From American Socialist, september 1956.
From the American Socialist Collection of Sol Dolinger.
Copied from the American Socialist Archive in ETOL.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
The American Revolution Considered As A Social Movement
by J. Franklin Jameson
Beacon Press, Boston, 1956, $.85.
THIS little book originated as a set of lectures at Princton University in 1925. It has gone through three previous printings, and the welcome publication of a paperback edition by Beacon should give it a still wider circulation among students of American history. It is an excellent book, one of the best historical essays ever done in this country.
Mr. Jameson begins by contrasting the “Frenchman’s study of the great French Revolution” with the American view of 1776. In this country, we have not concerned ourselves with the social aspects of the revolution, while the French Revolution “is now seen in its try proportions and effects, not simply as the downfall of monarchy or the securing of equal political rights for all individuals, but chiefly as a social movement, French and European, of vast dimensions of an immense significance.”
“Perhaps,” Mr. Jameson continues, “some may be moved to say at once: But this is precisely to ignore the most salient contrast between the American Revolution and the French. The men of our Revolution, they will say, were neither levellers nor theorists. Their aims were distinctly political, not social.” This leads Jameson to pose him most trenchant question, toward which this book is directed as a reply: “We might profitable consider ... whether it is intrinsically probable that our revolution was unlike other popular revolutions, in having no social results flowing from the political upheaval.”
It is this question which Mr. Jameson discusses and clarifies, and it is to his credit that his clairification is not only accurate and definitive, but also that it is accomplished without a trace of pedantry and with welcome grace and humor. While his discussion of the matter is by no means complete, and reference must be made to other topics beyond those he discusses and other sources of information to round it out, it is a brief and pithy education in socio-economic history. (Mr. Jameson holds the view that “economic phenomena are more often the cause than the effect of political institutions and arrangements.”)
ASPECTS of the American Revolution to which Mr. Jameson addresses himself have often been labeled “Marxist questions”: the relations of economic classes, the changes in social relations, and the whole economic foundation upon which society is built. Yet, strange to say, beyond a few primitive attempts in the days of the early Socialist Party, very little has been done in this sphere by Marxists. It has been left to the Beards, Parringtons, Nettels, Jamesons, Dodds, and others of the liberal school to make a profound impact upon the American mind with their re-interpretation of our history in economic and social terms.
While the Communist Party is cataloguing its sins, it might do well to add this one to the list as well. Primarily under its influence and direction, American radicalism virtually abandoned solid historical interpretation in favor of romanticized gushing. For many of the so-called Marxists, history became a flout bag to be sifted by hacks for quotations that are helpful in fighting civil-liberties issues, for rosy and generally inaccurate tales of noble deeds, and for oversimplified versions of past events that could readily be used to prove the rightness of the line of the moment. Admittedly, a civil-liberties article looks better dressed up with a few remarks by Jefferson, and there are tales of the past that have a genuine inspirational value, but hte Left seems to have forgotten that there is far more to history than that. A real school of Marxist historical interpretation has yet to be founded in this country. This little volume by a professional author contains more analysis of real value than most of the Left put together has yet produced on this score.
Mr. Jameson’s contention that the American Revolution was a social upheaval as well as a war for independence was put succinctly by Claude Halstead Van Tyne, an authority on the Tory party in the revolutionary days: “A state of war existed between conservatism and radicalism, and either might be relied upon to use any weapon, political, diplomatic, or physical, that was available that would secure success.” The existence of this civil war is proved by two basic indications: the size of the native American military forces on both sides; and the scope of the Tory emigration from the colonies as revolutionary victories occured.
THE Tories furnished a large porportion of the anti-revolutionary fighting forces at the disposal of the British. To cite first the most extreme statement, James Truslow Adams in his New England in the Republic says: “Tories in great numbers did flock to the royal colors. Indeed it has been stated, although not wholly proved, that more colonials served in the imperial than in the revolutionary army.” A claim that goes this far is certainly too strong. Charles A. Beard estimates that some 400,000 Americans served in one capacity or another in the revolutionary forces throughout the duration of the war, and none of the estimates of Tory military strength comes anywhere close to that. Flick and Van Tyne, the two authorities in this field, estimate that about 50,000 Americans served in the British forces, either directly as regulars in the army or navy, or as militia, guerilla bands, etc. Though this shows a strong balance in favor of the Revoltion, still one cannot lightly dismiss a recruitment of 50,000 men, particularly when it is considered that Washington’s total force at any one time never rose above 90,000 and often fell as low as 12-15,000.
In the spring of 1775 a Tory regiment was raised in New York, and in January 1780 the New York Tory militia was counted at 5,885, a powerful army in this war. Johnson’s “Loyal Greens” and Butler’s “Tory Rangers” fought some of the bitterest small-scale battles of the war in the Vyoming Valley of Pennsylvania and the Cherry Valley of New York. All through the Hudson Valley, throughout the South, and as far west as Vincennes, many small bands of Tory raiders operated. In this southern invasion, large numbers of the Loyalist troops were American Tories; nearly two-thirds of the army at Savannah in October 1779 were colonials fighting their fellows. Nearly 2,400 Tories took part in the terrible defeat administered to Gates at Camden, and one of the most famous Tory groups, Tarleton’s Legion, carried the day. Benedict Arnold, who had been a New Haven merchant, organized an independent Tory regiment of 1,600 after his betrayal. Finally, the Tories fitted out a fleet of privateers against revolutionary commerce, guided by a board of directors consisting of the principal loyalists from each province. So that, far from the conventional picture of a united nation fighting a war solely against a foreign occupation, the revolution was indeed also a civil war in which the population divided.
EVEN more startling is the extent of the emigration from this country. The episode is hardly as famous as the great French emigration during the Revolution of ’89, but if a comparison is made in terms of numbers, there is no reason why our own emigration should take a back seat. The estimates of the size of the Tory emigrtation of the sized of the Revolution vary between 100,000 and 200,000 – none of the estimates fall below the former figure. If we compare this with the French emigration, which was estimated by a Harvard University Press 1951 study at about 129,000 over a ten-year period, we can see that even the smallest estimates of the American emigration are only a little smaller than the size of the French. If we consider further that the French population at the time was 28 million while the American was only 2¾ million, then the number of Tories fleeing these shores was proportionally ten times as great, in comparison to the size of the population, as the number of aristocrats who fled the French Revolution. Altogether, it is possible that we can pride ourselves on the greatest proportional emigration from any revolution of modern times.
Jameson gives a clear picture of the composition of the Tory party and of the emigration:
If we should investigate the Tory party in the several colonies in detail, we should be forced to the conviction that, in New England, it comprised in 1775 a very great share, probably more than half, of the most educated, wealthy, and hitherto respected classes. In March 1776, when Howe evacuated Boston, eleven hundred refugees sailed away with him. These eleven hundred, and the thousand or more who subsequently followed them, bore away perhaps a majority of the old aristocracy of Massachusetts. The act of banishment which the state legislature passed 1778, to punish the Tories, includes among its three hundred-odd names some representatives of most of the families which had been distinguished in the earlier days of the colony ... In New England, in short, it appears that the Revolution brought new strata everywhere to the surface.
In New York it seems probable that, in the height of the war at least, the bulk of the property owners belonged to the Tory Party, and it was strong also among the country population.
The early socialist historian, A.M. Simons, wrote in his Social Forces in American History: “When a society begins to develop class antagonisms, it is a sign that is has reached a point where independent existence is possible. It has begun to have a social life and method of growth of its own.” By the time of the opening of the Revolutionary period, the colonies had a well developed class structure, and the antagonisms that had appeared in such earlier rebellions as Bacon’s in Virginia and Leisler’s in New York, flared hotly in the Revolution and gave it a lot of its motive power Rebellions against foreign oppresion can be very fervent, but there in nothing like an enemy closer to home to really warm things up.
WHEN the protests against Great Britain first began, as the French and Indian War closed in 1763 and the British began to put the squeeze on the colonies in general and the merchant class in articular, there was a widespread unity in the colonies against England. True, there were numerous groups that stuck with the Crown from the start. The large land-holders and the patroons, manorial and semi-feudal lords of vast domains, never wavered in their allegiance. This was also true of the richer independent farmers, especially of the middle colonies. The host of Crown officialdom and hangers-on, two got their places, pelf, and prominence from the old regime, also backed the British, together with the high-church clergy. Even among the merchants, hard hit by new taxes and regulations and by the strict enforcement of old ones, some of the richest and most conservative such as the Grays, the Boylstons, and Hutchinsons, refused to go along with the protest movement. But the mass of colonials, the planters of the South, most of the merchants in the cities, the small and tenant farmers, and the city groups of shopkeepers, artisans, mechanics and laborers, were united in opposition. The first big movement, the Stamp Act protest of 1765, was broad and general, cutting across class lines with the exception of the reactionary groups named above, and the Stamp Act Congress of that year was a body fully representative of the colonies. However, in the years the followed, a change came about that was to make the Revolution possible and to deepen its course. Jameson writes, very wisely:
Allowance has to be made for one important fact in the natural history of revolutions, and that is that, as they progress, they tend to fall into the hands of men holding more and more advanced or extreme view, less and less restrained by traditional attachment to the old order of things. Therefore the social consequences of a revolution are not necessarily shaped by the conscious or unconscious desires of those who started it, but more likely by the desires of those who come into control of it at later stages of its development.
At the outset, and indeed as late as the beginning of 1776, there were no public voice for independence. The formal program of the movement was reform, although many had begun to sense the extreme direction of the movement. The Revolution began to rely more and more on the city mass and the back-country small farmers, and the influence of these tow forces was towards militant tactics, extreme goals, and social changes in the country.
The Stamp Act Congress was a gentlemanly affair, but the Stamp Act demonstrations were not, nor were the many violent boycotts of British goods, punitive actions against Tories, etc. And, as the months and years progressed, the mass participation became less and less spontaneous and more and more coherent, as a radical party, originating in New England under the direction of Sam Adams, spread throughout the colonies.
TOWN meetings, long an institution in New England, were taken out of the hands of the propertied voters by the general city population. Although there were only 1,500 people in Boston entitled by property qualifications to attend town meetings and vote, attendance reached two and three thousand, and in days of crisis six or seven thousand. The propertied voters began to stay away since, as one of them complained, when Sam Adams presided over a meeting there were “very few gentlemen” present.
Where, in earlier years, the four Boston newspapers averaged a circulation of only about 600 each, as the Revolution progressed the people turned to a new radical press, so that in the early 1770’s the Boston Gazette and the Massachusetts Spy attained circulations of 2,000 and 3,500 respectively. When radicals got a faction in the legislature they caused a gallery to be installed, so that the people might attend. The popular organizations, increasingly powerful and tightly organized in some colonies, dominated the towns in times of crisis, and in general started to rock the settled order of things.
The reaction of the wealthy and powerful was a predictable one. Gouverneur Morris expressed the upperclass hauteur and fear: “The mob begins to think and reason. Poor reptiles! It is with them a vernal morning; they are struggling to cast off their winter’s slough, they bask in the sunshine, and ere noon they will bite.” The inevitable result was that many moderates fled in fright back to the arms of the British, and the class lines that were to mark the Revolution drew tight.
Many New England merchants began to shy away from the revolutionary movement after the people showed their power in the Stamp Act demonstrations of 1765. Shortly after the colonial victory in that struggle, the British imposed the Townshend taxes, and the merchants were dragged into the boycott movement of 1767-70 only with the greatest of difficutly. After the British were compelled to repeal the Townshend acts, the merchants abandoned the movement in droves, the New York merchants fleeing first, and others throughout the colonies following suit. They began to turn against the upheaval when, as it was described by Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. (Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution) “it became apparent that their agitation for commercial redress was unloosing social forces more destructive to business interests than the misguided acts of Parliament.” When the next great boycott movement took place, in the form of a Solemn League and covenant not to deal with the British after Boston Tea Party, it was based upon what Sam Adams called “the two venerable orders of men styled Mechanicks and Husbandmen [farmers], the strength of every community.”
In the South, the planters did not take fright to the same degree as the merchants. First, they were too deeply involved in debts to British and Scotch factors to turn back, as their future was that of a ruined class under British rule. And second, situated as they were far from the cities and exploiting a class of slave labor which they had firmly under control, they were far less fearful of the rebellious sansculottes, a fact that could make a Jefferson, and later on the Andrew Jacksons, freer in language about the things that were dear to the city masses than the merchants and capitalists could ever be. The planters thus remained more or less firmly revolutionary (with the exception of the seacoast aristocracy) throughout the fight.
But in the cities, with large numbers of the richest merchants going over to the enemy, the line was sharply drawn as the Revolution progressed between radicalism and conservatism, wealth and commonalty, aristocrats and levellers. Even, as we have shown, large sections of that very capitalist class for whose benefit, enrichment, and ruling position the Revolution was a prime importance, shrank from the movement. The history of all capitalist revolutions is not too different in this respect.
THUS far, the evidence points merely to a sharp social division before and during the War of Independence. Remaining open still is the matter of social consequences flowing form the war. In other words, when the country divided, did it divide solely on the question of independence from Britain, or were there also social and political issues, closer to home, about the shape of the nation, which were being fought out? Here too, the evidence is clear and overwhelming. A number of overall descriptions have been essayed which may serve to introduce the picture. James Truslow Adams writes:
A new social order and a new outlook on life were coming into being ... It is a mistake to consider the Revolution as merely a military struggle to decide the political question of the relation of the colonies to the mother country administratively ... The old order was gone for good, and a new order, intellectual, social, and political, had begun to form.
Charles and Mary Beard emphasize the point in their monumental history:
If a balance sheet is struck ... then it is seen that the American Revolution was more than a war on England. It was in truth an economic, social and intellectual transformation of prime significance – the first of the modern world-shaking transformations ...
What kind of a transformation was it? The colonies never had a broadly seated feudalism to contend with, but in its place they did have a collection of feudal privileges and monarchical practices that were a substantial barrier to the establishment of an unfettered capitalism, particularly in the field of agriculture. In the first place, large estates monopolized great tracts of land, in some places, as in the Hudson Valley, operated with a manorial tenantry; in others settlement was either prohibited or where permitted quit rents and other feudal dues were demanded and, surprisingly, often collected. Then, the great land area between the Alleghanies and the Mississippi, as well as big tracts on the near side of the mountains, were reserved as crown lands, a restraint which effectively held back westward expansion.
The revolutionary period saw a great wave of land expropriations. Manorial estates in New York aggregating over 2½ million acres were confiscated, including the Van Rennsalaer manor, which alone was 2/3 the size of Rhode Island. The estate of Lord Granville in North Carolina, at least 1/3 of the colony, was taken away. New Hampshire alone confiscated 29 estates, including that of its governor, Sir John Wentworth. In New York, all lands and rents of the crown were confiscated, as well as the estates of 59 named persons, including most of the richest of the province. The 300 square miles of the Phillipse estate, and the lands of James Delancey Roger Morris, John T. Kemp, Beverly Robinson, were among those caught up in the net. In Pennsylvania, the estates of 490 persons were seized, including the ungranted lands of the Penn family. Nor were all the confiscations directed against the Tories. The Fairfax estate consisted of some six million acres in Virginia, or close to one-fifth the present size of that state. Lord Fairfax was not a loyalist, and was not molested during the Revolution; his estate was taken in 1781, however, because of what one historian calls “revolutionary opposition to feudal survivals.”
IN addition to these land confiscations, large amounts of property in other forms fell to the Revolution mainly as the fortunes of Tories and emigres were seized. At the end of the war, a group of 2,560 petitioned the British Parliament for redress, claiming to have lost 9 to 10 million pounds sterling of property. The commission assigned to sift the claims reduced the amount to 8 million pounds and actually paid out about 3 million. This was only a portion of the Tory group that suffered expropriation. Altogether, our Revolution brought about one of the larger non-compensated confiscations of the revolutions during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Next matter to be settled was the question whether big proprietorships would be encouraged on the lands newly won by the independent nation. A test case came up early in the game. A North Carolina landowner, Richard Henderson, had employed Daniel Boone in the early 1770’s to explore the Kentucky and Tennessee region. He sponsored the formation in 1775 of the Transylvania Company, which purchased from the Cherokees an area of 20 million acres, comprising parts of present-day Virginia and Tennessee, and most of Kentucky. He then erected a proprietorship of the Maryland type, retaining title to the lands and reserving quit rents (the type of rent paid in lieu of all other feudal obligations) to the company, and approached the Continental Congress for protection against the British in the name of the Revolution. Sam Adams and Jefferson led the fight in Congress against him, and the claim was rejected. The company then turned to Virginia, which promptly confiscated all the lands. This action sealed the doom of the proprietorship in western lands, a number of other companies being similarly defeated, and ensured that the western lands would be disposed through small individual land grants.
The confiscated estates were then broken up into small farms. New York, for example, discouraged the sale of parcels greater than 500 acres, and two of the giant estates went to 525 persons. Not that land speculators didn’t get their hands on some big tracts, but the overall effect was the establishment of a large class of small farmers.
The new farms were not encumbered with old feudal restrictions, although many soon had weighty capitalist restrictions in the form of mortgages. Quit-rents, a feudal token payment ranging from a penny an acre to a shilling a hundred acres each year, were abolished. Payment had been widely evaded, but still about $100,000 a year was estimated to have been collected in this form. Also, the kings’s prior right to the tallest and straightest trees for the royal navy was abolished. After the Revolution when a man held land in fee simple, he really owned it, and could do with it as he pleased within the limits of capitalist contractual relations and the civil and criminal law.
ON the pre-revolutionary estates, the old devices for keeping an aristocracy going had been widely prevalent. Entail and primogeniture, which kept the estate intact in a direct line of succession, flourished almost as in old England. The laws drafted by Jefferson in Virginia in 1776 released nearly three-fourths of the settled land of the state from entail. By 1800, entail had been entirely destroyed, and primogeniture had been almost completely wiped out, except in two states where a partial favoritism was shown to the sons as against the daughters – a remnant of the primogeniture method. Altogether, the revolution on the land was sweeping, and the Beards summarize it dramatically:
Whereas it took a century of debate and then the corroding taxes of a World War to drive a wedge into the concentrated land monopoly of England, the American revolutionists brought many an ancient structure to earth by swift and telling blows ...
Considered relatively, therefore, the destruction of landed privilege in America by the forces unchained in the War for Independence was perhaps as great and significant as the change wrought in the economic status of the clergy and nobility during the holocaust of the French Revolution. As in France country lawyers and the newly rich merchants swarmed over the seats of the once proud aristocracy, so in the United States during and after the cataclysm a host of groundlings fresh from the plow and counting house surged over the domains of the Jessups, Delanceys and Morrises ...
Other conservative institutions received major blows. There had been an established church, protected, favored, and financed by the state, in nine of the thirteen colonies, and in most cases it was a church adhered to by a minority of the people. The Revolution destroyed this medieval vestige immediately in six states, and later in the other three. The right to vote was extended. Slavery, although favored and depended upon by a leading class in the Revolution, the planters, seemed for a while to be nearing the end of its rope as a result of the Revolution. Six northern and middle colonies abolished slavery, an action which freed about 11 or 12 percent of the slaves, Virginia set up a manumission law under which over 8,000 slaves were freed in 8 years, the slave trade was prohibited, the first anti-slavery societies set up, and had it not been for the peculiar turn later taken by Southern economy as the cotton supplier for the new voracious mills of England and the North, it is likely that the Revolution would have been the beginning of the end for the peculiar institution. As it happened, slavery was to take a new lease of life and a second revolution was required to complete the first.
FINALLY, and in some ways most important, the Revolution established the groundwork of an industrial capitalist class. Prior to it, merchant capitalism had held undisputed sway in the cities. The basic activity was not the production of goods, but the buying and selling of goods. But in the Revolution imports from Britain were halted, and the equipping and supplying of armies made extraordinary demands upon the nation, so that many manufacturing industries came into being and those existing expanded greatly. Symbolically, not long after the Revolution the principle of mass production through the use of interchangeable parts was devised by Eli Whitney. Many of the artisans and shopkeepers who had fought in the Revolutionary battles, men like the coppersmith Paul Revere, were laying the foundations for manufacturing enterprises; the first banks were established, and a new kind of capitalist was elbowing the old merchant out of first place. While the new capitalism did not outweigh the old until a half-century later, it got a tremendous impulse from the Revolution, and from the weakening of the old merchant aristocracy.
The new capitalists, manufactures, and bankers secured as their spokesman and leader possible the most able statesman American capitalism has ever had at its disposal. Alexander Hamilton, in the early years of the Republic before Jefferson and the planters succeeded in wrestling away a share of the power, used the new state machinery like a pile driver to set the piers upon which capitalism would build. But that is a later tale. In the Revolution itself, however, social consequences of the most important kind were wrought, and the institutional soil of the country cleared for a great advance.
Last updated on 13.10.2005