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International Socialism, December 1996


Megan Trudell

Who made the American Revolution?


From International Socialism 2:73, December 1996.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


T. Draper
A Struggle for Power: the American Revolution
Little Brown 1996, £25

The Declaration of Independence was signed 220 years ago, marking the triumph of America’s first bourgeois revolution and the defeat of the world’s foremost imperial power at the time, Britain. Famously, the language of the declaration asserted the importance of liberty and rights: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ [1]

These rights, which would be more clearly spelt out in the Bill of Rights – the first ten amendments to the Constitution – in December 1791, were of central importance to the rule of the bourgeoisie. They sprang from the way in which it had waged its revolution, and contained its more radical elements: freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to peaceable assembly, the right of people to bear arms, and, crucially, the security and protection of property. These would in turn be adopted and extended by the French bourgeoisie in the course of the French Revolution. They represented a great step forward from absolutism, though they did not eradicate real social or economic inequality.

We are taught, in as much as we are taught about it at all, that the American Revolution was a purely political event in which the few founding fathers, guided by these high principles, fought a ‘tidy little war’ [2] which left the existing class structure intact. Textbooks generally agree that the revolution’s ‘main significance was unquestionably political’. [3] The American Revolution is thus reduced to an avoidable squabble. Even The Guardian’s Edward Pearce in a review of Draper’s book argues that the ‘colonies might have been kept longer to be relinquished without conflict’. [4]

The revolution did raise the banner of liberty through democratic slogans of the rights of man, and representation, but it had its roots in deep contradictions between Britain and the colonies and was marked by violent struggles, not polite confrontation. The revolution was both a fight against British rule and a struggle for power between different forces on the American side. It paved the way for dramatic economic and social change.

‘The American Revolution shattered the old colonial system’. [5] It was more than simply an exchange of control between Britain and the emergent American ruling class. It transformed the colonies from mere extensions of British markets overseas into a unified country with a vigorous manufacturing base in the North. It set the stage for enormous expansion westwards – which did not simply involve the heroic pioneering West of the myth, but also the systematic expulsion from the land of the native American population and their eventual extermination – and the growth of large scale slavery in the South. The revolution eliminated the rule of British officials, royal governors, and the semi-feudal land arrangements which included passing titles down through families. It freed the capitalist class in America to embark unfettered on the capitalist road.

The revolution provided the state institutions necessary to give maximum encouragement to merchants’ interests – developing commerce, the free market, trade and the development of manufactures. The expansion of farming to the West and the spread of the plantation system initially served the bourgeoisie, who bought raw materials and supplied finished goods. It was not until the 1860s that the clash between the North’s industrial revolution and the South’s slave economy, still tied to Britain, resulted in the vast and bloody second stage of America’s bourgeois revolution – the American Civil War.

Against the standard view, Theodore Draper’s book argues that the clash between Britain and the American colonies was inevitable – the clash between an existing empire and a rising economic power. He points to ‘a "real cause" that "made war inevitable" – the growth of the power of the Americans, and the alarm this inspired in Great Britain.’ [6] Draper moves away from the interpretations of the revolution as purely about ideological struggle, and concentrates on ‘a struggle for power – between the power the British wished to exercise over the Americans and the power the Americans wished to exercise over themselves’. [7]

Draper’s study traces the causes of the revolution back to the colonial arrangement with Britain. It takes us in great detail through the growing tensions that ultimately led to the colonies uniting to force the break with their imperial master, researched from many contemporary pamphlets and the letters of British officials from both sides of the Atlantic as well as, to a lesser extent, the writings of leading colonists.

Britain and the colonies

Britain was already a powerful nation by the 1770s. The defeat of France in the Seven Years War meant Britain was not only the world’s greatest naval power, but was also pre-eminent in European trade with Africa and Asia. Especially important was the ‘triangular’ trade of slaves, staples like sugar, tobacco and tea, and manufactured goods between Britain, North America and the West Indies. Trade aided the growth of investment in manufacturing – mainly metals and woollens – as well as shipping and shipbuilding. Though Britain’s industrial base was growing, the explosion of growth of the industrial revolution was still a few years off and at this stage Britain was building up and protecting its burgeoning industry.

From Britain’s point of view, its colonies were there to provide the raw materials essential to British manufacture and to provide sure markets for finished British goods. The Navigation Acts enacted after the English Revolution ensured that all colonial trade was carried in English ships with English crews. Certain ‘enumerated’ goods that were especially important to Britain as raw materials (tobacco, furs and indigo among them) had to be traded via London, unloading and paying duties before continuing on to their ultimate destination. The colonies were not permitted to be traded between themselves, or to issue paper money. The Molasses Act of 1733 aimed at cutting colonies’ trade with France by slapping 100 percent duty on non-British sugar.

Although a lot of these restrictions were avoided through widespread smuggling – allowing New England especially to build up a rapidly growing and profitable trade in molasses, rum and slaves with France and the West Indies – the relationship with Britain was still heavily weighted towards the imperial power.

The revolution would be led by a coalition of two classes – the emergent Northern bourgeoisie and the large scale planters of the Southern colonies. To understand the reasons why these people, many made wealthy by the relationship with Britain, would be in the forefront of the struggle that would sever that relationship, we have to look at the economic and social relations within and between the different colonies. Unfortunately Draper’s study does not give the fullest picture of these relations.

The American colonies of the 1760s and 1770s were not a unified state, but a loose collection of 13 provinces, with a combined population of only 3 million. They were economically weak, certainly in comparison with Britain. They had separate histories and no tradition of acting together.

What, if anything, united the different colonies was a shared notion of Britishness, that America was part of a free nation in an age of absolutist monarchy. This was an important identification that was to prove easier for some to break than others. Even the political parties in America reflected those in Britain – Tories, loyal to the crown and to British rule, and Whigs, the British parliamentary opposition to the Tories and forerunners of the Liberal Party.

Ninety percent of colonists worked the land, producing crops for export. The Southern colonies produced vast amounts of staple goods on increasingly large plantations – tobacco in Virginia and Maryland, rice and indigo in South Carolina and Georgia. The plantation system rested on slavery, which provided labour and helped to bind whites to the planters and offset any chances of united revolt.

Plantation owners produced for the world market but all their produce was marketed by the British, who handled three quarters of all the Southern trade in their ships, compared to New England which handled three quarters of its trade in American ships. Thomas Jefferson, who was to become one of the sharpest revolutionary minds, and a Virginia planter himself, described the relationship:

They [British merchants] reduced the prices given him for his tobacco, so that … 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. [8]

It is little wonder that the majority of planters were firmly anti-British throughout the revolutionary period, while those small farmers and the poor ruled over by rich planters in the South were often loyal to the crown. The colonists were by no means united in their opposition to Britain, a factor Draper does not discuss.

The merchants in the North were the other key force, though generally subject to greater pulls towards loyalism and compromise than the planters. New England was predominantly commercial, with growing industry that was linked to trade. In the North agriculture was based mainly on small farmers, some with tenancies held by big landlowners – who were overwhelmingly Tories loyal to the crown and defenders of British rule. Both the landed aristocracy and the merchants in the towns would divide into Tory and patriot wings during the revolution.

The merchant class in the towns prospered within the colonial system and from trade with the South. Shipbuilding boomed and, as part of the reciprocal trade, the colonies had the protection of the British navy for goods in transit as well as sure markets in Britain. This meant the merchants would, in the course of the struggle against Britain, be the section most likely to vacillate and to stave off separation.

The possibility of economic independence was already present by the 1760s. As Draper makes clear, America was a dynamic society – between 1720 and 1750 the colonies’ population more than doubled, exports nearly doubled, and imports more than quadrupled. [9]

Britain, for its part, tolerated the potential competition from New England (which traded with French sugar islands illegally) because the profits made could be spent on British imports. However, Christopher Hill argues:

The navigation laws worked increasingly to the disadvantage of North America as the population there increased ... They had no tropical products to export, and they resented being dependent on Britain for all manufactured goods, instead of being allowed to develop their own industries … the American cloth industry was suppressed in 1719 … in 1750 the erection in America of any new slitting or rolling mills, forges or steel furnaces was prohibited. Even a friend of America like Pitt stated that he would not allow a nail to be made in the colonies without permission of the British parliament. [10]

Although there are differing opinions about the extent to which colonists resented the dependence on British manufactures, it was only a matter of time before the inbuilt contradictions in the system came to the fore.

In addition, Draper argues that Britain, although a mighty imperial power, was dependent on the colonies for a great deal: the provision of American timber for navy ships, pig iron for steel, cotton goods and so on. Trade was central to the accumulation necessary for the development of British capitalism, and America was the largest and fastest growing consumer of British goods. [11] Without the American colonies many British commentators of the time feared the ruin of the empire itself – and with colonial trade growing to a third of all British trade by 1775, up from one twelfth at the start of century, it is easy to see the basis of this fear.

The early British colonial system, as Draper well illustrates, was a mess. A ramshackle bureaucracy, no standing army to speak of in the colonies, the time it took to communicate with America – these were all factors which made the governing of the colonies a loose affair. The charters which had established most of the colonies determined the form of colonial government – usually a governor appointed from Britain and therefore answerable to the crown, a council appointed to advise the governor and an elected assembly. The majority of governorships seem to have been given mainly as rewards for retired colonels – many of whom did not go near the colony they governed from one year to the next and left the work to lieutenant governors. British penny-pinching meant that the governors depended on the assemblies, not on the British parliament, for their salaries, and sometimes their requests for money were denied by the assemblies.

Draper mistakenly describes this relationship as ‘dual power’. [12] In actual fact, for a good 100 years there was never any doubt about who was really in control. There were not two competing sets of institutions vying for control of society. When a situation of dual power did arise it would be between the British government institutions on the one hand and entirely new, spontaneous forms of organisation on the other.

British government of the colonies was based primarily on the policy of ‘salutary neglect’ – a ‘hands off’ policy. Trade was more important than any money to be had from taxing the colonies, so the British turned a blind eye to smuggling (a very profitable British tradition anyway) and the abuse of customs officials. From early on, taxes and duties were studiously avoided by the colonists and remained unenforced by the British.

When the Seven Years War with France ended in 1763, Britain emerged victorious but exhausted and looking for someone to help pay off huge debts. Between 1763 and 1773 the British shifted several gears in their attitude to the colonies, imposing an unprecedented amount of punitive legislation. Although clearly much of this was intended to pay immediate British debts, as some of the primary sources cited by Draper show, the desire to keep the colonies dependent and therefore underdeveloped by milking them for every penny also played a part in the British government’s calculations.

The end of the war had another impact in the colonies: it removed the threat of French invasion from the American doorstep. As Samuel Johnson had put it, ‘We shall have our colonies at our feet, when they have an enemy near them’. [13] When the British took over Canada the threat was diminished.

Even today Edward Pearce deplores this move, arguing that the French ‘always kept the colonists respectful’ and, ‘Alas, we … liberated the Americans from French surveillance’. [14] The removal of the French threat probably did put independence on the agenda earlier, but it was not a key factor. The developing commerce in New England, the expansion of slave plantations, the growth of population and trade continued while the French were there. The possibility must be considered that eventually the French would have had to be fought by the colonists, as the British were, for ultimate control in the colonies. The break from Britain would at most have been postponed, not prevented. Pearce underestimates the centrality of colonial trade to the British if he thinks ‘salutary neglect’ could have moved on to a mutual parting of the ways.

The growing crisis

British legislation hit the colonists from all sides: The Proclamation of 1763 prevented them from settling the area to the west of the Allegheny mountains; the Sugar Act in 1764 tried to enforce the old Molasses Act, charging merchants three pence for every gallon of imported molasses as tax, to pay for the presence of British troops, some of whom were to be stationed in Boston and New York; the Quartering Act in 1765 put the burden of housing the British soldiers, serving under General Gage, onto the colonies.

These moves were all resented, and opposed to varying degrees, but the 1765 Stamp Act provoked mass outrage, and put the question of parliament’s right to impose taxes on the colonies on the agenda. The Stamp Act involved duties on court documents, church correspondence, liquor licences, land transactions, wills, passports, dice, and a host of other items. [15] In addition, taxes had to be paid in sterling, which was not easy to come by. If parliament could impose stamp tax, the colonists reasoned, it could levy a tax ‘for the light of the sun, the air we breathe, and for the ground we are buried in’. [16]

The Americans, in opposing the taxes, asserted that they represented an infringement of rights that had been laid down in the original colonial charters, that parliament had no right to tax them without consent or fair representation. [17] The mass of society quickly became drawn into action. In Boston in August 1765 a movement of intellectuals, lawyers, artisans and labourers burnt an effigy of Andrew Oliver, who was to be the stamp distributor, and destroyed the building they thought was to be the stamp office. The ‘lower orders’ in the towns were to provide the ground troops of the revolution. Any illusion that the revolutionary period was a polite exchange of words between gentlemen should be rudely dashed by the actions of the crowds.

On 26 August, a crowd shouting ‘Liberty and property’ marched to the home of lieutenant governor Hutchinson and destroyed it with axes. Governor Bernard of Massachusetts complained that ‘Boston is the possession of an incensed and implacable mob’. [18] The response to the violence, even from some who had encouraged it, was to condemn it. John Adams, for instance, condemned the ‘blind undistinguishing rage of the rabble’. [19] Sam Adams, altogether more radical and the central revolutionary figure in Boston, qualified his disapproval: ‘It was not to be wondered at, that among the common people such steps were taken as could not be justified, it being frequent in populous towns when grievances are felt’. [20]

The masses who tore down Hutchinson’s house were motivated both by opposition to the Stamp Act and the deeper inequalities visible in colonial society; in New York, of 560 taxpayers, 495 held property worth less than £10. The property of 158 was only rated at £1 while only ten owned property worth £40 or more – including the Van Rensselaer family who were between them worth £395. [21]

Before the Stamp Act, there had already been internal rebellion in some colonies – in 1771 in North Carolina the Regulator movement was formed in response to unequal taxation and marched on the governor’s palace. Six rebels were hanged for treason. The revolt had been crushed by Whigs who later became American patriots. Hatred of these leaders led many former rebels to side with the British in the revolution. In fact, the greatest loyalist base was among the dispossessed in the South, rather than among Northern merchants as simplistic accounts of the revolution argue.

Farmers in Pennsylvania had marched on Philadelphia in 1763. Land rioters in New Jersey, the Hudson Valley and the Green Mountains fought against big landowners for 30 years between 1745 and 1775. In many colonies those grievances between the classes became crystallised against the British during the revolutionary crisis and fed into the campaign against the Stamp Act. Merchants in the colonies boycotted British goods. British merchants, panic stricken about their profits, cut back on credit to the South, the effect of which was to force the planters further down the revolutionary road.

In colony after colony the houses of Stamp Act supporters were wrecked. In New York ‘a crowd made up of 400 to 500 seamen, 300 carpenters and many others destroyed the house of Major James, a British official, who had boasted that he would ‘cram the stamps down [the people’s] throats with the end of his sword’. [22]

In each colony revolutionary groups sprang up to organise the protests. Central to them everywhere were merchants and intellectuals like Sam Adams in Boston, John Lamb in New York, Christopher Gadsen in South Carolina, small merchants like Isaac Sears in New York, and artisans like Paul Revere in Boston. As the Sons of Liberty they organised a mass, popular movement against the British in the cities. In addition, ‘these revolutionary bodies ... consisted of artisan shopkeepers, mechanics, day labourers, carpenters, joiners, printers, shipwrights, smiths, calkers, rope-makers, seamen, masons and other members of the lower classes’. [23] These were men whose own grievances could be linked with those of the merchants against the British. As one leaflet put it:

They will … undersell our merchants, till they monopolise the whole trade. Thus our merchants are ruined, shipbuilding ceases. They will then sell goods at any exorbitant price. Our artificers will be unemployed, and every tradesman will groan under dire oppression. [24]

The rebellion in America and pressure from British merchants and manufacturers suffering from the boycott of British goods led the British government to repeal the Stamp Act. But, determined to reassert parliament’s authority in the colonies, it linked the repeal to the passing of a Declaratory Act which reasserted parliament’s right to ‘bind the colonies … in all cases whatsoever’. [25]

The struggle against the Stamp Act led to a questioning of British authority, but most merchants wanted compromise not independence. James Otis, a Massachusetts lawyer, who with one breath asserted that ‘taxes are not to be laid on the people but by their consent in person or by deputation’, answered the question of what would happen if the British would not back down through force of argument with, ‘Let parliament lay what burdens they please on us, we must, it is our duty to, submit and patiently bear them till they will be pleased to relieve us’. [26]

The contradictions obvious in Otis’s writing appear time and again throughout the decade before the war with Britain finally broke out: some of the leading ideologists of the revolution spent years struggling with attempts to marry obedience to the British king-in-parliament system with their increasing desire to be free of the constraints placed on them and their trade by the colonial relationship. The search for a compromise with Britain was to continue even after the war started, so tied to the imperial relationship were the leaders of the revolution. Had a middle road been available they certainly would have taken it. In addition, in Boston and New York the merchants and lawyers who had initially stoked the protests had lost control of them. Fear of the social discontent they had unleashed was an important factor in their reluctance to carry the revolution through at certain times.

In 1766 the British government’s new head of the Board of Trade, Charles Townsend, attempted to renew British control over the colonies. He passed a series of acts: a Restraining Act, punishing New York for defying parliament’s order two years previously to house soldiers by refusing all its legislation, and a series of import duties on glass, lead, paint, paper and tea. With the money from these taxes, Townsend planned to pay British governors and officials, freeing them from dependence on the colonial assemblies and therefore assuring Britain of their loyalties. Sam Adams tore into this policy:

The people’s money being first taken from them without their consent, is appropriated for the maintenance of a governor at the discretion of one in the kingdom of Great Britain upon whom he absolutely depends for his support. If this be not a tyranny I am at a loss to conceive what tyranny is. [27]

He called for immediate action to repel the latest British attack: ‘Let every town assemble. Let associations and combinations be everywhere set up to consult and recover our just rights’. [28] The Sons of Liberty, led by Sam Adams, backed by wealthy merchants like John Hancock who were suffering under the duties, and with a mass base in the population of mechanics, artisans and sailors, led the charge. Boston voted to boycott all non-essential imports from the British. Connecticut and Rhode Island followed suit. The temperature rose. John Dickinson wrote, ‘We are taxed without our own consent ... We are therefore – SLAVES’. [29]

Yet again the mass of the population was central to defeating the acts. A Board of Commissioners was established to collect the duties. Governor Bernard refused to help them if the people of Boston attacked them and sure enough, on 10 June 1768, the ship Liberty, owned by John Hancock, was seized at Boston harbour, precipitating a riot in which customs officers were attacked and had to flee to the British fort, Castle William. Governor Bernard feared an insurrection and called for troops to be stationed in Boston. In New York, General Gage called for force to put down the revolt.

The merchants blamed parliament alone for the repressive legislation and urged the king to support them. Their approach shows how badly sections of colonial society still wanted compromise with Britain. Dickinson summed up the contradiction, saying, ‘We are as much dependent on Great Britain as a perfectly free people can be on another’. [30] If in truth the colonists were endowed with the same freedoms as Englishmen, as they claimed, why were they dependent at all? The choice was to accept their unequal relationship with Britain or to assert their rights, which led logically – though they resisted it – away from dependence.

From 1768 to 1769 imports from Britain nearly halved; in New York they went down to a fifth. Benjamin Franklin, though ‘not yet ready for political independence, was already a prophet of economic independence’, according to Draper. He wrote to Philadelphia merchants that to take advantage of the lack of British goods on the market, and ‘to manufacture for themselves, or use colony manufactures only’ was the means ‘of establishing the freedom of our country entire’. [31] Daniel Dulany also saw the potential to hurt the imperial master:

By a vigorous application to manufactures, the consequence of oppression in the colonies to the inhabitants of Great Britain would strike home, and immediately. None would mistake it. [32]

Yet the political arguments for independence lagged behind the realisation that it was economically feasible. As Draper shows, the British saw the possibility of colonial independence before most colonists did. Lord Hillsborough made the British position crystal clear: ‘The colonies have … imprudently united to dispute the right of parliament, which … we cannot permit to be called into question ... It is essential to the constitution to preserve the supremacy of parliament inviolate’. [33]

That the British were willing to use force to preserve the supremacy of parliament was graphically illustrated in March 1770. In February a child had been shot and killed by a detested customs informer during a demonstration and thousands had attended the funeral. These tensions boiled over on 5 March when a crowd taunted soldiers guarding a customs house and began to throw snowballs at them. The soldiers responded to snow with bullets, killing five.

Draper’s account of the massacre is not a sympathetic one. He considers the incident as blown-up out of all proportion by the revolution’s propagandists:

… the Boston leadership decided that the ‘massacre’ lent itself to a campaign against a British ‘standing army’ in the colonies. It mattered little that the altercation had been set off by nothing more than an exchange of insults … that a colonial mob had attacked a British sentry, that no official order was given to the soldiers to fire ... [34]

This cynicism is picked up by Edward Pearce in his review. Referring to the revolutionaries’ ‘bombastic self pity’ [35], he seems to hint that if more had been killed it might have been worth shouting about. Pearce and Draper both underplay the impact of the massacre. No blood had been spilt in the conflict with the British up to this point. The Boston massacre raised the temperature in the colonies and steeled the spines of many Bostonians against their imperial master. The event genuinely aggrieved and angered people, who were not simply the dupes of their leaders, as Pearce implies, but were becoming radicalised, rallying behind those leaders in greater numbers after the murders and beginning to organise and arm themselves.

What Draper does show is the fear and panic the revolt generated amongst the British representatives in Boston and the total lack of remorse on the part of the British for the massacre. He quotes General Gage writing frantically to London that, ‘government is at an end in Boston, and in the hands of the people’. [36] The response from the British was to defend their right to exercise absolute authority over America. Lord Hillsborough set out the position:

When the colonies rise up in a daring opposition to all legal authority; when they deny their dependence upon this kingdom; when … they will not suffer English vessels to carry on a peaceable commerce, nor indeed any commerce at all with English ports in America; who ... will assert that the mother country should ... tamely suffer injury after injury, and allow the colonies to rule her with a rod of iron, for fear of being charged with a severity of conduct towards the colonies? [37]

Despite the bluster, the British government was forced to repeal all but one of the Townsend Duties – that on tea – in 1770. The duty collected on tea had brought in a pittance: the British held on to it for no other reason but to make clear to the colonies that parliament would not renounce its right to tax them. The partial repeal of the Townsend Acts was followed in May 1773 by the Tea Act, which bailed out the East India Company by allowing it access to American markets. The other side of the Tea Act was shown by North’s statement that ‘no doubt there are political reasons ... I know the temper of the people there is so little deserving favour from hence ...’ [38]

The Tea Act was met with a storm of protest. It was described by a meeting in Philadelphia as ‘a direct tendency to render assemblies useless, and to introduce arbitrary government and slavery’. [39] In Boston, the campaign against the British – organised through a Committee of Correspondence, a network of which sprang up to direct the revolt – resolved that no one should aid the sale of tea. [40] Medical reports were even published claiming that tea was poisonous! On 28 November 1773 a ship with tea on board was turned away at Boston harbour. Public notices were posted by the Sons of Liberty warning local tea agents that they would be considered ‘wretches, unworthy to live, and made the first victims of our resentment’. [41]

Three ships made the mistake of risking a stay in the harbour. The word was given by Sam Adams at a town meeting, the ships were boarded by men disguised as Mohawk Indians, and 342 chests of tea, worth £10,000, were smashed open with tomahawks and dumped overboard in what has become known as the Boston Tea Party. Tea agents fled Boston and from then on Boston was, in effect, lost to the British Empire. Thomas Jefferson described the events as the dawning realisation of the colonists of their ability to force change: ‘An exasperated people, who feel that they possess power, are not easily restrained within limits strictly regular’. [42] By the end of 1774 virtually every colony had experienced an anti-tea protest. Drinking tea was made an offence.

To the colonists, parliament’s action was pure tyranny. Throughout 1774 and 1775 colonial newspapers, mushrooming in number, attacked British rule. Even at this stage, however, any mention of independence was used as a threat to the British – not as a practical aim. To the British, the refusal of the colonies to submit to parliament’s taxes was treason, and the attack on East India Company property was an outrage. Reasoning that if they could crush the rebellion in Boston all other resistance would crumble, North passed a series of ‘Intolerable Acts’ in March 1774. Boston’s port was closed – effectively starving the town of income – governors could replace judges and sheriffs at will, and the British could appoint all members of the council.

Totally against British expectations, the Intolerable Acts served to unite the colonies behind Boston. All out conflict was imminent: Massachusetts now really was facing a situation of dual power – with two sets of institutions competing for the loyalty of the population. The momentum of the revolution was sweeping the compromisers aside. The radical leaders now coming to the fore – men like Sam Adams and Thomas Jefferson – were influenced by the democratic, rational and scientific ideas of the Enlightenment. They looked back to the English Revolution for inspiration, and their ideas filtered down and enthused the general population. During the war for independence, George Washington was referred to by a Massachusetts farmer as ‘Great Cromwell’.

The old order was collapsing. Committees of Correspondence spread quickly – by February 1774 all the colonies but North Carolina and Pennsylvania had established committees which rivalled the British-installed governors for power. In September delegates from all colonies except Georgia held a Continental Congress in Philadelphia to decide their response to Boston’s call for an end to all trade with Britain.

Reconciliation with Britain looked more and more impossible, but still some delegates clung to it, and the congress as a whole, after two months, had still made no firm statements of independence. It did, however, send a message to General Gage, now governor of Massachusetts, warning of the ‘horrors of civil war’ if the punitive measures against Boston were not revoked. [43] Crucially, the delegates set up a Continental Association, which met Boston’s call for a boycott of British trade, and also called for internal discipline and organised committees to oversee both. The association tied together the committees in a unified organ of revolutionary struggle: ‘The first steps toward destroying British power and toward creating a revolutionary government had been taken’. [44]

Once more the agreements were enforced by action from below: the first collective action to enforce non-importation was that of 41 blacksmiths of Worcester County in Massachusetts, who agreed not to work for violators or known Tories. Parliament’s authority was denied in every quarter. The king’s authority held, but was being questioned. Benjamin Franklin, who had left England accused of being a traitor for publishing letters from royal governors which urged force against the insurgent colonies, now ‘saw more mischief than benefit from a closer union’ with Britain due to the ‘extreme corruption prevalent among all orders of men in this old rotten state’. [45]

Sam Adams had already moved some way down the road of colonial self rule three years earlier, when he stated that ‘the people and their representatives have a right to withstand the abusive exercise of a legal and constitutional prerogative of the crown’. [46] Thomas Jefferson was far less respectful than many when, in A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), he wrote to the king of the colonists’ grievances, asserting that,

… kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people. Open your breast, Sire, to liberal and expanded thought. Let not the name of George III be a blot in the page of history. [47]

But Franklin and others were nonetheless reluctant to prosecute a war with such a ‘near relation’. Franklin himself proposed a partnership between the king and colonies that by-passed parliament. However, Lord Dartmouth circulated a speech from the king urging any necessity to protect parliament’s right to legislate – helping to break the illusion that the king could somehow be separated from parliament in relation to the colonies.

In Massachusetts, there was no such confusion: ‘Our people … are everywhere learning the military art – exercising perpetually ...’, ‘are formed into companies, are armed’. John Adams estimated that 15,000 men could be called on to fight. [48] Across the country rebellion swelled: in New Hampshire 400 colonists seized Fort William and Mary, taking prisoners and making off in a boat with 100 barrels of gunpowder, returning the following day for the muskets and cannons. In Boston the British were under siege: General Gage had nowhere near enough forces to deal with any serious revolt – there were only 6,000 troops in Massachusetts by 1775. His every order was defied. He could get no barracks built for his soldiers; carpenters in Boston and in New York refused to do the work. British boats were sunk and supplies prevented from reaching the army. Repeatedly he begged London for extra forces, to no avail. Gage was to admit later that the British had been unprepared to oppose so general a revolt.

Resolutions were passed in committees up and down Massachusetts denouncing British rule. In October the provincial congress set up a Committee for Defence and Safety with orders to assemble a militia as soon as considered necessary, to form companies and to seize British ammunition and weapons stores. The militias had existed in peacetime but now took on a new spirit, with new leaders. A key force, the Minutemen (so called because they were ready to act at a minute’s warning) were the organised heart of the militia.

The assumption by the British that Boston would be left to fight alone was very much mistaken: the level of resistance and militancy was higher in that town than anywhere, and it provided a beacon of revolution, inspiring others across the country. The other colonies armed and trained themselves in Boston’s defence as well as their own in an unprecedented show of unity. [49] In Concord, Massachusetts, on 16 April 1775, James Warren wrote to his wife:

All things wear a warlike appearance here. This town is full of cannon, ammunition, store, etc, and the army long for them and they want nothing but strength to induce an attempt on them. The people are ready and determined to defend this country inch by inch. [50]

War was three days away

On 19 April, under orders from London, Gage sent 700 armed men to Concord to destroy the colonial arms depot. One detachment went through Lexington where they met 75 armed Minutemen. The battle that ensued left eight Americans and one British soldier dead. At Concord the British were met by 450 militiamen, organised by the Sons of Liberty, who forced the British to retreat to Lexington. By now ‘the countryside was up in arms’. [51] Despite 1,000 reinforcements, the British were quickly outnumbered by militiamen who drove them back to Boston – killing 73 during the retreat. In any case, the stores had already been moved. The word had spread that the army was on its way, probably even before Paul Revere made his famous ride to sound the alarm throughout the countryside that ‘the Regulars are coming’.

News of Concord spread to New York where the Liberty Boys made an assault on the arsenal, distributed arms and took over governing the city. The ‘shot heard around the world’ had been fired, and – after six years of war in which the colonies united against their old colonial master – America was to emerge as an independent nation.

Draper’s account ends in 1775 with the outbreak of war. He sees the War for Independence as the outcome of both sides ‘rubbing each other up the wrong way for about ten years’ and ‘spoiling for a fight’. [52] However, the colonists were not uniformly spoiling for a fight at all – Draper makes no mention of the very powerful pressures there were on the merchants especially, to hold back from the conflict.

The reality was that, as most of his sources illustrate, many leaders of the revolt against Britain were reluctant to endorse the separation from Britain which war would inevitably bring. Many in the alliance of planters and merchants feared for their economic survival. They resisted the British but, each for their own reasons, bemoaned the corruption of a basically good system rather than wished for an end to it altogether. They also had good reason to be afraid of the social forces that such a rupture would unleash. Their fear is illustrated by Gouvernor Morris before the war:

The mob begin to think and to reason ... I see with fear and trembling, that if the disputes with the British continue, we shall be under the domination of a riotous mob. It is in the interest of all men, therefore, to seek for reunion with the parent state. [53]

Independence, when it came in July 1776, represented the last option and was not articulated even after hostilities had started: ‘The war broke out even before the entire American radical side fully believed that independence was what it was fighting for’. [54]

Draper’s book, which rightly sees economic factors as absolutely central to the revolution, has come under attack from another American historian, Eric Foner, who argues that Draper misses out ideological factors altogether. This is, in part, a justifiable criticism. But Foner overstates his argument, claiming that the ‘coming of the revolution must be explained in large measure in ideological terms’. [55] In fact, the ideology of the revolution lagged behind economic developments: Tom Paine was the first to call for a final break with Britain, almost eight months after the war with Britain had started! The revolutionaries did not know in advance where their struggles would lead. As the French revolutionary St Just would say a few years down the line, ‘The force of circumstances perhaps leads us to results we had not thought of’. [56]

Draper is right to stress that the increasing population and wealth of the American colonies was indeed driving them along the road to independence, and that ultimately the frustration caused by the immovable object that was Britain was to prove too much. He makes clear that the revolution was the result of a combination of several factors, arguing that the ideological arguments which were working their way towards independence were not sufficient to transform America’s colonial role:

… without the growth of population, the sense of British economic dependence on colonial trade, the expansion of far-flung colonial economic interests straining to be released from imperial restraints, the military experience gained in the Seven Years War, and the rise of a new colonial generation unburdened by attitudes of deference and obedience, it would have mattered little who was right or wrong in the ideological, constitutional, and political arguments of the years after the Stamp Act. [57]

This is true – economic interests shaped the new generation which, in turn, shaped the ideological arguments the revolutionaries used. But what Draper misses out is that, in addition, these ideas also impacted back on people, changing their behaviour and playing a role which was not fundamental but was important in shaping the way history was made in the colonies. The primary driving force behind the ideas enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and more overtly in the Bill of Rights, was the dominance of the new capitalist class, and its needs and interests. The ideas of the American Revolution are inextricably linked with the real historical process of the extension of capitalism in North America, and fed into the measures adopted by Congress in the 1780s to further that development. The mistake Draper makes is in counterposing, at times, the central importance of economic pressures to other ideological factors.

The ideas and arguments worked out in the course of the pre-revolutionary period themselves coloured the action taken against the British and drove the events forward. In combating the ‘ideology’ school and rightly seeing economic changes and subjective historical development as laying the conditions for the split, Draper goes too far and underestimates the role of revolutionary argument and organisation in directing the struggle.

The use of language which equated taxation with slavery and the lack of representation with tyranny in pamphlets, on notices, in sermons and speeches, clearly affected the nature of the future struggles against the British and drove the revolutionary forces forward. For example, the political arguments for independence that came from Tom Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, published in January 1776, were very influential. His vision of an America of freedom, an ‘asylum for mankind’ [58], and his proposals for democratic government including annual assemblies and more equal representation, so ‘securing freedom and property to all men’ [59] tapped a nerve. Common Sense was immensely popular, selling over 150,000 copies, indicating that it ‘said what needed saying’. [60] John Adams wrote to his wife in July 1776 that ‘idolatry to monarchs, and servility to aristocratical pride was never so totally eradicated from so many minds in so short a time.’ [61]

At Trenton, New Jersey, during the war when the Americans were being battered, the efforts of Tom Paine to rally the demoralised troops in the first of his American Crisis series of essays with his heartfelt plea to fight for liberty – ‘Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph’ [62] – cannot be dismissed, especially since the Americans went on to win that battle. It is true that the conflict with Britain was inevitable, but the path taken was not cast in stone. This or that battle won, this or that meeting voting for or against independence, altered the balance between class forces subtly and so changed the overall picture. The struggle would occur, but the outcome of the battles between radical and conservative forces in the colonies were certainly not pre-ordained.

In leaving out most of the stirring revolutionary literature of the time, Draper’s account is drier than any discussion of revolutionary change should be, but it also leads him to an overly simplistic conclusion – to see with hindsight a clear course towards inevitable revolution. The reality is more complex: the ideological and political disentanglement from Britain took longer than the development of an objective base for independence. [63]

The upper echelons in American society – the large landowners and merchants – were tied to Britain and benefited from those ties. The outcome of the revolution was to remove British power and establish a new political order, a new state, which set itself up to further the interests of capitalist development. The revolution arose ‘from and contributed to the increasing predominance of the capitalist mode of production.’ It was not, however, solely the inevitable result of an emergent economic power coming into conflict with an existing one: it was also the point at which the development of capitalism in certain colonies intersected with ‘conscious human agency’. [64]

In missing this essential fact Draper’s book, which is a mine of information in many respects, also falls down when it comes to furnishing us with any sense of the struggle between colonists. Draper is so convinced that the economic relationship between Britain and America provided all the motivation for the revolutionaries’ behaviour that he misses out on the pressure from below and the shared need of merchants and planters to subdue the lower orders. This is the central weakness of Draper’s book. His apparent rejection of the role of human agency in the revolutionary situation makes his account veer towards one of a clash of two economic systems, inexorably moving into conflict with one another, with little sense of dynamism or the struggles that took place for the hearts and minds of colonists.

Draper’s only real description of the class antagonisms is at the end of the book. Asking the question, ‘Who made the American Revolution?’ he answers that it was the result both of an elite which ‘wanted freedom from British subjection without social turmoil and transformation’ and a mass support with ‘no such programme’ that ‘generally expressed itself in destructive local violence’. [65] Draper points to a truth when he says:

Whatever grievances the lower orders might have had, they were mainly expressed against the British rather than their own elite. This deflection … served to divide the colonists into pro- and anti-British far more than to set one social rank against another. [66]

Except that loyalism was a complex phenomenon, often driven by class resentment, especially in the South but also in New York where the position taken in the revolution by those involved in tenant uprisings depended on the political persuasion of the landlords: ‘Where landlords were Tories … tenant unrest could be harnessed to the revolution by the confiscation of loyalist lands. But … where the landlords were prominent Whigs, the tenants became vigorous Tories’. [67] What is clear is that ‘the complexity of the demarcations among ordinary colonials is itself a powerful confirmation of the class antagonisms at work throughout the revolutionary period’. [68]

There were serious class tensions present in the colonies before the revolutionary crisis began – the Regulators in 1771, the land riots in New York and New Jersey that dominated the latter half of the 1770s, the burning of the governor’s mansion in Boston in 1750. During the revolution, most colonies experienced social upheaval and, as the crisis deepened, the radical elements came to the fore:

The radical committees of the coastal towns formerly controlled by the merchants began to fall into the hands of the democratic mechanic class. In New York, Boston, and Philadelphia alike, ‘nobodies’ and ‘unimportant persons’ succeeded to power. [69]

A mark of how determined the mood for change was is shown in Pennsylvania, where Tom Paine’s democratic ideal was realised for a period. In 1776 a conference was called to form a ‘new government … on the authority of the people alone’. [70] Out of it emerged the most democratic constitution of the time: guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and increased representation so all male taxpayers resident for a year or more could vote. There was no governor, but there were annual elections for the House of Representatives and all bills were printed so people outside the immediate political process could consider them. It was viciously denounced by the moderates as ‘a mobocracy of the most illiterate’ [71], and there were increasing fears among the propertied that ‘artisans, small traders, farmers, and men with mud on their boots had come to power.’ In opposition to these lower orders, ‘Men with land, men with fortunes, men with visions of development and wealth, men with far flung connections, men with memories of the surety with which their fathers had ruled, all these were developing the distaste for state level democracy’. [72]

These men quickly sought a way of quieting people’s desire for direct democracy. The struggle to pass the new constitution was bitter in places, but although they often initially had to compromise due to the force of feeling from below by confiscating Tory estates and easing tax laws, the moderates managed to break the back of ‘popular democracy’ and consolidate bourgeois rule. In doing so the Northern states compromised with the South, allowing slavery to continue – a factor that would doom blacks to 80 more years of servitude and would eventually tear the country apart during the Civil War.

The crushing of the more radical elements of the revolution succeeded mainly because the merchants and planters were more cohesive as a class than the lower orders, who were disparate, without collective organisation and without independent leadership. The revolution had been led by those at the top of society who were now applying the brakes. It could not have been otherwise – the historical moment belonged to the bourgeoisie, not yet to the masses in American society.

The outcome of the revolution is not part of Draper’s account but, I would argue, because we get little sense of class tensions earlier in the revolutionary period from his book it is harder to understand the subsequent period. The dynamic sense of revolutionary change in which different forces within American society also struggled between themselves for power is missing, weakening an otherwise strong materialist argument.


1. The Declaration of Independence in M.D. Peterson (ed.), The Portable Thomas Jefferson (Penguin 1979), p. 235.

2. A. Scardino, Founding fathers’ tidy little war, Independent on Sunday, 7 April 1996.

3. S.E. Morison, H.S. Commager, W.E. Leuchtenberg, A Concise History of the American Republic (Oxford University Press 1977), p. 103.

4. E. Pearce, Meddling with molasses and tinkering with tea, Independent Weekend, 6 April 1996.

5. C. Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution (Penguin 1967), p. 283.

6. T. Draper, A Struggle for Power: the American Revolution (Little Brown 1996), p. 514.

7. Ibid., p. 511.

8. Quoted in G. Novak, America’s Revolutionary Heritage (Pathfinder 1976), p. 118.

9. T. Draper, op. cit., p. 112.

10. C. Hill, op. cit., p. 235.

11. T. Draper, op. cit., p. 127.

12. Ibid., p. 41.

13. Ibid., p. 23.

14. E. Pearce, op. cit.

15. E. Countryman, The American Revolution (Penguin 1985), p. 48.

16. P. Foner, From Colonial Times to the AFL (New World, International Publishers 1978), p. 33.

17. Quoted in R. Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause (Oxford University Press 1982), p. 80.

18. Quoted in T. Draper, op. cit., p. 246.

19. Quoted in ibid., p. 247.

20. Quoted in ibid., p. 248.

21. E. Countryman, op. cit., p. 26.

22. Quoted in T. Draper, op. cit., p. 253.

23. P. Foner, op. cit., p. 34.

24. Quoted in G. Novak, op. cit., p. 122.

25. S.E. Morison, H.S. Commager, W.E. Leuchtenberg, op. cit., p. 70.

26. Quoted in T. Draper, op. cit., p. 227.

27. Quoted in ibid., p. 379.

28. Quoted in ibid., p. 380.

29. Quoted in ibid., p. 306.

30. Ibid.

31. Quoted in ibid., p. 327.

32. Quoted in ibid., p. 338.

33. Quoted in ibid., p. 348.

34. Ibid., p. 412.

35. E. Pearce, op. cit.

36. Quoted in T. Draper, op. cit., p. 358.

37. Quoted in ibid., p. 359.

38. Quoted in ibid., p. 391.

39. Quoted in ibid., p. 393.

40. Quoted in ibid., p. 392.

41. Quoted in ibid., p. 393.

42. Quoted in ibid., p. 512.

43. Quoted in ibid., p. 428.

44. E. Countryman, op. cit., p. 106.

45. Quoted in T. Draper, op. cit., p. 436.

46. Quoted in ibid., p. 365.

47. M.D. Peterson, op. cit., p. 20.

48. Quoted in T. Draper, op. cit., p. 440.

49. Quoted in ibid., p. 491.

50. Quoted in ibid., p. 491.

51. Quoted in ibid., p. 497.

52. Quoted in ibid., p. 502.

53. Quoted in P. Foner, op. cit., p. 34.

54. Quoted in T. Draper, op. cit., p. 511.

55. E. Foner, Separation Anxiety in London Review of Books, 18 April 1996.

56. St Just, quoted in A. Callinicos, Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism in Marxism and the Great French Revolution (International Socialism 43, 1993), p. 113.

57. T. Draper, op. cit., p. 458.

58. T. Paine, Rights of Man, Common Sense and Other Political Writings (Oxford University Press 1995), p. 27.

59. Ibid., p. 33.

60. E. Countryman, op. cit., p. 111.

61. Quoted in T. Draper, op. cit., p. 509.

62. T. Paine, American Crisis I, in op. cit., p. 63.

63. A. Callinicos, op. cit., p. 125.

64. Ibid., p. 126.

65. T. Draper, op. cit., p. 516.

66. Ibid., p. 357.

67. S. Lynd, quoted in B. Kelly, Who rules at home? (academic paper, Boston, November 1991), p. 27.

68. Ibid.

69. Schlesinger, quoted in ibid., p. 23.

70. P. Foner, op. cit., p. 39.

71. Ibid.

72. E. Countryman, op. cit., pp. 200–201.

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