The Fourth of July is the time when we are supposed to celebrate the American Revolution by showing patriotism, watching fireworks, waving some flags, having a barbeque and going shopping. But if we look at the real history, there isn’t very much for us to celebrate.
What was the American Revolution really about? Like many other European nations, England conquered many parts of the world including North America to expand its empire and wealth. In the North American colonies, the economy was growing and the rich wanted to keep the profits to themselves rather than give a portion back to the King in England. In the late 1700’s, there was a push by the wealthy elite in the colonies to break away from Great Britain. After killing and displacing masses of Native people, the colonists wanted their own nation in North America. There were different groups of people with different goals.
The leaders of the colonies were a small group of very rich white men who were either owners of slave plantations or were merchants who profited from slavery. Among these were Benjamin Franklin who had a massive fortune, James Madison who owned huge slave plantations, and George Washington who was a large landowner. This new ruling class was already very powerful – 69 percent of those that signed the Declaration of Independence had held colonial office for Britain.
But the vast majority of people were small farmers, workers, slaves and indentured servants. Indentured servants were poor people from Europe who had to pay for their trip to North America by working off their debt for a number of years. It was from these lower ranks that people sacrificed and shed the most blood in the American Revolution. The first known casualty of the Revolution was Crispus Attucks, a Black dockworker.
The Revolution began when the rich decided to break away from England but many people fought because they thought that the Revolution could give them the opportunity to realize their own ideals. There were many who fought for their rights as working and poor people – not simply to replace one group of oppressors for another. In 1766, 1,700 armed tenants in New York took over some of the King’s land, closed the courts and broke open the jails – but eventually they were crushed.
Even after the War of Independence with Britain was over, the Revolution continued from below with Shays Rebellion. In 1786-7, thousands of poor farmers were organized into a militia to fight against enormous debts that pushed them into poverty. Because of armed protests of former soldiers demanding compensation for their service, the capital of the US was moved from urban Philadelphia to Washington D.C. which was cut off from major populations. There were also smaller rebellions that united Black slaves and white indentured servants.
Just seven years after passing the First Amendment – supposedly granting freedom of speech – Congress passed the Sedition Act, which organized repression against anyone critical of the government.
Where are we today? The supposed freedoms that are promised to us are being violated all the time. Look at the enormous surveillance of our phone calls and emails. Look at the drug war used to violate the rights and imprison masses of poor people, who are overwhelmingly Black and Brown. We still have taxation without representation. When were we ever asked if we wanted to spend trillions of our dollars on bailing out the banks or on endless wars?
Yes there was a revolution in America – and it helped bring about the system of exploitation we have today. But we need to fight for our own Revolution, one that can finally allow working and poor people to take charge and run society in our own interests. This will be the real American Revolution.