Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Radicalism of the American Revolution

In this essay I will lay out the origins and effects of the radicalism that pervaded the American Revolution, and it's after effects on American society. My intent is to refute the lies, propaganda, and falsehoods propagated by neoconservatives, and religious fanatics and leftists who continue to shovel nonsense to a gullible public that the American Revolution was "conservative". This view that both groups peddle has infected the American mind making America one of the most anti-revolutionary nations in the world, and has caused a reactionary conservatism to develop in the United States in complete contravention of it's revolutionary foundations.

First let me begin with a few comments on the idea of America itself. The English colonies were seen by many European immigrants as a refuge from the tyrannies of the Old World. This virgin continent was seen as a tabla rasa by these immigrants in which they would be able to celebrate their different forms of religion without the intervention of the state, where they could pursue economic freedom without the brutal hand of feudalism and hierarchy, and were land was abundant. The idea, whether immediately recognized, or not, was liberty. This is what separates America from all of the other nations of the world ; the revolutionary ideal of opportunity, individual liberty, and self government. The British colonies would be the fertile ground for the seeds of these freedoms to grow. The English tradition of liberty burned bright in the American colonies, unlike the Spanish, French or Portugese colonies where absolute despotism was the primary ideal in their governments. Let us move on to the radical beginnings of the American Revolution, and it's consequent after effects.

Liberty vs Power

Deep within the minds of the colonists was idea of liberty vs power. Government whether in Britian or America was a powerful institution. Government, especially in Great Britian was the purview of the aristocracy and wealthy sycophants of the monarchy. The common people were either excluded by high property qualifications for voting and holding office, or were disenfranchised by ignorance, poverty, and corruption. Although, these conditions existed in America also; they were blunted by the weakness of feudalism, and relatively equal distribution of wealth. Powerful families, government bureaucrats, the high clergy, and the King's executive officers represented the power elite that that the sword of liberty was aimed at. Americans were a far freer people than those of Europe. That said, they still were oppressed by the ideals of the Old World. Now I will list the philosophies that made the American Revolution the most radical revolution to ever occur.

Abolition of Monarchy

This needs very little explaination. The monarchy of George the III was overthrown in America, and abolished. All allegience and loyalty to the king was repudiated and all royal offices and governments abolished. This in and of itself, was radical in a world of kings and aristocracy.

Establishment of a Republic

The United States became the first true republic since ancient times. A government which lodged sovereignty in the people, not a monarch, Parliament, or feudal aristocracy. A government was set up dividing governmental power into executive, legislative and judicial offices. Also, the first American constitution, the Articles of Confederation, abolished all titles of nobility in the United States and provided for a limited central government. It also prescribed term limits for members of the Confederation Congress, a far cry from the British Parliament with it's pensioners, placemen, and unrepresentative districts, or "rotten borroughs" if you may.

Prohibition of Titles of Nobility

As I eluded to above titles of nobility were abolished and prohibited by not only the Confederation, but by each state in the United States. Citizens were declared equal under the law. This was a radical idea considering that all of Europe was governed by an aristocratical nobility. Although Americans did not have dukes, lords and knights in the colonies, they had royally appointed governors, who were members of the aristocracy, and who served at the pleasure of the king.

Hostility to Standing Armies

Americans had inherited the English revolutionaries hostility to standing armies. Standing armies, it was correctly pointed out, always were the destroyers of freedom and liberty at the behest of the despot. All the colonies had militias made up of the bulk of the male populace. These militias were locally run and democratically governed. Officers were elected and removed by the members for poor leadership or lack of confidence. This was a far cry form the conscripted paupers and poor commoners of the British Isles most of whom were impressed into military service.

Expulsion of the Tories

It is estimated that over 100, 000 Tories were expelled from the United States during the War of the Revolution. Most fled to Canada or back to Britian. Their property was confiscated, they were tried before revolutionary committees, and forced to flee. Some of the more egregious Tories who militarily joined the British were executed. Most states sold the large confiscated land holdings and parceled them out in small tracts that the common and middle class colonists could easily afford. This helped establish a large middle class of farmers and artisans. Tory lands were taken without legal proceedings much of the time; and revolutionary committees generally declared Tories outlaws and traitors.

Establishment of Revolutionary Government

The American Revolution overthrew the "legitimate authorities" in the colonies and instead established extra legal government. This extra legal government consisted of Committees of Safety and Correspondence, Revolutionary tribunals and Committees of Inspection for enforcement of boycotts and prosecution of offenders. Committees sent representatives to localities to relay and enforce the decrees and orders of the committees. These would be an example for the French in their revolution where they were called "representatives on mission". Committees published the names of violators of boycotts and embargoes, prosecuted Tories, and organized defensive measures for towns and other localities. Those defying the committees were labeled "traitors" and "enemies to their country". Most of these committees were democratically elected in their localities.

Doctrine of Popular Sovereignty

The American Revolution was not only the first modern war of national liberation, but the first to declare the "sovereignty of the people", and that "all government derives from the people". It was articulated that the object of government was protection of the rights of the people, and that their happiness was the "only legitimate purpose" for government. It was further declared that government that was closest to the people was the most effective and provided the most security for their rights and happiness. These doctrines were extremely radical and did not derive from the doctrines of European government. Popular sovereignty was unheard of in Europe where people were ground down by poverty, ignorance, slavery, and feudalism. Contrary to what neoconservatives and many libertarians believe , the American Revolution was about democratic governance. It was about the right of a free people to govern themselves, not just about free trade, or capitalist property relations.

Religious Liberty

Contrary to the lies and myths of the Chrisitan Right, the American Revolution was also about religious liberty. Although religious liberty did not come immediately or quickly, it did come. The United States was the first nation to base government authority on the "consent of the governed" instead of belief in God. Both the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution ban religious tests for public office and do not invoke God in any way. Seven states just after the Revolution gave Roman Catholics the right to vote and hold office, and nearly all of the colonies that had state established churches disestablished them. Virginia, with Jefferson and Madison at the helm, became the first state in the Western world to completely separate religious belief from civil rights. All men " would be free profess their opinions in matters of religion" as the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom articulates. Within 60 years all official state sponsered religions were abolished the last two being Connecticut in 1818 and Massachusetts in 1833. This was a radical and truly remarkable ideal which the American Revolution brought to fruition for the Western world.

Individual Liberty

The American Revolution also brought the rights of individuals to the forfront of the the struggle. Freedom of the Press, Speech, and Religion were articulated as inalienable rights that all human beings are entitled to. Ancient English liberties were expounded on and improved. The US Constitution provides for the Right to Counsel, the right to Trial by Jury, the Right against self incrimination, the Right against Unreasonable Searches and Seizures, the abolition of Cruel and Unusual Punishments, etc. These rights are found in the 1st,5th, 6th, and 8th Amendments of the Constitution. Also the right of habeus corpus is granted , only to be suspended by the US Congress during rebellion or invasion, and denying such power to the executive branch. Lastly the right of not only individual states, but individuals themselves to possess firearms for self defense and more importantly, defense against tyrannical government. These rights were not allowed in Europe, and were even considered dangerous and unecessary by conservatives in America.

The Right to Private Property

The right to own private property is very important. In America land was abundant, and feudal land titles, while in existance, were weak. People in America could easily buy, and sell property. Most colonists were small farmers on farms 50 acres or less. Private property ownership is necessary to a free republic. Men must have means and property to live comfortably, unlike their counterparts in the poverty stricken Europe of the time. Possession of property was seen as giving human beings the ability to be independent, prosperous, and to be able to pursue and secure their own happiness. We must be careful to not construe this belief in private property to be a belief in unrestrained corporate power. The Founders did not believe in bodies like corporations being independent of the people. They saw the tyranny associated with mercantilism by watching the power of British corporations like the East India Company over their lives. Monopoly powers granted to owners of private property were feared and guarded against by refusing to give Congress that power. Corporations were seen as artificial entities subject to government charter and review, not with rights like human beings.

Limited Federal Powers

It is forgotten today that the American Revolution was a revolution against a tyrannical central government. ( the British Parliament and King) The Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution provide for a federal structure in which the States grant the central authority power for certain defined purposes like foreign affairs, national defense, coining money, regulating foreign commerce, etc. The States then reserve all other powers to themselves. This confederate fabric was very radical in a world of strong centralized government which were governed by absolute monarchies, supreme legislatures, high clergy, emperors and other similar despotisms. The concept of a federal republic was to ensure that power was divided among the different jusrisdictions to preserve liberty and the self government of the citizens of the States. Compare these ideals to today where there is nothing the Federal government does not regulate or do. This is a result of the neoconservative mindset that strong central government ruling over people is best.

Abolition of Feudalism

Although feudalism was weaker in America than in Europe, it still existed and impacted colonists adversely. Primogeniture, entail, quitrents, slavery, indentured servitude, and other vestiges of feudalism existed in every colony. In Virginia, Entail and Primogeniture were attacked at repealed with the effort of Thomas Jefferson, who faced massive opposition from Virginia conservatives. In New York State feudal land servitude was destroyed by the Revolution, as Tory estates that were confiscated were parceled out to common farmers and the feudal land titles abolished. Quitrents and other "rents" paid by tenants were abolished and large landholdings broken up for good. Men like Jefferson attempted to abolish slavery nationally through such documents like the 1784 and 87 Northwest Ordinances. The abolition only failed by the votes of a few southern states. Jefferson did succeed in abolishing the slave trade in Virginia, and wrote a radical constitution providing that every man be given 50 acres of land to be a freeholder and private property owner. Such land would come from Virginia's vast open range. In Virginia due to Jefferson's effort women were given the equal right of inheritance through his abolition of primogeniture and entail. Such changes are not the result of a "conservative" revolution. These are the results of a inate radicalism.

The Common Man as an Equal

After the American Revolution no longer did the common man: the farmer, artisan, baker, sailor, or workman, see themselves as the "lower sort". The Revolution broke the chains of aristocracy and it's mindset of inequality and suppression of the poor and middle class. Men were freed from the shackes of bowing to their "betters" and a new invigorated market society developed based upon talent and merit instead of aristocracy.

As you can see, my dear reader, the American Revolution defies both the conventional logic, or propaganda if you will, about it's intellectual origin. It is not a "conservative" revolution as both the right and left promote. The right promote it as "conservative" since they hate radicalism, especially Enlightenment radicalism, while the left promote it as conservative because it doesn't embrace Marxist tyranny, which they somehow consider "radical".

Embrace the radicalism of the American Revolution! Read the writings of Jefferson, Paine, Madison, and other Jeffersonians. Read the writings of the English Levellers, Locke, Algernon Sidney, etc and you will find a true radical movement for the liberties of man. The Enlightenment, of which the United States is a product, has brought more freedom to the world than any other than any other is under attack by reactionary right wing and left wing forces. Be aware of our rich and radical history, embrace it, and promote it, and spread it's message of freedom far and wide, and maybe, just maybe we can save America. If we don't become aware of our radical history, or believe the propaganda peddled by the elites that the American Revolution was "conservative" or "reactionary" as some leftists have called it, the fruits of the American Revolution will be lost along with our liberty.