The birth of American democracy: "Tyranny is tyranny"

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Tyranny is tyranny let it come from whom it may.” 1

The unprecedented response of the US state to the April 2013 bombings in Boston and more recent revelations about NSA spying on the entire population have inevitably struck at illusions in American liberal democracy and civil liberties. We’ve written about what lies behind the US state’s increasingly repressive activities today,2 but these illusions run deep and it’s also important to look at their historical roots.

Our series on the early class struggle in America has reached the ‘American Revolution’ of 1765-1783, which of course has a cherished place in bourgeois mythology as a brave struggle against tyranny by patriots who founded “the world’s oldest democracy”. The working class did indeed gain real and lasting reforms from this struggle, which took place in the epoch of capitalism’s progressive expansion across the globe. But as this article shows, these gains were limited and even at the moment of its birth American democracy clearly revealed its class character, proving that, even in ascendant capitalism, the most democratic republic served as a mask for the dictatorship of capital.

Violent uprisings and insurrectional struggles

As we saw in the first article, faced with the threat of a unified struggle by black and white slaves and labourers, the bourgeoisie in North America successfully adopted a strategy to divide the proletariat along racial lines. Nevertheless the class struggle continued to be characterized by violent uprisings and insurrectional struggles that posed a growing threat to the capitalist class and finally precipitated a crisis for the existing system of political rule:

  • There were organised and violent struggles by sailors and labourers against impressment into the British navy. In the most serious of these, in 1747 a crowd of over 1,000 led by ‘‘Foreign Seamen, Servants, Negroes, and other Persons of mean and vile Condition’’ held control of the town of Boston for three days, seized naval officers as hostages and threatened to hang the Governor. Confrontations with the press gangs flared again in the 1760s.3

  • A renewed wave of African slave plots and revolts erupted in the Caribbean which spread to North America and intensified after 1765 as slaves seized opportunities created by the growing crisis of the ruling class. This reached a high point in the 1770s with uprisings in Virginia, North and South Carolina, Boston (in which Irish workers also participated), New Jersey, New York and Maryland.4

  • There was also increasing unrest and resistance among indentured servants – i.e. time-limited slaves. In 1768, in “the most serious insurrection of white workers in the history of the British colonies on the North American mainland”,5 300 Italian and Greek workers in Florida rebelled, seized arms and ammunition, captured a ship and prepared to set sail for Cuba. Troops had to be despatched before the rebels surrendered.

  • There were almost continual struggles by small farmers along the eastern seaboard. In 1766 violence in the Hudson Valley erupted in a massive uprising with pitched battles involving 1,000 white tenant farmers. In the most significant pre-revolutionary struggle, in North Carolina from 1766 to 1771 a movement of over 6,000 poor farmers and labourers (‘Regulators’) waged a prolonged campaign against the corrupt local capitalist regime until eventually defeated by a militia army and artillery fire.

  • There were increasingly violent struggles and spontaneous protests by the impoverished proletariat in the rapidly growing cities, in the context of a deepening economic depression. In 1765 a crowd led by seamen and labourers attacked Fort George, seat of royal authority in New York, attempting to burn it to the ground in protest against new British taxes on the sale and use of commodities, while as part of the same protests a Boston crowd vented its pent up fury on the houses and property of wealthy merchants and prominent loyalist officials.

The ruling class saw in these last struggles, not a protest against new taxes but “a War of Plunder, of general levelling and taking away the Distinction between rich and poor”, and feared they would lead to “an insurrection of the poor against the rich”.6

The American bourgeoisie’s fear of insurrection

The American bourgeoisie seized on this growing crisis as an opportunity to advance its own political and economic interests, but from the beginning it faced a dilemma: despite being haunted by the fear of an ‘insurrection against the rich’, it had to make use of direct action and illegal methods in order to give its own struggle the necessary political firepower against the British state. It therefore had no option but to try to harness the struggles of the poor urban proletariat – commonly dismissed as the ‘mob’ – while at the same time preventing them from developing into a more dangerous class struggle against capitalist society.

Caught unprepared for the violence of the early protests, which quickly threatened to escape the control of the conservative merchants and planters who led the opposition to British rule, the American bourgeoisie was forced to depend on more radical leaders who were closer to the struggles of the proletariat and better able to mobilise popular support for anti-British objectives. Revolutionary leaders like Samuel Adams in Boston defended a more radical democratic vision of the revolution but shared a deep suspicion of ‘the mob’ and actively worked to prevent the class struggle from escaping the confines of the bourgeois independence movement.

With the backing of radicals like Adams, organisations such as the Sons of Liberty and Committees of Correspondence came into being as a response to the “threatened anarchy” of the early protests. Their rank and file tended to be white artisans and skilled workers (women, indentured servants and of course slaves and free blacks were all excluded), but the leadership was in the hands of smaller merchants, master craftsmen and professional men, who acted to ensure order.

The artisans and skilled workers exerted enormous pressure for more radical action not only against British authority but also the domination of the merchants, which the leadership was forced to go along with in order to prevent being swept aside. But the American bourgeoisie was ultimately successful in isolating the most militant elements of the poor urban proletariat and in mobilising artisans and skilled workers behind its programme of nationalist and protectionist demands, so that by the time of the famous 1773 ‘Tea Party’, for example, the crowd in Boston acted as a political agent of the radical bourgeoisie, its struggles confined to exclusively anti-British actions.

National war or class war?

The American bourgeoisie had no option but to mobilise artisans, workers and small farmers to fight its war against Britain. Impressment into the American navy was taking place by 1779 despite the earlier struggles against the tyranny of the British press gangs.

There was no strong support for independence among the population and little enthusiasm for the war, which caused runaway inflation and increased poverty. There was inevitably a stark contrast between the suffering and sacrifice of the proletariat and the profits and privileges of the bourgeoisie. There were at least fifteen major mutinies involving large numbers of soldiers in the American army. In 1781 for example, 300 New Jersey troops defied their officers and marched on the state capital where they were quickly surrounded and disarmed and two leaders shot as “an example” on George Washington’s orders.

Some of the poorer artisans and workers were radicalised by being mobilised into the militia which, like the New Model Army in the English revolution, became a centre of intense political debate. In Philadelphia the militias seized the early initiative in rejecting British rule, demanding the right to vote and to elect their own officers. Backed by the radical bourgeoisie and small farmers, they overthrew the colonial government and elected a convention that produced the most democratic constitution of the American Revolution. During the war the militia’s Committee of Privates also took the lead in pressuring the bourgeoisie on behalf of “the midling and poor” and threatened violent action against profiteers. In 1779 a group marched into the city and attacked the house of a wealthy lawyer and prominent conservative republican who opposed price controls and the new democratic constitution (the ‘Fort Wilson Riot’).

In the South, the first priority of the American bourgeoisie throughout the war was to prevent a generalised slave insurrection. Fear of arming slaves led to a ban on their recruitment (although both free and enslaved Africans fought in many of the battles of the Revolution, especially in the north). After a cynical offer to free slaves if they joined the British army, this ban had to be reversed, but the prevention of a slave insurrection continued to trump American military strategy and manpower needs. Tens of thousands of slaves deserted the plantations to either join the British or liberate themselves in what amounted to a mobile slave revolt of immense proportions; in South Carolina as many as 20,000 deserted or 25 per cent of the entire slave population, and even more in Georgia. As soon as the British finally surrendered at Yorktown, Washington posted guards on the beaches to stop slaves escaping aboard British ships.7

Nor was it only slaves who posed a threat. Rural areas remained largely in the grip of right-wing political elites who were often viewed as more oppressive than British tyranny. Attempts to mobilise the population, especially in areas with a recent history of class struggles, met with varying degrees of resistance, fuelling ruling class fears that the war would unleash a generalised insurrection of the poor. In Maryland the militia spearheaded a local struggle for democratic rights, demanding the vote or they would lay down their arms. There were also attacks on members of the ruling class suspected of hoarding commodities. In the Carolinas, scene of major pre-war rural rebellions, many small farmers and labourers viewed their rulers’ calls for liberty and natural rights as rank hypocrisy and resisted all attempts to mobilise them. There were several large uprisings and in some parts of the South bourgeois rule collapsed completely: “With the fall of Charleston in the spring of 1780, a total civil war engulfed the Lower South. From that time until the war’s end, the region experienced social anarchy.”8

The American bourgeoisie crushes resistance to capitalist rule

The state to emerge from the war was a weak, decentralised Confederation with no standing army to enforce its rule. The victorious American bourgeoisie soon faced concerted resistance to its attempts to impose its authority.

Around 70 per cent of the population in the ex-British colonies were small independent farmers. The colonial regime had always faced difficulties in exerting control over this group, which resisted attempts to enforce land ownership claims and demands for rent. During the war the American bourgeoisie was able to win support by confiscating the holdings of British landowners and turning them over to freeholders, who became mortgagees, paying back loans from banks instead of rent to landlords. But at the end of the war the priority of the new American state was to repay its enormous war debt and re-establish the terms of American credit in the world economy. It began to squeeze the small farmers, taking them to court, imprisoning them, confiscating their land and selling it below value.

In 1786 4,000 small farmers in Massachusetts fought back, in what became known as ‘Shays’ Rebellion’. This began as a peaceful movement for reform but the state just imposed stricter laws and increased repression through the courts, leading one local farmer to argue, “The great men are going to get all we have and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to it, and have no more courts, nor sheriffs, nor collectors nor lawyers.9 Army veterans organised a disciplined force and burned down the courthouses. The movement achieved a high level of organisation, forming committees which in effect became an alternative government. Local militias sided with the insurgents and the local bourgeoisie itself had to fund an armed expedition to crush the rebellion. After a failed march on Boston the rebel army was defeated and dispersed and several leaders were hanged. The former radical Samuel Adams accused “British emissaries” of stirring up the farmers and helped to draw up a Riot Act and a resolution suspending habeas corpus to crush the rising. Against pleas for clemency for the convicted rebels, he argued: “the man who dares rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.”10

By forcing farmers into debt and then using the new federal state to crush resistance, the American bourgeoisie finally succeeded in imposing capitalist authority on these independent producers and brutally integrating them into commodity production, thus achieving its aim of creating a class of capitalist small farmers which would help provide a buffer against the struggles of the poor proletariat, slaves and frontier Indians.

Ultimately the struggle of the small farmers was to try to preserve their existence as independent producers and essentially looked backwards to a previous, idealised stage of capitalist development. In practice, due to the vast availability of land, many were able to temporarily escape their new status by re-locating to the frontier.

The counter-revolutionary aims of the US constitution

‘Shays’ Rebellion’ directly influenced the debate on a new US Constitution, finally convincing anti-federalist elements in the American bourgeoisie of the need for a strong central government fully equipped to suppress insurrections of the poor.

In the wake of the uprising the federalist wing of the bourgeoisie (Madison, Hamilton, Jay) argued for a strong republic as a “barrier against domestic faction and insurrection”, seeing clearly that given the inevitable division of society into “those who hold and those who are without property” the principal task of the state was to manage the resulting class conflicts. Far from being a weakness, as anti-federalists argued, the large size of the new republic would make it even more difficult for incipient rebellions to unify:

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. […] A rage for paper money, for the abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union…11

The resulting Constitution was thus not only designed to protect the interests of the rich, but was part of a conscious strategy by the most far-sighted faction of the American bourgeoisie to prevent future internal threats to the rule of capital from “those without property”. (The railing of today’s ‘Tea Party’ movement against overweening federal government while demanding a return to ‘government as intended by the Founding Fathers’ shows just how far removed it is from the real history of American capitalism, let alone its real interests…).

When resistance from small farmers flared again in the so-called ‘whiskey rebellion’, a tax protest by farmers in Pennsylvania in 1794 that spread to Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, this time the federal government mobilised 10,000 militia under Washington to occupy the region and unleash a wave of repression.

The same Constitution protected the institution of slavery and the rights of slaveholders to pursue fugitive slaves. As the price of its support for the new state the southern slaveholding bourgeoisie was given a guarantee that the slave trade would continue for at least 20 more years, during which time slavery in the Lower South expanded massively: in 1800 there were many more enslaved Africans than there were in in 1776. Slavery in the northern states was progressively ended, but as late as 1810 almost a quarter of the black population of the North remained slaves.

The Revolution cemented the political rule of the slaveholding bourgeoisie, whose slave-based plantation economy was essential to the survival of the new republic. To justify why the ‘universal’ rights enshrined in the Constitution – supposedly the self-evident gift of God – could be denied to an entire section of the population, increasing use was made of racist, pseudo-scientific concepts of biological inferiority and white supremacy. The growth of such ideas, together with the sanctioning of slavery and constitutional guarantees to the slaveholders, further entrenched the deep racial divisions in the early American proletariat.


The American Revolution strengthened capitalist domination in North America and established a more effective state apparatus to enforce bourgeois rule.

The American bourgeoisie – one of the most intelligent fractions of the capitalist class in this epoch – was able to successfully harness the class struggles of artisans, labourers and small farmers to its own struggle for political power. In doing so it taught an invaluable lesson to the rest of its class in how to rule: the need for flexibility, compromise and above all for policies specifically designed to mobilise popular support and forge tactical alliances with sections of the working class. (The success of these policies at the time is shown, for example, in the enthusiastic demonstrations by white artisans and workers in New York City to celebrate the signing of the Constitution.) Having achieved its goal, the American bourgeoisie then abandoned all pretence of more radical social and economic change and ruthlessly asserted the need for capitalist order.

The American bourgeoisie fought its successful national liberation struggle in order to remove the obstacles placed in the way of its pursuit of profit by the mercantilist policies of the British capitalist state, which restricted the growth of American trade and industry in order to prevent a threat to domestic manufacture. The fact that this struggle led to the removal of this obstacle to the growth of capitalism – and hence to the growth of the proletariat, its ultimate gravedigger – is alone enough to give the American Revolution a progressive character from the perspective of the interests of the working class.

The American Revolution also triggered further bourgeois revolutions in Europe, especially the Great French Revolution of 1789, which weakened the grip of decayed feudal society and removed obstacles to the growth of the proletariat internationally, thus hastening the conditions for capitalism’s ultimate overthrow.

Before the war there was no industrial proletariat to speak of in North America. The needs of the war against Britain accelerated the process of industrialisation and by the mid-1790s we can see a growing polarisation of interests between capital and labour, with an increase in strikes followed by the formation of the first permanent trade unions, which heralded the emergence of the modern working class in American capitalist society.

Some sections of the American working class gained real and lasting reforms from the Revolution. Due to the pressure exerted particularly by the struggles of the artisans, skilled and unskilled workers, the right to vote was extended to most white male workers in many states (but by no means all and not without ruling class resistance). By 1832 property qualifications had been removed in all but four states. This meant that, unlike the British working class, for example, which was still fighting a protracted battle for basic democratic rights in the mid-19th century, in America many workers had the right to vote even before the emergence of the industrial proletariat and its own permanent organisations, trade unions and political parties. But these gains for parts of the proletariat need to be seen alongside the sanctioning of slavery and the deployment of racist ideologies which ensured that the American working class remained deeply divided.

Under the influence of the struggles of the American proletariat the radical political thinkers of the bourgeoisie (Paine, Jefferson, Samuel Adams) had developed revolutionary new ideas which justified violent resistance to colonial tyranny and oppression based on a recognition of “the natural rights of man”. These ideas represented a breakthrough in bourgeois political thought in this epoch. But once in power, America’s Founding Fathers ensured that their new state was equipped to prevent violent resistance to their own rule and they did not hesitate to use it to crush further struggles against home-grown tyranny and oppression.

Liberal democracy proved to be the perfect ideological cover for the American bourgeoisie’s struggle against the obstructions to its pursuit of profit while the Bill of Rights served not only to protect its class rule but also to prevent unjustified state interference in this pursuit. The noble sentiments of the Declaration of Independence sanctified a state which from the moment of its birth defended the sordid interests of a system based on oppression and exploitation.

The story of the American Revolution from the point of view of the proletariat amply confirms Lenin’s conclusion in State and Revolution that “A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this […], it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it.” This was the enemy that the American proletariat faced in the next phase of its historic struggle to emancipate itself from all forms of tyranny.

MH 27/01/2014

1 Cry of the Boston crowd rioting against being drafted into the army at gunpoint by the American ruling class four days after the Declaration of Independence, quoted in Dirk Hoerder, ‘Boston Leaders and Boston Crowds, 1765-1776’, in Alfred Young (Ed.), The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, 1976, p.266.

3 Peter Linebaugh & Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, 2000, p.216.

4 Linebaugh & Rediker, Op. Cit., pp.225-226.

5 Richard B. Morris, Government and Labor in Early America, 1965, p.178.

6 Gary B. Nash, ‘Social Change and the Growth of Prerevolutionary Urban Radicalism’, in Young, Op. Cit., p.29.

7 Charles Patrick Neimeyer, America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army, 1996, p.80.

8 Ronald Hoffman, ‘The “Disaffected” in the Revolutionary South’, in Young, Op. Cit., pp.276-293.

9 Quoted in Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 2005, p.92.

10 Ibid., p.95.

11 James Madison, Federalist no. 10, 1787. This collection of articles is a fascinating insight into the thinking of the most intelligent faction of the American bourgeoisie at this time. Significantly, it is still referred to by the US Supreme Court when interpreting the intentions of the Constitution’s writers   


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