In Defense of the American Revolution

1776 began as a petty squabble among odious and powerful elites. In spite of them, it soon became the lodestar of emancipatory movements everywhere.

A colored illustration depicting the Stamp Act Riots in Boston in 1765, originally published in the Historical Scrap Book (Cassell and Company, 1880).

The Fourth of July celebrates a declaration of war between two factions of a capitalist ruling class. By 1763, decisively victorious in its most recent war with France, the British Empire stood on the threshold of myriad possibilities: Who would control the profits of this victory, and how would the imperial state marshal its resources? The path preferred by the coalition of planters, merchants, and lawyers who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was one of investment over retrenchment, conquest over peace, and, for the most part, slavery over anything that threatened it. On the horizon, they saw land just waiting to be seized, sold, and shaped into “a mighty empire” of their own.

But the American Revolution could never just be a war between capitalists. Needless to say, most of those who did the fighting and dying — not to mention those who labored to make warfare possible — were workers and smallholders. Mobilizing these men and women, waging war on a scale hitherto unknown to the colonies, necessarily required the promulgation of sweeping and transformative ideas and institutions. It depended not only on the consent but on the active, sometimes fervent commitment of many ordinary colonists. Winning that commitment meant holding out the promise of a “new order for the ages,” a participatory republic in which the rights of “the people” — in practice, white men —would be secure forever.

A bitter civil war raged across the thirteen colonies and out along their edges, kindling a politics of emancipation and collective self-government — and not just for white male property owners. This war created the conditions for mass uprising among enslaved people, and for new alignments and coalitions among Native peoples in the ambit of imperial violence. It led wives, daughters, servants, and apprentices to question their subordinate positions in colonial society. Through their participation in collective action, men and women reforged old relationships and generated new identities that resonated with the possibilities of freedom, within and beyond the United States. However fractured and contradictory, those emancipation struggles helped shape the new nation and its neighbors.

Try as they might to quash such a frighteningly radical ferment, the new American ruling class was caught in the contradiction between its call for revolution and its need for stable hierarchy. Genteel capitalists like Gouverneur Morris understood from the beginning that the process of declaring independence would entail awakening “the mob,” like a reptile in the heat of a spring morning; “ere noon they will bite,” he warned in 1774, “depend upon it.” Sure enough, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, ordinary colonists came close to wresting power from their ruling elites. They wielded new democratic institutions to redistribute wealth where they could and undertook armed uprisings against intransigent republican rulers.

Revolution enlivened a tradition of rebellious dissent that went back to England’s tumultuous seventeenth century, a legacy that would be woven into the founding mythology of emerging American nationhood. It inspired men like William Manning, a farmer and tavern-keeper who wrote his Key of Liberty in 1799, to envisage a politics of the many that would defeat the “cunning and corruption” of the few—including “the adulterous Hamilton.” Jefferson’s Declaration came to be a template for the expression of emancipatory demands that he himself scorned, including most famously the call for women’s freedom made at Seneca Falls in 1848.

At the same time, the revolution brought about the construction of a state system—both federal and local—that helped American capitalists organize investment, exploit laborers, and expropriate land and resources on a fantastic scale. During the 1780s and ’90s, merchant, landed, and slaveholding interests defeated incipient democratic movements, imposing a constitution designed to protect their privileged access to power, foreclosing the radical potential of the revolutionary moment. Within a generation, they dramatically expanded the economy of slavery, further entrenching white supremacy while rolling back the short-lived gains of revolutionary women.

No wonder Frederick Douglass damned the hypocrisy of celebrating freedom on the Fourth of July, while his erstwhile colleague William Lloyd Garrison declared the Constitution “a covenant with death.” Yet their abolition movement also drew strength from the revolutionary tradition, which had deemed it “more glorious to die instantly as freemen, than desirable to live one hour as slaves.” Nowhere more than in the cause of abolition were the contradictions of the revolution more sharply felt. To bring an end to slavery, the movement invoked the principles of slaveholders like Jefferson and Washington; to effect an epochal expropriation of wealth, it mobilized a state conceived for and dedicated to the protection of property.

The promise of freedom in equality still lies at the heart of the Declaration, even as the Fourth of July celebrations of American nationhood increasingly signify an altogether incompatible political project. In the eighteenth century, the revolutionary struggle involved building institutions and alliances that enabled large numbers of people to repudiate the legitimacy of their existing legal order. A new world was born within the old, shaped and scarred by its struggle to emerge. There’s no such thing as purity in politics, or movements without contradictions. It’s in that light that we should grasp the revolutionary tradition and raise a toast to Independence Day.