Beginning in 1763, the British Parliament enacted a series of measures designed to raise revenue for the British government in order to pay debts accumulated during the Seven Years’ War (known in the United States as the French and Indian War). The measures involved taxes and duties on trade with the North American colonies, favoring British over American merchants and undermining the commercial and political power of the American elite. They included the Proclamation Line of 1763, the Currency Act of 1764, the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act of 1765, the Quartering Act of 1765, the Declaratory Act of 1766, and the Townsend Duties of 1767 (Shalhope 1990:27-31; Zinn 59-60).
The measures stimulated a movement in opposition to British commercial policies and ultimately in opposition to British control of the North American colonies of British settlers. It was led by the American elite, a wealthy educated class consisting primarily of merchants and large planters. Lawyers, editors, and merchants of the upper class mobilized popular energy through writings and speeches that used the language of liberty and equality. Utilizing newspaper editorials, pamphlets, and mass meetings, the educated elite rallied the mass of ordinary citizens from the urban middle class (small merchants, lawyers, ship captains, and clergy) as well as the urban working class (artisans, seamen, laborers) and small farmers. The use of writing and publication to reach the popular classes was a new step for the educated elite, who had previously confined themselves to writing solely to an audience of fellow gentlemen (Shalhope 1990:27-31; Zinn 58-61).
The conflict between the British government and the American movement came to a head from 1773 to 1776. The Tea Act of 1773 led to the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, which led to the Coercive Acts of 1774, leading to the summoning of a Continental Congress and to confrontation in Lexington and Concord in 1775. The Continental Congress turned increasingly to the question of declaring independence from Britain, leading to the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776 (Shalhope 1990:28, 83-84). Written principally by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence formulated a vision of a society composed of equal individuals, in which each individual has inalienable rights: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
But the mobilization of the popular sectors involved risks for the American elite. The energy of the people was rooted in anger provoked by accumulated grievances against the upper class itself. In order to avoid that popular energy would turn against the upper class, the elite sought to channel popular rage toward Britain and the pro-British sector of the American elite. The key was the rhetoric of Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine, who used language that provoked anger at the British and was vague on class issues (Zinn 61-65).
In spite of the success of the rhetoric of liberty and equality in unifying the colony and in obscuring class divisions, popular aspirations could not be contained. By 1775-77, the nationalist movement had evolved into a popular democratic movement in which small farmers, artisans, and workers played an important role. During this time, all of the constitutions of the thirteen colonies were rewritten or substantially modified. Setting aside property and educational requirements, they granted the right to vote to ordinary men of European descent. They vested power in the legislative assemblies established by this broadly-based vote, giving the assemblies authority over the executive and legislative branches of the government. They had many other democratic provisions, including programs of aid for farmers and artisans, systems of taxation that were more egalitarian, programs for the redistribution of land, and limitations on the accumulation of property by one individual (Foner 1998:17-21; Shalhope 1990: 83-91).
The popular democratic movement of 1775 to 1777 was in important respects limited. The British settlers in North America were accumulating capital through the sale of food and animal products to slaveholders in the Caribbean. They had no economic interest in the abolition of slavery or in the rights of slaves, and the popular movement did not address these rights. Nor did the movement address the rights of women. But the popular democratic movement was very progressive for its time, and it provoked a conflict with the large landholders and the emerging commercial bourgeoisie, which began to resist the popular movement. We will discuss this reaction of the elite in the next post.
Foner, Eric. 1998. The Story of American Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton.
Shalhope, Robert E. 1990. The Roots of Democracy: American Thought and Culture, 1760-1800. Boston: Twayne Publishers.
Zinn, Howard. 2005. A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Harper Perennial Modern Classics
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