Howard Zinn's critical history of the American Revolution against British rule and its impact on ordinary people.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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, hi 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
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
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
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 American victory over the British army was made possible by the existence of an already-
armed people. Just about every white male had a gun, and could shoot. The Revolutionary
leadership distrusted the mobs of poor. But they knew the Revolution had no appeal to slaves and
Indians. They would have to woo the armed white population.
This was not easy. Yes, mechanics and sailors, some others, were incensed against the British. But
general enthusiasm for the war was not strong. While much of the white male population went into
military service at one time or another during the war, only a small fraction stayed. John Shy, in his
study of the Revolutionary army (A People Numerous and Armed), says they "grew weary of being
bullied by local committees of safety, by corrupt deputy assistant commissaries of supply, and by
bands of ragged strangers with guns in their hands calling themselves soldiers of the Revolution."
Shy estimates that perhaps a fifth of the population was actively treasonous. John Adams had
estimated a third opposed, a third in support, a third neutral.
Alexander Hamilton, an aide of George Washington and an up-and-coming member of the new
elite, wrote from his headquarters: ". . . our countrymen have all the folly of the ass and all the
passiveness of the sheep... . They are determined not to be free.. . . If we are saved, France and
Spain must save us."
Slavery got in the way in the South. South Carolina, insecure since the slave uprising in Stono in
1739, could hardly fight against the British; her militia had to be used to keep slaves under control.
The men who first joined the colonial militia were generally "hallmarks of respectability or at least
of full citizenship" in their communities, Shy says. Excluded from the militia were friendly Indians,
free Negroes, white servants, and free white men who had no stable home.
But desperation led to the recruiting of the less respectable whites. Massachusetts and Virginia
provided for drafting "strollers" (vagrants) into the militia. In fact, the military became a place of
promise for the poor, who might rise in rank, acquire some money, change their social status.
Here was the traditional device by which those in charge of any social order mobilize and discipline
a recalcitrant population-offering the adventure and rewards of military service to get poor people
to fight for a cause they may not see clearly as their own. A wounded American lieutenant at
Bunker Hill, interviewed by Peter Oliver, a Tory (who admittedly might have been looking for such
a response), told how he had joined the rebel forces:
I was a Shoemaker, & got my living by my Labor. When this Rebellion came on, I saw some of my
Neighbors got into Commission, who were no better than myself. I was very ambitious, & did not
like to see those Men above me. T was asked to enlist, as a private Soldier ... I offered to enlist
upon having a Lieutenants Commission; which was granted. I imagined my self now in a way of
Promotion: if I was killed in Battle, there would be an end of me, but if any Captain was killed, I
should rise in Rank, & should still have a Chance to rise higher. These Sir! were the only Motives
of my entering into the Service; for as to the Dispute between Great Britain & the Colonies, I know
nothing of it. ...
John Shy investigated the subsequent experience of that Bunker Hill lieutenant. He was William
Scott, of Peterborough, New Hampshire, and after a year as prisoner of the British he escaped,
made his way back to the American army, fought in battles in New York, was captured again by the
British, and escaped again by swimming the Hudson River one night with his sword tied around his
neck and his watch pinned to his hat. He returned to New Hampshire, recruited a company of his
own, including his two eldest sons, and fought in various battles, until his health gave way. He
watched his eldest son the of camp fever after six years of service. He had sold his farm in
Peterborough for a note that, with inflation, became worthless. After the war, he came to public
attention when he rescued eight people from drowning after their boat turned over in New York
harbor. He then got a job surveying western lands with the army, but caught a fever and died in
Scott was one of many Revolutionary fighters, usually of lower military ranks, from poor and
obscure backgrounds. Shy's study of the Peterborough contingent shows that the prominent and
substantial citizens of the town had served only briefly in the war. Other American towns show the
same pattern. As Shy puts it: "Revolutionary America may have been a middle-class society,
happier and more prosperous than any other in its time, but it contained a large and growing
number of fairly poor people, and many of them did much of the actual fighting and suffering
between I775 and 1783: A very old story."
The military conflict itself, by dominating everything in its time, diminished other issues, made
people choose sides in the one contest that was publicly important, forced people onto the side of
the Revolution whose interest in Independence was not at all obvious. Ruling elites seem to have
learned through the generations-consciously or not-that war makes them more secure against
The force of military preparation had a way of pushing neutral people into line. In Connecticut, for
instance, a law was passed requiring military service of all males between sixteen and sixty,
omitting certain government officials, ministers, Yale students and faculty, Negroes, Indians, and
mulattos. Someone called to duty could provide a substitute or get out of it by paying 5 pounds.
When eighteen men failed to show up for military duty they were jailed and, in order to be released,
had to pledge to fight in the war. Shy says: "The mechanism of their political conversion was the
militia." What looks like the democratization of the military forces in modern times shows up as
something different: a way of forcing large numbers of reluctant people to associate themselves
with the national cause, and by the end of the process believe in it.
Here, in the war for liberty, was conscription, as usual, cognizant of wealth. With the impressment
riots against the British still remembered, impressment of seamen by the American navy was taking
place by 1779. A Pennsylvania official said: "We cannot help observing how similar this Conduct
is to that of the British Officers during our Subjection to Great Britain and are persuaded it will
have the same unhappy effects viz. an estrangement of the Affections of the People from . . .
Authority . . . which by an easy Progression will proceed to open Opposition . . . and bloodshed."
Watching the new, tight discipline of Washington's army, a chaplain in. Concord, Massachusetts,
wrote: "New lords, new laws. The strictest government is taking place and great distinction is made
between officers & men. Everyone is made to know his place & keep it, or be immediately tied up,
and receive not one but 30 or 40 lashes."
The Americans lost the first battles of the war: Bunker Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Harlem Heights, the
Deep South; they won small battles at Trenton and Princeton, and then in a turning point, a big
battle at Saratoga, New York, in 1777. Washington's frozen army hung on at Valley Forge,
Pennsylvania, while Benjamin Franklin negotiated an alliance with the French monarchy, which
was anxious for revenge on England. The war turned to the South, where the British won victory
after victory, until the Americans, aided by a large French army, with the French navy blocking off
the British from supplies and reinforcements, won the final victory of the war at Yorktown,
Virginia, in 1781.
Through all this, the suppressed conflicts between rich and poor among the Americans kept
reappearing. In the midst of the war, in Philadelphia, which Eric Foner describes as "a time of
immense profits for some colonists and terrible hardships for others," the inflation (prices rose in
one month that year by 45 percent) led to agitation and calls for action. One Philadelphia
newspaper carried a reminder that in Europe "the People have always done themselves justice when
the scarcity of bread has arisen from the avarice of forestallers. They have broken open magazines-
appropriated stores to their own use without paying for them-and in some instances have hung up
the culprits who created their distress."
In May of 1779, the First Company of Philadelphia Artillery petitioned the Assembly about the
troubles of "the midling and poor" and threatened violence against "those who are avariciously
intent upon amassing wealth by the destruction of the more virtuous part of the community." That
same month, there was a mass meeting, an extralegal gathering, which called for price reductions
and initiated an investigation of Robert Morris, a rich Philadelphian who was accused of holding
food from the market. In October came the "Fort Wilson riot," in which a militia group marched
into the city and to the house of James Wilson, a wealthy lawyer and Revolutionary official who
had opposed price controls and the democratic constitution adopted in Pennsylvania in 1776. The
militia were driven away by a "silk stocking brigade" of well-off Philadelphia citizens.
It seemed that the majority of white colonists, who had a bit of land, or no property at all, were still
better off than slaves or indentured servants or Indians, and could be wooed into the coalition of the
Revolution. But when the sacrifices of war became more bitter, the privileges and safety of the rich
became harder to accept. About 10 percent of the white population (an estimate of Jackson Main in
The Social Structure of Revolutionary America), large landholders and merchants, held 1,000
pounds or more in personal property and 1,000 pounds in land, at the least, and these men owned
nearly half the wealth of the country and held as slaves one-seventh of the country's people.
The Continental Congress, which governed the colonies through the war, was dominated by rich
men, linked together in factions and compacts by business and family connections. These links
connected North and South, East and West. For instance, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia was
connected with the Adamses of Massachusetts and the Shippens of Pennsylvania. Delegates from
middle and southern colonies were connected with Robert Morris of Pennsylvania through
commerce and land speculation. Morris was superintendent of finance, and his assistant was
Morris's plan was to give more assurance to those who had loaned money to the Continental
Congress, and gain the support of officers by voting half-pay for life for those who stuck to the end.
This ignored the common soldier, who was not getting paid, who was suffering in the cold, dying
of sickness, watching the civilian profiteers get rich. On New Year's Day, 1781, the Pennsylvania
troops near Morristown, New Jersey, perhaps emboldened by rum, dispersed their officers, killed
one captain, wounded others, and were marching, fully armed, with cannon, toward the Continental
Congress at Philadelphia.
George Washington handled it cautiously. Informed of these developments by General Anthony
Wayne, he told Wayne not to use force. He was worried that the rebellion might spread to his own
troops. He suggested Wayne get a list of the soldiers' grievances, and said Congress should not flee
Philadelphia, because then the way would be open for the soldiers to be joined by Philadelphia
citizens. He sent Knox rushing to New England on his horse to get three months' pay for the
soldiers, while he prepared a thousand men to march on the mutineers, as a last resort. A peace was
negotiated, in which one-half the men were discharged; the other half got furloughs.
Shortly after this, a smaller mutiny took place in the New Jersey Line, involving two hundred men
who defied their officers and started out for the state capital at Trenton. Now Washington was
ready. Six hundred men, who themselves had been well fed and clothed, marched on the mutineers
and surrounded and disarmed them. Three ringleaders were put on trial immediately, in the field.
One was pardoned, and two were shot by firing squads made up of their friends, who wept as they
pulled the triggers. It was "an example," Washington said.
Two years later, there was another mutiny in the Pennsylvania line. The war was over and the army
had disbanded, but eighty soldiers, demanding their pay, invaded the Continental Congress
headquarters in Philadelphia and forced the members to flee across the river to Princeton-
"ignominiously turned out of doors," as one historian sorrowfully wrote (John Fiske, The Critical
Period), "by a handful of drunken mutineers."
What soldiers in the Revolution could do only rarely, rebel against their authorities, civilians could
do much more easily. Ronald Hoffman says: "The Revolution plunged the states of Delaware,
Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and, to a much lesser degree, Virginia into
divisive civil conflicts that persisted during the entire period of struggle." The southern lower
classes resisted being mobilized for the revolution. They saw themselves under the rule of a
political elite, win or lose against the British.
In Maryland, for instance, by the new constitution of 1776, to run for governor one had to own
5,000 pounds of property; to run for state senator, 1,000 pounds. Thus, 90 percent of the population
were excluded from holding office. And so, as Hoffman says, "small slave holders, non-
slaveholding planters, tenants, renters and casual day laborers posed a serious problem of social
control for the Whig elite."
With black slaves 25 percent of the population (and in some counties 50 percent), fear of slave
revolts grew. George Washington had turned down the requests of blacks, seeking freedom, to fight
in the Revolutionary army. So when the British military commander in Virginia, Lord Dunmore,
promised freedom to Virginia slaves who joined his forces, this created consternation. A report
from one Maryland county worried about poor whites encouraging slave runaways:
The insolence of the Negroes in this county is come to such a height, that we are under a necessity
of disarming them which we affected on Saturday last. We took about eighty guns, some bayonets,
swords, etc. The malicious and imprudent speeches of some among the lower classes of whites
have induced them to believe that their freedom depended on the success of the King's troops. We
cannot therefore be too vigilant nor too rigorous with those who promote and encourage this
disposition in our slaves.
Even more unsettling was white rioting in Maryland against leading families, supporting the
Revolution, who were suspected of hoarding needed commodities. The class hatred of some of
these disloyal people was expressed by one man who said "it was better for the people to lay down
their arms and pay the duties and taxes laid upon them by King and Parliament than to be brought
into slavery and to be commanded and ordered about as they were." A wealthy Maryland land-
owner, Charles Carroll, took note of the surly mood all around him:
There is a mean low dirty envy which creeps thro all ranks and cannot suffer a man a superiority of
fortune, of merit, or of understanding in fellow citizens-either of these are sure to entail a general ill
will and dislike upon the owners.
Despite this, Maryland authorities retained control. They made concessions, taxing land and slaves
more heavily, letting debtors pay in paper money. It was a sacrifice by the upper class to maintain
power, and it worked.
In the lower South, however, in the Carolinas and Georgia, according to Hoffman, "vast regions
were left without the slightest apparition of authority." The general mood was to take no part in a
war that seemed to have nothing for them. "Authoritative personages on both sides demanded that
common people supply material, reduce consumption, leave their families, and even risk their lives.
Forced to make hard decisions, many flailed out in frustration or evaded and defied first one side,
then the other. .. ."
Washington's military commander in the lower South, Nathanael Greene, dealt with disloyalty by a
policy of concessions to some, brutality to others. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson he described a
raid by his troops on Loyalists. "They made a dreadful carnage of them, upwards of one hundred
were killed and most of the rest cut to pieces. It has had a very happy effect on those disaffected
persons of which there were too many in this country." Greene told one of his generals "to strike
terror into our enemies and give spirit to our friends." On the other hand, he advised the governor of
Georgia "to open a door for the disaffected of your state to come in... ."
In general, throughout the states, concessions were kept to a minimum. The new constitutions that
were drawn up in all states from 1776 to 1780 were not much different from the old ones. Although
property qualifications for voting and holding office were lowered in some instances, in
Massachusetts they were increased. Only Pennsylvania abolished them totally. The new bills of
rights had modifying provisions. North Carolina, providing for religious freedom, added "that
nothing herein contained shall be construed to exempt preachers of treasonable or seditious
discourses, from legal trial and punishment." Maryland, New York, Georgia, and Massachusetts
took similar cautions.
The American Revolution is sometimes said to have brought about the separation of church and
state. The northern states made such declarations, but after 1776 they adopted taxes that forced
everyone to support Christian teachings. William G. McLoughlin, quoting Supreme Court Justice
David Brewer in 1892 that "this is a Christian nation," says of the separation of church and state in
the Revolution that it "was neither conceived of nor carried out. .,. Far from being left to itself,
religion was imbedded into every aspect and institution of American life."
One would look, in examining the Revolution's effect on class relations, at what happened to land
confiscated from fleeing Loyalists. It was distributed in such a way as to give a double opportunity
to the Revolutionary leaders: to enrich themselves and their friends, and to parcel out some land to
small farmers to create a broad base of support for the new government. Indeed, this became
characteristic of the new nation: finding itself possessed of enormous wealth, it could create the
richest ruling class in history, and still have enough for the middle classes to act as a buffer
between the rich and the dispossessed.
The huge landholdings of the Loyalists had been one of the great incentives to Revolution. Lord
Fairfax in Virginia had more than 5 million acres encompassing twenty-one counties. Lord
Baltimore's income from his Maryland holdings exceeded 30,000 pounds a year. After the
Revolution, Lord Fairfax was protected; he was a friend of George Washington. But other Loyalist
holders of great estates, especially those who were absentees, had their land confiscated. In New
York, the number of freeholding small farmers increased after the Revolution, and there were fewer
tenant fanners, who had created so much trouble in the pre-Revolution years.
Although the numbers of independent fanners grew, according to Rowland Berthoff and John
Murrin, "the class structure did not change radically." The ruling group went through personnel
changes as "the rising merchant families of Boston, New York or Philadelphia ... slipped quite
credibly into the social status-and sometimes the very houses of those who failed in business or
suffered confiscation and exile for loyalty to the crown."
Edmund Morgan sums up the class nature of the Revolution this way: "The fact that the lower
ranks were involved in the contest should not obscure the fact that the contest itself was generally a
struggle for office and power between members of an upper class: the new against the established."
Looking at the situation after the Revolution, Richard Morris comments: "Everywhere one finds
inequality." He finds "the people" of "We the people of the United States" (a phrase coined by the
very rich Gouverneur Morris) did not mean Indians or blacks or women or white servants. In fact,
there were more indentured servants than ever, and the Revolution "did nothing to end and little to
ameliorate white bondage."
Carl Degler says (Out of Our Past): "No new social class came to power through the door of the
American revolution. The men who engineered the revolt were largely members of the colonial
ruling class." George Washington was the richest man in America. John Hancock was a prosperous
Boston merchant. Benjamin Franklin was a wealthy printer. And so on.
On the other hand, town mechanics, laborers, and seamen, as well as small farmers, were swept
into "the people" by the rhetoric of the Revolution, by the camaraderie of military service, by the
distribution of some land. Thus was created a substantial body of support, a national consensus,
something that, even with the exclusion of ignored and oppressed people, could be called
Staughton Lynd's close study of Dutchess County, New York, in the Revolutionary period
corroborates this. There were tenant risings in 1766 against the huge feudal estates in New York.
The Rensselaerwyck holding was a million acres. Tenants, claiming some of this land for
themselves, unable to get satisfaction in the courts, turned to violence. In Poughkeepsie, 1,700
armed tenants had closed the courts and broken open the jails. But the uprising was crushed.
During the Revolution, there was a struggle in Dutchess County over the disposition of confiscated
Loyalist lands, but it was mainly between different elite groups. One of these, the Poughkeepsie
anti-Federalists (opponents of the Constitution), included men on the make, newcomers in land and
business. They made promises to the tenants to gain their support, exploiting their grievances to
build their own political careers and maintain their own fortunes.
During the Revolution, to mobilize soldiers, the tenants were promised land. A prominent
landowner of Dutchess County wrote in 1777 that a promise to make tenants freeholders "would
instantly bring you at least six thousand able farmers into the field." But the fanners who enlisted in
the Revolution and expected to get something out of it found that, as privates in the army, they
received $6.66 a month, while a colonel received $75 a month. They watched local government
contractors like Melancton Smith and Mathew Paterson become rich, while the pay they received in
continental currency became worthless with inflation.
All this led tenants to become a threatening force in the midst of the war. Many stopped paying
rent. The legislature, worried, passed a bill to confiscate Loyalist land and add four hundred new
freeholders to the 1,800 already in the county. This meant a strong new voting bloc for the faction
of the rich that would become anti-Federalists in 1788. Once the new landholders were brought
into the privileged circle of the Revolution and seemed politically under control, their leaders,
Mclancton Smith and others, at first opposed to adoption of the Constitution, switched to support,
and with New York ratifying, adoption was ensured. The new freeholders found that they had
stopped being tenants, but were now mortgagees, paying back loans from banks instead of rent to
It seems that the rebellion against British rule allowed a certain group of the colonial elite to
replace those loyal to England, give some benefits to small landholders, and leave poor white
working people and tenant farmers in very much their old situation.
What did the Revolution mean to the Native Americans, the Indians? They had been ignored by the
fine words of the Declaration, had not been considered equal, certainly not in choosing those who
would govern the American territories in which they lived, nor in being able to pursue happiness as
they had pursued it for centuries before the white Europeans arrived. Now, with the British out of
the way, the Americans could begin the inexorable process of pushing the Indians off their lands,
killing them if they resisted, in short, as Francis Jennings puts it, the white Americans were fighting
against British imperial control in the East, and for their own imperialism in the West.
Before the Revolution, the Indians had been subdued by force in Virginia and in New England.
Elsewhere, they had worked out modes of coexistence with the colonies. But around 1750, with the
colonial population growing fast, the pressure to move westward onto new land set the stage for
conflict with the Indians. Land agents from the East began appearing in the Ohio River valley, on
the territory of a confederation of tribes called the Covenant Chain, for which the Iroquois were
spokesmen. In New York, through intricate swindling, 800,000 acres of Mohawk land were taken,
ending the period of Mohawk-New York friendship. Chief Hendrick of the Mohawks is recorded
speaking his bitterness to Governor George Clinton and the provincial council of New York in
Brother when we came here lo relate our Grievances about our Lands, we expected to have
something done for us, and we have told you that the Covenant Chain of our Forefathers was like to
be broken, and brother you tell us that we shall be redressed at Albany, but we know them so well,
we will not trust to them, for they [the Albany merchants] are no people but Devils so ... as soon
as we come home we will send up a Belt of Wampum to our Brothers the other 5 Nations to
acquaint them the Covenant Chain is broken between you and us. So brother you are not to expect
to hear of me any more, and Brother we desire to hear no more of you.
When the British fought the French for North America in the Seven Years' War, the Indians fought
on the side of the French. The French were traders but not occupiers of Indian lands, while the
British clearly coveted their hunting grounds and living space. Someone reported the conversation
of Shingas, chief of the Delaware Indians, with the British General Braddock, who sought his help
against the French:
Shingas asked General Braddock, whether the Indians that were friends to the English might not be
permitted to Live and Trade among the English and have Hunting Ground sufficient to Support
themselves and Familys.... On which General Braddock said that No Savage Should Inherit the
Land.. . . On which Shingas and the other Chiefs answered That if they might not have Liberty to
Live on the Land they would not Fight for it....
When that war ended in 1763, the French, ignoring their old allies, ceded to the British lands west
of the Appalachians. The Indians therefore united to make war on the British western forts; this is
called "Pontiac's Conspiracy" by the British, but "a liberation war for independence" in the words
used by Francis Jennings. Under orders from British General Jeffrey Amherst, the commander of
Fort Pitts gave the attacking Indian chiefs, with whom he was negotiating, blankets from the
smallpox hospital. It was a pioneering effort at what is now called biological warfare. An epidemic
soon spread among the Indians.
Despite this, and the burning of villages, the British could not destroy the will of the Indians, who
continued guerrilla war. A peace was made, with the British agreeing to establish a line at the
Appalachians, beyond which settlements would not encroach on Indian territory. This was the
Royal Proclamation of 1763, and it angered Americans (the original Virginia charter said its land
went westward to the ocean). It helps to explain why most of the Indians fought for England during
the Revolution. With their French allies, then their English allies, gone, the Indians faced a new
The Americans assumed now that the Indian land was theirs. But the expeditions they sent
westward to establish this were overcome-which they recognized in the names they gave these
battles: Harmar's Humiliation and St. Glair's Shame. And even when General Anthony Wayne
defeated the Indians' western confederation in 1798 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, he had to
recognize their power. In the Treaty of Grenville, it was agreed that in return for certain cessions of
land the United States would give up claims to the Indian lands north of the Ohio, east of the
Mississippi, and south of the Great Lakes, but that if the Indians decided to sell these lands they
would offer them first to the United States.
Jennings, putting the Indian into the center of the American Revolution-after all, it was Indian land
that everyone was fighting over-sees the Revolution as a "multiplicity of variously oppressed and
exploited peoples who preyed upon each other." With the eastern elite controlling the lands on the
seaboard, the poor, seeking land, were forced to go West, there becoming a useful bulwark for the
rich because, as Jennings says, "the first target of the Indian's hatchet was the frontiersman's skull."
The situation of black slaves as a result of the American Revolution was more complex. Thousands
of blacks fought with the British. Five thousand were with the Revolutionaries, most of them from
the North, but there were also free blacks from Virginia and Maryland. The lower South was
reluctant to arm blacks. Amid the urgency and chaos of war, thousands took their freedom-leaving
on British ships at the end of the war to settle in England, Nova Scotia, the West Indies, or Africa.
Many others stayed in America as free blacks, evading their masters.
In the northern states, the combination of blacks in the military, the lack of powerful economic
need for slaves, and the rhetoric of Revolution led to the end of slavery-but very slowly. As late as
1810, thirty thousand blacks, one-fourth of the black population of the North, remained slaves. In
1840 there were still a thousand slaves in the North. In the upper South, there were more free
Negroes than before, leading to more control legislation. In the lower South, slavery expanded with
the growth of rice and cotton plantations.
What the Revolution did was to create space and opportunity for blacks to begin making demands
of white society. Sometimes these demands came from the new, small black elites in Baltimore,
Philadelphia, Richmond, Savannah, sometimes from articulate and bold slaves. Pointing to the
Declaration of Independence, blacks petitioned Congress and the state legislatures to abolish
slavery, to give blacks equal rights. In Boston, blacks asked for city money, which whites were
getting, to educate their children. In Norfolk, they asked to he allowed to testify in court. Nashville
blacks asserted that free Negroes "ought to have the same opportunities of doing well that any
Person ... would have." Peter Mathews, a free Negro butcher in Charleston, joined other free black
artisans and tradesmen in petitioning the legislature to repeal discriminatory laws against blacks, hi
1780, seven blacks in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, petitioned the legislature for the right to vote,
linking taxation to representation:
... we apprehend ourselves to be Aggreeved, in that while we are not allowed the Privilege of
freemen of the State having no vote or Influence in the Election of those that Tax us yet many of
our Colour (as is well known) have cheerfully Entered the field of Battle in the defense of the
Common Cause and that (as we conceive) against a similar Exertion of Power (in Regard to
taxation) too well known to need a recital in this place.. ..
A black man, Benjamin Banneker, who taught himself mathematics and astronomy, predicted
accurately a solar eclipse, and was appointed to plan the new city of Washington, wrote to Thomas
I suppose it is a truth too well attested to you, to need a proof here, that we are a race of beings,
who have long labored under the abuse and censure of the world; that we have long been looked
upon with an eye of contempt; and that we have long been considered rather as brutish than human,
and scarcely capable of mental endowments. ... I apprehend you will embrace every opportunity to
eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect
to us; and that your sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are, that one universal Father hath
given being to us all; and that he hath not only made us all of one flesh, but that he hath also,
without partiality, afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same facilities. ..
Banneker asked Jefferson "to wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices which you have
Jefferson tried his best, as an enlightened, thoughtful individual might. But the structure of
American society, the power of the cotton plantation, the slave trade, the politics of unity between
northern and southern elites, and the long culture of race prejudice in the colonies, as well as his
own weaknesses-that combination of practical need and ideological fixation-kept Jefferson a
slaveowner throughout his life.
The inferior position of blacks, the exclusion of Indians from the new society, the establishment of
supremacy for the rich and powerful in the new nation-all this was already settled in the colonies by
the time of the Revolution. With the English out of the way, it could now be put on paper,
solidified, regularized, made legitimate, by the Constitution of the United States, drafted at a
convention of Revolutionary leaders in Philadelphia.
To many Americans over the years, the Constitution drawn up in 1787 has seemed a work of genius
put together by wise, humane men who created a legal framework for democracy and equality. This
view is stated, a bit extravagantly, by the historian George Bancroft, writing in the early nineteenth
The Constitution establishes nothing that interferes with equality and individuality. It knows
nothing of differences by descent, or opinions, of favored classes, or legalized religion, or the
political power of property. It leaves the individual alongside of the individual. ... As the sea is
made up of drops, American society is composed of separate, free, and constantly moving atoms,
ever in reciprocal action ... so that the institutions and laws of the country rise out of the masses of
individual thought which, like the waters of the ocean, are rolling evermore.
Another view of the Constitution was put forward early in the twentieth century by the historian
Charles Beard (arousing anger and indignation, including a denunciatory editorial in the New York
Times). lie wrote in his book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution:
Inasmuch as the primary object of a government, beyond the mere repression of physical violence,
is the making of the rules which determine the property relations of members of society, the
dominant classes whose rights are thus to be determined must perforce obtain from the government
such rules as are consonant with the larger interests necessary to the continuance of their economic
processes, or they must themselves control the organs of government.
In short, Beard said, the rich must, in their own interest, either control the government directly or
control the laws by which government operates.
Beard applied this general idea to the Constitution, by studying the economic backgrounds and
political ideas of the fifty-five men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to draw up the
Constitution. He found that a majority of them were lawyers by profession, that most of them were
men of wealth, in land, slaves, manufacturing, or shipping, that half of them had money loaned out
at interest, and that forty of the fifty-five held government bonds, according to the records of the
Thus, Beard found that most of the makers of the Constitution had some direct economic interest in
establishing a strong federal government: the manufacturers needed protective tariffs; the
moneylenders wanted to stop the use of paper money to pay off debts; the land speculators wanted
protection as they invaded Indian lands; slaveowners needed federal security against slave revolts
and runaways; bondholders wanted a government able to raise money by nationwide taxation, to
pay off those bonds.
Four groups, Beard noted, were not represented in the Constitutional Convention: slaves,
indentured servants, women, men without property. And so the Constitution did not reflect the
interests of those groups.
He wanted to make it clear that he did not think the Constitution was written merely to benefit the
Founding Fathers personally, although one could not ignore the $150,000 fortune of Benjamin
Franklin, the connections of Alexander Hamilton to wealthy interests through his father-in-law and
brother-in-law, the great slave plantations of James Madison, the enormous landholdings of George
Washington. Rather, it was to benefit the groups the Founders represented, the "economic interests
they understood and felt in concrete, definite form through their own personal experience."
Not everyone at the Philadelphia Convention fitted Beard's scheme. Elbridge Gerry of
Massachusetts was a holder of landed property, and yet he opposed the ratification of the
Constitution. Similarly, Luther Martin of Maryland, whose ancestors had obtained large tracts of
land in New Jersey, opposed ratification. But, with a few exceptions, Beard found a strong
connection between wealth and support of the Constitution.
By 1787 there was not only a positive need for strong central government to protect the large
economic interests, but also immediate fear of rebellion by discontented farmers. The chief event
causing this fear was an uprising in the summer of 1786 in western Massachusetts, known as Shays'
In the western towns of Massachusetts there was resentment against the legislature in Boston. The
new Constitution of 1780 had raised the property qualifications for voting. No one could hold state
office without being quite wealthy. Furthermore, the legislature was refusing to issue paper money,
as had been done in some other states, like Rhode Island, to make it easier for debt-ridden farmers
to pay off their creditors.
Illegal conventions began to assemble in some of the western counties to organize opposition to the
legislature. At one of these, a man named Plough Jogger spoke his mind:
I have been greatly abused, have been obliged to do more than my part in the war; been loaded with
class rates, town rates, province rates, Continental rates and all rates ... been pulled and hauled by
sheriffs, constables and collectors, and had my cattle sold for less than they were worth....
. . . The great men are going to get all we have and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to
it, and have no more courts, nor sheriffs, nor collectors nor lawyers.. . .
The chairman of that meeting used his gavel to cut short the applause. He and others wanted to
redress their grievances, but peacefully, by petition to the General Court (the legislature) in Boston,
However, before the scheduled meeting of the General Court, there were going to he court
proceedings in Hampshire County, in the towns of Northampton and Springfield, to seize the cattle
of farmers who hadn't paid their debts, to take away their land, now full of grain and ready for
harvest. And so, veterans of the Continental army, also aggrieved because they had been treated
poorly on discharge-given certificates for future redemption instead of immediate cash-began to
organize the fanners into squads and companies. One of these veterans was Luke Day, who arrived
the morning of court with a fife-and-drum corps, still angry with the memory of being locked up in
debtors' prison in the heat of the previous summer.
The sheriff looked to the local militia to defend the court against these armed farmers. But most of
the militia was with Luke Day. The sheriff did manage to gather five hundred men, and the judges
put on their black silk robes, waiting for the sheriff to protect their trip to the courthouse. But there
at the courthouse steps, Luke Day stood with a petition, asserting the people's constitutional right to
protest the unconstitutional acts of the General Court, asking the judges to adjourn until the General
Court could act on behalf of the farmers. Standing with Luke Day were fifteen hundred armed
farmers. The judges adjourned.
Shortly after, at courthouses in Worcester and Athol, farmers with guns prevented the courts from
meeting to take away their property, and the militia were too sympathetic to the farmers, or too
outnumbered, to act. In Concord, a fifty-year-old veteran of two wars, Job Shattuck, led a caravan
of carts, wagons, horses, and oxen onto the town green, while a message was sent to the judges:
The voice of the People of this county is such that the court shall not enter this courthouse until
such time as the People shall have redress of the grievances they labor under at the present.
A county convention then suggested the judges adjourn, which they did.
At Great Barrington, a militia of a thousand faced a square crowded with armed men and boys. But
the militia was split in its opinion. When the chief justice suggested the militia divide, those in
favor of the court's sitting to go on the right side of the road, and those against on the left, two
hundred of the militia went to the right, eight hundred to the left, and the judges adjourned. Then
the crowd went to the home of the chief justice, who agreed to sign a pledge that the court would
not sit until the Massachusetts General Court met. The crowd went back to the square, broke open
the county jail, and set free the debtors. The chief justice, a country doctor, said: "I have never
heard anybody point out a better way to have their grievances redressed than the people have
The governor and the political leaders of Massachusetts became alarmed. Samuel Adams, once
looked on as a radical leader in Boston, now insisted people act within the law. He said "British
emissaries" were stirring up the farmers. People in the town of Greenwich responded: You in
Boston have the money, and we don't. And didn't you act illegally yourselves in the Revolution?
The insurgents were now being called Regulators. Their emblem was a sprig of hemlock.
The problem went beyond Massachusetts. In Rhode Island, the debtors had taken over the
legislature and were issuing paper money. In New Hampshire, several hundred men, in September
of 1786, surrounded the legislature in Exeter, asking that taxes be returned and paper money issued;
they dispersed only when military action was threatened.
Daniel Shays entered the scene in western Massachusetts. A poor farm hand when the revolution
broke out, he joined the Continental army, fought at Lexington, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga, and was
wounded in action. In 1780, not being paid, he resigned from the army, went home, and soon found
himself in court for nonpayment of debts. He also saw what was happening to others: a sick
woman, unable to pay, had her bed taken from under her.
What brought Shays fully into the situation was that on September 19, the Supreme Judicial Court
of Massachusetts met in Worcester and indicted eleven leaders of the rebellion, including three of
his friends, as "disorderly, riotous and seditious persons" who "unlawfully and by force of arms"
prevented "the execution of justice and the laws of the commonwealth." The Supreme Judicial
Court planned to meet again in Springfield a week later, and there was talk of Luke Day's being
Shays organized seven hundred armed farmers, most of them veterans of the war, and led them to
Springfield. There they found a general with nine hundred soldiers and a cannon. Shays asked the
general for permission to parade, which the general granted, so Shays and his men moved through
the square, drums hanging and fifes blowing. As they marched, their ranks grew. Some of the
militia joined, and reinforcements began coming in from the countryside. The judges postponed
hearings for a day, then adjourned the court.
Now the General Court, meeting in Boston, was told by Governor James Bowdoin to "vindicate the
insulted dignity of government." The recent rebels against England, secure in office, were calling
for law and order. Sam Adams helped draw up a Riot Act, and a resolution suspending habeas
corpus, to allow the authorities to keep people in jail without trial. At the same time, the legislature
moved to make some concessions to the angry farmers, saying certain old taxes could now be paid
in goods instead of money.
This didn't help. In Worcester, 160 insurgents appeared at the courthouse. The sheriff read the Riot
Act. The insurgents said they would disperse only if the judges did. The sheriff shouted something
about hanging. Someone came up behind him and put a sprig of hemlock in his hat. The judges left.
Confrontations between farmers and militia now multiplied. The winter snows began to interfere
with the trips of farmers to the courthouses. When Shays began marching a thousand men into
Boston, a blizzard forced them back, and one of his men froze to death.
An army came into the field, led by General Benjamin Lincoln, on money raised by Boston
merchants. In an artillery duel, three rebels were killed. One soldier stepped in front of his own
artillery piece and lost both arms. The winter grew worse. The rebels were outnumbered and on the
run. Shays took refuge in Vermont, and his followers began to surrender. There were a few more
deaths in battle, and then sporadic, disorganized, desperate acts of violence against authority: the
burning of barns, the slaughter of a general's horses. One government soldier was killed in an eerie
night-time collision of two sleighs.
Captured rebels were put on trial in Northampton and six were sentenced to death. A note was left
at the door of the high sheriff of Pittsfidd:
I understand that there is a number of my countrymen condemned to the because they fought for
justice. I pray have a care that you assist not in the execution of so horrid a crime, for by all that is
above, he that condemns and he that executes shall share alike. . . - Prepare for death with speed,
for your life or mine is short. When the woods are covered with leaves, I shall return and pay you a
Thirty-three more rebels were put on trial and six more condemned to death. Arguments took place
over whether the hangings should go forward. General Lincoln urged mercy and a Commission of
Clemency, but Samuel Adams said: "In monarchy the crime of treason may admit of being
pardoned or lightly punished, but the man who dares rebel against the laws of a republic ought to
suffer death." Several hangings followed; some of the condemned were pardoned. Shays, in
Vermont, was pardoned in 1788 and returned to Massachusetts, where he died, poor and obscure, in
It was Thomas Jefferson, in France as ambassador at the time of Shays' Rebellion, who spoke of
such uprisings as healthy for society. In a letter to a friend he wrote: "I hold it that 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.. . . The tree of liberty
must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."
But Jefferson was far from the scene. The political and economic elite of the country were not so
tolerant. They worried that the example might spread. A veteran of Washington's army, General
Henry Knox, founded an organization of army veterans, "The Order of the Cincinnati," presumably
(as one historian put it) "for the purpose of cherishing the heroic memories of the struggle in which
they had taken part," but also, it seemed, to watch out for radicalism in the new country. Knox
wrote to Washington in late 1786 about Shays' Rebellion, and in doing so expressed the thoughts of
many of the wealthy and powerful leaders of the country:
The people who are the insurgents have never paid any, or but very little taxes. But they see the
weakness of government; they feel at once their own poverty, compared with the opulent, and their
own force, and they are determined to make use of the latter, in order to remedy the former. Their
creed is "That the property of the United States has been protected from the confiscations of Britain
by the joint exertions of all, and therefore ought to he the common properly of all. And he that
attempts opposition to this creed is an enemy to equity and justice and ought to be swept from off
the face of the earth."
Alexander Hamilton, aide to Washington during the war, was one of the most forceful and astute
leaders of the new aristocracy. He voiced his political philosophy:
All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first arc the rich and well-horn,
the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and
however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are
turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a
distinct permanent share in the government. .. . Can a democratic assembly who annually revolve in
the mass of the people be supposed steadily to pursue the public good? Nothing but a permanent
body can check the imprudence of democracy.. ..
At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton suggested a President and Senate chosen for life.
The Convention did not take his suggestion. But neither did it provide for popular elections, except
in the case of the House of Representatives, where the qualifications were set by the state
legislatures (which required property-holding for voting in almost all the states), and excluded
women, Indians, slaves. The Constitution provided for Senators to be elected by the state
legislators, for the President to be elected by electors chosen by the state legislators, and for the
Supreme Court to be appointed by the President.
The problem of democracy in the post-Revolutionary society was not, however, the Constitutional
limitations on voting. It lay deeper, beyond the Constitution, in the division of society into rich and
poor. For if some people had great wealth and great influence; if they had the land, the money, the
newspapers, the church, the educational system- how could voting, however broad, cut into such
power? There was still another problem: wasn't it the nature of representative government, even
when most broadly based, to be conservative, to prevent tumultuous change?
It came time to ratify the Constitution, to submit to a vote in state conventions, with approval of
nine of the thirteen required to ratify it. In New York, where debate over ratification was intense, a
series of newspaper articles appeared, anonymously, and they tell us much about the nature of the
Constitution. These articles, favoring adoption of the Constitution, were written by James Madison,
Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, and came to be known as the Federalist Papers (opponents of
the Constitution became known as anti-Federalists).
In Federalist Paper #10, James Madison argued that representative government was needed to
maintain peace in a society ridden by factional disputes. These disputes came from "the various and
unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever
formed distinct interests in society." The problem, he said, was how to control the factional
struggles that came from inequalities in wealth. Minority factions could be controlled, he said, by
the principle that decisions would be by vote of the majority.
So the real problem, according to Madison, was a majority faction, and here the solution was
offered by the Constitution, to have "an extensive republic," that is, a large nation ranging over
thirteen states, for then "it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength,
and to act in unison with each other.... The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within
their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other
Madison's argument can be seen as a sensible argument for having a government which can
maintain peace and avoid continuous disorder. But is it the aim of government simply to maintain
order, as a referee, between two equally matched fighters? Or is it that government has some
special interest in maintaining a certain kind of order, a certain distribution of power and wealth, a
distribution in which government officials are not neutral referees but participants? In that case, the
disorder they might worry about is the disorder of popular rebellion against those monopolizing the
society's wealth. This interpretation makes sense when one looks at the economic interests, the
social backgrounds, of the makers of the Constitution.
As part of his argument for a large republic to keep the peace, James Madison tells quite clearly, in
Federalist #10, whose peace he wants to keep: "A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts,
for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to
pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it."
When economic interest is seen behind the political clauses of the Constitution, then the document
becomes not simply the work of wise men trying to establish a decent and orderly society, but the
work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and
liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support.
In the new government, Madison would belong to one party (the Democrat-Republicans) along
with Jefferson and Monroe. Hamilton would belong to the rival party (the Federalists) along with
Washington and Adams. But both agreed-one a slaveholder from Virginia, the other a merchant
from New York-on the aims of this new government they were establishing. They were anticipating
the long-fundamental agreement of the two political parties in the American system. Hamilton
wrote elsewhere in the Federalist Papers that the new Union would be able "to repress domestic
faction and insurrection." He referred directly to Shays' Rebellion: "The tempestuous situation from
which Massachusetts has scarcely emerged evinces that dangers of this kind are not merely
It was either Madison or Hamilton (the authorship of the individual papers is not always known)
who in Federalist Paper #63 argued the necessity of a "well-constructed Senate" as "sometimes
necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions" because
"there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular
passion, or some illicit advantage, or misted by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may
call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and
condemn." And: "In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some
temperate and respectable body of citizens in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend
the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their
authority over the public mind?"
The Constitution was a compromise between slaveholding interests of the South and moneyed
interests of the North. For the purpose of uniting the thirteen states into one great market for
commerce, the northern delegates wanted laws regulating interstate commerce, and urged that such
laws require only a majority of Congress to pass. The South agreed to this, in return for allowing
the trade in slaves to continue for twenty years before being outlawed.
Charles Beard warned us that governments-including the government of the United States-arc not
neutral, that they represent the dominant economic interests, and that their constitutions are
intended to serve these interests. One of his critics (Robert E. Brown, Charles Beard and the
Constitution) raises an interesting point. Granted that the Constitution omitted the phrase "life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness," which appeared in the Declaration of Independence, and
substituted "life, liberty, or property"-well, why shouldn't the Constitution protect property? As
Brown says about Revolutionary America, "practically everybody was interested in the protection
of property" because so many Americans owned property.
However, this is misleading. True, there were many property owners. But some people had much
more than others. A few people had great amounts of property; many people had small amounts;
others had none. Jackson Main found that one-third of the population in the Revolutionary period
were small fanners, while only 3 percent of the population had truly large holdings and could he
Still, one-third was a considerable number of people who felt they had something at stake in the
stability of a new government. This was a larger base of support for government than anywhere in
the world at the end of the eighteenth century. In addition, the city mechanics had an important
interest in a government which would protect their work from foreign competition. As Staughton
Lynd puts it: "How is it that the city workingmen all over America overwhelmingly and
enthusiastically supported the United States Constitution?"
This was especially true in New York. When the ninth and tenth states had ratified the Constitution,
four thousand New York City mechanics marched with floats and banners to celebrate. Bakers,
blacksmiths, brewers, ship joiners and shipwrights, coopers, cartmen and tailors, all marched. What
Lynd found was that these mechanics, while opposing elite rule in the colonies, were nationalist.
Mechanics comprised perhaps half the New York population. Some were wealthy, some were poor,
but all were better off than the ordinary laborer, the apprentice, the journeyman, and their
prosperity required a government that would protect them against the British hats and shoes and
other goods that were pouring into the colonies after the Revolution. As a result, the mechanics
often supported wealthy conservatives at the ballot box.
The Constitution, then, illustrates the complexity of the American system: that it serves the interests
of a wealthy elite, hut also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics
and farmers, to build a broad base of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this
base of support are buffers against the blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites. They enable the
elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law-all made palatable by the
fanfare of patriotism and unity.
The Constitution became even more acceptable to the public at large after the first Congress,
responding to criticism, passed a series of amendments known as the Bill of Rights. These
amendments seemed to make the new government a guardian of people's liberties: to speak, to
publish, to worship, to petition, to assemble, to be tried fairly, to be secure at home against official
intrusion. It was, therefore, perfectly designed to build popular backing for the new government.
What was not made clear-it was a time when the language of freedom was new and its reality
untested-was the shakiness of anyone's liberty when entrusted to a government of the rich and
Indeed, the same problem existed for the other provisions of the Constitution, like the clause
forbidding states to "impair the obligation of contract," or that giving Congress the power to tax the
people and to appropriate money. They all sound benign and neutral until one asks: lax who, for
what? Appropriate what, for whom? To protect everyone's contracts seems like an act of fairness,
of equal treatment, until one considers that contracts made between rich and poor, between
employer and employee, landlord and tenant, creditor and debtor, generally favor the more
powerful of the two parties. Thus, to protect these contracts is to put the great power of the
government, its laws, courts, sheriffs, police, on the side of the privileged-and to do it not, as in
premodern times, as an exercise of brute force against the weak but as a matter of law.
The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights shows that quality of interest hiding behind innocence.
Passed in 1791 by Congress, it provided that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the
freedom of speech, or of the press. . . ." Yet, seven years after the First Amendment became part of
the Constitution, Congress passed a law very clearly abridging the freedom of speech.
This was the Sedition Act of 1798, passed under John Adams's administration, at a time when
Irishmen and Frenchmen in the United States were looked on as dangerous revolutionaries because
of the recent French Revolution and the Irish rebellions. The Sedition Act made it a crime to say or
write anything "false, scandalous and malicious" against the government, Congress, or the
President, with intent to defame them, bring them into disrepute, or excite popular hatreds against
This act seemed to directly violate the First Amendment. Yet, it was enforced. Ten Americans were
put in prison for utterances against the government, and every member of the Supreme Court in
1798-1800, sitting as an appellate judge, held it constitutional.
There was a legal basis for this, one known to legal experts, but not to the ordinary American, who
would read the First Amendment and feel confident that he or she was protected in the exercise of
free speech. That basis has been explained by historian Leonard Levy. Levy points out that it was
generally understood (not in the population, but in higher circles) that, despite the First
Amendment, the British common law of "seditious libel" still ruled in America. This meant that
while the government could not exercise "prior restraint"-that is, prevent an utterance or publication
in advance-it could legally punish the speaker or writer afterward. Thus, Congress has a convenient
legal basis for the laws it has enacted since that time, making certain kinds of speech a crime. And,
since punishment after the fact is an excellent deterrent to the exercise of free expression, the claim
of "no prior restraint" itself is destroyed. This leaves the First Amendment much less than the stone
wall of protection it seems at first glance.
Are the economic provisions in the Constitution enforced just as weakly? We have an instructive
example almost immediately in Washington's first administration, when Congress's power to tax
and appropriate money was immediately put to use by the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander
Hamilton, believing that government must ally itself with the richest elements of society to make
itself strong, proposed to Congress a series of laws, which it enacted, expressing this philosophy. A
Bank of the United States was set up as a partnership between the government and certain banking
interests. A tariff was passed to help the manufacturers. It was agreed to pay bondholders-most of
the war bonds were now concentrated in a small group of wealthy people-the full value of their
bonds. Tax laws were passed to raise money for this bond redemption.
One of these tax laws was the Whiskey 'lax, which especially hurt small fanners who raised grain
that they converted into whiskey and then sold. In 1794 the fanners of western Pennsylvania took
up arms and rebelled against the collection of this tax. Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton led the
troops to put them down. We see then, in the first years of the Constitution, that some of its
provisions-even those paraded most flamboyantly (like the First Amendment)-might be treated
lightly. Others (like the power to tax) would be powerfully enforced.
Still, the mythology around the Founding Fathers persists. To say, as one historian (Bernard
Bailyn) has done recently, that "the destruction of privilege and the creation of a political system
that demanded of its leaders the responsible and humane use of power were their highest
aspirations" is to ignore what really happened in the America of these Founding Fathers.
Everyone knew the basic prescription for a wise and just government. It was so to balance the
contending powers in society that no one power could overwhelm the others and, unchecked,
destroy the liberties that belonged to all. The problem was how to arrange the institutions of
government so that this balance could be achieved.
Were the Founding Fathers wise and just men trying to achieve a good balance? In fact, they did
not want a balance, except one which kept things as they were, a balance among the dominant
forces at that time. They certainly did not want an equal balance between slaves and masters,
propertyless and property holders, Indians and white.
As many as half the people were not even considered by the Founding Fathers as among Bailyn's
"contending powers" in society. They were not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, they
were absent in the Constitution, they were invisible in the new political democracy. They were the
women of early America.