Tuesday, January 13, 2009

USH4: Founding a Nation

So, why did the colonists revolt anyway? Once they learned how to live in the new land, things should have been a lot better. Sure there were those pesky Indians to wipe out (see my last post), but by and large (according to what I thought I learned) things were pretty stable.

Most sources date the source of the American Revolution to the English victory against the French in 1763. In this country the war was called the French and Indian War (not because the French were fighting the Indians but because the English and the colonist were fighting both); in Europe, it was known as the Seven Years War. The end result was that English now controlled all of North America east of the Mississippi valley.

But all was not happy and prosperous for the colonists. It was not only blacks that were serving their white masters (again, last post) but by white indentured servants--poor whites who agreed to pay the cost of their voyage by being a servant for five to seven years. In fact, well over fifty percent of the colonists came as servants. Even when the servants were freed, they often remained poor. As one author put it: "Class lines hardened during the colonial period..." In New England had small and poor 'yeoman' farmers and wealthy merchants. For the middle Atlantic colonies, "Large farmers and merchants became wealthy, while farmers with smaller farms and artisans only made enough for subsistence. The Mid-Atlantic region, by 1750, was divided by both ethnic background and wealth." And "The Southern Colonies were mainly dominated by the wealthy slave-owning planters in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. ... Planters used their wealth to dominate the local tenants and yeoman farmers."(These quotes are from Wikipedia.) All was certainly not happy and prosperous in the colonies. As Howard Zinn states: "...by 1760, there had been eighteen uprisings aimed at overthrowing colonial governments. There had also been six black rebellions from South Carolina to New York, and forty riots of various origins." Not happy and prosperous by a long shot.

The English victory over the French actually made things worse. In order to finance the costs of the war as well as the overall defense and administration of the colonies, the British government enacted a series of taxes, beginning with the Sugar Act of 1764. The response from the colonists was outrage and the declaration of "No taxation without representation." Here in the Boston area, two different groups were upset. Colonial leaders, such as James Otis, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock, were looking to gain power at the expense of the British. Meanwhile, the 'lower classes' were very upset, besieging town meetings (a quote from the governor of Massachusetts at the time: "the meanest Inhabitants... by their constant Attendance there generally are the majority and outvote the Gentlemen, Merchants, Substantial Traders and all the better part of the Inhabitants.") and having all sorts of grievances against the wealthy. The Boston leaders (now calling themselves 'The Sons of Liberty') worked on redirecting this class fury toward the British. The Boston Massacre of 1770 provided the opportunity. To keep things going, a protest was devised in 1773 against the East India Tea Company. This became the famous Boston Tea Party. The British responded with what became known as the 'Intolerable Acts', to which the colonists responded by holding a 'Continental Congress' which stood up for the rights of the colonists. The situation was a powder keg waiting for a match. The Sons of Liberty were watching for the British to try something. When troops of Redcoats marched in April of 1775 to Concord, Massachusetts, to seize "a rebel arsenal" they were met by Minutemen (a local militia trained to respond on "a minute's notice") in Lexington and in the confrontation shots were fired, leading to the deaths of eight of the Minutemen. The Redcoats continued to Concord but the colonists began using guerrilla tactics (sniping from behind barns and stone walls) and by the end of the day the British had lost seventy-three soldiers. The Revolutionary War had begun.

A second Continental Congress, in May of that year, declared their intention to separate from the British. The next year, 1776, brought two stirring documents crying out for independence, liberty, and even egalitarianism. The first was Thomas Paine's pamphlet, Common Sense, published in January, which not only declared that "Everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation..." but actually states that "...Government even in its best state is but a necessary evil..." It was a widely read and compelling argument for independence, but it upset men like John Adams who saw it as too "democratical". In July, the Continental Congress published the Declaration of Independence which declares that "...all men are created equal..." Unfortunately, it also declares that the native people are "merciless Indian Savages".

By 1781 the war was effectively over and in 1783, Britain signed a peace treaty with the new government. But what was this government? The Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, combined the various states into a "into a loose confederation." It turned out to be a government nobody liked, but there was a major disagreement about what was wrong with it. The more well-to-do felt the state governments were too lenient with taxpayers and those in debt, while 'ordinary citizens', farmers in particular, felt the burdens of debt and taxation too demanding. The most famous of the rebellions that followed was the so-called Shays's Rebellion. There had already been rebellions in several towns in Massachusetts, as well as Rhode Island and New Hampshire, but when Daniel Shays marched from western Massachusetts to Boston with a thousand armed men, the troops were called out.

In 1787, there was a convention in Philadelphia to create a new plan of government and revise the Articles of Confederation. One historian (James McGregor Burns) described the delegates as "the well-bred, the well-fed, the well-read, and the well-wed." Another (David Beard) pointed out that the majority of them were lawyers and most of them were quite wealthy. Alexander Hamilton, one of the more conservative delegates, claimed that the problem they were facing was "an excess of democracy", and James Madison stated that the "evils which... produced this convention" amounted to "Interferences" with "the security of private rights..." Woody Holton, in his book Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, points out that most of the wonderful things we like about the Constitution are really either taken from the Articles of Confederation or, more likely, in the Bill of Rights, which the Framers of the Constitution passed, against their wishes, in order to secure passage of the Constitution. The Founding Fathers appeared to have wanted the Constitution to make sure that their wealth wasn't too threatened.

Incidentally, even that Bill of Rights wasn't that useful. The First Amendment, providing freedom of speech and the press, was soon negated by the Sedition Act of 1798 (passed by John Adams administration).

To keep this post within bounds, I will wind up here. The Founders of the US were hardly the enlightened souls they are made out to be. (Some things I found out in my research make George Washington appear to be an embezzler and Abigail Adams out to be a securities speculator. Who knew?) What is clear is that this country was not founded with the poor or working class in mind, just as it wasn't founded with any thought for the native people or the slaves taken from Africa. And with the exception of wealthy women, such as Abigail Adams (and she had to fight to be remembered), women were more or less excluded as well. (Charles Beard noted that four groups "were not represented at the Constitutional Convention: slaves, endentured servants, women, men without property. And so the Constitution did not reflect the interests of those groups.") This was a government created by and for well-to-do white men.

Quote of the Day: "In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited powers into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could." - Abigail Adams

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution
Russ Kirk, 50 Things You're Not Supposed to Know 2
Wikipedia, various articles (in particular one on the American Revolution and one on Colonial history of the United States)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

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