The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Twenty-Eight: A Little More on Class Antagonisms

Friedrich Engels: German social scientist, political theorist, author, and collaborator of Karl Marx. (1820-1895)
Friedrich Engels: German social scientist, political theorist, author, and collaborator of Karl Marx. (1820-1895) | Source

We are picking up exactly where we left off in part twenty-seven. Let's get right into it.

The general situation of the thirteen colonies in the 1700s was like so: the English colonies were growing fast; the English settlers were joined by Scotch-Irish and German immigrants; black slaves were pouring in: only eight percent of the population in 1690, but twenty percent in 1770; the population in the colonies (1700) -- 250,000/1760 -- 1,600,000; agriculture was growing and small manufacturing was developing; shipping and trade were expanding; big cities like Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Charleston were doubling and tripling in size; and the upper classes were getting most of the benefit (1).

A scholar called Carl Bridenbaugh studied colonial cities for his book, Cities in the Wilderness (2).

Carl Bridenbaugh: 'The leaders of early Boston were gentlemen of considerable wealth in association with the clergy, eagerly sought to preserve in America the social arrangements of the mother country. By means of their control of trade and commerce, by their political domination of the inhabitants through Church and Town meetings, and by careful marriage alliance among themselves, members of this little oligarchy laid the foundation for an aristocratic class in seventeenth century Boston' (3).

A petition came to the Massachusetts General Court from the town of Deerfield in 1678. It read: 'You may be pleased to know that the very principle and best of the land; the best for soile; the best for situation; as laying in ye center and middle of the town: and as to quantity, nere half, belongs unto eight or nine proprietors...' (4).

Newport, Rhode Island

Bridenbaugh found, as in Boston, that 'the town meetings, while ostensibly democratic, were in reality controlled year after year by the same group of merchant aristocrats, who secured most of the important offices...' (5).

Now, as I discussed in the previous installment: What we're looking at here is the collision of the sense of entitlement of the noble and gentry sibling class and the workaday settler, who, having been deprived of their rights in England, under the previous common property system, now wanted at least an equitable distribution of goods under the private property regime in America.

Okay.

Again, as I said in the previous installment, the "feudalism" of common property was being destroyed in England.

The "feudalism" that was transported to America, across the pond, was feudalism with private property.

In any case, that collision gave you things like the following.

I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating.

You may know that the first American colonies began as joint-stock ventures. When Sir Walter Raleigh's Virginia Company was reorganized in the early seventeenth century, it promised investors a return of 20 percent and incorporated a subsidiary company 'for Transporting 100 maids to Virginia to be made wives' (6).

A few years later, the New Amsterdam (New York) settlement was set up by the Dutch East India Company, whose shares were the main object of speculation on the Amsterdam bourse at that time. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the 'Wall' of Wall Street was built on the orders of Governor Stuyvesant of the Dutch West India Company (7).

George Washington --- (Yes, that George Washington!) --- started his own Mississippi Company to buy lands in the west. Benjamin Franklin was involved in an Illinois land speculation deal for sixty-three million acres. Patrick Henry was among the investors in the Yazoo Company, which attempted to purchase ten million acres in Georgia. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were said to have been occasional 'land-jobbers' (8).

In the late eighteenth century millions of acres in large blocks were exchanged in Maine, Georgia, and New York State. Developing towns and cities were also targets of profitable speculation. Washington D.C. was founded by land speculators. Forty years later, the same could be said for Chicago (9).


All of this presents us with a question: Why would people like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and other men of their ilk---who were clearly "making out like bandits" under the status quo, which is to say, the "feudalism with private property"---want to revolt, upset the applecart, and rock the boat? Why wouldn't they have wanted to simply stand pat?

I'll come back to that.

Now, this state of affairs, this "feudalism with private property,"---as I had termed it in the previous installment---caused a groundswell of class-based (and sometimes interracially class-based) reaction.

That reaction seems to have been both directed at the locally-derived elite and the twenty-four-seven British presence on the North American mainland, in the form of the royal governors, and so forth.

Economic historian, Kevin Phillips, lets us know that even though the Founding Fathers were revolutionary with respect to imperial Britain, "not even Jefferson thought to condemn him (King George III) for setting rich above the poor. Hierarchy was a fact of life in the eighteenth-century American colonies" (10).

Kevin Phillips continued: "And so only a few hundred yards from Carpenters' Hall, where the declaration's signers [Declaration of Independence -- italics mine] met, disgruntled artisans, storekeepers, and militiamen could be found plotting their own course in small, sparsely furnished homes and unfashionable taverns like the Four Alls on Sixth Street on the Wilkes and Liberty on Arch Street" (11).

Still quoting: "Pennsylvania's July 8 selection of delegates to its state constitutional convention was just days away, and they aimed to be in control. Only supporters of independence were allowed to vote; 'Torries' were barred, and prewar property requirements were set aside, radicals dominated" (12).

Mr. Phillips explained that part of what motivated these people, was their dismay over the increasing concentration of wealth and power going to a tiny Philadelphia elite. The architects of the new state constitution sought to address these disparities by expanding the vote, limiting the terms of state legislators, and opening the sessions to the public. They also specified that the final passage of bills should be delayed until the contents could be published in the state's newspapers and debated by the public (13).


Furthermore, in the Declaration of Rights attached to the constitution, they declared that government existed for the 'common Benefit, Protection, and Security of the People, Nation, or Community, and not for particular Emolument or advantage of any single man, family or set of men, who are only part of the community' (14).

An even stronger sixteenth article was narrowly rejected. It stated 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' (15).

Kevin Phillips also made note of a clash that involved "New York's feudal landed estates along the Hudson, Philadelphia's artisan precincts," and "the North Carolina backcountry." This clash took the form of an "insurgency against the corrupt impositions of the royal governor and the tidewater gentry," which "was bloodily crushed in 1771 at the Battle of Almanace" (16).

There was interracially class-based action against the British presence in North America.

Boston's poor workers, in general, reacted strongly against the combination of inflation and rising unemployment they suffered during the 1730s. A Boston minister complained about the 'murmuring against the Government and the rich People,' during the tough winter of 1737. And, eventually, full-scale rioting by 'young People, Servants, and Negroes' basically forced the colonial authorities to adopt measures that finally diminished the economic crisis (17).

Black Americans, Native Americans, and Euro-Americans joined forces to oppose the press gangs that appeared in communities to forcibly remove young, able-bodied men and impress them into service in the British navy (18).

In 1745 and 1747, Boston men mounted violent opposition to the appearance of press gangs. One reporter called it a riotous, tumultuous assembly of foreign seamen, Servants, Negroes and other persons of mean and vile condition.' The mob then turned on the colonial troops, who had tried to subdue them (19).

The practice of impressment sparked interracial resistance in major port cities throughout the middle of the eighteenth century. During the Summer of 1765, in Newport, Rhode Island, five hundred 'seamen, boys, and Negroes' took direct actions against press gangs that had operated in the city for more than a month. Protests also erupted in New York City and Norfolk, Virginia as well (20).

Now then, let's return to our question: Why would people like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Ben Franklin, and their peers, who were making out like bandits under the status quo ["feudalism with private property"], want to revolt against Great Britain?

One possible, simple answer we might give is that revolution was in the air. It could be that these wealthy burghers had no choice but to agree to revolt.

You must understand that the British had a 24/7 presence in the North American colonies, through the office of the royal governor and staff and whatever security personnel they may have needed.

Revolts were going on all over the place.

In the previous century there had been: black slave revolts against the system which had enslaved them; European indentured servant revolts against the system which had enslaved them; Indian revolts against the system which was dispossessing them; joint black slave and white indentured servant revolts against the system which had enslaved them both; joint slave, servant, and Indian revolts against the imported feudalism with private property system which had victimized them all.

As we just read, there were other kinds of revolts against the British presence and the imported system of feudalism with private property.

The preponderance of settler societal activity tilted in the direction of rebellion. Its part of that "something's gotta give" pressure I was talking about in the previous installment. And anyway, why shouldn't Jefferson and the other wealthy burghers take a chance? If they're successful, they will become the Princes of the New World.

And, is that not exactly what happened?

Thank you very much for reading.

On to part twenty-nine.

References

1. Zinn, Howard. A People's History Of The United States. HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2003. 49

2. ibid, 47

3. ibid, 47-48

4. ibid, 48

5. ibid

6. Chancellor, Edward. Devil Take The Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999. 152

7. ibid

8. ibid, 155

9. ibid

10. Phillips, Kevin. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. Broadway Books, 2002. 5

11. ibid, 5-6

12. ibid, 6

13. ibid

14. ibid

15. ibid

16. ibid, 7

17. Horton, James Oliver & Horton, Lois E. Slavery And The Making of America. Oxford University Press, 2005. 40

18. ibid

19. ibid

20. ibid, 40-41


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