Working Class Origins of the American Revolution


May 1, 2011

Good morning to you all.

Thank you for coming. 

I want you to imagine for a moment European politics and social life during the 17th and 18th centuries. 

When in 1688, the leading seven bishops of the Church of England were given an audience with King James II; they were at once the highest prelates in the land and at the same time, too low on the social scale to stand in the presence of his royal person. On this occasion they brought to His Majesty a petition requesting that he not require all Anglican priests to announce Catholic appointments, a move that would lead to the destruction of the Church of England, or that is, destruction of the world of the Anglican priests themselves.  James intended to humiliate them all by having them announce their own demise. 

The anguished bishops pleaded with the king, from their knees, that this proclamation would be against the laws of the land.  The king, in return, said that being king gave him the right to dispense with the law of the land.  (This is a fault of kings, and of presidents sometimes.  Richard Nixon and George W. Bush had exactly the same attitude. You can read all about this history-making confrontation in my book Democracy At The Crossroads, and also all about how the lessons that James I had to learn were entirely lost on George W. Bush.)

This attitude about the place of kings and the landed aristocracy was characteristic of not only England’s court at the end of the 17th century, but through most of western political history, and not only in England but of course also in the court of Louis XIV of France and forever in courts of Spain.  You may have seen Louis’ house at Versailles.  It is a monument to inequality and excess.

So the mode of European conduct when coming into the presence of royalty was, enter the room; kneel; wait to be invited to speak.

This was still true a century after James II and Louis XIV when John Adams presented his credentials as Ambassador of the new United States to the King of England, George III.  Adams had to take lessons to learn how to bow and kneel.

From cockney to gentleman, to landed gentry, everybody in England had a class assignment. Everyone knew that his rights were less than someone else’s and that is the assumption that most of the American colonists brought with them to the new world.

Men were not equal to each other; women were not equal to men. Poor men were not equal to rich men. Propertied men could vote in parliamentary elections; shopkeepers and artisans, mechanics and shipmen, could not.

Imagine then that before they arrived on this American continent no one from England or France, or Italy or Spain, had ever had the experience of living without class distinctions or without a king and queen at the top. No one had ever experienced, traveled through, read about, or heard about a society in which equality of social status was the prevailing social norm. Even in ancient Athens, of which they did have knowledge, there were slaves and women could not vote. No model existed for the colonists anywhere in literature or religion of a society without property-based inequality, hierarchy and oppression.

Imagine then the wonder that Jefferson and Franklin and Adams must have experienced when they did encounter a society that did not base human rights in property, or clothing, or possessions, and that met in open discussion to consider major questions of public safety, that appointed war leaders for the duration of a conflict and then retired them to normal civilian status.  Imagine the wonder at decisions recommended by representatives from the various regions of the confederacy, brought forward for consideration by representatives after discussion and debate at the lower levels. Imagine their wonder that women selected the leaders and played an open and leading role in public decision-making.

I am speaking of course of the experience of the American colonists, all the way through the first 150 years, during which they encountered the Iroquois Confederacy.  Europeans must have been stunned.  Prior to 1776, they had had no experience, nor had met anyone, except Indians, who had ever lived under any form of government that was not hierarchal, monarchical, oppressive, and unequal, or that assumed that all people had natural rights.  The Iroquois were a breathtaking example of social organization never before encountered.

It is entirely likely that because of their European backgrounds most colonists had trouble digesting and understanding what they were seeing.  Most saw loincloths and headdresses. But among those who did see more than the primitive and commented in writing upon what they saw, were some famous names: Hancock, Rutledge, Paine, Adams and Jefferson. 

These were some who both wrote about the Iroquois confederacy and who participated in the grand debate about the foundations for the new republic. Did the Iroquois persuade them to hold out for ideas of national union, happiness, natural rights, and representative assemblies?  We don’t know certainly, but we can say that the Iroquois were an example of those values that Europeans had encountered nowhere else in the flesh.

The founders saw happiness without privilege.  Jefferson wrote a letter in 1787 that Indians “govern themselves with a much greater degree of happiness than Europeans.”

So we can consider the Iroquois Confederacy as one foundation of American culture that greatly influenced our founders and which lent no support for privilege, plutocracy and politics by the wealthiest.

The Iroquois are not exactly of the working class because Iroquois society did not have a working class and maybe did not have classes at all. But a strong case can be made for them as contributing to our democratic origins. 

Plutocracy, government by the wealthiest, is not much aided by reference to the Iroquois Confederacy so that is why we don’t hear about it much.  From the standpoint of the wealthiest, people who were more apt to exchange wampum than gold could not have been civilized. Today, still, multinational corporations are not much interested in natural rights and the common good.

Let me change then to focus specifically on what we would call the working class origins of the American Revolution.

I have told this story in Santa Fe before, but it bears remembering as we face the drumbeat of claims from Paul Ryan and John Boehner and Mitch McConnell that the economy can be fixed by supporting the creditor class.  As it turns out, Americans have heard this before. The American revolutionaries had heard it all before. Those who brought off the Declaration of Independence had heard it all before. Those who started Shay’s Rebellion had heard it all before.  Those who incited the Whiskey Rebellion, just after the new constitution was adopted, had heard it all before.  Those who rioted from West Virginia to Pittsburg to Baltimore to Chicago to San Francisco in 1877 had heard it all before. So lest anyone is tempted to believe that the creditor class, the wealthiest among us, is responsible for American independence let me tell this story again.

On May 1, 1776, delegates to the Continental Congress were gathered in the State House in Philadelphia to consider what position the united colonies should take with regard to King George III and the English Empire.  War had broken out the preceding year on the village greens at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts.  The news this May morning was that the English were sending a peace commission that would arrive soon but that at the same time they had assembled the largest armada in the history of the Empire in Nova Scotia and were preparing a massive invasion. They would bring the best-trained and best-equipped army in the world that would, presumably, enforce the peace commission’s unilateral demands.  A flotilla had already set sail and would be rounding Cape Cod within days.  General Washington was digging in on Manhattan Island.

But even though General Washington was preparing to fight, and the Continental Congress was constantly scraping together funds for his rag tag army, the colonies had not yet decided as a body to do more than oppose English taxation and oppression of merchant shipping.  In New York and Maryland, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, legislatures clung to the thought that the best course would be to oppose the armada but stay loyal to the king.  That meant, in practical terms, allegiance to the English class system, allowing for government by the elites, and scorn for the mob.

Each state assembly was required to agree at home on what was to be done about the English king before sending instructions to their delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. On this May 1st, 1776, the central region of states led by Pennsylvania was opposed to independence.  They wanted to keep English common law and courts in place and only to give Americans more freedom from taxation. They therefore favored “reconciliation” with the king.  John Dickinson, a prominent author, lawyer and farmer from Pennsylvania was the leader of this faction and if Dickinson could keep Pennsylvania from declaring for independence the rest of the central colonies would follow his lead.  Looking back, had Dickinson succeeded, 1776 would have been known to history as the year of little tax revolt and that is all.

The year was the same as the publication in Britain of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  Smith was part of what is now known as the Scottish Enlightenment and Dickinson would probably have agreed with most of Smith’s thesis about government.  He saw the free market as the backbone of American success and his interest was in freeing merchants from restrictions.  A landowner and rent collector himself he was not interested in democracy or empowerment of working people.  It was not insignificant that that May 1st meeting at the State Assembly of Pennsylvania was being held in a building owned by Dickinson.  On May 1st, a vote was held and it came out for their landlord against independence.

But then this:  On May 20, the state assembly changed its mind.  In a complete reversal, they voted for independence.  It was that vote, little noted by history and certainly even less remarked by anyone in this century, that led only weeks later to the famous declaration of July 4th.

This remarkable three-week turn-around, largely overlooked by history and of course by adherents of great wealth, and, for that matter, today by David and Charles Koch, or Karl Rove, or the Federal Reserve Bank, was brought about by thousands of un-enfranchised, desperate working people. In addition, there was a historically unprecedented organization of privates in the state militias. The privates were armed, sick of powerlessness, and sought for themselves the right to vote.  Equality was the issue for the working people and the privates and as it turned out during those 14 days, it was they who changed history.

Already in 1776 America was divided by substantial gaps of wealth and income.  Landed gentry like James Madison and George Washington wanted a greater range of freedom for themselves but did not champion, or even believe in, freedom for slaves, or equality of political influence for artisans, mechanics, or small shopkeepers. 

We hear from conservatives today that America was founded upon and came into existence because of its allegiance to the free market and that the USA is nothing if not a living testament to capitalism.  George W. Bush told us 10 years ago, following Ronald Reagan, that government was our problem and again lowered taxes for the rich.  These wealthiest among us who have the most influence upon our government and today’s politics would have us believe that the impulse for freedom was greatest among merchants and bankers, land owners and rent collectors.

Two things are wrong with today’s conservative battle cry: One, the leading members of American commerce in Philadelphia such as John Dickinson or New York bankers, were not opposed to British regulation; they were opposed to British taxation.  They would have been just as happy to stay with the king if he did not tax oppressively.  And they held no brief for social equality.  Equality was not an ideal among most of the famous names of the American Revolution.  Not for Washington; not for John Adams; certainly not for John Hancock. 

The second flaw in the conservative memory is that in the key state of Pennsylvania it was not the chief capitalists or wealthiest merchants who championed the cry for independence.  It was the people who sawed and pounded, carved, wove, milled and farmed small plots of vegetables.  Add to them the lowliest privates in the militias who had organized on their own. 

During these 20 days of May in Philadelphia, the American Revolution was pushed around the corner toward independence by those who favored social change even more than a taxation change, and that social change would be a system that allowed even those without property to vote.  The American Revolution was pushed into being by those who literally wanted to be counted.

I did not know any of this until I read about it in a new book by William Hogeland, Declaration.  It’s a great story.

Thomas Paine was a commoner, poor, mostly unemployed, a troublemaker. Samuel Adams organized around Paine a group that included Thomas Young a young doctor of low social status who liked to create farmlands for the poor, and James Cannon a math teacher.  They formed a Philadelphia City Committee and worked with that legion of organized privates in the militias. The City Committee demanded independence from England. The privates agreed. 

The first vote of the state assembly on the question of independence was on May 1st The City Committee and Privates lost.  The state assembly was made up of the old guard, the wealthiest of Pennsylvanians led by John Dickinson.  So what to do? 

During the next days, the City Committee and Privates flooded the streets distributing petitions, calling for a public rally. When the rally formed then made great speeches from the steps of a big building and called for a vote from the crowd assembled around the streets, as if the crowd were somehow the people of Pennsylvania. No surprise, the fired up crowd supported independence. Then the City Committee and the Privates published broadsides in English and German to say that the whole people of Philadelphia were outright for separation. 

You can hear Thomas Paine in all of this.  What good, he had written in Common Sense in January five months before, is a king, but to give away places and be worshipped in the bargain!  Put the crown on the bon fire and burn it! The crown belongs to the people!

Now in the second week of May, a new set of pamphlets spread the word through the city and in response within a few days a large new crowd marched to the state assembly building claiming that the existing government of Pennsylvania was illegitimate and must be replaced.  They had made it illegitimate by their votes on the streets, a vote that all could participate in, not a vote of property owners. This was one of America’s first popular votes and it was driven by the City Committee that was comprised of artisans and mechanics and assisted by the Privates all of whom were without great lands or great wealth.

Paine had written that a king who attacks his own people has lost all legitimacy. Therefore that portion of the Pennsylvania founding charter that required every legislative session to open with an oath of allegiance to that king was an illegitimate vote. And if that vote was illegitimate, then all the legislation that might come from that assembly was illegitimate.   If the legislature itself was illegitimate, it must be disbanded and a new one formed that would create a constitution for Pennsylvania that would allow all men to vote!

John Adams of Massachusetts hated Thomas Paine, personally, but he thought Paine’s rabble rousing useful.  Massachusetts patriots had been the first to have to swallow English cannon and gunshot, and Adams, although a distinguished lawyer himself, saw no other course now but for a complete break with England.  So Adams supported Paine and the working people’s revolt, even though personally he greatly disliked clamor and fury and hotheaded rabble rousing.

On May 20, under extreme, constant and unrelenting pressure from working people, artisans, mechanics, butchers, weavers, millers and small shopkeepers, the Pennsylvania assembly was effectively disabled, discontinued, and the state brought around for independence. As Philadelphia went so went Pennsylvania and as Pennsylvania went, so went the Continental Congress.  

All this was precedent to the famous Declaration of Independence of July 4th and all this was the foundation for the use of the words by Thomas Jefferson on that famous date that “all men are created equal.”  Only three months earlier, on May 1st, most of the colonies had not been of the view that all men were created equal.

Why speak about this in May 2011?  Why this Sunday? 

Because, as Wisconsin stumbles toward plutocracy, and as Florida goes forward to destroy unions, and as Michigan curtails collective bargaining, and as, all over the country the conservative rhetoric is that working people are pampered and overpaid, those who bring off these changes think that they are reinstalling the true America. That true America, they believe, came into being to defend against taxes and royal government.  They are only partly right.  In greater degree, the critical vote for American independence was engineered and demanded not by the wealthy or the richest people in the colonies but by the working class.  This country did not come into being because of the bankers of New York or the wealthy landowners of Pennsylvania.  It came into being because of the upheaval among those who had never been considered worthy of self-government. It came into being in spite of great wealth.

Again, a wonderful book for you to read that spells all this out is Declaration, by William Hogeland.  I recommend it heartily.  But our relevant history is not finished in 1776. 

Although working people were at least as responsible as any others for the foundation of the country, a few years later, drafters of the constitution of 1789 did not require state legislatures to allow men without property to vote, and did not proscribe men and women being held as slaves or indentured servants, and did not allow women of any color to vote at all. The new constitution did not embrace fully the idea of equality that had carried the day for independence in May of 1776. 

By 1789, the democrats had once again lost the initiative, gone back to work, as surely they had to do, and the resulting Constitution was only partly responsive to the needs of people without riches. The Senate, the courts, the electoral college, the permission for slavery, the property requirements for voting, withholding the franchise for women, all were a testament to the reassertion of control by those most able to afford the time to participate in, and control, government.

Plutocracy won its protection as part of the American Constitution.  That is to say that the Declaration of Independence of 1776 is a more radical document than the Constitution of 1789, which in the end was a ragged compromise.  The fact that today Senator Mitch McConnell from Kentucky with a population of only a little over 4 million can destroy the 2008 election dreams of a country with a population of over 300 million is due to that concession of 1789.  That was a compromise hatched to protect South Carolina, and Georgia and the slave plantations and America still suffers from that devil’s bargain.

One of the reasons for that balance in the Constitution against democracy or against direct election of senators or establishing the electoral college which was to be a selection of elders who would exercise their best judgment and not be bound by the people’s vote was that in the meantime, since the Revolution, democracy had broken out in the form of a rebellion.

The crisis of the 1780s was most intense in the rural and relatively newly settled areas of central and western Massachusetts. Many farmers in western Massachusetts suffered from high debt as they tried to start new farms. Many had been paid for their service in the revolution with worthless IOUs that had not been honored. 

Unlike many other state legislatures in the 1780s, the Massachusetts government didn't respond to the economic crisis by passing pro-debtor laws (like forgiving debt and printing more paper money). As a result, local sheriffs were seizing farms and sending farmers to debtor’s prison.

The farmers thereupon called special meetings of the people to protest these conditions and often agreed to stage coordinated protests. They surrounded some courthouses and closed them down so that creditors could not enforce foreclosures.  They forcefully liberated debt prisoners from jail.

Then they broke out their weapons from the days of the Revolution and set off to the Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, meaning to get guns for those among them who had only pitch forks and clubs.  This was clearly and simply a revolt of debtors against creditors.

Unfortunately for the Shays rebels, the creditors controlled Massachusetts’ government and the governor sent out the militia to put Captain Shays and his ragged band to flight.  The militia got to the Armory before Shays did, and when the Shays boys looked down the barrels of their own rifles into the bayonets and cannons of the Governor, they turned and fled.

While the rebellion disintegrated quickly, the underlying social forces that propelled it remained. The debtors' fury was widespread and similar actions occurred on a smaller scale in Maine (then still part of Massachusetts), Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania.

This high level of discontent, popular resistance, and the subsequent election of pro-debtor governments in many states threatened the plutocrats, great merchants and landowners.

George Washington was appalled.  Samuel Adams, who had led the artisans and mechanics to stand against the king in Philadelphia, was now no longer a democrat.  He said:

"Rebellion against a king may be pardoned, or lightly punished, but the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death."

Thomas Jefferson, bless his heart, was on the other side:

"A little rebellion now and then is a good thing. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government. God forbid that we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion."

Let’s move ahead almost 100 years to 1877.

Cornelius Vanderbilt and Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and JP Morgan assembled riches in America beyond imagination and as working conditions in the mines and on the railroads became intolerable, (men working for 20 or 15 cents a day); the competition between shippers and mine owners, smelters and steel makers became brutal.  The great class of American royalists of that time decided to gain advantage over one another by cutting pennies from the wages for those least able to resist, the workers on the railroads. This is similar to the great corporations of today “increasing productivity” as they say when they ask airline pilots and truck drivers and nurses to work more for the same wage. 

This time, in 1877, riots broke out in West Virginia, spread to Pittsburg, then to Baltimore, then to Chicago and west to San Francisco.  Rail cars were overturned and burned. Stations were burned down. Tracks were rooted up and torn away.  The militias of the various states were called out and faced the rioters head on, finally shooting into the crowds.  Men died. The country was in flames.  But the Supreme Court in those days, as in these, was more apt to grant the rights of persons to corporations than the rights of corporations to persons, and American law and justice tilted away from working people just as it had done in 1789 in the Constitution.

And the cry was the same: it was that ordinary people whose wages were being dropped from 21 to 19 cents, could look up at the grand estates of the Vanderbilts and Carnegies and cry, as did their countryman of Philadelphia in 1776, that we are people here and we want to be counted.  We want to be counted politically and economically and not just as a cost of production, an expense necessary to facilitate profits of heartless corporations.

It was not for another 50 years after 1877 that labor earned the right to collectively bargain and for unemployment compensation, and eventually for social security and Medicaid and Medicare that the age of democracy fully arrived into America.  It was not until the 1920s that women could vote and not until the 1960s that most blacks could vote in the South and all this is the story of democracy vs. plutocracy that we are struggling with today.  It is brought to us today by the Koch Brothers in their financing of the Tea Party and by Karl Rove in his financing of conservative candidates, and by Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, as she spends vast monies in amounts made possible by her husband’s decision in Citizen’s United.

Today in America there is corruption in the labor movement as there is corruption in Congress and among New York bankers.  Corruption is widespread and awful wherever it occurs. But the bigger issue in America tonight is not the cases of individual or even corporate corruption.  It is the increasing condition that makes corruption inevitable.  That condition is plutocracy a form of government that is not the same as democracy and is the reason why we are here today. 

We are here to see if we can encourage our neighbors and our friends, the men and women in the streets around us, to hold on to the threads of democracy as a concept and as a promise. It is the form of government that creates human dignity and opportunity.  It has been the form of government through which over time, and at the cost of lives and personal treasure, has brought the direct election of senators, the vote to women and blacks, and social safety nets to the unemployed, the elderly and the sick. 

All these gains for democracy are now once again under attack by those who would roll the country back to the Gilded Age and the age of discrimination against women, the poor and of cheap labor from people of color.  Make no mistake. A great part of the knee jerk reaction to Hilary Clinton as a candidate for president was because she was a woman.  Make no mistake, a great part of the venom toward Barack Obama, the claims that he was born in Kenya, or is a Muslim, are because he is black and therefore not one of us.  Kentucky from which Mitch McConnell announces that he will do every action in the senate, calculate every move on the basis whether it will help to defeat Obama in 2012, comes from a state that is very nearly 90% white and less than 8% black.

Make no mistake; the attacks on Social Security and Medicare are because it steals a part of potential profits from the same interests who were opposed to equality as a principle in 1776.  They have no interest in equality today and would have condemned the millers and weavers, the carters and wheelwrights, the carpenters and printers, the woodworkers and frontiersmen and their courageous women. 

When they attack teachers in Wisconsin it is of the same spirit that allowed Washington Irving to ridicule Ichabod Crane and John Dickinson to ignore James Canon the math teacher who helped to organize the City Committee in May of 1776. 

Americans were in the streets for social equality before there was a Marx and before there was an Engles and before there was a word called socialism by which ordinary middle class people might all be lumped together and disparaged for their desire to be counted.

We today who are not among the 2% who own the great houses and the yachts, who do not get the million dollar bonuses from Wall Street, who do not control $40 million to contribute to lobbying or political campaigns as did the Koch Brothers in 2010, who cannot claim as Donald Trump claims that we are more competent because we are richer than other rich men, are asking to have our votes count. That is just about it. That is just about all.  We are asking as the Privates did to have a vote that counts and is not washed under by soulless corporate cash.  We are asking to have a chance to be significant in the selection of our own government and our own policies and not to become wage slaves and commodities.

We will not give up.  At stake is human dignity, our own sense of self worth, and our hopes for our children.  We will not give up.


Thank you.