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Henry Collins

The American Revolution

(July 1960)

rom Socialist Review, July 1960.
Republished in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 257–60.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with
the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

(Thomas Jefferson)

On July 4, 1776, the American Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence which Jefferson had just drafted. Fifty years after, to the day, the author of the Declaration died, having bequeathed to History one of the outstanding revolutionary documents of all time.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” it began, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it and to institute new Government.”

Like other great revolutionary manifestos, the Declaration of Independence arose out of a clash of powerful social forces whose interests could no longer be reconciled by diplomacy or politics. The Seven Years’ War had ended in 1763, leaving England with vast colonial gains and a vast National Debt. The Government felt that the burden of the wars, past and future, should be shared with the North American colonists who, it claimed, benefited from the security of the British Navy. The ungrateful beneficiaries thought otherwise, and after ten years of political resistance instituted a boycott of British goods. The British landed a cargo of tea port of Boston and the colonists dumped it in the harbour. As a reprisal, the port was closed. After that, it was only a matter of time before, in 1775, the fighting began at Bunkers Hill which culminated in the independence of the United States.

Conflicting interests

Such momentous developments could not have arisen solely from Bostonian high spirits or Jeffersonian eloquence. The American Revolution resulted directly from the growth of American Capitalism. Britain, by means of the Navigation Acts, tried to tie the colonists’ external trade exclusive to the mother country. But for the North Americans it was more profitable to sell the rice tobacco from the plantations and the timber from the New England forests to the Spanish and French colonies elsewhere on the American Continent. Smuggling became a major national pastime and the catching of smugglers the chief preoccupation of the Royal Navy. To the Americans, the demand that they pay additional taxes for the upkeep of that Navy seemed adding insult to injury. Moreover, since the Seven Years’ War had freed Canada from the French, the protection of Britain now seemed a dispensable luxury.

It was in this situation that the slogan “No Taxation Without Representation” began to make sense to Americans, increasingly conscious that their interests conflicted with those of the British sovereign.

Like all wars of national liberation which are led by a revolutionary class, the American War of Independence was complicated by the presence of a Fifth Column, the Loyalists, who supports King George on principle, hated democracy and valued their connection with the old country. Much more important was the fact that in England there was a substantial body of opinion supporting the claims of the colonists. The Earl of Chatham was an imperialist who saw that the blindly reactionary policies of the King and Lord North were disrupting the Empire.

John Wilkes, who had been leading the struggle for “Wilkes and Liberty” since 1763, at the head of the London working class, identified the cause of the American rebels with the cause of democracy at home. So did a host of others who began to develop, under pressure of events, the idea of international solidarity.

Democratic gospel

Dr. Richard Price, a Unitarian and one of the leading economists of his day, wrote the Discourse on Civil Liberty in defence of the American Revolution. Joseph Priestley, Unitarian and chemist, went even further in his espousal of democratic ideas. Major Cartwright, who spoiled a promising career in the Navy by refusing to serve against the Americans, published a famous pamphlet in 1776 – Take Your Choice – with unmistakable echoes of Jefferson’s Declaration.

“The all-wise Creator,” said Cartwright, “hath made men equal, as well as free; they are all of one flesh, and cast in one mould ... There are, therefore, no distinctions to be made among men, as just causes for the elevation of some above the rest, prior to mutual agreement. How much soever any individual be qualified for, or deserve any elevation, he hath no right to it till it be conferred on him by his fellows.”

Cartwright’s programme was almost identical with that later adopted by the Chartists: universal suffrage, annual parliaments, vote by ballot, payment of members and equal electoral districts. Through the Society for Constitutional Information, which he helped to establish in 1780 and, later, through the Hampden Clubs and other organisations, Cartwright preached the democratic gospel in and out of season until his death in 1824.

Most remarkable of all, however, was the work of the former staymaker and exciseman, Tom Paine, who had emigrated to America in 1774. As Anglo-American relations were moving towards their crisis Paine issued, six months before the Declaration of Independence, a short pamphlet, Common Sense, which sold 100,000 copies in four months. If men were naturally equal, enjoying equal natural rights, Paine argued, then only representative government could be legitimate. “All delegated power is trust: all assumed power is usurpation.”

From chaos to triumph

But how could Americans enjoy their natural rights under the rule of a British king and a Parliament elected by a narrow oligarchy? Independence was a prerequisite of freedom, and for the first time in history the causes of national and political liberation were shown to be inseparably connected.

“Ye that oppose independence now,” he wrote, “ ye know not what ye do; ye are opening a door to eternal tyranny, by keeping vacant the seat of government ... Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind ... We have it in our power to begin the world over again ... The birthday of a new world is at hand.”

Like other revolutionary wars, the American War of Independence began in chaos and ended in triumph. Out of the untrained irregulars of thirteen disunited states, Washington created an effective fighting force. The first decisive American victory was over General Burgoyne, who surrendered at Saratoga with 5,000 men. (The battle, and the monumental incompetence of the British Government which it exposed, were used by Bernard Shaw as the background to his Devil’s Disciple.) International rivalries were exploited to the full to embarrass the British. Feudal France, Spain and, later, bourgeois Holland, joined the revolutionary colonists and paralysed the naval might of England. Supplies were interrupted, garrisons besieged and, against a nation in arms, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in 1781. After that the result was only a matter of time.

Aristocrats unshaken

Discredited by defeat, the Government of George III was forced to make some concessions to the Whig opposition. The number of sinecures and pensions at the disposal of the King was sharply reduced and his control over the House of Commons correspondingly weakened. That proved to be, however, the limit of reform for the next fifty years. The landed aristocracy was still too strong to be severely shaken. The next steps could not be taken until technical developments had given rise to an industrial bourgeoisie and an industrial proletariat.

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