Harry Frankel

Class Forces in the American Revolution

(March 1946)

From Fourth International, Vol.6 No.3, March 1946, pp.89-93.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

The American Revolution was directed, and its fruits were harvested by, a coalition of two classes: The budding Northern bourgeoisie and the Southern landowning aristocracy. For three quarters of a century thereafter, the evolution of these two classes and their mutual relations were to determine, to a major degree, the course of American history. Their struggles’ were to cut the main channels in which events would flow.

These two classes were particular and special types of the landowning and bourgeois classes. They were planted on the shores of a rich and vast continent by an already developed Western European civilization. They had no feudal antecedents in this country. Nor did they find it necessary to recapitulate the European stages in the course of their growth. The hitherto unprecedented conditions created an American social structure with a minimum of excess baggage in the form of feudal rubbish. The dead hand of the past lay lightly on the American brow. A society of exceptional vigor and directness was developed.

The differences between the North and South which led to the development of differing social structures with dissimilar ruling classes were accentuated by the natural conditions encountered by the early settlers. The Appalachian range, which for two centuries delimited the field of the colonists, forms an angle with the Atlantic coastline, the intersection of which is in the North. Thus the further South one proceeds, the broader is the alluvial belt so necessary for staple crop cultivation. In the North, where the mountains lie close to the coast, the fall line of the rivers is correspondingly close. Thus the rivers and streams of New England are navigable for only a short distance from their mouth. The New England settlements hugged the coast, and such agricultural produce as was raised in the interior was not too readily floated to market.

The Southern states, quite the opposite, possessed a vast agricultural domain within the belt allotted to them by the Atlantic and Appalachian boundaries. Broad rivers, navigable even by ocean going vessels for a long distance into the interior were provided by nature as future arteries of commerce. The pre-conditions for a land of great plantations were ready and waiting.

A cheap labor supply, an easily cultivated crop and a ready market were all that were required for the establishment of the plantation system. The first was provided partly by indentured servants but primarily by Negro slavery. The second, the planters found in tobacco. And in the growing addiction of Europe to the new and popular habit, the planters found their market.

Thus by the beginning of the eighteenth century, a plantation system resting primarily, in fact almost exclusively, on tobacco was dominant throughout Virginia and Maryland. In South Carolina and Georgia, the same system resting upon rice as the chief staple, was prevalent. Around 1750, indigo was introduced into these two states, and soon ran rice a close second. North Carolina added to the cultivation of rice, tobacco and indigo the large scale export of lumber and naval stores.

The plantations were huge in area, their owners were powerful and towns were small and unimportant. The political hegemony, under these conditions fell to the plantation owners. This ruling class was a blood cousin to the landowning classes of all history, and yet it possessed certain peculiarities which were to give it great revolutionary significance in American history. In the first place, it possessed no feudal history. The feudal restrictions on land tenure were slight and only such as the British aristocracy and its American allies could impose from afar. Even these remnants of feudalism were soon to be swept away by the revolution.

Secondly, the Southern plantation owner was a producer for the world market from the very first. His economic position thus gave to his interests and activities a more cosmopolitan cast than is common in landowning classes. True, he could not rival in this respect the merchant of a busy New England port. And yet, throughout the South, ocean going vessels tied up at the private docks of planters whose lands lay on the broad rivers and the news of the world was at their front doors.

The third peculiarity of the Southern agricultural ruling class carried the most revolutionary potentialities. It is this. While they raised the crops themselves, the planters did not market them. The produce of the South was marketed by British merchants, whose British and Scotch agents and factors were concentrated in the coastal towns for the purpose of acting for British mercantile houses.

Here the difference between New England and. the South can be clearly seen. In the North, of the trade that passed through the ports, three-fourths was handled by American owned ships and one-fourth by British. In the South, on the other hand, only one-fourth of the trade was carried on American bottoms. The proportion was exactly reversed.

The Planter’s Plight

How was it possible that the Southern planters allowed themselves to be imprisoned in a cell the key to which was held only by the British merchants? The answer is simple: it lay in the limitation of the planters by law to the British market only. And the British merchants drove a hard bargain. The English duties on tobacco were from four to six times its selling price in America at the end of the seventeenth century. By 1760 they had risen as high as 15 times the value of the tobacco, and although a large part or even all of the duty was remitted when the tobacco was re-exported to Europe, the planters had small comfort from this since the benefit of it went to the English merchants and bankers.

The results of this system are fully explained by Jefferson, who, being himself a planter in the Piedmont, or upland, region of Virginia, was in a position to know:

Virginia certainly owed two millions sterling to Great Britain at the conclusion of the war. Some have conjectured the debt as high as three millions ... This is ascribed to the peculiarities in the tobacco trade. The advantages made by the British merchants on the tobacco consigned to them were so enormous, that they spared no means of increasing those consignments. A powerful engine for this purpose, was the giving good prices and credit, till they got him more immersed in debt than he could pay, without selling his lands or slaves. Then they reduced the prices given him for his tobacco, so that let his shipments be ever so great, and his demand of necessaries ever so economical, they never permitted him to clear off his debt. These debts had become hereditary from father to son, for many generations, so that the planters were a species of property, annexed to certain mercantile houses in London.

In this paragraph, Jefferson reveals more of the springs of revolutionary action in his class than in the whole Declaration of Independence. “... The planters were a species of property annexed to certain mercantile houses in London ... They got him more immersed in debt than he could pay ... They never permitted him to clear off his debt ...” The superior position of the British merchant with his access to Parliament where he could make the laws for the colonies was utilized to the fullest. The more the planters produced, the deeper in debt they found themselves.

Throughout the first three quarters of the eighteenth century, the price of tobacco was steadily lowered by the British merchants. The import duties in Britain, to which all tobacco must go, rose. Even the most prosperous of planters sunk into debt. We find Washington, the richest planter in the colonies and highly esteemed for his astuteness in managing the affairs of his plantation, writing to London for extension of credit, and explaining that he was far in arrears because of bad crops for three years. When after 1763, the revolutionary disturbances began, and the British merchants took alarm and began to tighten their credit, the Southern planters were put in an almost inextricable position. Is it any wonder that they took the revolutionary road, risking thereon “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor”? Without a sharp turn in the situation, their fortunes and their “sacred honor” were virtually forfeit, and what good is life to a landowning gentleman deprived of these?

Nor was this the only condition under which the planters suffered. Certain royal restrictions on the ready acquisition of western lands were very irksome to them as well as to the smaller farmers of the uplands. As we have seen, the planters were constantly under the imperative necessity of increasing the area of land under cultivation, in order to increase the size of their shipments of tobacco. In addition, the wasteful one-crop cultivation exhausted the soil and made a westward movement the chief recourse of the planter. The Crown restrictions hung heavily on them.

Upon this basis rose the struggle between the Crown and its Royal governors together with such of their allies, seaboard planters dependent on the King’s favor, agents and factors in the coastal towns on the one side, and the planters and smaller farmers of the interior on the other. Like debtors in all ages, the planters sought a widening of the credit base and a paper money inflation to ease their situation. The state legislatures, such as the House of Burgesses in Virginia, would pass debt-cancelling laws and were answered with debt-protecting laws passed by the British Parliament. The provisional governor exercised the royal veto power to nullify the laws of the State legislatures whereupon they promptly retaliated by withdrawing his salary.

As his funds ran out, his attitude was relaxed in proportion, and the legislature would carry a point. No sooner was his salary restored, than he revoked the laws and the duel began anew.

It was this that prompted the colonial hatred of the Stamp Act: not so much the hardship of paying it as the fact that out of its proceeds, the Royal Governors were to be paid, thus making them independent of the State legislatures.

Thus grew up several generations of planters whose political lines circled around the axis of opposition to the British government. Their young sons, scions of families like the Masons, the Pendletons, the Henrys, the Randolphs, the Jeffersons, sent to William and Mary, or across the ocean to Oxford or Cambridge, studied avidly the revolutionary doctrines with which the English bourgeoisie had justified its revolution. Seizing upon the teachings of Coke in jurisprudence, of Sidney and Locke in politics and government, they applied them readily to their own situation. An intellectual climate of revolt accompanied the material acts of the struggle.

The bourgeoisie, concentrated primarily in the Northern States, was situated quite differently. Up until 1763 the British mercantilist theory was laxly applied. Despite minor restrictions on their activities, the preceding century had been for the merchant class a “golden age.”

If New England was hampered by natural conditions insofar as agriculture was concerned, other natural advantages compensated, and as later events showed, more than compensated for the deficiency. The coastline provided abundant natural harbors. Its shore was grown with a supply of excellent ship building timber which extended almost to the waters’ edge. The rivers, navigable though they were not, possessed in return many falls, excellent providers of motive power for machinery. The great Newfoundland Banks furnished endless fisheries, and the whaling grounds of the North Atlantic were close at hand. The prerequisites for a maritime and commercial society were present, and were assisted by the poor agricultural prospects which drove capital to sea.

The impression that agriculture was minor would be erroneous. Nine-tenths of the population of the colonies as a whole were engaged in agriculture, and even in New England a majority pursued that chief occupation. But the conditions of agriculture, the poor soil, the many natural obstacles, were such as to discourage the investment of large amounts of capital in the tilling of land. Holdings were in small parcels, and agriculture was carried on by small farmers.

Large urban centers such as Boston and Newport carried the major political weight, and in them the merchant bourgeoisie held the scepter of power.

This merchant class prospered within the framework of the British system. Under the Navigation Act of 1660, the colonial carrying trade was monopolized by British and colonial shipping. Naturally, the shipbuilding industry boomed, and, so favorable were the conditions for this trade, that soon, vessels could be constructed more cheaply in New England than anywhere in Europe. Oak ships which cost $50 a ton in Europe could be built for $34 a ton in America.

Building on the basis of this industry, and on the profitable fisheries, the merchants of New England rapidly constructed a vast carrying trade that soon encircled the globe. None too particular how they established their fortunes, the stern Puritan captains built the lucrative trade that was based on molasses, rum and slaves. When the Seven Years War broke out and the colonies joined Britain in the effort to drive out the French, the merchants did not scruple, despite their avowals of patriotism, to supply the enemy with foodstuffs at a heavy profit. Through energy, frugality and unscrupulousness they built the wealth and power of the merchant class, the forerunner of the modern bourgeoisie.

Thus they prospered under the British system and therefore they acquiesced in it. True, the restrictions on manufactures pinched here and there, but manufacturers were a minor interest of the bourgeoisie at that time and it is doubtful that they would have grown much more rapidly than they did had the restrictions been removed. True also, the Parliament laws protecting credit were aimed at American debtors of the London merchants and bankers. But these laws operated to provide excellent credit terms for the American merchants. Just as American capital poured into Germany after World War I when it was under close financial supervision by the Allies, just so British capital was freely provided for American merchants when the British creditors knew that their loans were protected by legislation. In addition, the American merchantmen that roamed the world could feel secure in the protection of the Royal Navy.

The year 1763 marked the turning point in the relations of the British ruling class and the Yankee merchants. In that year the British concluded the Treaty of Paris which formalized the surrender of the French and their expulsion from America. Turning from that task the British ministry prepared to deal with their ally, the colonial mercantile class, soon to become a more formidable rival than the recently defeated foe.

The British had been incensed by the commercial relations of New England with the enemy. In addition, the conclusion of the war left them with the enormously swollen national debt of 147 million pounds, the war having added 70 million pounds to the already huge deficit. And what better place to find the money than in the colonies? In 1764, the measures designed for this purpose were passed by Parliament. The duty on molasses was reduced, but the intention was declared of beginning to collect it, and forces were provided to back this declaration. Import duties and restrictive acts of all sorts were multiplied, and in the resulting flare up of opposition the merchants were placed side by side with the planters in the struggle against Britain.

It would be incorrect to say that the merchant class had not opposed British rule at all previous to this time. The antagonism between colony and metropolis had existed from the beginning. In the Royal Governors arid other officials who were sent to America to make their fortunes, the colonists had always seen unnecessary leeches. The monopoly of Britain in the American market acted as a sort of tax on the Americans, since prices stood higher than they would have been under freer conditions. These and a host of other petty annoyances had always been resented in the North. But the prosperity of the merchants under the system outweighed the disadvantages and they consented to its continuance. With the destruction of some of the main supporting pillars of the edifice of prosperity, such as the untaxed molasses trade, open and violent opposition began. The merchants extended the hand of friendship to the planters, and in 1765, at the Stamp Act Congress in New York, the alliance was concluded. Lincoln once said that the United States was “formed in fact by the Articles of Association in 1774.” He might have, with considerable accuracy, placed the date nine years earlier, when the coalition between merchant and planter was made.

Attitude of the Workers

When the planters and merchants sat down to organize the opposition to Britain, they found an unwelcome guest at the table, and even more noticeably, in the streets of all their large cities. The interloper was the group known as the “radicals.”

Five cities of pre-revolutionary times exceeded 8,000 inhabitants in population: Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Newport in the New England and Middle colonies, and Charleston in the south. Others, such as Baltimore and Albany, though not so large were of considerable size for that day. These cities were the scene of action for another coalition of classes not yet mentioned in this summary. Here were the small shop keepers, the independent artisans, the mechanics and the laborers. Sections of the petty bourgeoisie, and the forerunners of the modern proletariat went to make up that urban mass so succinctly described by the French as sans-coulottes.

This section of the population was doubly oppressed. They suffered from the depressions of the British as well as from the exploitation of their home bourgeoisie. With the unerring acuteness that they have always displayed in historical situations of this sort, the masses recognized the former as their main enemy. Two extracts from letters appearing in The Pennsylvania Gazette upon the occasion of the Tea Act of 1773, signed by “A Mechanic” (which the author may or may not have been) will serve to give an idea of the reasoning which governed the attitude of the workers:

They (the British) will send their own Factors and Creatures, establish Houses among us, ship us all other East-India goods, and in order to full freight their ships, take in other kind of goods at under Freight, or (more probably) ship them on their own accounts to their own Factors, and undersell our Merchants, till they monopolize the whole Trade. Thus our Merchants are ruined, Ship Building ceases. They will then sell goods at any exorbitant Price. Our Artificers will be unemployed, and every Tradesman will groan under dire Oppression.

Is it not a gross and daring insult to pilfer the trade from the Americans and lodge it in the hands of the East India Co.? It will first most sensibly affect the Merchants, but it will also very materially affect ... every Member of the Community.

Organized in The Sons of Liberty, and similar bodies, the shop keepers and workers formed the active arm of the struggle in the cities. They executed in the streets, at the wharves and customs houses, and at the homes of the well known Tories, the program of the merchants, often without their approval, sometimes against their violent opposition. So energetic and widespread did their activities become that, to give one example, when a mass meeting for workers was called in Philadelphia by the radicals in their struggle with the conservative merchants for control of the movement, it was attended by 1,200 mechanics, artisans and laborers. A huge meeting for those days, its size can be appreciated when one considers that five per cent of the population of Philadelphia was there!

The struggle against the Tea Act of 1773 was the high point of the activity of the masses in the cities, especially in Philadelphia and Boston. Later, when the First Continental Congress formed the Continental Association in the fall of 1774, the first collective action to enforce its non-importation agreement in Massachusetts was taken by the 41 blacksmiths of Worcester County. They agreed on November 8 not to work for violators of the agreement, and, after December 1, to do no work for persons of known Tory leanings. When General Gage wanted to fortify Boston Neck, he had to send to Nova Scotia for carpenters and bricklayers, so tight did the Committees of Mechanics in Boston, New York and Philadelphia close the labor market! This they did despite the hard times. Such unanimity in the struggle, even at the sacrifice of earnings was displayed by no other class.

The “radical” leaders were drawn primarily from the petty bourgeoisie. Chris Gadsden was the southern leader in the city of Charleston, and his chief lieutenant among the workers was Peter Timothy, printer of the South Carolina Gazette. Here the workers had, in the election of October, 1768, ventured to enter a slate of six for the lower house of the Assembly, and had elected half of it.

In New York, leadership was in the hands of Isaac Sears, and Macdougall, who led the Committee of Mechanics in opposition to the Committee of Merchants. The struggle was duplicated in Philadelphia where the forces were mustered by Charles Thomson, Joseph Reed and Thomas Mifflin. In Boston, the leader of the radicals was the incomparable Sam Adams.

Adams bore the unmistakable stamp of the professional revolutionist, for, in the words of one of his biographers, “He had no private business after the first years of his manhood.”

His business was in the rope walks and shipyards, the tavern discussions and the town meeting. His prematurely white hair and his shaking hands were familiar in the plebian places of Boston.

Sam Adams stands out among all of the leaders of the American Revolution, marked by the singularity of his belief in the rule of the popular mass, and in the efficacy of the work the people can do in the meetings and in the streets. He set himself the task of organizing the population for a break and a struggle with Great Britain. A masterful strategist and an indefatigable organizer and agitator, he was eminently suited to the task. His talents and energy found a rare setting in his uncommon selflessness and modesty. At the First Continental Congress, where the most able men who attended were not without a touch of vanity and self-conceit, Adams stood out like a hammer among trinkets. While others regaled themselves in the pleasures of the great Philadelphia mansions, basking with self-importance in the presence of their rich hosts, accepting the hospitality of those who would support their conciliationist arguments with the bounty of their tables and cellars, Adams worked ceaselessly. In his boarding house room, he applied himself to his letter-writing, keeping constant watch on the struggle in Boston, advising, organizing, encouraging tirelessly. His wife wrote him uncomplainingly of the poverty of the household. When Adams had left for the Congress, his friends, by strategem, supplied him with a new outfit of clothes and some money for the journey. This was the man whom Galloway, his Tory enemy, described so aptly in the oft quoted sentence: “He eats little, drinks little, sleeps little, thinks much and is most decisive and indefatigable in the pursuit of his objects.”

Organizer and Agitator

The Adams organizations were distinguished by an excellent working harmony, due in the first place to Adams’ ability in working with people of all sorts. He was a master of men – “master of the puppets,” the irate governor of Massachusetts called him. He utilized men as they came to him, pushing forward now a fiery orator to give ardor to the cause, and again a rich merchant, to lend the appearance of solidarity. In all his work his tact and modesty are outstanding, and his ability, energy and selflessness earned him respect to the point of veneration, and loyalty among the common people. Among his associates in the national councils of the Revolution, where he and his followers were known as “Adams and his vulgar men,” he earned a grudging admiration coupled with a large portion of mistrust. Bourgeois history has attempted to obscure his name, but nothing can destroy his place as the first organizer of the revolution prior to the opening of hostilities.

The activities of Adams and the radicals of Boston antedated 1764, hence they were already engaged on the battlefield when the merchants appeared in their shining armor. Adams must have had some of the feelings of young Hotspur, when, covered with the blood and grime of battle, he beheld the young, scented dandy before him. But Adams had none of the impetuosity of Shakespeare’s warrior, and if he had such feelings he effectually concealed them. He quickly pushed Hancock and John Adams to the fore. For he realized that, as he said himself, the merchants were the main force in a battle in which he was an “auxiliary.” Later, when the merchants deserted their struggle in one of their moments of alarm at their allies, conciliated by a small concession from the Crown, Adams remarked that they had held out longer than he had expected.

In the struggle with the Crown led by the merchant-planter coalition, the merchants were the most fickle side of the partnership. Having a golden age of prosperity such as the planters never had enjoyed in their history, they contended for a return to the old system, and the smallest concession of the Crown was sufficient to breed conciliationism among them. In addition, their fear of their energetic allies in the cities brought them to attempt to restrain the movement or abandon it wholesale. In this situation, it devolved upon the radicals to give to the movement in the cities its continuity and intransigence. More than once was Adams deserted by his timid allies. It is among his most brilliant achievements that at one such time he created the revolutionary committees of correspondence, a form of organization which caught on and spread like wildfire throughout the country, until, by the time of the revolution, they formed the basis for a dual power. What a tribute to a master organizer and agitator that he made the fight grow despite the aloofness of the merchants!

Bourgeois historians have attempted to accord to the American Revolution two doubtful privileges to distinguish it from other revolutions. The first of these is that the revolution was a gentlemanly affair unmarked by the too noticeable or too violent interference of the populace. But the rough facts peep through from beneath the frock coat that the historians have flung over the event. The course of the preliminaries to the battle and the struggle itself were marked with violent popular demonstrations having as their end the intimidation of Tories, the destruction of Tory property and the enforcement of the campaigns and agreements of the revolutionists. From under the disguise of latter-day historians, our familiar and notorious friend popular revolution peeps out.

The second “privilege” of the revolution has been well summarized by the historian J. Franklin Jameson as follows: That “our revolution was unlike other popular revolutions in having no social results flowing from the political upheaval.” This idea is as false as the other, and cannot bear the test of facts. All of the Crown restrictions on the ready acquisition of western lands were ended. Primogeniture and entail, feudal remnants, were dealt their death blow by the revolution, and within 15 years after the Declaration of Independence were abolished in every state. These changes, together with the confiscation and breakup of the huge Tory estates constituted a virtual land revolution, opening the way for the population of the western lands on the basis of small free holding. The seaboard planters resisted, but the pressure of the farmers of the interior, swept into the political arena by the revolutionary ferment was too much for them. Similarly, the suffrage rights underwent much extension.

Treachery to the revolution was widespread among the merchants, and thousands of them went into exile. Thus in New England, New York and Pennsylvania, new strata were everywhere brought to the surface. This is to be distinguished from the course of events in the South where the planters in the main stood solid for the Revolution. In the coalition of planters and merchants during the revolution, the planters were the firmest element, and took the lead.


Last updated on 19.7.2006