On This Fourth of July: The Storm, The Whirlwind, The Earthquake
Lew Rosenbaum, 2022
Warning! This Fourth of July essay is not a diatribe against American oligarchy, nor a hymn to the original glory of the American vision. You can give up now if that is what you are looking for.
In 1763 the European Seven Years War came to an end, a war between colonial powers to divide up a world that was not theirs. In North America, the war is known as the French and Indian War, with the English colonies arrayed against the French. Indigenous peoples from different tribes fought on either side depending on what they believed was in their best interest. The French were nearly driven from their North American possessions. The Treaty of Paris established a Western boundary beyond which the English colonists were prohibited from advancing – a guarantee to the Indigenous peoples who had supported the British.
In Europe, and in the world, England achieved supremacy. The British monarchy was the most powerful among Western monarchies. The political form of government that prevailed was “monarchy” – along with all the varied political and economic trappings of feudal relations of production. There were no united states in North America. A bewildering and contentious variety of settlements from north to south along the Eastern coast satisfied the intentions of the individual groups of colonists – some were “crown colonies,” or land grants established by the British monarch to replicate what they left in Europe. Others were established by political or religious refugees. But all of them accepted the dominion of the British monarch. It just seemed like a divine right. Who could question it?
In January, 1776 Thomas Paine published Common Sense, a pamphlet that did question just that. Paine was a craftsman and recent immigrant from England. Common Sense was an instant sensation, a best seller. 100,000 copies were distributed to the two million residents of the colonies. One out of every 20 people got a copy; even more read it or heard it read, as it was passed around and read in groups everywhere. It satisfied a need of a disgruntled, angry population. Whatever the discontent, the cause could be laid at the feet of a monarch who did not care about the needs of the people. Whether it was “taxation without representation,” the government’s right to requisition a citizen’s home to house soldiers, or the prohibition against colonial expansion west of the Appalachian mountains, the English colonist now had an enemy against whom it could organize.
Attempts by the British to export the feudal relations in the home country to the North American colonies failed, as the feudal agricultural system itself ground to a halt. Mercantile capitalism was on the rise, demonstrated by the wars for colonies, of which the Seven Years War was an example. All hitherto existence of class society has been a process of abolition of the former system of private property and the revolutionary creation of a new form. The “American Revolution,” declared on July 4, 1776 (six months after Paine published his little pamphlet), was in a certain sense an abolitionist revolution. Common Sense was an abolitionist manifesto. Paine himself left the new United States to foment a revolution in England itself. Under threat of death, he fled to revolutionary France, where he was at first welcomed as an apostle of the anti-monarchist creed.
The American revolution was a singular shot to abolish monarchies, and was seen that way around the world (especially in the halls of power in Europe). While it aimed at negating feudal private property and the feudal political power that protected it, it could not go beyond that. Many of the social trappings that came with feudal property continued, grafted onto the new capitalist society (e.g. the most egregious questions of women’s rights, of Indigenous peoples, of the enslaved and, in fact, all the propertyless working class). Nevertheless, Frederick Douglass referred to this time and the makers of this revolution in this way: “They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.” (From Douglass’ July 4, 1852 speech)
The emergence of a waged working class bound to seek employment from capitalist owners of the means of producing wealth in North America began to pose an entirely new contradictory form of private property. The earliest factories in North America had to be built near a source of power, and the only power of that sort available was along the waterways. After the invention of the steam engine and its application to machinery came the exponential growth of the factory, of industry, of the new class of a new era, the industrial working class. The new North American country was quickly divided into a section which produced manufactured goods and food and a section which lived by producing and exporting cotton. Wage labor in the North, enslaved labor in the South. The latter produced for the world market; the former produced for local consumption and for the South.
Politically and in terms of wealth, the South was dominant from the 1789 Constitutional Congress to 1860. To maintain its dominance, the South engaged in continuous battle to extend its influence west. Little by little the South saw its control whittled away as the population of the North grew and, therefore, northern influence in the House of Representatives outweighed that of the South. In the Senate, the dominance of the South depended on limiting the number of states admitted to the union that outlawed slavery. Northern states generally opposed the expansion of the slave states, in part because it limited the expansion of free landholders and limited the expansion of railroads (both of which would be taken from Indigenous lands). From the 1789 Constitutional debates throughout the 1800s up to the Civil War, a new movement arose which called itself abolitionist. Very small and isolated at first, it gathered steam as the United States itself expanded, at each step a pitched battle between the forces of expansion of the slave system and its abolition. The penultimate battle came in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857. Effectively slavery became legal in every state of the union, an African-American was deemed not a person, and had no rights that a white person was bound to respect. The intense reaction to that decision further split the already fractured Democrats and drove independents and disgruntled Whigs into the newly formed Republican Party. The Republican Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 election sealed the fate of the pro-slavery political movement. The South seceded and, with a pre-emptive strike at Fort Sumter, began the Civil War.
If the American Revolution can be seen as a war to abolish the rule of the monarchy and monarch protected private property, the Civil War was a battle to abolish private property in human beings. In 1865, the military victory established the mixed vision of what abolition would look like. There was to be no compromise with the supremacy of Wall Street, and the ten years of Reconstruction that followed the signing of the peace broke the back of Southern resistance to Wall St. At the end of that time, the political compromise of 1877 restored control to the former slaveholders, using the terror of the KKK to drive the freedmen back into peonage. Washington removed federal forces, which had, until that time, provided some guarantee of the civil rights of the formerly enslaved.
When Frederick Douglass gave his 1852 Fourth of July Speech, he had delineated how important the victory over England had been, and where it fell short. Many of us read the speech today to read this section, which might have been written in 1877 as Knight Riders resumed their reigns of terror: “Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
Almost 100 years after the defeat of Reconstruction a group of intellectuals assembled at the University of Virginia in the wake of the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. There and later at George Mason University, they began the difficult task of persuading the American people that “individual freedom” depended on their friends, the wealthy, that freedom is slavery, that government intervention (under which Social Security and MediCare laws had been enacted) is inherently evil. They were very much like the John Calhouns of the pre-Civil War era who saw the foundations of their society changing and fought tooth and nail to retain power first by persuasion, then by warfare when persuasion failed. Recognizing that they were greatly outnumbered, James McGill Buchanan and his colleagues tasked themselves with creating an infrastructure that would win people to defend what would crush them. In the words of scholar Nancy MacLean (Democracy in Chains), “the American people would not support their plans, so to win they had to work behind the scenes, using a covert strategy instead of open declaration of what they really wanted.” If this makes you think of the decades long battle to overthrow Roe v. Wade, there’s a good reason for your thinking.
Their experiment came to fruition in the great dispossession – the development of a speculative section of the capitalist class grown on a failure to find a place to invest productive capital and hence to employ workers and create value. Unlike in the slaveocracy in the 1850s, this class is confronted by a new class created by a technology that does not need labor. Contrary to an industrial working class whose conditions of existence is the factory where it obtains its subsistence, this class has no place to go without abolishing the structures that keep it in thrall. We find the theoretical principles most clearly articulated from one section of the movement that has concentrated on the evil that is the prison system. They also call themselves abolitionists. Among them are people, such as scholar and activist Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, who state quite clearly that the abolition of the prison-industrial-complex (PIC) can only be accomplished by the reconstruction of society. You cannot have a society without prisons/courts/police without building a society in which everyone has what they need to survive and thrive. And this is possible today.
This Fourth of July we are compelled to reread Frederick Douglass 170 years after he wrote and delivered this important oration. We are compelled because of the hope he expresses and because of the fire he breathes. We are compelled to read it because the abolition of our time is substantially different from getting rid of monarchies and getting rid of chattel slavery. We can get rid of the chains that bind us to the vampirish private property that produces all wealth. We face the greatest challenge and possibility of emancipation ever. At a time like this we need audacity, not beggary. We need a moral vision, not just a recitation of facts and horrors. Returning to Frederick Douglass, this is what we need today:
“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”