Harry Braverman on the class forces of the American Revolution

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 2 18:01:51 MDT 2003

On closer scrutiny, nearly all of the accepted Marxist shibboleths about
the first and second American revolutions break down. To begin with, if
Great Britain was a kind of laboratory for advances in the mode of
production, why does it become a feudal fetter on the means of production
in the colonies? Especially as I pointed out here that not only was Lord
Dunmore willing to offer the slaves freedom if they fought for the crown,
the British abolished slavery long before the USA did. Before Harry
Braverman became associated with the Monthly Review, he was a leader of the
American Trotskyist movement where he used the pen name Harry Frankel. I
always got a kick out of this. The rest of the Jews in the party took
gentile names. George Novack became George Warde; Joseph Vanzler became
John G. Wright, but Harry took a nice Jewish name like Frankel. Eventually
Harry and Bert Cochran led a group out of the Trotskyist movement that put
out a magazine between 1955 and 1960 that I identify strongly with. (I
can't remember Bert's real name, but it was something like Goldberg--his
widow told me he picked an Irish name so that anti-Semitic prejudices
wouldn't interfere with his trade union work. All I can say is that he
looks about as Irish as I do.)

The one thing you can say about the Cochranites is that they eschewed
dogma. Even when they were in the SWP, they were always looking at new
angles. The excerpts (here's hoping I don't hear from an SWP attorney) from
a 1946 article below--when Braverman was still in the SWP--takes a
completely startling position that the Southern planters were more
revolutionary at the outset than the Northern merchants because the British
impinged on their immediate class interests. This jibes with John Oakes
ample evidence of Southern enthusiasm for John Locke's theories on property
rights, including in human beings of course. Since Braverman dispenses with
scholarly pretensions (god bless him) and does not provide citations, I
can't say if this is his own interpretation or somebody else's. Whatever
the case, it seems to make damned good sense.


Class Forces in the American Revolution

Harry Frankel (1946)

The American Revolution was directed and its fruits were harvested by a
coalition of two classes: the budding northern bourgeoisie and the southern
landowning aristocracy. For three-quarters of a century thereafter, the
evolution of these two classes and their mutual relations were to
determine, to a major degree, the course of American history. Their
struggles were to cut the main channels in which events would flow.

These two classes were particular and special types of the landowning and
bourgeois classes. They were planted on the shores of a rich and vast
continent by an already developed Western European civilization. They had
no feudal antecedents in this country. Nor did they find it necessary to
recapitulate the European stages in the course of their growth. The
hitherto unprecedented conditions created an American social structure with
a minimum of excess baggage in the form of feudal rubbish. The dead hand of
the past lay lightly on the American brow; a society of exceptional vigor
and directness was developed.

The differences between the North and South, which led to the development
of differing social structures with dissimilar ruling classes, were
accentuated by the natural conditions encountered by the early settlers.
The Appalachian range, which for two centuries delimited the field of the
colonists, forms an angle with the Atlantic coastline, the intersection of
which is in the North. Thus the further south one proceeds, the broader is
the alluvial belt so necessary for staple crop cultivation. In the North,
where the mountains lie close to the coast, the fall line of the rivers is
correspondingly close. Thus the rivers and streams of New England are
navigable for only a short distance from their mouths. The New England
settlements hugged the coast, and such agricultural produce as was raised
in the interior was not too readily floated to market.

The southern states, quite the opposite, possessed a vast agricultural
domain within the belt allotted to them by the Atlantic and Appalachian
boundaries. Broad rivers, navigable even by ocean-going vessels for a long
distance into the interior, were provided by nature as future arteries of
commerce. The preconditions for a land of great plantations were ready and

A cheap labor supply, an easily cultivated crop, and a ready market were
all that were required for the establishment of the plantation system. The
first was provided partly by indentured servants but primarily by Negro
slavery. The planters found the second in tobacco. And in the growing
addiction of Europe to the new habit of smoking, the planters found their

Thus by the beginning of the eighteenth century a plantation system resting
primarily, in fact almost exclusively, on tobacco was dominant throughout
Virginia and Maryland. In South Carolina and Georgia, the same system,
resting upon rice as the chief staple, was prevalent. Around 1750, indigo
was introduced into these two states, and soon ran rice a close second. To
the cultivation of rice, tobacco, and indigo, North Carolina added the
large-scale export of lumber and naval stores.

The plantations were huge in area, their owners were powerful, and towns
were small and unimportant. The political hegemony, under these conditions,
fell to the plantation owners. This ruling class was a blood cousin to the
landowning classes of all history, and yet it possessed certain
peculiarities which were to give it great revolutionary significance in
American history. In the first place, it possessed no feudal history. The
feudal restrictions on land tenure were slight, only such as the British
aristocracy and its American allies could impose from afar. Even these
remnants of feudalism were to be swept away by the Revolution.

Secondly, the southern plantation owner was a producer for the world market
from the very first. His economic position thus gave to his interests and
activities a more cosmopolitan cast than is common in landowning classes.
True, he could not rival in this respect the merchant of a busy New England
port. And yet, throughout the South, ocean-going vessels tied up at the
private docks of planters whose lands lay on the broad rivers, and the news
of the world was at their front doors.

A third peculiarity of the southern agricultural ruling class carried the
most revolutionary potentialities. While they raised the crops themselves,
the planters did not market them. The produce of the South was marketed by
British merchants, whose agents and factors were concentrated in the
coastal towns.

Here the difference between New England and the South can be clearly seen.
In the North, three-fourths of the trade that passed through the ports was
handled by American-owned ships and one-fourth by British. In the South, on
the other hand, only one-fourth of the trade was carried in American
bottoms; the proportion was exactly reversed.

The Planters' Plight

How was it possible that the southern planters allowed themselves to be
imprisoned in a cell whose key was held only by the British merchants? The
answer is simple: it lay in the limitation of the planters by law to the
British market only. And the British merchants drove a hard bargain. The
English duties on tobacco were from four to six times its selling price in
America at the end of the seventeenth century. By 1760 they had risen as
high as fifteen times the value of the tobacco, and although a large part
or even all of the duty was remitted when the tobacco was reexported to
Europe, the planters had small comfort from this since the benefit of it
went to the English merchants and bankers.

The results of this system are fully explained by Jefferson, who, being
himself a planter in the Piedmont or upland region of Virginia, was in a
position to know:

Virginia certainly owed two millions sterling to Great Britain at the
conclusion of the war. Some have conjectured the debt as high as three
millions. . . . This is ascribed to the peculiarities in the tobacco trade.
The advantages made by the British merchants on the tobacco consigned to
them were so enormous, that they spared no means of increasing those
consignments. A powerful engine for this purpose, was the giving good
prices and credit, till they got him more immersed in debt than he could
pay, without selling his lands or slaves. Then they reduced the prices
given him for his tobacco, so that let his shipments be ever so great, and
his demand of necessaries ever so economical, they never permitted him to
clear off his debt. These debts had become hereditary from father to son,
for many generations, so that the planters were a species of property,
annexed to certain mercantile houses in London.

In this paragraph Jefferson reveals more of the springs of revolutionary
action in his class than in the whole Declaration of Independence. "The
planters were a species of property annexed to certain mercantile houses in
London. . . . They got him more immersed in debt than he could pay. . . .
They never permitted him to clear off his debt." The superior position of
the British merchant, with his access to Parliament where he could make the
laws for the colonies, was utilized to the fullest. The more the planters
produced, the deeper in debt they found themselves.

Throughout the first three-quarters of the eighteenth century, the price of
tobacco was steadily lowered by the British merchants. The import duties in
Britain, to which all tobacco had to go, rose. Even the most prosperous of
planters sank into debt. We find Washington, the richest planter in the
colonies and highly esteemed for his astuteness in managing the affairs of
his plantation, writing to London for extension of credit, and explaining
that he was far in arrears because of bad crops for three years. When,
after 1763, the revolutionary disturbances began and the British merchants
took alarm and began to tighten their credit, the southern planters were
put in an almost inextricable position. Is it any wonder that they took the
revolutionary road, risking thereon "our lives, our fortunes, and our
sacred honor"? Without a sharp turn in the situation, their fortunes and
their "sacred honor" were virtually forfeit, and what good is life to a
landowning gentleman deprived of these?

Nor was this the only condition under which the planters suffered. Certain
royal restrictions on the ready acquisition of western lands were very
irksome to them as well as to the smaller farmers of the uplands. As we
have seen, the planters were constantly under the imperative necessity of
increasing the area of land under cultivation, in order to increase the
size of their shipments of tobacco. In addition, the wasteful one-crop
cultivation exhausted the soil and made movement westward the chief
recourse of the planter. The crown restrictions hung heavily on them.

This was the basis upon which arose the struggle between the crown and its
royal governors together with their allies-- seaboard planters dependent on
the king's favor, agents and factors in the coastal towns--on the one side,
and the planters and smaller farmers of the interior on the other. Like
debtors in all ages, the planters sought a widening of the credit base and
a paper money inflation to ease their situation. The colonial legislatures,
for example the House of Burgesses in Virginia, would pass debt-canceling
laws and were answered with debt-protecting laws passed by the British
Parliament. The provincial governor would exercise the royal veto power to
nullify the laws of the legislature, whereupon they promptly retaliated by
withdrawing his salary.

As the governor's funds ran out, his attitude was relaxed proportionally,
and the legislature would carry a point. No sooner was his salary restored
than he revoked the laws and the duel began anew.

It was this that prompted the colonial hatred of the Stamp Act: not so much
the hardship of paying it as the fact that the royal governors were to be
paid out of its proceeds, thus making them independent of the legislatures.

Thus grew up several generations of planters whose political lines circled
around the axis of opposition to the British government. The young scions
of families like the Masons, the Pendletons, the Henrys, the Randolphs, the
Jeffersons, sent to William and Mary or across the ocean to Oxford or
Cambridge, studied avidly the revolutionary doctrines with which the
English bourgeoisie had justified its revolution. Seizing upon the
teachings of Coke in jurisprudence, of Sidney and Locke in politics and
government, they applied them readily to their own situation. An
intellectual climate of revolt accompanied the material acts of the struggle.

The commercial bourgeoisie, concentrated primarily in the northern states,
was situated quite differently. Up until 1763 the British mercantilist
theory was laxly applied. Despite minor restrictions on their activities,
the preceding century had been a golden age for the merchant class.

If New England was hampered by natural conditions insofar as agriculture
was concerned, other natural advantages compensated--and, as later events
showed, more than compensated--for the deficiency. The coastline provided
abundant natural harbors. On its shores grew a supply of excellent
shipbuilding timber which extended almost to the waters' edge. The rivers,
though they were not navigable, possessed in return many falls, excellent
providers of motive power for machinery. The great Newfoundland Banks
furnished endless fisheries, and the whaling grounds of the North Atlantic
were close at hand. The prerequisites for a maritime and commercial society
were present, and were assisted by the poor agricultural prospects which
drove capital to sea.

The impression that agriculture was minor would be erroneous. Nine-tenths
of the population of the colonies as a whole were engaged in agriculture,
and even in New England a majority pursued that chief occupation. But the
conditions of agriculture, the poor soil, the many natural obstacles, were
such as to discourage the investment of large amounts of capital in the
tilling of land. Holdings were in small parcels, and agriculture was
carried on by small farmers.

Large urban centers such as Boston and Newport carried the major political
weight, and in them the merchant bourgeoisie held the scepter of power.

This merchant class prospered within the framework of the British system.
Under the Navigation Act of 1660, the colonial carrying trade was
monopolized by British and colonial shipping. Naturally, the shipbuilding
industry boomed, and the conditions for this trade were so favorable that
soon vessels could be constructed more cheaply in New England than anywhere
in Europe. Oak ships which cost fifty dollars a ton in Europe could be
built for thirty-four dollars a ton in America.

Building on the basis of this industry, and on the profitable fisheries,
the merchants of New England rapidly constructed a vast carrying trade that
encircled the globe. None too particular about how they established their
fortunes, the stern Puritan captains built the lucrative trade that was
based on molasses, rum, and slaves. When the Seven Years' War broke out and
the colonies joined Britain in the effort to drive out the French, the
merchants did not, despite their avowals of patriotism, shrink from
supplying the enemy with foodstuffs at a heavy profit. Through energy,
frugality, and unscrupulousness they built the wealth and power of the
merchant class, the forerunner of the modern bourgeoisie.

Thus they prospered under the British system and therefore they acquiesced
in it. True, the restrictions on manufactures pinched here and there, but
manufactures were a minor interest of the bourgeoisie at that time and it
is doubtful that they would have grown much more rapidly than they did had
the restrictions been removed. True also, the laws of Parliament protecting
credit were aimed at American debtors of the London merchants and bankers.
But these laws also operated to provide excellent credit terms for the
American merchants. Just as American capital poured into Germany after
World War I when it was under close financial supervision by the Allies, so
too British capital was freely provided for American merchants when the
British creditors knew that their loans were protected by legislation. In
addition, the American merchantmen that roamed the world could feel secure
in the protection of the Royal Navy.

The year 1763 marked the turning point in the relations of the British
ruling class and the Yankee merchants. In that year the British concluded
the Treaty of Paris which formalized the surrender of the French and their
expulsion from America. Turning from that task, the British ministry
prepared to deal with its ally, the colonial mercantile class, soon to
become a more formidable rival than the recently defeated foe.

The British had been incensed by the commercial relations of New England
with the enemy. In addition, the conclusion of the war left them with the
enormously swollen national debt of 147 million pounds, the war having
added 70 million pounds to the already huge deficit. And what better place
to find the money than in the colonies? In 1764, the measures designed for
this purpose were passed by Parliament. The duty on molasses was reduced,
but the intention was declared of beginning to collect it, and forces were
provided to back this declaration. Import duties and restrictive acts of
all sorts were multiplied, and in the resulting flare-up of opposition the
merchants were placed side by side with the planters in the struggle
against Britain.

It would be incorrect to say that the merchant class had not opposed
British rule at all before this time. The antagonism between colony and
metropolis had existed from the beginning. The colonists had always looked
at the royal governors and other officials, who were sent to America to
make their fortunes, as unnecessary leeches. The monopoly of Britain in the
American market acted as a sort of tax on the Americans, since prices stood
higher than they would have been under freer conditions. These and a host
of other petty annoyances had always been resented in the North. But the
prosperity of the merchants under the system outweighed the disadvantages
and they consented to its continuance. With the destruction of some of the
main supporting pillars of the edifice of prosperity, such as the untaxed
molasses trade, open and violent opposition began. The merchants extended
the hand of friendship to the planters, and in 1765, at the Stamp Act
Congress in New York, the alliance was concluded. Lincoln once said that
the United States was "formed in fact by the Articles of Association in
1774." He might have, with considerably more accuracy, placed the date nine
years earlier, when the coalition between merchant and planter was made.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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