In honor of May Day I’d like to salute the original American Revolution. This was the first stage which was so quickly put on ice, but which we now have high hopes to resume, in the true spirit of this great democratic revolution.
In school we’re taught that the Articles of Confederation were a hopelessly parochial and unworkable mishmash, and that the 1788 Constitution was a triumph of reason, wisdom, practicality, and morality. The truth is that the Articles were indeed flawed and inefficient, but not in the way the system schools teach. They’re flawed in a very particular way. Namely, they weren’t well suited for the kleptocratic imperial designs of Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris, Edmund Randolph, James Wilson, John Adams, and others.
The Revolutionary War was won, not by generals like George Washington, let alone by banksters like Robert Morris or the already corrupt Congress. It was won by the common soldier. These, the type of citizens represented by the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution* (to the extent this kind of written Constitution can truly represent), fought not just for the merchant revolution the way the Sons of Liberty did in Boston, but for a more democratic and egalitarian economic order.
[*This Constitution still excluded women and implicitly recognized slavery, and still recognized land and resource “property”. But by opening with a Bill of Rights (a despised afterthought in 1788) superior to the 1788 version in several key ways, enshrining universal male suffrage, rejecting central pre-emption, explicitly declaring the people’s sovereignty, explicitly declaring the people’s right to abolish any rogue government, outlawing debtors’ prisons, imposing sunshine requirements for legislation, and in many other ways, it represents a significant step toward full representative democracy, which in turn could be a step toward true positive democracy. Its framers, and the grassroots movement they represented, wanted government to act as a restraint on finance tyranny and merchant greed (the Pennsylvania assembly, in one of the few clear-cut victories the people ever scored against the banksters, revoked the charter of Robert Morris’ bank), they wanted a rational, constructive money supply, they wanted debt relief, and in general they wanted a political system which enfranchised and benefited those who work and which based the economy on productive work and the polity on a democracy of productive citizens. While we may debate whether “government” as the 18th century saw it was ever necessary (it certainly no longer is), there’s no dispute over the fact that if such a government had to exist at all, then the 1776ers were doing their best to make it as representative as it could be.
The 1776 Constitution was on a vector. By contrast, the 1788 Constitution was designed to foreclose any further democratic movement. On the contrary, its main vector was to concentrate power and wealth up the hierarchy, and to help build an empire for this new ruling class.]
The main action of Congress during the war was to issue scrip to pay the soldiers and IOUs to the citizens from whom supplies were often “requisitioned”. These pieces of paper were intended to devalue to near-worthlessness. Then, once speculators had gobbled up much of this paper at often less than ten cents on the dollar, the Congress voted to pay it off at face value. The very citizen-soldiers who had actually fought and won the war and then been defrauded of their wages, and the very workers and farmers who had had their goods taken from them and then been defrauded of payment, were now saddled as taxpayers with a public odious debt to the very con-men who had defrauded them.
Soldiers had been forced under economic coercion to sell all they’d earned at pennies on the dollar, and were often plunged by their war service into personal debt to the very merchants now speculating on their scrip. Congress now turned around and doubly empowered these criminals, as public creditors who could demand that government tax the people (“open the purses of the people”, in Morris’ descriptive phrase) to make good on their speculative bets against the people, and as personal creditors who could demand that government enforce their demand to now be paid in government-issued, specie-based cash, whereas previously debts could usually be paid in real goods. This double assault threatened to dispossess and indenture the very people who had fought and won the war, and on whose behalf the war had been fought in the first place, according to the Declaration of Independence.
The basic plan of Hamilton and Morris: A strong central government would identify its interests with the creditor class and turn the private accounts of these speculators into the public’s debt, turning itself into the thug arm of this finance scam. (Like I said above, many citizens would thus be doubly on the hook.) This would reassure Old World finance, enabling the new US government to borrow overseas. The US system could use this free-flowing credit to build up its own military, police, and bureaucratic power and to use these aggressively, to imperially expand across the continent and to enforce its prerogatives (i.e., the prerogatives of the ruling class) against the citizenry at home. The American public would have to pay off the debt incurred to pay for this monstrous parasite upon it. Taxation power would be necessary to carry out this function, and would in turn serve as a pretext to further concentrate government power. This hierarchical concentration of centralized government power, along with the double assault of taxation and indenture, would help break the democratic movement. This elite hijacking of a quasi-democratic revolution was a typical imperialist crime. From the point of view of the people, it was another enclosure onslaught, and a war of total destruction vs. local economies and democracies. So the new system began with a massive crime against the people, and against war veterans in particular.
This was nothing new to the true citizens of the colonies. They already had long experience of such oppression. Prior to the war the people had long engaged in direct action against the oppression both of the British (for example the Sons of Neptune in Boston, after whom the Sons of Liberty were named in part) and of home-grown corruption and tyranny, most famously the Regulator movement in North Carolina and elsewhere.
Now the people of Massachusetts took up the Regulator mantle. In 1786 a spontaneous movement of veterans and workers rose up to forcibly resist debt tyranny and thuggery. This was Shay’s Rebellion. In spite of tremendous good will and courage, this attempt to carry on the principles of the American Revolution fizzled out (as spontaneous peasant revolts usually do) and was followed by the usual repression. It was in this context that the alleged democrat Samuel Adams issued this cry of freedom: “The man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.” No neoliberal corporatist of today could sum it up better.
By 1787 sufficient evidence had piled up that the Articles of Confederation lacked “sufficient checks against the democracy”, as Randolph put it at the Convention. From the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution to the revocation of Morris’ bank charter, from the general difficulties Hamilton was having putting through his centralized finance plan to Shay’s Rebellion and the bad memories of the Regulators it stirred up, the elites knew they needed to radically revamp the government blueprint. They needed a constitution which would centralize government, strongly concentrate it, turn it into a versatile and brutal weapon on behalf of finance assaults, military aggression, and police repression.
From any other point of view, the Articles were fine. That’s why the 1787 convention was undertaken with ulterior motives from its inception. It was sold to the people as just a tweaking of the existing system, not a radical transformation. Only once the Convention was seated did it then set to work devising a fully centralized, hierarchical, top-down, finance-based big government.
Why the 1788 Constitution? Not the vague words of the civics textbooks about the inadequacy of the Articles. No – finance elites and propertied aristocrats were in a panic over how close to success Shay’s Rebellion had come, and over the many other ways in which the democratic movement was striving to continue the American Revolution, to bring its proclaimed principles into practice. With horror they discovered that the existing government wasn’t strong enough. By that I don’t mean strong enough for regular law and order and to organize rational, equitable trade; it was certainly sufficient for those. It wasn’t strong enough to enforce economic tyranny. That’s why they wrote and imposed a new “constitution”. The new order – Hamilton’s kleptocratic plan, and the thug arm to carry it out – was put to the test with the excise tax on whiskey and the subsequent “whiskey rebellion”. While the new central government was still too weak to enforce this tax throughout most of the back country, it was strong enough to do so in one critical territory, western Pennsylvania. That was enough of a show of force to intimidate much of the populace. The central government’s “authority” was now established.
What does it all mean today? We must continue the neglected, derelict revolution. The real fighters for freedom were the foot soldiers of the Revolutionary War, who fought in the spirit and for the ideal of the grassroots democratic activists, from the Regulators to the 1776 Pennsylvania constitutionalists to the Massachusetts rebels for democracy to the backcountry fighters against Hamilton’s taxation onslaught. These, and all true democracy activists since, on up to the Occupy movement of today, and on the grand scale the global Food Sovereignty movement, have been the real heroes of the revolution.
It’s the Spirit of ’76 against the anti-spirit of 1788. Which year rings more true to us today, as we see the full development of the economic and political centralization process enshrined in 1788? There’s only one path forward: We must resume the American Revolution.