What, if anything, does the Declaration of Independence mean? The approach of its 200th anniversary has produced a small deluge of reviews of the saga of American history and the “truths” adopted on 4th July 1776. There must be many who, having read and listened, still wonder why a nation claiming to be founded on “inalienable rights” of equality, freedom of speech and thought and “the pursuit of happiness” manifestly does not have them. The answer is that the Declaration of Independence was framed as the expression of one class’s economic interests.
The colonization of America resulted from European countries’ quest for trade. Its labour-force came in part from the same source as theirs, the dispossession of peasants to make them “free labourers”; also from refugees from the religious wars and persecutions which were part of the break-up of feudalism, victims of rack-renting and famine in Ireland, unemployed artisans, etc. About half the white colonists before 1730 sold themselves as slaves or “indentured servants” in exchange for a passage to the New World, and about 200,000 black slaves were taken from Africa.
The various American colonies were practically all self-supporting from agriculture and the forests and their products (the highly lucrative fur trade created policies towards Indians, and also the first millionaires). In the non-slave states the labouring class was a mixture of indentured servants and wageworkers. The colonies were driven closer together by conflicts with Indians and by the English wars with France and Spain which both had colonies in America and fought for trade there.
The rôle of the British government in controlling America was to preserve Britain’s position as the manufacturing centre, to which other countries sent raw materials and from which they had to buy manufactured goods. Under the Navigation Laws, the colonies had to use English ships for trade and all goods had to be “laid on the shores of England”, where duty was collected. The French war had left the British government with a heavy debt, and it sought to raise revenue in America; whereas the New England merchants were chiefly smugglers evading payment of duties.
The political conflicts leading up to the War of Independence — the Boston Tea Party, the Currency Act, legislation restricting the manufacture of finished goods and restraining movement westward — were all manifestations of this situation. But the term “American Revolution” is a misnomer insofar as it conveys a separate, unique upheaval or “a noble experiment”, as The Times called it in a recent article. It was part of the eruption as the capitalist class took political power, the American phase of the English revolution.
The greater part of the Declaration of Independence consists of political attacks on George III. In Britain the Georges were supported by the Tory representatives of the landowning aristocracy while the Whigs, standing for the interests of developing capitalism and freedom of trade, were still struggling. In America, still in its early stages, the class issues were confused but the dominant interests were those from which the capitalist class originated: the smuggling merchants, land speculators, and would-be manufacturers. The Tories comprised large landholders, “respectable” merchants, officials and dependants of the British regime, and the Church of England faction.
These ties were exchanged across the Atlantic. The revolutionists were in fact a minority, but they were more active, perceptive and coherent — in a word, conscious — than any other section. They drew the support of the small business men and the labouring class through local legislative assemblies and over such issues as the Currency Act.
The War of Independence ended in 1782, one month before the Tory government fell and the Americans’ Whig allies came to power in Britain. This was the beginning of capitalism’s rise to maturity. How much the Declaration of Independence meant, and whom it stood for, can be seen in the fact that in the mid-1780s out of an American population of 3½ million (excluding Indians) only 400,000 were “free” men. Its principles, and the ideas of democracy it embodied, were cast aside almost immediately.
That, again, was not special to America. In France the cry was “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, and in England freedom was demanded everywhere. Freedom for whom and what? Freedom for the inrushing capitalist class to exploit without restraint, without the shackles of monarchy and divine right: equality at the start of a race in which the self-elected winner had the hides and carcasses of the rest. In America, the ownership and control of the means of living were vested in the class whose lineal descendants still hold it.
The history books show Independence to have been essential to the emergence of a great modern nation: the creation of a strong central government controlled by the manufacturing and commercial class. The capitalists were a revolutionary class, advancing the capacities of mankind immeasurably. What the Declaration of Independence shows is their inability to fulfil those capacities after two hundred years. Like the aristocracy from whose grip they broke, from a dynamic social force they have long since become an obstruction to mankind. It is time for the next move, to Socialism.