William F. Ward (George Novack)

The Movement for American Independence

Written: 1950.
First Published: Fourth International, Vol.11 No.4, July-August 1950, pp.122-126.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido.
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters.
Public Domain:George Novak Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

No matter how much its traditions have been abused for reactionary purposes, the Fourth of July remains a revolutionary holiday. The Grand Inquisitors of the loyalty purge cannot erase the fact that the American people acquired national freedom through “sedition,” that is, by an uprising against the intolerable evils of an outlived regime.

Paradoxically, when the curtain rises on the colonial contest, imperial unity had never seemed stronger or the affection of the Americans for their overseas “protector” so deep-seated. Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Mayhew and other notable Patriots affirmed that “probably at no time, during, the entire colonial period was there more good will toward Great Britain in America than at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War.” (Origins of the American Revolution by John Q. Miller, p.71)

The British and Americans hid fought together in a successful war which ousted France from the North American mainland and burled back the Spaniards and Indians. But this very victory generated conditions for the disruption of harmony and growing friction between England and her colonies. The elimination of the French threat removed the main factor which had hitherto bound the two together. The colonials no longer feared invasion and conquest from Canada while London, no longer needing colonial aid against the foremost challenger of its imperial interests, could concentrate attention on squeezing its possessions. At the same time this most expensive of wars had strained and drained the British treasury, spurring the King’s Ministers to seek new sources of revenue.

On the American side the triumph over the French and Indians had considerably enriched the colonies, given greater economic independence to the merchants and commercial planters, enhanced their political power and raised their self-confidence. The colonial assemblies took advantage of the Seven Years’ War to cut down the prerogatives of royal governors, cripple the Crown’s authority, and increase control over appropriations and expenditures.

Thus the Seven Years’ War set the stage for the beginning of a realignment of forces and reorientation of policy in North America which eventuated in a life-and-death battle between the British overlords and their subjects. But that was not the way the situation presented itself to either of them when opposition to English domination first flared in the colonies toward the close of the pos-twar economic depression in 1765.

The colonial struggle started on a very elementary political level, developing through successive stages. At first the dissident Patriots simply sought the repeal of odious laws and harmful edicts, directing their fire against colonial governors and Councils and appealing for remedies to the Parliament or Crown. Their activity was founded upon what seemed the solid rock of fealty to the British Empire. Their petitions and actions were designed as means of pressure to force retreats by the agencies of English rule and wring concessions from the government. They did not plan to alter or to overthrow it.

The Patriots regarded themselves, not as Americans driving toward divorce from England, but as “free-born subjects of Great Britain,” moving to secure their rights as Englishmen. There were, to be sure, sharp differences in the methods advocated and employed by different sections of the Patriot party in securing these aims. Whereas the moderate merchants, planters and landowners preferred reliance upon permitted legal procedures and peaceful channels of protest, the radical and plebeian forces resorted to direct action in expressing their indignation and enforcing their demands. But from 1765 to 1775 the avowed program and aim of all elements in the colonial opposition were identical: the improvement of their positions within the British Empire, not withdrawal from it.

Indeed, right up to the Battle of Lexington in April 1775, and for months thereafter, the foremost Patriots were not only unaware of the real direction of their course and its logical outcome, but repeatedly, sincerely, indignantly denied any intention of breaking away from the British Empire, rejecting the very thought as abhorrent.

For ten years the encounters between the established regime and the Patriot opposition surged back and forth, mounting in intensity until in 1774-75 they exploded in armed insurrection as a reply to military dictatorship. The most remarkable feature of this decade of intermittent struggle is the fact that, except for its concluding months, the colonial leaders and ranks alike had almost no traffic with the idea of separation from Great Britain. The banner of independence under which the rebels fought and triumphed was not unfurled for the entire first decade of the movement. Until they came, so to speak, on top of it, the actual goal of their strivings remained beyond the view of the very combatants who directed and carried on the fight.

Astonishing as this may appear today in the light of subsequent developments, there is a wealth of evidence to confirm the fact. At every turn, from the Stamp Act Demonstrations in 1765 to the Battle of Lexington in 1775, leading Patriots took pains to make clear their loyalty to the Empire. Here is a small part of the record.

The first inter-colonial assembly of protest, the Stamp Act Congress, declared in 1765 that the connection of the colonies with Great Britain was their “great happiness and security” and that they “most ardently desired its perpetual continuance.” At the next upsurge of struggle in January 1768, the Massachusetts legislature repudiated the very thought of separation: “We cannot justly be suspected of the most distant thought of an independency of Great Britain. Some, we know, have imagined this [probably a reference to Sam Adams and his Liberty Boys] ... but it is so far from the truth that we apprehend the Colonies would refuse it if offered to them, and would even deem it the greatest misfortune to be obliged to accept it.”

The Massachusetts Spy on July 7, 1774, two years before the Declaration of Independence, characterized independence as “a tree of forbidden and accursed fruit, which if any colony on this continent should be so mad as to attempt teaching, the rest would have virtue and wisdom enough to draw their swords and hew the traitors into submission, if not into loyalty.” (Massachusetts was to head the independence movement a short time later.)

That same year John Adams wrote that independence was “a Hobgoblin of so frightful mien, that it would throw a delicate Person into Fits to look it in the Face.” He was later to help draft the Declaration of Independence and lead the fight in the Continental Congress for its adoption.

The delegates to the First Continental Congress which met at Philadelphia in the autumn of 1774 assured the King: “Your royal authority over us and our connection with Great Britain we shall always carefully and zealously endeavor to support and maintain.”

During this same crucial period Franklin, Washington, Jefferson and others voiced equally strong protestations of loyalty to mother England. In March 1775 Franklin testified in London that he had never heard in America one word in favor of independence “from any person, drunk or sober.” Even after the Battle of Lexington George Washington told his Tory friend Jonathan Boucher that if ever he heard of Washington’s joining in any such measures as the Colonies separating from England, Boucher “had his leave to set him down for everything wicked.” More than two months after the Battle of Bunker Hill, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of independence, wrote in a private letter that he was “looking with fondness toward a reconciliation with Great Britain.”

One year and two days before issuing the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress, while setting forth colonial grievances, explicitly assured “our friends and fellow subjects in any part of the Empire that we mean not to dissolve that union which had so long and so happily subsisted between us, and which we sincerely wish to see restored.”

These professions of loyalty were not uttered for diplomatic reasons or inserted to veil the real aims of the colonists. They expressed the inner hopes of representative figures in the patriot camp and the policy they pursued until it became practically impossible. Far from their minds was a yearning for departure from the Empire.

Finally, we have unimpeachable testimony from Tom Paine, who did more than any other to promote the independence movement. He wrote in The American Crisis: “Independency was a doctrine scarce and rare, even towards the conclusion of the year 1775; all our politics had been founded on the expectation of making the matter up.”

Some extreme radicals like Sam Adams and the Liberty Boys did not shrink from the prospect of independence and would have welcomed it. The patriots could see certain advantages in separation – but, prior to the decisive events of 1775-76, the overwhelming majority reckoned that the losses would far outweigh them. Such a leap into the unknown appeared to most as impossible, unnecessary and undesirable.

Why They Clung to Britain

It seemed impossible because England stood forth as the mightiest and richest power on earth which had just crushed such formidable foes as France and Spain. How could the weaker colonies which had never achieved unity under the Empire expect to consolidate and mobilize enough strength to consummate the overthrow of Great Britain? Where would the forces and resources for so hardy an enterprise be found? Up to 1763, there had been no successful revolts of colonials in America, Africa or Asia.

At the same time so radical a step appeared unnecessary. The Patriots hoped to gain their demands by putting pressure upon the British rulers, through alliances with friendly elements in England and through traditional channels of protest. After all, they had forced the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1767 and wrested further concessions from the Crown government; why could not these methods suffice in the future? This was the main argument both of the Tories end those Whigs who later remained loyal to the British regime.

Independence was obnoxious because of the incalculable risks involved. Civil division and armed strife might open the door for France to return and the Indians to rise up again. War would throw everything out of kilter and plunge the colonies into turbulence and disorder. The merchants and planters felt this was too hazardous an enterprise on which to stake “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.” Finally, the major deterrent was the foreknowledge and foreboding among the colonial possessing classes that the struggle for secession would release sentiments and forces among the masses that would be iLi dangerous to their own privileges and power. This justified dread of the revolutionary potential of the democracy, this fear of “plebeian frenzy,” curbed their aspirations for independence for a long time.

For these reasons the Patriot leaders adhered to their limited ideas and comparatively moderate methods. There was only one flaw in their outlook. The British despots wouldn’t and couldn’t grant the major demands of the colonists, reasonable as they seemed. Consequently, the ten-year struggle for reforms within the Empire finally had to pass over into the revolutionary struggle for national independence.

The incubation period of the independence movement extended from the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, which provoked the Crown to impose its military dictatorship over unruly Massachusetts, to the Declaration of Independence in July 1776. These two and a half years witnessed the maturing of the subjective conditions for independence and the passing over of the Patriots to actions popularizing the demand for separation from England.

The defiance of the Bostonians initiated the sequence of events which produced the radical overturn. The insurgent masses, hitherto excluded from the political arena or kept to the background, now came to the fore. They were the radical merchants, the militant artisans, shopkeepers, and workers of the seaports backed up by the anti-British planters, farmers and frontiersmen. Thereupon two interacting processes cut the ground from under the advocates of compromise on both sides of the Atlantic. One was the uprising of the people in the localities against the authority of the King. They refused obedience to the laws, armed themselves, proceeded to depose the representatives of the crown and set up their own courts, assemblies, armies and governments. Although undertaken as defensive measures against the aggressions of the British despots upon the rights of the Americans, these actions constituted a thrust toward complete independence.

This revolutionary outburst was met by equally firm determination on the part of the British rulers to subdue the rebellious colonials once and for all, to strip them of all acquired rights and powers, and tyrannize without restraint over Massachusetts and the other colonies. The clash of two such forces heading in opposite directions could not be resolved by compromise.

The British power had already been effectively shattered and replaced by new authorities created by direct action of the Committees of Safety and Correspondence in the separate localities and provinces before independence was set forth as the general slogan and goal of the movement by Tom Paine and others. In fact, the issue of independence had been fought out and decided by a series of direct contests for power between the Loyalists and Patriots within the cities, villages and districts of the colonies throughout 1774 and 1775 which brought victory for the most part to the insurgents. But this de facto state of independence had still to be fully recognized by the active fighting forces of the revolution and formally ratified by their official political representatives in the Continental Congress.

For well over a year and a half after civil war had been raging and new relationships of power had been instituted within the colonies, the conservative merchants and moderate planters, clinging to hopes of reconciliation, kept restraining the liberation movement. Although British rule had been successfully broken and overthrown by the assault of the people in arms, their acknowledged leaders shrank from admitting the actual state of affairs and decreeing the abolition of British sovereignty. That meant cutting off the road of retreat and placing feet firmly upon the revolutionary highway. They kept moving backward as the masses kept pressing forward.

Events emerging from the struggle itself assisted the rebels and propelled the liberation movement forward. The breaking point in the attitude of the colonial masses came with the Battle of Lexington which drew a line of blood between tile King and the most resolute rebels. This armed encounter snapped the last-ties binding the radical wing in the Patriot camp with the Crown and steeled their will to resist to the end. The news of this battle, for example, aroused the Liberty Boys of New York to take over that key city. Tom Paine testified in Common Sense that his own change Of heart was produced by Lexington: “No man was a warmer wisher for a reconciliation than myself, before the fatal nineteenth of April 1775, but the moment the event of that day was made known, I rejected the hardened sullen-tempered Pharaoh of England forever.”

The decisive drive toward independence dated from this event. Its effects can best be gauged by its stimulus upon Paine himself, the trumpeter of emancipation. Some historians write as though Tom Paine’s individual literary efforts virtually called forth the independence movement overnight. Actually, its material premises had been growing for many years before 1765 and its psychological and political conditions were created by the struggles of the preceding ten years.

What Tom Paine did was to disclose the inner tendencies of the mass upsurge, to give a clear goal and a general slogan to the unfolding struggles and draw the indispensable political conclusions and imperative dictates of action from the actual situation. He crystallized the deepening conviction that freedom was the only answer to the problems of the day; he was the first to openly propagate the idea of a free and independent United States of America. His writings entered as a link in the chain of events at the most critical turn of the revolution, leading the movement to higher ground than it had dared dream of occupying only a little while before.

The Rule of Tom Paine

Tom Paine had been revolving in his mind the main points in his message ever since the Battle of Lexington incited the wrath of rebellion throughout the colonies. He wrote his first pamphlet Common Sense toward the end of 1775 and issued it on January 10, 1776. Its doctrine of independence was still so novel and audacious he had trouble finding a publisher in Philadelphia.

Few political documents ever had greater effects in changing people’s minds and moving them to act than this pamphlet: in its first six months Paine’s pamphlet sold 100,000 copies in a country of three million. Printing presses turned them out day and night. Its arguments were read, repeated, debated in clubs, streets, taverns, schools, churches and in the Continental Army. George Washington wrote on April 1, 1776: “I find Paine’s Common Sense is working a wonderful change there in Virginia in the minds of men ...”

What accounted for the wonder-working power of this pamphlet? Its simple, colloquial style, its clear line of explanation, its teachings matched the occasion and meshed into the machinery of the developing struggle.

Hurl a flaming torch into a forest covered with snow or soaked by spring rains and it will sputter and die out. But let a spark be thrown among the same vegetation baked ky heat and dried by drought and it can blaze into a raging conflagration.

The American people had to be prepared and to prepare themselves by a cumulative series of experiences, tests and trials to respond so eagerly to Paine’s arguments, to be kindled by his proposals and hurry them into realization. Paine cast his flaming appeal for freedom into the midst of masses seething with rage and poised for the most daring deeds.

Common Sense generalized in its teachings what the people were already carrying out in real life. Just as the committees were destroying the authority of the Crown, Paine launched his main attack upon the King, exploding the fiction of a distinction between the King and parliament or the King and his Ministry. The truth of revolution is a mighty destroyer of such fictions.

Paine argued for an independent American Republic, not as a remote, prospect, but an immediate objective. When he beat the drums for independence and fifed for republicanism, defying all former declarations by the Continental Congress and colonial assemblies, he succeeded in winning the assent of the masses because the proofs of life had convinced them of its unpostponable necessity.

Paine was well aware of this fact. There can now be no turning back, he keeps insisting throughout his polemics.

“The independence of America should have been considered as dating its era from, and published by, the first musket that was fired against her. This is a line of consistency; neither drawn by caprice, nor extended by ambition; but produced by a chain of events, of which the colonies were not the authors ... We have it in our power to begin the world over again ... The birthday of a new world is at hand ... Every day convinces us of its necessity.”

The Continental Congress

The independence movement originated and was forced forward by the clash of interests between the colonists and the system of British domination. But its rate of development depended upon the interaction of the different social forces within the Patriot camp. The impetus for action came from the demands of the masses and the initiative from the leaders who best expressed them. But between the masses below and the British on top stood the merchants and planters who wanted to confine the struggle within safe boundaries.

The Continental Congress became the central stage upon which the drama of independence was enacted. This Congress was constituted exclusively of representatives drawn from the upper classes: lawyers, doctors, merchants, planters, large landowners. The wealthiest men in the colonies, Washington, Carroli, Hancock, were there. The common people were not directly represented by men of their condition and choice, although the most radical spokesmen for the merchants and planters like Sam Adams and Patrick Henry leaned upon them for support.

Three main divisions of opinion contended for supremacy within the Congress. As Sam Adams characterized it, it was “one-third Whig, one-third Tory and the rest mongrel.” On the right was the conservative section, headed by Albert Galloway of Pennsylvania, who was later to go over to the British; at the left a group of radicals inspired by the Massachusetts delegation. The bulk of delegates occupied a more or less indeterminate ground between these extremes.

The conservative influence predominated up to 1776. The Congress directed its main efforts along the line of conciliation, acting timidly and reacting sluggishly to events. The right wing was suspicious of any radical proposals by the “violents” which would push them too fast forward.

This mistrust was so strong that before the opening session of the Congress the Philadelphia radicals sent a committee to intercept the Massachusetts delegation at Frankford and warn them that the New Englanders were suspected of desiring independence. “You must hot utter the word independence, or give the last hint or insinuation of the idea. No man dares speak of it.”

This episode is especially instructive because it enables us to chart the curve of independence sentiment in leading circles of the Patriot party. The word independence which was unspeakable in 1774 was on everybody’s lips by 1776; the abomination rejected in 1774 was embraced as the doctrine of salvation in 1776.

We cannot here detail the complex chain of circumstances which produced the conversion of the Continental Congress. Suffice it to say, the active masses were ready for independence early in 1776 but the possessors were not; their representatives had to be pushed forward or swept aside. The half-year between the publication of Common Sense and the adoption of independence was a critical period of tense and passionate controversy in the Continental Congress around this question.

As late as January 1776, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland instructed their delegates to vote, against independence if the matter was brought up. In February the moderates brought in a report on independence which stated: “We are accused of carrying on war for the purpose of establishing an independent Empire ... We disavow the intention.” By this time the radicals were influential enough to have the resolution laid on the table.

Meanwhile the demand for independence was growing from a whisper into a roar which began to drown out cries for compromise. Joseph Hawley wrote John Adams on April 1, 1776 that if Congress didn’t act swiftly a “Great Mobb of citizens and soldiers would descend upon Philadelphia to purge Congress and set up a dictator.” But the radicals did not have to purge the Continental Congress as Cromwell’s men did the Presbyterian Parliament.

The pressure of the masses on one side and the aggressions of the British on the other broke the hold of the conservatives on Congress. The surge toward independence became so irresistible that the majority was swept along with it. On May 23 Congress heard that the King was going to send 30,000 mercenaries to America by June. This projected invasion cut off the last hopes of conciliation and speeded up the steps in the colonies and Congress resulting in the final break. By July the great deed was done.

The Declaration of Independence represented not merely the triumph of the Whigs over the Tories, but the victory of the radical wing of the Whigs over the conservatives, the masses over the upper classes, the future over the past. The revolution was at last marching to its own music.

A Lesson of the Struggle

The restricted influence of Marxism and the slow growth of the revolutionary socialist movement are often brought forward as proof that socialism is not a suitable program or a realizable prospect in the United States. “You Trotskyist will never get anywhere here,” jeer the renegades and reactionaries “even your beloved workers reject your ideas or worse, simply ignore them.”

Arguments of this type fly in the face of all historical experience, and, in particular, this country’s own experience. The story of independence itself teaches that revolutionary mass movements do not begin with a carefully defined program or comprehensive understanding of their ultimate aims. Their development is far more complex and uneven.

The collective awareness of the participants and of their acknowledged leaders develops at a different, and usually at a slower pace, than the objective material forces underlying and stimulating their forward march. Thus to the Americans opposing the English, the clamor for independence seemed to surge up all of a sudden as the indicated response to imperative needs. Yet it is obvious now that the formative elements of independence had been ripening for a considerable time within colonial society before the banner-bearers of this cause found themselves propelled to the center of the political stage.

In fact, this very disparity between the needs of social progress and the consciousness of the masses which is so glibly cited as evidence of the impossibility of revolutionary transformation is one of the conditions for its occurrence. If people altered their institutions and ideas step by step in conformity with the changes brought about ill their methods of living and working together, there would generally be no need for revolutionary overturns of political regimes and social systems.

Ideas play a central part in the revolutionary process – but they neither create nor sustain it. Bourgeois rationalists imagine that the mind is the most dynamic element in human progress; actually, it is sluggish and conservative. People of all ranks hang on to traditional ideas long after circumstances have rendered them obsolete. When class conflicts reach the breaking point, their minds are rarely prepared for so sweeping an outburst, and they are obliged to revise their conceptions rapidly and radically to swing them into correspondence with the new situation. This sudden shift in mass feelings and moods is an integral part of revolution.

That is why it would be false and superficial to deduce the remoteness of revolutionary developments in this country from the prevalent ideas of people. Great upheavals have usually taken not only the ruling classes but also their opponents by surprise. That was so in the 18th century American Revolution – and this observation is also pertinent to the movement for workers’ power and socialism today,

The events culminating in the break with Britain have a special interest for us today because we, too, are living through a prolonged preparation for another immense upheaval of the American people leading to the radical transformation of the old and outlived order. No one can say just how far the movement toward the great change has already matured in this country. Only further developments of a climactic character analogous to the outbursts preceding the Declaration of Independence can divulge that information. History may have some startling surprises in store for Americans of the second half of the 20th century as it had for the colonials of the 18th century.

Last updated on: 12 April 2009