Time for a New Revolution

Part 1: What Happened

As the presidential election draws near both contestants make fatuous appeals to America’s near-sainted Founding Fathers and that almost sacred scroll known as the Constitution. History has seen more than its share of distortion. Myths and misconceptions have sprung up that many people now take as fact. However, historical interpretation must be based on evidence, which in many cases is either lacking or contradictory. Myths are powerful because they say things people want to believe. History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling it. To talk of elitist power today as something new and forget its roots and actually praise the oppressors as spokesmen for liberty and treat their imposed laws under the constitution as admirable achievements is to forget actual real history and fall victim to ruling class propaganda and ideology. When people are asked the question “What is democracy” many will respond with the example of the American republic, its institutions permitting supreme power to be in the hands of the people. But democracy implies something very much more than the widest possible franchise and equal voting rights. It means that the people should have complete control over the administration of social life. It presupposes at the very outset the ownership by the people of all the means of life. If people do not have control of the production of the social wealth then contrary to popular conviction existing republics no more encapsulates democracy than did monarchies.

Hailed as the birthplace of democracy, the 1787 Philadelphia Convention was nothing short of a coup to ensure a “revolution of gentlemen, by gentlemen, and for gentlemen” as one historian described it. The Philadelphia Convention was little more than the the capture of political power by the rich section of colonial society and the Constitution designed to protect private property, to prevent interference with its ownership by the majority of the people. In short, the Constitution was designed to perpetuate the rule of the rich minority. The proceedings of the Convention in Philadelphia were conducted in secret. The general public was not privy to the debates and discussions, as it was for their social betters to decide and determine the new nation’s future.

The ensuing war of independence did not establish a truly democratic government. It did not significantly change the structure of American society but rather, it reinforced the political, economic, and social divisions between classes in the Americas. Despite the pretensions of being “enlightened” – sweeping aside monarchy, aristocracy and the established church – the new republic was never designed to be anything other than an oligarchic state. The Constitution constructed an array of political institutions of checks and balances, motivated by a paranoid fear of populism and suspicion of central government power. Ensuring a suffrage of only white, property-owning men, the new United States of America was controlled by an economic elite possessing considerable wealth. The founders of America held an estimated net worth (in today’s dollars) ranging from $20 million to $500 million. Probably they were all in the top 0.1 percent of the wealth distribution. Much of their wealth (as in the cases of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison) was in the form of slaves. So the political system reflected the interests of property-holding white men such as themselves. Slavery was permitted to flourish for 77 years after the Constitution was ratified and a substantial majority of the population was denied suffrage for over a century. They kept in place a system that was, by any reasonable definition, never a democracy.

It is an inconvenient truth for “libertarians” that the proposals for a minimalist government grew out of the South’s need for human bondage and from the desire of slave-holders to keep the federal government so constricted as to be unable to abolish slavery. That is why many Founding Fathers icons – the likes of Patrick Henry, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson and the later incarnation of James Madison – were slave owners who understood the threat to slavery posed by democratic ideals.

Fifty-five men — landed gentry, ne’er-do-well merchants and prosperous lawyers — defined the government under which Americans live. Extending political power to the people was never on their agenda. The Founding Fathers substituted the abstract principles that “all men are created equal” and that power is derived from “the will of the people” by adopting the practice where “the people”, non-property owners, women and, of course, slaves were excluded. Those architects of the Declaration of Independence built a system of government based on the division of power that would guard against any excesses of popular democracy.

As they were not themselves in the majority, the rich feared that the less well-off could vote to take away their property, so arrangements restricting the franchise and indirect election were incorporated into the Constitution to keep power out of the hands of the majority. The president was to be an elected monarch. Having two different chambers of Congress, a Senate and a House of Representatives, placed an obstacle to simple majority rule. There are 435 Representatives and 100 Senators. 51 Senators can block the majority rule. Moreover, Senators were elected for six years instead of the two for which Representatives are elected. The electoral college to elect the president operates intentionally in opposition to majority rule in this same way. In a system of electing the President by mere simple majority, a candidate or party could win by appealing to 51% of the voters. The electoral college serves as a partial safeguard against those who might be able to win the national popular vote.

Those who argue that the Founding Fathers were motivated by high-minded ideals ignore the fact that it was they themselves who repeatedly stated their intention to create a government strong enough to protect the “haves” from the “have-nots”. They gave voice to the crassest class prejudices, never hiding their concern was to thwart popular control and resist all tendencies toward class “leveling”. Their “checks and balances” were chiefly concerned with restraining the peoples’ power and maintaining their own. The true genius of the Founding Fathers was their promise to all Americans that – if they would support the revolution – then they, their social betters, would agree to create an entirely new social order.

Most of the population consisted of poor freeholders, tenants, and indentured hands (the latter trapped in servitude for many years). In order to survive, a typical family often had to borrow money at high interest rates and was caught in that cycle of rural indebtedness which today is still the common fate of agrarian peoples in many developing and undeveloped countries. It tends to cause a community-oriented culture to arise on farms or in small towns. Their concept of independence was associated with inter-dependence and cooperation, all for the common good. Women worked with men, families traded labor and livestock. In this culture of mutual concern and shared obligation working people took care of one another. They held common standards, completely different from the values of a market-driven, commercial approach to life.

The wealthy class of merchants, lawyers, bankers, and plantation farmers followed a completely different way of life — every person for him or herself. In the capitalist world-view of the wealthy class, the community was merely a system of exchange between producers and consumers, the moneyed and the toilers. The holy of holies for the merchant was the market. Government was to be controlled by elites or “social superiors” who decide what is best for the “common” people. Its role was to protect private ownership and ensure that the market system runs smoothly. This requires that the government use force if necessary to protect private property and the rights of capitalists over workers.

The fourth president, James Madison, warned of the perils of democracy, saying that too much of it would jeopardize the property of the landed aristocracy. “In England,” he observed, “if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure.” Land would be redistributed to the landless, he cautioned. Without the rich exercising monopoly privileges over the commons, the masses would be less dependent on elites like them.

Edmund Randolph, America’s first attorney general, said, “Our chief danger arises from the democratic parts of our constitution.”

Alexander Hamilton derided “pure democracy.” At the Constitutional Convention he declared: “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government.”

James Madison, “father” of the Constitution, wrote in The Federalist Papers 10: “Democracies have ever been … incompatible with … the rights of property…[because they threaten] the unequal distribution of property.”

The new Constitution put property rights ahead of human rights. It established a republic in which the courts protected the privileges of the minority. It need not have been that way. Other voices were silenced.

James Cannon, Christopher Marshall, Timothy Matlack, and Thomas Paine (author of The Rights of Man and the only one of these men who is well known) formed a group dedicated to gaining political participation for landless laborers, artisans, tenant farmers and others whom the upper class wished barred from involvement in government. To the radicals, independence looked like a chance to make their ideals into realities so that for the first time those without affluence would finally have influence in government.

A Council of Safety drew up the interim Pennsylvania Constitution. Adopted on September 28, 1776, this document established Pennsylvania’s official title, the “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It provided for annual parliaments in which neither voting nor holding office would be subject to any property qualification. Politicians would be limited to four terms and judges appointed by the legislature for seven-year terms and removable at any time.

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 excluded all of the characteristics of British rule, replacing the position of governor with an executive council of twelve members who were to be elected directly by the people. It also rejected a bicameral legislature (a legislature with two houses), because it resembled the British Parliament’s House of Lords and House of Commons: “Just as there was no need for a representative of a King, for we have none, so could there be no need of senates to represent the House of Lords, for we have not, and hope we never shall have, a hereditary nobility.”

Many wealthy property owners reacted with horror to the Pennsylvania Constitution. They described it as an “absurd Constitution,” “a mob government” where the enfranchisement of the poor would lead to a situation where the “rabble… will vote away the Money of those that have Estates.”

Some, such as Thomas Young, did try to push for a provision in the state constitution limiting how much property any one person could own, leading to a redistribution of wealth. In the new and free Pennsylvania, declared teacher and mathematician James Cannon, “over-grown rich Men will be improper to be trusted.”

“An enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few Individuals is dangerous to the Rights, and destructive to the Common Happiness, of Mankind,” read one proposed passage for the new constitution, “and therefore every State hath a Right by its Laws to discourage the Possession of such Property.”

These radical measures, however, were narrowly defeated and removed by the more conservative members of the drafting body.

Similar progressive constitutions were adopted in some other states.

Upon the founding of the Vermont Republic in July 1777, a constitution, modelled upon Pennsylvania’s, was adopted that gave all freemen the vote even if they owned no property. Slavery was banned outright, and by a further provision existing male slaves became free at the age of 21 and female slaves at the age of 18. Not only did Vermont’s legislature agree to abolish slavery entirely, it also gave full voting rights to African-American males.

The first article declared that “all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights, amongst which are the enjoying and defending life and liberty; acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety,” echoing the phrases in the Declaration of Independence. The article went on to declare that because of these principles, “no male person, born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person, as a servant, slave or apprentice, after he arrives to the age of twenty-one Years, nor female, in like manner, after she arrives to the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their own consent.”

The second article declared that private property ought to be subservient to public use. This established the basic principle of social property prevailing over private individual property in Vermont.

The primary legislative authority was to be exercised by a single assembly with members elected for one term. A twelve-member Supreme Executive Council would administer the government. Judges would be appointed by the legislature for seven-year terms and removable at any time. All approved legislation would take effect only at the next session of the Assembly, so that the people of the state could assess the utility of the new law. The President was to be elected by the Assembly and Council together. The Continental Congress, however, refused to recognize the independence of Vermont or even allow it to be represented.

The revolution of the small farmers and artisans re-surfaced soon after the War of Independence with Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion. And then the real class nature of the new America was revealed in its stark brutality. 


Daniel Shays was from Massachusetts and had joined the Continental Army. When he went home in 1780, he found himself in court for non-payment of debts. He was not alone in being unable to pay off debts, and began organizing for debt relief. In 1786 people joined together and marched on the Worcester courthouse to block the foreclosure of mortgages. The Shays’ Rebellion was put down by a mercenary army, paid for by well-to-do citizens.

As described by a historian, “the uprising was the climax of a series of events of the 1780s that convinced a powerful group of Americans that the national government needed to be stronger so that it could create uniform economic policies and protect property owners from infringements on their rights by local majorities… These ideas stemmed from the fear that a private liberty, such as the secure enjoyment of property rights, could be threatened by public liberty — unrestrained power in the hands of the people.”
 The Whiskey Rebellion of 1791-94 was a response to a federal tax on whiskey that closed down small producers. It was crushed by a militia led in person by two Founding Fathers, President George Washington and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Washington later went into the whiskey-distilling business himself and became one of the largest producers in the nation.

Alan Johnstone is a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, a companion party of the World Socialist Movement. He contributes to the blogs: Socialism or Your Money Back and Socialist Courier. Alan can be reached at: alanjjohnstone@yahoo.co.uk. Read other articles by Alan.