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Albert Gates

Books in Review

Behind the Myths

(Spring 1956)

From The New International, Vol. XXII No. 1, Spring 1956, pp. 66–68.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement
by J. Franklin Jameson
Beacon Press. 105 pp. Ind.

A revolution usually means an attempt to tear down or overturn a government or wreck the existing institutions of a country. The American Revolution did none of these things; on the contrary, it was a war fought to preserve the principle of the colonial governments, it was fought to maintain the liberties of the colonies which George the Third had tried to take away. Americans abhor the kind of revolution which destroys and overturns, which murders, loots and burns.

This fanciful writing comes from a Manual of Citizenship issued by the Daughters of the American Revolution for free distribution to potential citizens. All of which led James Street in his demythizing book, The Revolutionary War, to say:

“Those Liberty Boys dressed like Indians and throwing tea into Boston Harbor might snicker at that.

“Those revolutionists burning their neighbors’ houses and barns because their neighbors were Tories might laugh out loud.

“And the ghosts hanging around the gibbets where necks were stretched surely would get a kick out of the lesson to aliens.”

For, as Street points out:

“... we revolted. Make no mistake about that. We were rebels. We overthrew a government as that government affected us and by bloodshed, by looting and burning. We set the pattern of revolution that is rocking the world today.”

While Jameson’s valuable monograph does not quite deal with the above aspects of the Revolutionary War except in passing, but more directly on the question of confiscations, it is important to bear the above in mind, for the book takes off where the revolutionary struggle ended.

The central theses of the book is that The Revolution was not just a political struggle for power between “our” heroes and “their” villains, but a social struggle that helped to shape the post revolutionary world. In that sense, although not with exactly the same degree of consciousness, it takes its place alongside the French Revolution and as a matter of sequence, preceded it.

Jameson was one of the first to break with the old historiography which treated all the great events in American history from the point of view of immediate and transient politics, based on the hero and villain theory in which the exploits of the military assume dimensions out of all proportion to their contributions.

He looks behind the myths of the American Revolution for the source of the movement for independence, the men behind it, the objectives of the struggle and the means by which the revolutionaries achieved their objectives. Although much has been written since his book came out in 1925 (a year before the Beards’ Rise of American Civilization), it was just about the first book of its kind.

Jameson points out that while not all of the participants were fully conscious of the meaning of the struggle, there were many who were; the outstanding figures did know what they wanted and were ready to fight to the end to achieve their great aims of a democratic revolution that embraced a vast social as well as political reform.

The outstanding figures of The Revolution, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Hancock, and so on, were young men, under the age of forty, and many under thirty. “As is usually the case,” writes Jameson, “the revolutionary side was more frequently espoused by young men, the conservative cause by their elders.” Not only that:

“But the fact remains that the Revolutionary party knew what they wanted. They had a definite program, they had boldness and resolution, while those adverse to independence were divided in their counsels, and paralyzed by the timidity which naturally cleaves to conservative minds.”

And so, against what appeared to be overwhelming odds, the indifference of most of the colonies (at least one-third was Tory and another third indifferent), the frightful poverty of the Revolutionary Armies, intrigue, cowardice, bumbling errors and despair, the leaders drove forward to the end. No doubt British strategy played into the hands of The Revolutionaries, but the incessant drive of the leading figures, Sam Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton and others, with Washington as more passive follower of the Continental Congress, prevailed.

The actual war for independence is interesting in itself. Jameson does touch on it, because he was more concerned with the aims of the Revolution and more importantly, what it brought in its wake as an aftermath.

While it is true that self-interest played a role for many of the great figures of the day, the Revolution was a plebeian struggle of the vast propertyless or small property holders in an agricultural economy, for by and large it was “... the bulk of property owners who belonged to the Tory Party, and it was strong also among the middle classes of the towns and among the country population.” Jameson was at this point referring specifically to New York, but the same held true for all the other colonies as was borne out in the vast confiscations in every colony which followed the victory.

The democratic Revolution was not felt fully after the military struggle and the establishment of the new government. Only with the adoption of the Constitution was basic progress to be made. But the major directions were already set. These changes were to be felt in all aspects of economic and social developments, in relation to slavery, agriculture, industry, education, democratic rights, etc.

While slavery was not nearly the powerful institution it became in the South after the invention of the cotton gin, it existed in all the colonies, except Vermont. Already, in the midst of the Revolution, the colonists were laying the groundwork for its abolition. It took place in the North first. Yet, even Virginia voted down the institution.

Political franchise based on property was gradually destroyed. Education, almost non-existent before the Revolution, made its beginnings thereafter. Commercial and manufacturing advance, held in the vise of a series of Crown Acts, was freed for national development which was destined to create the greatest capitalist economy in the world.

Foremost, of course, was the revolution in the land and the break-up of the great estates. It made possible a redistribution of the land and the creation of a nation of small farmers which, in that period of social development, served as a basic force in the democratic evolution of the country.

But this was done in a thoroughly revolutionary way, by the willful destruction of the old order and the confiscations carried through by the new government against all those who opposed the Revolution. It was estimated by the American Tories that they had lost lands in the value of eight million pounds, although Parliament, trying to reduce the claims of the allies, estimated it to be three million pounds sterling.

Ten years after the Declaration of Independence: “... every state had abolished entails, except two, and those were two in which entails were rare. In fifteen years, every state, without exception, abolished primogeniture and in some form provided for equality of inheritance ...” Jameson, to bear out his thesis that the political nature of the revolution reflected its economic base, points out that while the thirteen colonial legislatures had such difficulty agreeing to the Constitution, they all acted “with one accord making precisely the same changes in their landlaws. Such uniformity must have had a common cause, and where shall we find it if we do not admit that our Revolution, however much it differed from the French Revolution spirit, yet carried in itself the seeds of a social revolution?”

Oh, yes, we Americans had a revolution. Indeed, we had two of them, for the Civil War was another revolution in the development of the Capitalist United States. That they were violent revolutions, political revolutions, goes without saying. But they were, above all, social revolutions.

A paradox of our times is the Daughters of the American Revolution (and the Sons, too), in their individual and collective selves, shuddering at the memory of that great historical past and their own inheritance. Since they cannot change their name, they try to change the meaning of the event itself. Small comfort to George III bones.

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