Independence Day is coming soon; and I began thinking about how our revered forefathers rose up in their multitude to throw off foreign oppression, fight for liberty, gain democracy and self-rule, and government by the people; and so forth. We have a revolutionary saga here; and as many people like to point out, all the newly liberated nations can look to our history to see How to Do It. We gave them a model – a model revolution – something under 200 years ago, didn’t we? All this got me feeling very patriotic.
But I have been looking into the Spirit of ’76, and the result is, I’m puzzled, confused, even nonplussed. At what I’ve been finding out.
No doubt you knew it all the time, but I was always under the impression that at least our colonial forebears were in favor of our glorious revolution – anyway, a majority of them. You know how we Americans feel about other countries where bands of determined men make putsches to overthrow governments by force and violence without the support of a majority of the people?
Yet I must report that the very best historical authorities admit that the percentage of the colonial Americans who supported the Revolutionary side against the British was only – one third. Specifically, according to the best estimates, one third supported the British; one third supported the Revolution; and the last third just wanted to be left alone to hoe their corn.
This makes our model revolution a minority putsch. For the life of me, I can’t think of another country in the world whose great national revolution was not supported by a majority of its own people. For example, the French Revolution of 1789 is in bad odor in much respectable company because so many people had their heads chopped off, which was not sporting, but – but no one has ever claimed that a majority of the French people were not overjoyed at the fall of the Bastille. You can look from the Cromwellian revolution in England, to modern times and the kicking out of the British from India – the picture is the same, from country to country. A majority of those peoples supported their national revolutions.
But our great American model revolution: only one third of the people! It is very perplexing. No wonder no one ever mentions it, especially in history books for impressionable students.
But that’s not all, by a long shot. You know what we democratic Americans think about present-day revolutions that use terror and coercion against the people to force them into line when they don’t want the revolution, or that execute them with firing squads, and engage in other such reprehensible behavior. We not only frown on this sort of thing, but have been known, in our indignation, to send out an invading army to Bays of Pigs to teach such misguided people to behave. But a suspicion was bound to assail me: how on earth did our pro-Revolution minority carry the colonies along in the fight against the British?
The answer, or part of it, is that tarring and feathering was invented about this time. And physical assaults and persecutions had a great deal to do with it too; plus driving people from their homes into exile, that is, recalcitrant members of the deplorably unpatriotic majority, the two-thirds, especially the Tory third. One historian has explained:
“Men were ridden and tossed on fence rails; were gagged and bound for days at a time; pelted with stones; fastened in rooms where there was fire with the chimney stopped on top; advertised as public enemies, so that they would be cut off from all dealing with their neighbors. They had bullets shot into their bedrooms; money or valuable plate extorted to save them from violence... Their houses and ships were burnt; they were compelled to pay the guards who watched them in their houses; and ... carted around for the mob to stare at and abuse...”
Other historians emphasize the large numbers who were driven out of their homes to Canada or England. Not a few were hanged too, but the numbers are not certain.
By the way, did you ever read in your school textbooks that there were times during the Revolution when there were more Americans enrolled in the British forces than under George Washington?
Here’s a précis by the historian Louis Hacker, who discusses the operations of the so-called Committees of Safety which organized the home front during our model Revolution. He writes:
“At first operating locally through the Committees of Safety and without any pretence of legality, patriots carried on a savage war of extermination against their domestic enemies. [That is, against the most bothersome elements among the non-revolutionary majority.] Making no effort to stay mob violence, the Committees seized and physically mistreated loyalists, incarcerated many in concentration camps, killed not a few, burned down their homes, confiscated their belongings, and drove fully 100,000 into flight.”
One hundred thousand! Let us stop a moment over that figure. One third of the colonial population at that time would make just about three-quarters of a million people--less than the population of San Francisco today; so it is of this small number that a full 100,000 were not only persecuted but driven out of their homes. (And what do you think happened to said homes?) ... Back to Louis Hacker’s history; he recounts:
“When more systematic agencies, under state direction, were erected, the sequestration of loyalist properties took place universally and on a wholesale scale ...
“In the beginning in all the states, and in some throughout the whole period of revolutionary struggle, this dictatorship by Committees, operating often without legal warrant at all and certainly under no judicial restraints, was in the saddle. In all the states the structure of dictatorship came to be headed up by supreme State Committees of Safety invested with executive and judicial power.”
And Hacker goes on to describe how these extralegal dictatorships continued to function as the real power in very many cases even after legal state governments had been formally set up.
There were some other deplorable events, too, which I hesitate to mention. Firing squads, for example. Every now and then in the colonial army, there would be what the authorities called a mutiny. It wasn’t that they went over to the British; but soldier groups would try to negotiate with the civil authorities through elected committees. This would be declared a mutiny; and there were a number such. Then here’s what would happen to these aspirations for democratic-popular control of the revolution from below: the mutinies were suppressed by surrounding the mutineers with artillery and threatening to blow them to bits if they didn’t surrender. Then the mutineers were forced to supply the firing squads which executed their own leaders on the spot. (This account, by the way, is not taken from British atrocity stories, but from Douglas S. Freeman’s monumental multi-volume biography of George Washington.)
There’s no use multiplying details; the picture should be clear, about this our model revolution. Sophisticated people will not be surprised – only we innocent patriots. As S.G. Fisher put it, in his True History of the American Revolution:
“The people who write histories are usually of the class who take the side of the government in a revolution; and as Americans, they are anxious to believe that our Revolution was different from others, more decorous, and altogether free from the atrocities, mistakes, and absurdities which characterize even the patriot party in a revolution... They have accordingly tried to describe a revolution in which all scholarly, refined, and conservative persons might have unhesitatingly taken part; but such revolutions have never been known to happen.”
Now, what follows from all this? That revolutions by minority terror are perfectly all right because our own model American Revolution was such an enterprise? Well, I don’t think so; but shouldn’t all this be puzzling and perplexing (as I said) to all good people? Is that why these facts are suppressed in our schools – not only in the lower grades but up to and including college level? – because after all we can’t have the population wondering about minority terrorist revolutions. They may look about and notice that all the revolutions, especially the anti-colonialist revolutions, going on in the world, which so worry Washington, are admittedly supported by their own peoples. Yet we, sons and daughters of a minority terrorist revolution, denounce these revolutions time and again because we find them inconvenient. And we get so moralistic about it, too! The little enclave of Goa was liberated from Portuguese rule at last, with a minimum of force and with fewer people killed than are run down in the streets of Los Angeles in a month – and with no tarring and feathering either; yet our leading liberal, name of Adlai Stevenson, gets up in the UN to attack India for doing it! Or where we don’t denounce them, we silently arm their oppressors, as Washington did for years in supplying France’s war against Algeria.
It adds to the puzzle when you read – what everybody in this country reads constantly – about another revolution of our century: the Russian Revolution of November 1917. We read in every quarter that it was “engineered” by an active minority terrorist dictatorial movement; in other words, that it was carried through in the same way as our American Revolution, which is so respectable. In the same way? Well, I don’t mind that our Continental Congress of revered memory was not a body elected by the people--not even by the one third of the people who supported the Revolution. No, it consisted of people appointed through the dictatorial Committees of Safety and such. After all, when a revolution is shaking everything up, you can’t go about counting noses, can you? After all, there was no vote to decide on the taking of the Bastille; and Bolivar didn’t start by organizing a parliament; and so on.
You can’t count noses – or can you? Well, as a matter of fact, there has been only one revolution in the history of the world which took place after a registration of revolutionary sentiment by vote – the only revolution in world history in which the revolutionary forces were given a voted mandate of any kind at the time. This was not the Russian Revolution of March 1917, which shortly put Kerensky into power – a man no one elected. No, I am referring to the Russian Revolution which took place when, by November 1917, the Bolsheviks plus their left-wing allies had gained a clear majority in the democratic Soviets, in advance, and when their taking of power was endorsed the same day by an open and free vote of the Congress of Soviets. I am referring, of course, to the Russian Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky, which was later destroyed by the counterrevolution of Stalin which established the present totalitarian dictatorship.
The only revolution in the history of the world based on a popular democratic vote! It is all very perplexing; and I don’t think I’m going to make a Fourth of July oration after all.
Last updated: 26.9.2004