As Independence Day is celebrated next week, it’s wise to recall that regular people were key to that victory, whether it’s called the American Revolution, the War for Independence, or the Revolutionary War. Further, while the hope for independence was achieved, the promise of revolution was only partly fulfilled.
At least 90 declarations of independence were issued by labor unions, communities and states before the summer of 1776, wrote the late historian Howard Zinn. New York drafted one document that stated, “We would rather choose to be separate from, than to continue any longer in connection with such oppressors. We, the Committee of Mechanics in union, do, for ourselves and our constituents, hereby publicly declare that should you, gentlemen of the honorable Provincial Congress, think proper, to instruct our most honorable delegates in Continental Congress to use their utmost endeavors in that august assembly to cause these United Colonies to become independent of Great Britain.”
The French and Indian War had ended in 1763, a seven-year conflict with colonists fighting alongside their colonizers against the French and Native Americans. Like most wars, it had many unintended consequences. Zinn wrote, “The war had brought glory for the generals, death to the privates, wealth for the merchants, and unemployment for the poor.”
It also resulted in a huge debt, so Britain imposed measures to pay it off through new taxes such as the Stamp Act in 1765 (imposing a new tax on newspapers and other printed material) and a tax on tea in 1773.
Historians Jim O’Brien and Nick Thorkelson in their book Underhanded History of the USA wrote, “Wars, mismanagement and greediness led the British to try to squeeze as much wealth as they could from the colonies. When Britain tried to tax the colonies and regulate the colonial merchants, revolution broke out.”
Bob Simpson in The Incredible Shrinking American Dream wrote, “The American Revolution began as a tax revolt and escalated into a widespread protest over poor economic conditions. American working people organized secret revolutionary committees called the Son and Daughters of Liberty. They boycotted, demonstrated, rioted and terrorized the English authorities.”
Between the stamp and tea taxes (“without representation,” remember), working colonists increasingly objected to Britain ordering colonists to house British soldiers in their homes and to even give up their work to accommodate those soldiers. In fact, American ropemakers were some of the instigators behind 1770’s Boston Massacre because soldiers had taken their jobs. About 9 p.m. on March 5, 1770, some 200 angry Americans confronted 14 or so soldiers from Britain’s 29th Regiment, protesting. The mob formed from nearby taverns and picked up rocks and sticks and joined a group of boys hurling snowballs and horse manure at the British outside the customhouse, where imports were brought for distribution throughout the country.
The rowdy protest – historian Edmund Morgan described the scene as “thick with epithets” – became bolder until one demonstrator clubbed a soldier. The troops fired and 11 protestors were shot, including former slave Crispus Attucks (often credited with striking the first blow). Five men died.
Historian Thaddeus Russell wrote, “They came from taverns, they were white and black, and they were not gentlemen,”
Founder Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, worked to create something to help wealthy Americans attract regular colonists, who were required to make independence possible.
Zinn wrote, “The reality behind those inspiring words was that a rising class of important people needed to enlist on their side enough Americans to defeat England, without disturbing too much the relation of wealth and power that had developed over 150 years of colonial history.”
The grassroots were angry. The tea tax sparked a boycott on British tea, and a shoemaker, George Hewes, was one of the leaders of a direct-action protest that came to be known as the Boston Tea Party, where protestors dressed as Native Americans dumped loads of tea into the sea.
But idealism existed, too. O’Brien and Thorkelson wrote, “The American Revolution was built on principles, that people have the right to overthrow a government that has become oppressive. Stated in the Declaration of Independence, [it] was a new and startling notion in the 1770s.”
Founder Benjamin Rush in 1783 wrote, “The American war is over, but this is far from the case with the American Revolution. On the contrary, only the first act of the great drama is at a close.”
Whether Act III or not, Americans still must act to continue the revolution started by working people.
Bill Knight is a freelance writer. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.