Home > Uncategorized > “Taming Democracy: “The People”, the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution”

“Taming Democracy: “The People”, the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution”

Economic Justice is as Deeply an American Value as Freedom and Equality

Revolutionary Popular Notions of a Just Society At the Founding

Democratic Resistance To Elite Control & Concentration of Wealth

[Update: 11/2/15 – Historian Eric Foner’s advice to Bernie Sanders:

I urge you to reconsider how you respond to the inevitable questions about what you mean by democratic socialism and peaceful revolution. The next time, embrace our own American radical tradition. There’s nothing wrong with Denmark; we can learn a few things from them (and vice-versa). But most Americans don’t know or care much about Scandinavia. More importantly, your response inadvertently reinforces the idea that socialism is a foreign import. Instead, talk about our radical forebears here in the United States, for the most successful radicals have always spoken the language of American society and appealed to some of its deepest values.  read the whole thing  ~~~ end update]

As public awareness and a populist resistance to deepening inequality rises to an almost pre-revolutionary fervor (watch Bill Moyers’ interview with Jim Hightower “Grass Roots Grow Against Greed“), my thoughts this 4th of July (Independence Day) wander to the contradictions built into the Founding by “The Founders”.

Unlike prior 4th’s of July, my thoughts this year are not focused on Thomas Paine and the NSA, or on our so called  “Independence” or on modern day classics, such as Sheldon Wolin’s “Democracy Inc.“, or even on memories of my born on the Fourth Of July Grandfather, but instead –  like the title of this post – today I look to history and come directly from Terry Bouton’s superb book “Taming Democracy“.

Bouton tells the story of how the radical potential of the Revolution was co-opted by economic elites, who, as his title implies, “tamed democracy”.

Like Howard Zinn’s classic “People’s History“, this is not the tale you were told in high school history and civics classes.

In the introduction to his book, Bouton frames the key questions he will explore:

… the question remains: how Democratic was the Revolution? To what extent did the Revolution actually democratize government and society? How much power did “the people” really wield? How responsive were the new governments to the interests and ideals of ordinary americans?  What kind of democracy did common folk want from the Revolution? And how happy were they with the version of democracy the Revolution brought? In short, if it was a Revolution “by the people”, to what extent was it also a Revolution “for the people”?

As open revolt breaks out in places like Detroit – where people’s water is being turned off by the morally bankrupt puppets of Wall Street’s greed – and organizations like “Occupy” are defending homeowners against foreclosure, Bouton’s exploration of our history is extremely relevant.

In fact, Chapter 3: The Gospel of the Moneyed Men: The Gentry’s New Ideals has strong parallels to our current experience.

In this chapter, Bouton recounts how the greedy bankers and land owners ( “the Gentry”) sold out the common man and the democratic notions of the Revolution – and how “the people” fought back:

Amid the chaos of war, the Revolution in Pennsylvania reached its decisive turning point. The turning point was not a military loss or victory but rather a radical rethinking by the gentry of what they wanted the Revolution to be. In a stunning reversal, many genteel Pennsylvanians abandoned the vision of ’76. They did not just give up on the ideal of empowering white men: the gentry, in fact, made a complete about face. They began condemning the Revolution’s democratic achievements and started calling for important decisions to be removed from popular control. Much of the gentry also replaced its support for wealth equality with a new belief that the only way to make America great was to put most of the money and land in the hands of the wealthy. In short, during the war, much of the gentry came to embrace ideals that had far more in common with the beliefs of their former British masters than they did with the ideals of 1776.

That chapter goes on to explain how this happened and the specific set of policies the gentry used that were virtually identical to the economic repression used by the British  – policies and practices like restricting access to credit and erecting barriers to land ownership; elimination of paper money and public land banks; requiring that debts be paid in gold or silver; transferring government powers to private corporations; throwing people off the land; and controlling government power by restricting democratic means of accountability.

Bankers, greed, privatization, concentration of wealth, private corporate power, exploitation of labor, appropriation of land, voter suppression, Feudal Oligarchy – sound familiar?

Chapter 4: The Sheriff’s Wagon: The Crisis of the 1780’s” tells the story of the economic crisis that triggered the people’s resistance and rebellion.

Bouten writes that the Sheriff’s wagon was to many Pennsylvanians:

the most potent icon of the Revolution’s outcome. The image was this: the heavily loaded wagon of a county Sheriff bearing the foreclosed property of debt ridden citizens. The power of this icon came from its ubiquity. During the post war decade, the Sheriff’s wagon could be seen nearly everywhere. With its load of foreclosed property, it struggled up the gullied roads of the backcountry …. and rattled down the bumpy cobble-stone streets of Philadelphia, the richest city in the new nation. As was to be expected in a largely agricultural society, the wagon made most of its stops at the homes of small farmers. Yet its flat wooden bed was just as likely to hold the confiscated tools of a blacksmith, the grindstone of a miller, or the inventory of a small merchant.

This chapter …. provides an intimate portrait of how the new cash scarcity reawakened the specter of mass economic dependency that many Pennsylvanians had initiated a revolution to escape.

But, unlike today’s apathy in many quarters, the common folks didn’t just sit back and take it.

Like the Occupy movement and the people of Detroit, they organized and fought back. Often violently.

In Chapter 5: Equal Power: “The People” Attempt to Reclaim the Revolution” , we get to the heart of the book.

During the 1780’s, ordinary Pennsylvanians launched an attack on the gospel of moneyed men and the hard times it created. These people demanded that State leaders save democracy by ending the policies that concentrated wealth amongst moneyed men. They called for new policies to make wealth more equal. And they demanded a return to a vigorous democracy.

A more equal distribution of wealth – a longstanding American ideal – 230 years before Thomas Picketty and 75 years before Karl Marx.

Chapter 7 :Rings of Protection: Popular Resistance During the 1780’s” describes the organized resistence movement of the people.

The organizing and tactics provide lessons for a response to today’s injustices.

“The people” were seriously engaged in what amounted – at times – to a civil war in the backcountry.

Bouton sees how the resistance was based on “7 concentric rings of protection”:

During the 1780’s, ordinary Pennsylvanians constructed elaborate resistance networks designed to shield themselves from the harmful effects of state policies. … the first [rings] were formed by county revenue officials who tried to thwart tax collection. The second ring was composed of county justices of the peace who refused to prosecute delinquent taxpayers and collectors. The third ring was formed by juries who acquitted those accused of not paying their taxes. The fourth ring was composed of Sheriffs and constables who would not arrest non-paying citizens. The fifth ring involved ordinary folk attempting to stop tax collection and property foreclosures through non-violent protest. Ring 6 was people trying to achieve those same goals through violent crowd action. Ring seven was composed of self-directed county militias that refused to follow orders to stop any of this protest. During the 1780’s, these seven rings of protection – each a clear example of popular democracy in action – formed a barrier for defending both property and popular notions of a just society.

Go read the whole book and find out how these amazing resistance efforts were organized and how it all turned out.

And have a Happy 4th!

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