Finish the American Revolution

The battle for democracy didn't end after 1783 or 1865. America needs a third democratic revolution, argues Jack Conrad

Legacy of revolution and counterrevolution

Together the 13 American states fought as one in an “epoch-making revolutionary war” against the Hanoverian crown from 1775-83. However, they could not, to begin with, put in place even a customs union of the type that later laid the foundations for the timid Zollverein unification of Germany. Nor was there a single foreign or domestic policy. The revolution cut the link with Britain, but did not put in place any other unifying authority. After the Battle of Lexington unity tended to weaken. The smaller states jealously guarded their rights. Congress existed on sufferance and the states began to erect customs barriers against each other. Their “bickering” was in danger of getting out of hand and tearing the confederation apart (H Brogan The Penguin history of the USA London 1999, p193).

What became the United States of America emerged not only as a result of a straightforward victory in the war of independence, conducted by a subject people against an external master. The USA came into history through a complex stand-off between mass democratic forces unleashed by the revolutionary war, on the one side, and, on the other, exploitative interests, and rival state interests, which from the beginning stood above.

In point of fact, it was the threat from the ‘mobocracy’ that more than anything else brought together the northern merchants and industrialists and the southern slavocracy in a keen realisation of the inadequacies of a loose confederation. The existing articles of confederation had to be rewritten. The problem that confronted the constitution-makers in 1787 was, having unleashed a revolution, how were they to curb the masses and harness their energy behind one or the other exploitative system – labour or slavery?

The promise to nationalise state debts accumulated during the revolutionary war, the mutual advantages offered by protection of nascent industries and the prospect of lucrative trade deals with overseas powers were all factors that encouraged the jealous states to overcome their parochial concerns. Danger of war with France and restive native tribes were important factors too.
The 1786 Shays Rebellion in Massachusetts and the seizure of the Rhode Island government by indebted small farmers “served notice on the ruling classes of the precariousness of their position in face of the rising popular clamour” (H Frankel ‘How the constitution was written’ in G Novack America’s revolutionary heritage New York 1993, p128).

Confronted by a population who had flintlock muskets in their hands and Tom Paine’s revolutionary manifesto Common Sense in their heads – published in January 1776, it advocated independence, republicanism, egalitarian democracy and inter-colonial unity – the drafters of the constitution had to tread a careful line between the interests of the northern capitalists and the southern planters, on the one side, and, on the other, gaining acceptance from the great mass of the people, whom they feared with a passion.

Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that the ruling principle that guided the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention – all from the propertied classes – lay in keeping political power as far away as possible from the urban and rural masses. Their thinking can be gleaned from the famous federalist papers of 1787-88. Alexander Hamilton argued that a “firm” union would be of the “utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the states, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection” (J Maddison, A Hamilton, J Jay The Federalist London 2000, p36). Some kind of democracy was unavoidable – the people had risen and were liable to organise on their own behalf. Yet the natural inclinations of those above were aristocratic and anti-democratic. So, the smaller the proportion of the people represented and the more checks and balances, the better. Black slaves, Native Americans and women were automatically excluded. Ellen Meiksins Wood adds pointedly that the American role model was Rome, not Athens; Cicero, not Pericles; not the rule of the demos, but SPQR – the “mixed constitution” of the senate and the Roman people, the populace with rights of citizenship, “but governed by an aristocracy” (E Meiksins Wood Democracy against capitalism Cambridge 1999, p225).

It is therefore one of those historical tragedies that the Committees of Correspondence, the Sons and Daughters of Liberty, the so-called ‘Mohawks’ (led by the great revolutionary Sam Adams) who, taken together, were the American equivalent of the English Levellers and the French Enragés, failed to transform themselves into a programmatically coherent national party completely separate from the men of property.

The constitution that emerged was therefore a multi-layered compromise. A compromise between rival states; a compromise between two contradictory social systems – the slave system of the southern plantation owners and the wage-labour system of the budding northern industrialists; and, most fundamentally, a compromise between the aristocratic and democratic principles of government.
The US constitution exists as a system of checks and balances against democracy. It has an indirectly elected monarch, who exercises enormous executive powers. The president is head of state, chief administrator and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He appoints all secretaries of state (ministers) and members of the Supreme Court – who serve for life. The two houses of Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate – exist to ratify presidential proposals. If, for one reason or another, he is met by stubborn refusal, the president can veto the congress and try again. Suffice to say, popular initiatives and pressures from below can be held back and frustrated – either by the presidency, the congress or the Supreme Court.

Democratic forces in America – including popular leaders such as Mercy Otis Warren, James Warren and Eldridge Garry – had little trouble in recognising the constitution as a victory for the Tories (as the country’s conservative right were then called). They opposed not unity, but unity without liberty. In her Observations on the new constitution Mercy Otis Warren objected to the lack of democratic guarantees – no press freedom, no right of conscience, no right to trial by jury. In addition she opposed the standing army as “the nursery of vice and the bane of liberty”. Furthermore she objected to representatives setting their own salaries and called for annual elections. The electoral college – which to this day elects the president – was branded an “aristocratic junta” (Quoted by D Feeley, ‘Mercy Otis Warren – mother of the American revolution’ in G Novack America’s revolutionary heritage New York 1993, p111).
The democratic left rallied around the demand for a Bill of Rights – which became for them a condition for the adoption of the constitution and was finally enshrined in the first 10 amendments. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison took the initiative here, so reconciling the anti-federalist left to the constitution. Not that these rights were realised in practice. The practical fight transferred down to each separate state.

Two great parties arose after the fierce arguments around the US constitution. Through a disorderly course of splits and fusions the pro-federalist and anti-federalist camps became the Federal Party and the Republican Party (officially the Democratic-Republican Party till 1828). Crudely put, the Federal Party – led by Alexander Hamilton – articulated the interests of the northern merchant class and the up-and-coming industrial capitalists. The Republican Party – under Jefferson – defended the south and the plantation system. After a bitter struggle within George Washington’s cabinet the Federal Party triumphed. It took over the reins of government and embarked on a single-minded programme of primitive capitalist accumulation.

A national bank and common finances and a system of industrial protection against British competition were put in place. Tough restrictions were also imposed on land sales in the west. Labour-power had to be retained and kept cheap. Funding for the nationalised debts came from taxation – primarily on landowners and the country’s rural masses (90% of the population). This programme stimulated overseas trade and allowed capitalist accumulation to take off. However, it provoked stiff opposition from the southern slavocracy. Wasteful and ecologically unsustainable plantation agriculture – tobacco, sugar and especially cotton – quickly exhausted the soil. Virgin land was therefore vital for the continued health of the system. Yet the great plantation-owners found their ‘natural’ route to the west blocked by the Federal Party administration.

Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and similar figures from amongst the slavocracy moved into opposition and sought to rally the majority of the population behind them through an overlapping series of political and class alignments. Their main slogans concentrated on championing state rights and western expansionism. The industrial bourgeoisie found support draining away. Isolated and desperate, it enacted the draconian Alien and Sedition Act in order to scapegoat the democratic clubs founded in the wake of the French Revolution. There was vitriolic talk of “French gold” and outside subversives. But the tide moved inexorably against the Federal Party. The slavocracy aligned the whole countryside to their programme. Doubtless that is why in the mid-1930s Earl Browder, general secretary of the Communist Party of the USA, attempted to claim Jefferson as a representative of “agrarian democracy” (E Browder The people’s front London 1938, p255). He was, of course, no such thing.

Jefferson and his party captured both the presidency and congress in 1801. However, the Federal Party, in a pre-emptive move, stacked the courts – especially the Supreme Court – with their chosen men. Jefferson’s two administrations were characterised by a constant to-and-fro struggle with the judiciary. Under John Marshall, a leading Federalist, the Supreme Court tried to impose a judicial dictatorship. Marshall deliberately issued a loaded court decision which declared that a particular piece of obscure legislation passed by congress was unconstitutional and therefore void. This highly controversial precedent was kept in reserve – they had no stomach for a popular explosion – till the notorious Dred Scott case in 1857 … and then a revolutionary civil war was necessary to expunge that decision and its consequences.

Federalist minds turned to out-and-out treason. They plotted with Britain to halt the western expansion of the US. The old colonial power stood to regain the west and New England. Plans were also discovered to hive off the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. Justice Marshall, presiding over the trial of the conspirators, ruled administration evidence out of order. He thus saved their necks.

Though the Federalist Party quickly collapsed, never to rise again under that name, none of the administrations that followed touched the foundations of American capitalism laid down over the years 1789 to 1800. Indeed Jefferson knew that the slavocracy had no long-term future – he actually prohibited the importation of slaves in his second term as president.

The slavocracy willingly cemented an historic compromise with the northern industrialists and the small family farmers – it held fast till the constitutional crisis that led to the civil war of 1861-65. America rapidly spread to the west through a series of mammoth purchases, violent land grabs and peaceful absorptions of frontier states – all at the expense of the native Indian tribes. Each successive enlargement benefited both the slavocracy and the small farmers. However, industry found itself more than compensated for the loss of eastern proletarians to the lure of the west by the huge surge in demand for its commodities and the encouragement of mass migration from Europe.

The civil war was America’s second revolution. National rights and union authority triumphed over state rights; the north over the south; the system of wage labour over slave labour. After the war the banking and industrial bourgeoisie stood as the sole ruling class in the US. The slavocracy and the southern secession was crushed using the plebeian methods favoured by the most extreme wing of democracy. Civil war excluded any middling course. Having taken up the struggle against the slave states, the northern bourgeoisie and their working class and rural allies were forced to resort to increasingly daring and far-reaching measures.

However, following the civil war the northern bourgeoisie took fright and recoiled from any thorough-going and permanent democratic transformation in the south. Most Republican leaders – the Republican Party was formed in 1854 out of the remnants of the Federal Party – were unenthusiastic about freeing the slaves. Lincoln hesitated time and time again before announcing abolition.
After the Confederacy had been defeated they feared that the poor – especially the doubly oppressed black population – would push democracy way beyond the limits imposed upon it by the interests of property. Black soldiers in the union army kept their guns and the freed slaves organised action committees and defence squads. There was a series of splits in the Republican Party. What had been a military dictatorship over the south with the support of the poor and black masses gave way in 1876 to a squalid deal between the managers of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Rutherford B Hayes was allowed to assume the post of president in return for the restoration of white supremacy in the south.

Most Democrat hierarchs in the north opposed the confederate succession and did nothing to stand in the way of Lincoln’s military conduct of the war; but they opposed ending slavery in the south. After abolition they were resolutely against giving any kind of equality to former slaves. Military government in the south officially came to an end in 1877 – though radical democracy had been under constant attack throughout the entire period following general Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.

Looking at the USA of today, it is clear that, whether the Republicans or the Democrats hold the presidency or have a majority in the congress, it is the plutocracy which wields real power. Elections are about money and buying politicians from either persuasion. Today the gulf separating rich from poor has never been greater. Blacks remain the poorest of the poor. For the vast mass of the US population democracy is purely formal. They have, as Karl Marx famously said, “the right” every four years to “choose who will misrepresent them”. No wonder millions abstain and only a minority vote in presidential elections.

In envisaging a third (workers’) revolution, socialists and communists in the US will, of course, learn from the Patriots of 1776 and the Radicals of the Civil War. What these revolutionaries began in terms of democracy the third revolution must complete. The third revolution must therefore arm itself, as a vital precondition for success, with a programme for a root and branch overhaul of the 1787 constitution.
As is their “inalienable right”, the American people should as a matter of elementary self-interest abolish the monarchical presidency. It is an oppressive system of government. No one should forget that in 2000 George W Bush was appointed by a rightwing Supreme Court majority and secured less popular votes than his Democratic Party opponent, Al Gore.

Bush was elected indirectly by an electoral college. And he only secured the Florida electoral college delegates after the Supreme Court stopped the hand-counting of votes. The Senate and life-long appointments to the Supreme Court must also be abolished and “new guards” to secure the well-being and happiness of the people put in their place. All judges must be elected and subject to instant recall.

A single chamber of congress, elected annually, which has full legislative and executive powers, is what is needed. Congress delegates, or representatives, should get their democratic mandate from an equal constituency basis. The democratic case against the standing armed forces – grown to the point of hypertrophy since World War II – is surely unanswerable. A system of popular militias must be initiated.

Technically none of these demands in themselves go beyond the limits of capitalism. However, they do, taken together, provide the necessary salient from which the battle for democracy can be fought and won. Then the rule of the majority can be realised – not merely in form, but in substance. That is a truth we communists hold to be self-evident.

(From the Weekly Worker.)


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