American Revolution and Anarchy

From Anarchy In Action

Beginning in the 1760s, the American Revolution initially brought together sailors, runaway slaves, working-class women, and multiethnic mobs of common people. Revolting against British and American tyrannies alike, the mobs were dismissed for their "anarchia." Escaping slave plantations, demanding Indigenous sovereignty, and fighting for local autonomy, these elements often did not fit neatly onto either the British side (demanding continued colonial rule) or the official American side (establishing a settler-colonial and slave-holding state).

More authoritarian elements led by the "Founding Fathers" initiated what Gerald Horne describes as the Counter-Revolution of 1776. Excluding most African Americans, indigenous peoples, and women, leaders, according to Howard Zinn, "created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations of leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command."[1] Among the Founders, the working-class pamphleteer Thomas Paine came the closest to articulating a liberatory vision. Paine denounced it as "contrary to the light of nature, to every principle of Justice and Humanity, and even good policy."[2] He described the revolution as a time when "governments had been abolished" and as evidence that, "The instant formal government is abolished, society begins to act: a general association takes place, and common interest produces common security."[3]

Britain's colonial rule of America followed a mercantile pattern, ensuring that "the colonists were not to manufacture anything that would compete with British industry. Rather Americans were to be consumers exclusively of English manufactures." Britain reinforced this exploitative relationship with policies such as the Stamp Act (that required colonists to put a stamp on many documents and items, including wills, deeds, contracts, calendars and playing cards), the Declaratory Act (that affirmed Britain's right to inflict legislation on colonies "in all cases whatsoever”), the Townshend Act (that placed tariffs on a variety of goods, including lead, glass, paper, paint and tea), and the Intolerable Acts (that, among other things, blockaded the port of Boston and limited Massachusetts' town meetings to once a year).[4]

Political upheaval in the colonies took off in the 1760s, and the Continental Congress approved its famous Declaration of Independence on July, 4, 1776. In September 1783, American and British representatives signed the Treaty of Paris, recognizing American independence.[5]

Radical Roots

The radical historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker argue that the American Revolution "was neither an elite nor a national event, since its genesis, process, outcome, and influence all depended on the circulation of proletarian experience around the Atlantic."[6]

Beginning in the 1740s, sailors led riots against impressment (forcing people to serve in the navy). In the 1760s, multi-ethnic crowds of Atlantic sailors attacked the property of slave-trading merchants and other elites in England's cities of Liverpool and London. The crowds in London were smeared as "immediate sons of Jamaica, or African Blacks by Asiatic Mulatoes." Such riots eventually led Thomas Paine (the most radical and working-class of the Founding Fathers) to oppose impressment in his hugely popular 1776 revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense and led Thomas Jefferson to include impressment as one of the grievances in the Declaration of Independence.[7]

Slaves' revolts provided another root of revolution. Tacky's Revolt took off in Jamaica in 1760. The revolt lasted for a year after the main leader, Tacky, was captured. Another one of the leaders was Cubah, a female slave who became known as "The Queen." Most sailors refused to fight against the rebelling slaves. One rebel explained, "As for the sailors, you see that they do not oppose us." The revolt inspired other revolts in the colonies. Slaves rose up in Virginia in 1767, in New Jersey in 1772, in South Carolina and Boston (along with Irish rebels) in 1774, and in South Carolina and North Carolina in 1775. In the wake of these revolts, Paine and other propagandists wrote against slavery.[8]

Multi-ethnic mobs protested against colonial laws imposed by the British: the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act, the Townshend Revenue Act, the Tea Act, and the Intolerable Acts. Based on these mobs, Benjamin Rush later coined a new insanity called anarchia meaning the "excessive love of liberty."[9]

Common people organized non-importation committees to enforce a boycott of British imports. The committees tarred and feathered loyalist (meaning pro-monarchy) activists and enforced ostracism against them. The committees "enforced the standards of popular revolutionary behavior."[10] Women took active roles such as turning spinning bees into overtly political events, shopping for the household in accordance with the anti-British boycott, feeding soldiers, writing poems, and signing petitions.[11]

Massachusetts and the Committees of Correspondence

After Britain revoked the courts' independence from the king, Sam Adams re-established in 1772 the Boston Committee of Correspondence, a rebellious shadow government accountable to Boston's town meetings. The Committee helped other towns organize their own Committees, and within two months, eighty Massachussetts towns formed Committees of Correspondence. Committees emerged throughout the thirteen American colonies, and Bookchin writes that they “became the embryos of a later, more grassroots network for revolutionary organization and action.”[12]

In 1773, in an attempt to break the colonists' boycott of British tea, Britain let the East India Company sell tea in the colonies at greatly reduced prices. The Boston Committee of Correspondence called an extra-legal “Meeting of the People”, and in a resulting action now known as the Boston Tea Party, citizens from the Committee boarded ships and dumped 75,000 pounds worth of tea into the Boston harbor.[13]

In 1774, rebels throughout Massachusetts "joined together to form an extralegal county convention to coordinate and direct provincial political activity...Functioning essentially as confederations of municipalities, the conventions were themselves managed like town meetings, with elected moderators, reporting committees, and open votes, thereby constituting a far-flung direct democracy.”[14]

Committees of Safety and the Militias

Provincial assemblies, Committees of Correspondence and other extra-legal bodies sent delegates to meet in Philadelphia on 5 September 1774, forming the First Continental Congress. The Congress called for a boycott of British goods, and by July 1775, it called on each colony to form its own Committee of Safety. These Committees became an executive body for the revolution, and they gave to the press the known names of people who refused to follow the boycott. Once military operations began, the Committees began coordinating military efforts, enlisting troops, setting quotas for the number of militias that each town was expected to produce, and confiscating loyalist property. [15]

Internal Revolutions

A number of revolts signified a revolution within the broader American Revolution. In 1766, tenant farmers in Westchester, New York went on rent strike and were evicted. The tenants rose up, took arms, smashed the Poughkeepsie jail, drove out local officials and threatened to march on New York city. The New York Sons of Liberty sided with the landowners and urged rural troops to crush the uprising. The royal troops did so.

In North and South Carolina, crooked county authorities “routinely overcharged ordinary people for their services and formed what amounted to a scandolous extortion ring. Justices of the peace demanded exorbinant fees for their dizying array of services theyt concoted, while the sheriffs embezzled part of the tax revenues they collected sometimes charging more than the required legal amount.” In response, farmers mobilized militias and demanded the “regulation” of the tax system, including a transparent acounting of county finances. They became known as the Regulators. In 1770, the Regulators invaded North Carolina's Orange County court, evicted the judges and tried cases themselves. They were crushed by the governor. Many of these farmers became pro-British.

In Pennsylvania, an struggle emerged between the farmers and the wealthy merchants and lawyers. The radical Charles Thomson, although a merchant himself, organized a movement of mechanics that resisted the Tea Act and, along with other colonists in 1774, blocked the unloading of the East India Company's tea in Philadelphia. In May 1774, Philadelphians conducted a day-long general strike that shut down the port and regular business.[16]

African American involvement and opposition

In 1765 in Charleston, South Carolina, white crowds yelled "Liberty!" in protest of the Stamp Act. A small group of slaves then repeated the chant, "Liberty!," sending the whites into panic.[17] The contrasting calls for freedom by enslavers and enslaved alike underscored a tension running through the revolutionary era. In general, African Americans played off the conflict in order to secure their own freedom whenever possible. Herbert Aptheker summarized in a 1940 study:

Where and when possible, that is, where and when they were permitted to do so, and given freedom for doing so, Negroes served the forces which were in rebellion against British tyranny, but where and when this was not possible they fled to the British armies, or to Florida, or to Canada, and some actually fought in the King’s army. And where this, too, was not possible, some fled into neighboring swamps, forests, and mountains resisting whomsoever sought to re-enslave them; still others, finding escape impossible, conspired or rebelled for freedom.[18]

According to Gerald Horne's The Counter-Revolution of 1776, two key moments signalled to many African Americans the importance of British victory. First, London’s June 1772 court case, pitting the enslaved African James Somerset against his master Charles Steuart, ended in a ruling that not only freed Somerset but "in effect […] outlawed” slavery in England." Second, in 1775, Virginia's royal governor Lord Dunmore issued an edict offering liberty to slaves who fled and joined the British army.[19] As Horne demonstrates, these two events terrified wealthy settlers. Voices from the Boston Gazette to Edward Long of Jamaica decried the ruling as, in Long’s words, a sign that “slave holding might perhaps be very well discontinued in every province of the North American continent.” Early in the month of Dunmore’s edict, Thomas Jefferson considered independence to be off the table. After the edict, however, Jefferson fretted that “the person of No Man in the Colony is safe” from vengeance. Patrick Henry (another Founding Father) warned that Dunmore’s edict was “fatal to the public safety.” Virginians denounced Dunmore’s edict as an “encouragement to a general insurrection.” Even England’s Duke of Manchester acknowledged that “Americans were greatly incensed against the King” for “encouraging the black slaves to rise and cut the throats of their masters.”[20] Benjamin Franklin warned, “every slave must be reckoned a domestic enemy.”[21]

Many slaves, especially in the southern colonies, seized the opportunity and joined the British side in the war. J. Sakai notes:

It was Afrikans who greeted the war with great enthusiasm. But while the settler slavemasters sought ‘democracy’ through wresting their nationhood away from England, their slaves sought liberation by overthrowing Amerika or escaping from it. Far from being either patriotic Amerikan subjects or passively enslaved neutrals, the Afrikan masses threw themselves daringly and passionately into the jaws of war on an unprecedented scale-that is, into their own war, against slave Amerika and for freedom [...] The war was a disruption to Slave Amerika, a chaotic gap in the European capitalist ranks to be hit hard. Afrikans seized the time--not by the tens or hundreds, but by the many thousands. Amerika shook with the tremors of their movement. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were bitter about their personal losses: Thomas Jefferson lost many of his slaves [...] The thousands of rebellious Afrikans sustained the British war machinery. After all, if the price of refuge from the slavemaster was helping the British throw down the settlers, it was not such a distasteful task.[22]

The British did not treat African American rebels with respect, however. Black soldiers received little or no wages after deductions for food. They were given inferior food and were the first to have rations cut in times of scarcity. They were given separate and inferior living quarters.[23]

Many other African Americans, especially in the north, fought on the rebels' side. Peter Salem, a enslaved African, joined the rebels and fired the shot that killed the British Major John Pitcairn at Bunker Hill. Salem joined because his master promised him freedom as a reward.[24] Crispus Attuckus, who seems to have been a former slave, rallied against the British and was one of the victims of the Boston Massacre.[25]

Between 1764 and 1773, several of the Founding Father George Washington's enslaved Africans, with names recorded as Breechy, Cloe, Tom, Bett, (another) Tom, Will Shagg, Coachman Jemmy, and additionally the indentured servant Michael Tracey, escaped from Washington's plantation. In 1781, 17 slaves escaped from Washington.[26]

Native American involvement and opposition

In general, Native Americans took actions to try to preserve their autonomy and to play settler and colonial forces against each other. When taking a side, they more often aligned with the British. "All during the war Indian and Afrikan guerrillas struck at the settlers," J. Sakai writes.[27]

Members of the Western Abenakis fought for both the British and the Americans, depending on who would pay more. They tended to stay out of the firing line, refusing to sacrifice their lives for either side.[28] Most of the Haudennosaunne fought with the British, especially after they noticed the anti-Indian rhetoric of the Americans' Declaration of Independence.[29] The Deleware signed the 1778 Treaty with the Americans that promised an all-Indian state would be added to the new republic. The American leaders never seriously considered honoring their promise and did not fulfil it.[30]

Shays' Rebellion

In 1786 and 1787, Daniel Shays led an armed uprising among poor and indebted farmers in Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. According to Bookchin, the Shayite militias in Masschusetts were well-disciplined and "were organized along typically libertarian lines, structured around county committees (“Committees of the People”), each of which assumed military leadership of the armed forces in every county and remained its highest military unit." Colonist elites quickly crushed the rebellion. "Had they won," Bookchin writes, "Massachusetts, conceivably, could have become a confederal democracy, not unlike early Switzerland, and yeomen throughout New England could have tried to emulate them. In any case, together with the revolutionary events in Pennsylvania during the war, Shay's rebellion was as close as America came to an insurrectionary third revolution.”[31]

Legacy and the 1789 Constitution

There is disagreement about whether the revolution and the resulting 1789 United States Constitution ultimately weakened or strengthened forces of domination. On one hand, it did secure a victory against the powerful British empire and against monarchical rule. While America's new government excluded women, Indians, and blacks from participating, its implementation of republicanism was radically inclusive for its time. Gordon Wood, a conservative historian, argues that the revolution levelled a highly repressive social hierarchy and even "made possible the anti-slavery and women's movements of the nineteenth century and in fact all our current egalitarian thinking."[32] According to Ray Raphael, the revolution weakened the institution of slavery: "Changing economic factors, the humanitarian concerns of some masters, and the refusal of many slaves to accept their status led to an increase in the number of free blacks during the decades following the war."[33]

Linebaugh and Rediker, however, describe the Founding Fathers' intervention as "an American Thermidor," or in other words a counter-revolution that undid the work of grassroots radical revolutionaries. They assert, "The Constitution also strengthened the institution of slavery by extending the slave trade, providing for the return of fugitive slaves and giving national political power to the plantation master class."[34] Even Wood acknowledges that the Constitution was designed, rather undemocratically, "to temper popular majoritarianism."[35] And Raphael finds that the revolution and the Americans' victory "weakened and divided" Indians and "hastened the demise of their sovereign status."[36]

  1. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003), 59.
  2. Manisha Sinha, The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 36.
  3. Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791
  4. Murray Bookchin, The Third Revolution: Volume I (Bloomsbury Academic, 1996), 159-174.
  5. Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty: An American History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), 176-210.
  6. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 212.
  7. Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many Headed Hydra, 214, 221.
  8. Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many Headed Hydra, 221-227.
  9. Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many Headed Hydra, 228, 235.
  10. Ray Raphael, A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence (New York: Perennial, 2002), 40-43.
  11. Raphael, A People's History of the American Revolution, 136-140.
  12. Bookchin, Third Revolution, 169.
  13. Bookchin, Third Revolution, 169.
  14. Bookchin, Third Revolution, 171.
  15. Bookchin, Third Revolution, 193.
  16. Bookchin, Third Revolution, 205-224.
  17. Sylvia R. Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 51.
  18. Herbert Aptheker, The Negro in the American Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1940), 6.
  19. Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 211.
  20. Horne, The Counter-Revolution, 213, 224, 230.
  21. Gary Nash, The Forgotten Fifth: African-Americans and the Age of Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).
  22. Sakai, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat (Chicago: Morningstar Press, 1989), 17-18.
  23. Raphael, A People's History, 332.
  24. Nash, The Forgotten Fifth.
  25. Raphael, A People's History, 355.
  26. Crimethinc, "Escaping Washington for Freedom: Let's Not Celebrate George Washington, but the Slaves Who Escaped Him," Crimethinc, 19 February 2018,
  27. Sakai Settlers, 19.
  28. Raphael, A People's History, 238.
  29. Raphael, A People's History, 246-247.
  30. Raphael, A People's History, 272.
  31. Bookchin, Third Revolution, 239.
  32. Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 7.
  33. Raphael, A People's History, 372-373.
  34. Linebaugh and Rediker, A Many Headed Hydra, 240.
  35. Wood, The Radicalism, 230.
  36. Raphael, A People's History, 307.