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by William H. Benson

June 28, 2007

     Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Why can’t somebody give us a list of things that everybody thinks and nobody says, and a list that everybody says and nobody thinks?”

     Next week is Independence Day, the anniversary of that day during the American Revolution when the Second Continental Congress voted to declare their independence from the British Empire. A statement that could appear on Holmes’s second list is: “The American Revolution enjoyed the full support of the English colonists.” That is an excellent example of something everybody says and nobody thinks through.

     Reading my college textbook recently, I came across a startling statement: “A small group of men representing each of the colonies had begun to take a strong stand against British policy. The activities of this small group led to widespread organized resistance and eventually the Revolution. Ultimately, this group was able to win the support of one-third to two-fifths of the moderate colonists for their demands.”

     “One-third to two-fifths” is certainly less than “full support” of the English colonists in America. Indeed, the truth is that the American Revolution was not nearly as widely supported as is now commonly believed.

     In 1980 the historian Howard Zinn wrote a popular American history he entitled, A People’s History of the United States. About the Revolution, he wrote: “Around 1776 certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery: they found that by creating a nation called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favorites of the British empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new privileged leadership.”

     Who belonged to this small group of men, this privileged leadership? John Hancock was the wealthiest merchant in Boston. Robert Morris was one of the wealthiest men in Pennsylvania. Benjamin Franklin owned Philadelphia’s best newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette. Jefferson and Washington both owned expansive tracts of land across Virginia. This small group of men was indeed the privileged, the wealthy, the landed gentry, all eager to break away from England because of what they would gain. 

     Zinn interprets historical events in terms of class struggles, and in so doing, he upends history and looks at events through the peoples’ eyes. This small group of men, Zinn declares, were capable of manipulating certain of the masses of the people into open rebellion, specifically men with guns.

     Zinn wrote that an “American victory over the British army was made possible by the existence of an already-armed people. The revolutionary leadership distrusted the mobs of poor, the slaves, and the Indians, but they knew they would have to woo the armed white population.”

     Jefferson’s document, the Declaration of Independence, included words that spoke of “popular control over governments,” of “the right for people to rebel and revolt,” and of “the indignation of political tyranny, economic burdens, and military attacks.” Jefferson’s  language was well-suited to unite large numbers of colonists who had grievances with each other to turn against England.

     Not only did this small group of leaders exclude the poor, the slaves, and the Indians, but they also excluded those who disagreed with them—the Loyalists to the crown, whom they derisively called the Tories, men who did not want to revolt. Many fled to Canada, leaving behind their property, land, and homes. Then, in a turnaround of the word, the privileged American leaders called themselves the Patriots, when actually they were the Revolutionaries. It was the Tories who were the true Patriots.

     These American Revolutionary War leaders were terrified of losing control of their followers, for they knew that rebellion in the colonies had been constant. “Starting with Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia by 1760, there had been eighteen uprisings aimed at overthrowing colonial governments. There had been six black rebellions, and forty riots.”

     Is Zinn right in his interpretation? Was the Revolution a diabolical plot created by a small group that foisted a new nation upon the unsuspecting colonists? Perhaps so, but you and I are the beneficiaries of their leadership;  we belong on that list of US citizens.

     Enjoy your Fourth of July.