s. Its not so much that there is anything wrong with the specific issues, per se; its just that placing them as issues that were planted and came to bloom in the 1770s, gives a false impression, which distorts our understanding of early American history in general and the Revolution in particular.
That false impression is this: that the English and British settlers, specifically, came to America as happy, contented, gung ho British citizens who were off on a great adventure --- a "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" kind of thing, but mainly for Britain. Does that make sense?
But those of you who have been following this series, know how false that impression is; you know that the settlers who came over from England and other parts of Europe, came as desperate economic refugees.
These same readers know that a disproportionate percentage of settlers, who came to America in the colonial period, came as indentured servants: without question more than half, and perhaps as many as two-thirds. Some of you may recall, as I have mentioned and documented elsewhere, that in seventeenth century America, "white-skinned" people, who crossed state lines, had to have identification proving that they were free people, who could come and go as they pleased.
If you were "white" in seventeenth century America, the presumption was that you were an enslaved laborer, unless you could prove otherwise.
Those of you who've been following this series, know that indentured servitude did not stop on a dime, with the eighteenth century boom in the African slave trade and the mass-scale lifetime enslavement of Africans and people of African descent. For example, you may recall, as I have documented elsewhere, that as late as 1755, it was still the case that in Maryland, ten percent of the population were indentured servants.
Everything I'm saying here, in review, I have already documented more than once previously in this series.
Those of you who've been following this series, know that indentured servitude was no joke. You will recall that servants were lucky to outlive the terms of their service. You know that they were beaten and whipped like slaves, the women raped like slaves; they were bought and sold like slaves; and they were even transported from Britain in conditions not unlike those endured by Africans.
You will recall that many succumbed within the first year. As I mentioned previously, according to the historian, Nell Irvin Painter, three hundred children were snatched off the streets of London and sent to America between 1619 and 1622, and by 1624 only 12 were left alive.
Those of you who have been following this series, know that the reason these people found themselves in that position is because of something I have been calling the overwhelming social force of the relentless grind machine of the agricultural revolution-facilitated, primogeniture-driven enclosure process, that privatized the commonly-held lands.
If you have been following this series, you know that enclosure went on in England from the early 1500s to 1850 [Simon Fairlie's paper, "A Short History of Enclosure in Britain]. Those of you who've hung with me, know that this process produced a catastrophic social crisis in England in the 1530s; and that Parliament responded to it by trying to enslave the dispossessed in 1547; and that the law was repealed in 1550.
Basically, I have been arguing that the whole reason England created overseas colonies in the first place, was because London needed to find places to park the millions of people the government was dispossessing.
The settlers were a people for whom the concept of national loyalty and patriotism would have been deeply problematic, complicated, and even ambiguous. The reason this was so is because the policies of the English central government had literally alienated the settlers off of the soil on which they had begun.
Does that make sense?
The whole reason they went on the boats for America, was because they had nowhere else to go, nowhere else to be.
Are you following me?
In other words, the alienation started in England.
I don't want to spend too much time on this mini review. I have been making a political point.
Those of you who've been following this series, know that prior to the 1500s, a system of collective land management prevailed in England, that would have been more familiar to the indigenous Americans on the other side of the pond. We're talking about a time before the concept of what we call private property.
Before the 1500s, England did not have what we would call "private property;" not if by "private property," you mean that one person has sole, exclusive dominion, and usage rights over a specifically designated piece of land. Land use rights were public and intersecting and overlapping. We're talking about common property rights. Again, see Simon Fairlie's paper, "A Short History of Enclosure in Britain."
Now then, I have argued that London severed the land use rights of millions of people; and that, by way of reaction, the settlers of the North American mainland embraced private property.
So, on the one hand, as I have put it before, the settlers were "screwed" one time in England, through the enclosure process.
Now then, much of the difficulty that beset the settlers on the other side of the pond, on the North American mainland, came from the fact that London-appointed colonial authorities, were also preventing the settlers from getting a square deal, in various ways, in accumulating private property.
This is the second "screwing" or "double screwing," I have been talking about.
The settlers common property rights were thwarted, by the central government in England. And their private property "rights" were thwarted in America.
In my view, it is this situation which created the "something's got to give" pressure, I mentioned, which eventuated in the American Revolution.
Everything I have stated to this point has been simple review of material I have documented, in this series, more than once.
Now let us break new-old ground. What are the traditional reasons given for the American Revolution of 1776-1783?
Historian, Chris Harman, put it this way:
"The Seven Years War of 1756-63 between Britain and France had centered on control of the colonies, especially in North America, and of the trade that went with them. Britain defeated France in the West Indies, took control of Bengal and conquered Canada, laying the basis of a world empire. But there was a mighty bill to be paid for doing so (1).
"A logical move for British ministers was to make the American colonists pay some of the costs of the war. After all, they reasoned, the colonies had gained enormously since a French scheme to take control of the Mississippi Valley and prevent the colonies from expanding westwards had been thwarted" (2).
And so, Britain imposed a series of taxes on the American colonists: a tax on molasses in 1764; a stamp tax on a range of transactions in 1765; a Quartering Act, which made the colonists pay for the cost of keeping British troops in America; ; and a tax on imports in 1767 (3).
Basically, the British authorities went to the settlers and said something to the effect of: We have defeated the French enemy, thus guaranteeing your security in these colonies. Therefore, we need your help in defraying part or, ideally, all of the cost of having done so.
I think that argument would have found more favor with a population who had not been desperate economic refugees, as the British settlers were. The fact that London resettled them elsewhere, did not change the fact that the English central government took policies---enclosure---which had necessitated the resettlement of millions of Britons overseas, in the first place.
If anything, the settlers would have thought that neutralizing the French, supposedly on behalf of themselves, was the least that London could have and should have done. And why should London have needed more taxes from them, since they had redistributed plenty of wealth upward through the enclosure process, which had severed the settlers and their ancestors from their traditional land use rights under common property?
Does that make sense?
Chris Harman explained that each tax caused a lot of resentment. For one thing, the settlers were short on cash due to an economic depression. Moreover, the taxes threatened to damage certain industries (4).
Since France was no longer a military threat, London wanted the extra income to be able to lower income taxes on the big landholders in Britain. And above all, said Chris Harman, the colonists were being subjected to tax policy over which they had no say (5).
Now then, I will return to the matter of taxes at another time and place. For now, let me close out this paper with an illustration of the "something's got to give" pressure that the settlers found themselves subjected to.
What I'm saying is that the settlers of the North American mainland had good reason to be skeptical and, frankly, confused about the motives of their London-appointed colonial overlords. Remember, the settlers had already been "screwed" out of their common property rights in England. Having, by way of reaction, accepted the apparent New World Order of private property, what they wanted in the "New World" was a fair chance to accumulate such property.
Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 in Virginia is a marvelous illustration of the paradox I'm talking about; and the "something's got to give" pressure that would eventuate into the American Revolution of 1776-1783.
Nathaniel Bacon led a rebellion of "white" frontiersmen, joined by black slaves and "white" indentured servants. It was an insurrection that had been so deadly that the colonial governor, William Berkeley, was forced to flee the burning capital of Jamestown. England decided to send one thousand soldiers across the Atlantic to restore order among the 40,000 colonists (6).
The insurrection began over the question of what to do about the Indians, who were a constant, close by, threatening presence on the western frontier. Those "whites" who had been passed up when huge land grants around Jamestown had been given away, went west to find land; and, naturally, encountered Indians (7).
Historian Howard Zinn summed things up this way:
"Were those frontier Virginians resentful that the politicos and landed aristocrats who controlled the colony's government in Jamestown first pushed them westward into Indian territory and then seemed indecisive in fighting the Indians? That might explain the character of the rebellion, not easily classifiable as either antiaristocrat or anti-Indian, because it was both.
"And the governor, William Berkeley, and his Jamestown crowd---were they more conciliatory to the Indians (they wooed certain of them as spies and allies) now that they had monopolized the land in the East, could use frontier whites as a buffer, and needed peace? The desperation of the government in suppressing the rebellion seemed to have a double motive: developing an Indian policy which would divide the Indians in order to control them (in New England at this very time, Massasoit's son Metacom was threatening to unite Indian tribes, and had done frightening damage to Puritan settlements in King Phillip's War); and teaching the poor whites of Virginia that rebellion did not pay --- by a show of superior force by calling for troops from England itself, by mass hanging" (8).
The end result of the affair, was that twenty-three rebel leaders were hanged. According to Dr. Zinn, the indentured servants who had joined Bacon's Rebellion had come from a large underclass of miserably poor "whites", who had come from countries all too glad to be rid of them (9).
Here is the thing to see:
The settlers were between a rock and a hard place. They were subjected to a fundamental contradiction that had been of London's making, as I've been saying throughout. On the one hand, the settlers had been "screwed" out of their traditional land use rights under the system of common property.
As I said, they accepted the logic of privatization, by means of reaction, embraced the concept of private property; and subsequently then, sought a fair deal in accumulating such property. However, in the seventeenth century, at least, London-appointed colonial officials, largely thwarted these aspirations.
What I'm saying is that events like Bacon's Rebellion, were the kind of thing that was going to get the settlers thinking: that if only they could get rid of Britain, somehow, they, the settlers on the North American mainland, would be able to finally pursue a consistent, coherent policy of territorial expropriation and expansion.
You see, the mass bulk of the settlers never had the option of picking up their marbles and going "home," back to England/Britain. They had no choice but to make their lives in the place where London had planted them. It was, quite literally, "do or die."
As you may know, the option of returning "home," to Britain, was only open to a relative handful of people. During the Revolution, roughly 100,000 people left American between 1775 and 1784; and many received British compensation (10). But these "Loyalists" had been part of the social and economic elite.
But for the majority of the settlers, the only way the paradox could be resolved was through revolution, especially since they had accepted the concept of private property, and especially still, since the process of enclosure---with its manufacture of desperate economic refugees---would go on until 1850.
Thank you for reading!
Until next time....
1. Harman, Chris. A People's History of The World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium. Verso, 2008. 267
6. Zinn, Howard. A People's History Of The United States. HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2003. 39
7. ibid, 40
9. ibid, 41-42
10. Phillips, Kevin. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. Broadway Books, 2002. 12
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