Revolution and Evolution In Twenieth Century                       


change4 Every revolution is a struggle to resolve the particular contradictions which have evolved out of a particular past. Every country’s past is particular, but America’s past is so particular that it almost seems to have evolved on another planet. Except for the Native Americans, whom Europeans named Indians, everyone in this country is a descendant of someone who came here from another continent and another culture less than four hundred years ago-in most cases, much less. The economic, social, and political institutions of this country have been shaped by the struggles of very real and very different people, mostly of humble origin and all seeking to make a new and prosperous life for themselves here, on this earth, as quickly as possible, regardless of the cost to other peoples, especially to those of different ethnic backgrounds, and to future generations. They  have thus made it inevitable that at some future time the American People would be compelled to face with sober senses the real, i.e., historical, conditions of their lives and their relations with their kind.

 As the Indians were meeting in the eleventh century, somewhere near Ticonderoga, to reconcile the territorial claims of different tribes, they had no idea that technical advances in navigation and

 144           James and Grace Lee Boggs

 aspirations for freedom by ordinary people on another continent would lead to their becoming one day the first people in history to be placed in a concentration camp called a reservation. Nor did the members of a religious sect, seeking, in the early seventeenth century, a place where they could exercise what they conceived as their God-given right to interpret the Bible in accordance with their own consciences, have any idea that they would set into motion a chain of events which would lead, a hundred and fifty years later, to the creation of a new nation founded on concepts of freedom and equality more advanced than any hitherto dreamed of, but a nation that would eventually exterminate and enslave people on a racial basis as they had never before been exterminated or enslaved in human history.

 Thus, one group, seeking to escape the contradictions on one continent, began to create new contradictions for itself and for another set of people on another continent, contradictions which have remained to this day and have become more complex and challenging with the years.

 It is only by reflecting on the political, social, and economic climate of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that we can understand why so many thousands were ready to embark on a journey to the new continent, a journey as daring and as historic as Mao’s Long March more than three centuries later. Most of them had no idea what life would be like in the new land, what were the customs of the people already living there, how they would grow food or what kind of food the soil would grow. The voyage itself was long and dangerous. If you were lucky, you made it from Plymouth,

England to Plymouth, New England, in ten weeks, as the Pilgrims did. But it might well take twice that long. A ship had to be stout enough and carry a crew skillful enough to cope with the tropical hurricanes which led to watery graves for many. Enough water and provisions had to be carried for both passengers and crew on the long voyage. The tools and implements needed to grow food, hunt game, and build dwellings had to be brought along. And finally, it was crucial to begin the journey with a sufficient number of dedicated and capable persons so that, after the inevitable attrition from illness and death en route, there would be enough people left to establish and maintain a minimum settlement. Because the last consideration 

           Rediscovering the American Past         145  

was so important, it was customary for ships to set out together in a fleet.  Yet despite the known and unknown perils, many individuals contemplated the Long Voyage because a new spirit had begun to stir in the ordinary man and woman, the artisans and the clerks, the housewives and the vagabonds, of Western Europe. It was an era of what we today call “rising expectations.” Instead of dreaming about happiness in heaven, as the masses of Europe had done for centuries under the tutelage of the Roman Catholic Church, they had begun to think about achieving it here on earth.

 As the word spread of a new and bountiful land across the ocean that was not already owned by kings and queens and feudal lords, those imbued with these rising expectations began to wonder how they could get to it. Some joined groups sponsored by kings and queens anxious for the gold and silver and furs of the New World. Others acquired merchant sponsors who were on the lookout for groups reliable enough to back. Many were simply adventurers and scoundrels, running away from their obligations. Others saw them-selves as agents or servants of the Crown. Some only planned to grab as much gold and silver as they could and then make a fast getaway back to their homeland to enjoy their new wealth. A very few thought of America as a place where they could settle, raise their families, and build a new society. But adventurer or settler, most of those who came to this country, then and since, have been humble and unhappy folk because, as Tocqueville’* put it, “the happy and powerful do not go into exile.”

 Among those who came to settle and raise their families were the Pilgrims who made the Long Voyage on the Mayflower in the fall of 1619, and whom subsequent generations of Americans have rightly honored. This is not because the Pilgrims endured more hardships or had more physical courage than the others who had come or were still to come. It was  because they had a body of ideas, the radical ideology of Puritanism, which they were trying to implement by creating a new society in a new land. Many other settlements were established–in Virginia by the British, in New York by the Dutch–but these were only company- or Crown-sponsored. Their


* ·Tooqueville”s two-volume Democracy in America remains the most penetrating

analysis of the contradictions of American society ever written.


148          James and Grace Lee Boggs


members were bound together only by ethnic or family (biological)

ties or material (self) interests.

 The radical ideology of the Puritans was formulated in terms of

religion because, as we have seen, the aspirations of the masses have

been, until recently, expressed in relation to God. In feudal Europe

the Roman Catholic Church had arrogated to itself the right to

interpret the will of God to everyone, from peasant to monarch, and

had become the continent’s most powerful institution, both politi-

cally and economically. Therefore it was only natural that the first

generalized revolt by the European masses against feudal rule had

taken a religious form in the Reformation, which repudiated the right

of the clergy to interpret God’s word to the masses.

 The Pilgrims were, to begin with, Puritans. The Puritans were

English men and women of enterprising spirit who came from the

lower middle class of printers and postmasters, clerks and apothecar-

ies, tailors and saddlers. Usually able to read and write, and with

some members who had attended the university, they were in revolt

against the Church of England because it seemed to them as

hierarchical and as restrictive of the independent thinking and

activities of the ordinary man and woman as the Roman Catholic

Church from which Henry the Eighth had split. Separating one by

one from the Church of England, they organized their own

congregations and elected their own pastors to help them practice in

their daily lives the ideas they derived from their studies of the Bible.

Not only did they insist that no priests or representatives of the

Establishment had the right to interpret the Bible for them. They

were convinced that if they worked hard and lived very strict moral

lives in accordance with the Bible, God would see to it that they

prospered. Through their joint worship, they constantly reinforced

one another in the conviction of their human dignity and righteous-

ness, as contrasted with the sinful and luxurious living of those who

persecuted them for their efforts to build the Kingdom of God here

on earth. For their subversive ideas, which the Puritans were very

aggressive in propagandizing, they were harassed and persecuted.

Many were put into prison, and not a few leaders were executed.

 One congregation, which later became our Pilgrims, fled to

Holland, where they found religious tolerance. But among people

speaking another language and with their own prosperous and tidy

culture, there was no opportunity for the Puritans to make converts


            Rediscovering the American Past         147


 or to implement their hopes for a “New Jerusalem.” So after many

 disappointments, they arranged with a joint stock company for a ship

 and provisions, as well as additional recruits and a crew, so that they

 could establish a settlement in the New World and send back the

 furs and gold and the other resources of America which would justify

 the money invested in them.

  The Puritans were men and women with strong convictions about

 the ideal relations between people. But they were soon to find that

 there is a big difference between ideals and reality. They had

 embarked on the Mayflower in order to establish a new and united

 community of true believers. But the new recruits to their contingent

 were “strangers” who did not share the ideas or the past experiences

 of the Puritans.” The “strangers” had no interest in ideology

 whatsoever; they had only undertaken the journey for the economic

 opportunities which the New World promised.

  As the ship approached the shores of New England, it dawned on

 these economic opportunists that the King of England no longer had

 any authority over them and that they were in a position to extract a

 price for their skills and labor. So they suggested that, once ashore,

 they go off on their own.

  Thus threatened, the Puritans drew up the Mayflower Compact,

 which pledged all the signers to “combine ourselves together into a

 civil body politick, for our better ordering and preservation.”

 Through the Mayflower Compact, the Puritans gained assurance that

 the economic opportunists would stick with the ideologists, while the

 economic opportunists gained a voice in the decision-making. The

 Compact is a historic document because it represents the first

bargaining by working people for political rights in exchange

 for their contributions in labor. It is a forerunner of the present labor

 contract, and an example of the kind of concessions which those with

 official power can make to those without power when they are linked

 by material considerations. The Puritans were able to come up with


 For an engrossing account of the contradictions and developing relations between

the two groups, see Saints and Strangers by George F. Willison (New York, 1945),

which is based on the manuscripts of William Bradford, a member of the original

congregation and a leader in its inner councils until his death in 1657. Bradford’s

manuscript, which he called his “scribled writings,” was begun in 1630 and completed

in 1650. It was first discovered, by accident, in 1855, two hundred years after his



148          James and Grace Lee Boggs


this new concept of compact because over many years they had been

practicing the idea of a body politic among those who shared their

ideology. Now, driven by practical necessities, they were ready to

enter into the same relations with those with whom they only shared

material interest.

 On shore, economic exigencies became more important each year.

As the struggle to survive in the new land grew more desperate, as it

became increasingly necessary to trade with the Indians in order to

get the furs with which to pay their debts to the sponsoring

Londoners, as many members of the original company succumbed to

hardships and were replaced by new shiploads, those with fewer

convictions and more self-interest in economic opportunity began to

dominate the leadership. Thus, step by step, in order that the settlers

might endure and prosper in the new country, economics began to

take command over religion and principled politics.

 The growing priority of economic self-interest was most critically

manifested in the settlers’ relations with the Indians. On board the

Mayflower the Pilgrims created the advanced idea of the Mayflower

Compact to meet the challenge from the “strangers” because the

two groups had shared a common cultural background in Europe and

a common material interest in establishing a settlement in the New

World. But this unity was not present in their relations with the

Indians. The desire of all those coming over on the Mayflower to

escape their state of subjection in Europe and to prosper in the new

land was very real. The Puritan search for a land where they could

practice their convictions was also very real. However, they had

come to a country where there were some very real people who were

living in accordance with a completely different set of beliefs, with

an entirely different culture. When the Indians met to decide which

tribe would have hunting and fighting rights over different sections of

North America, their decisions were based on the various cultures of

the different tribes. There were some who hunted small game in the

East, those who hunted large game in the West, those who fished in

the myriad lakes and rivers, others who planted corn. On a continent

where there was plenty of land and very few people, and where

kings and church and aristocracy had not seized huge domains for

themselves, no concept of private land ownership had been devel-

oped. Nor had the Indians created structured armies and clerical

institutions to Protect private ownership and aristocratic privileges.


           Rediscovering the American Past         149


When the Indians told the settlers that nobody owned the land, they

meant that everybody owned it. But it was easy for the settlers to

misunderstand the Indians, not only because it was in their economic

interest to do so, but because their historical experience had been

limited to Europe, where practically every piece of land was

somebody’s private property. Their bodies had left Europe but they

had brought their European past with them in their heads.

 From their earliest search for a “New Jerusalem,” the Puritans had

been imbued with a vision of a new society of the common man and

woman. As they established themselves in New England, they began

to translate their vision into reality. They were ready to work hard

and to make sacrifices for their convictions. They were courageous

and daring in their determination to hew out an existence in their

new surroundings. But since the Indians had not gone through the

historic experiences which they had endured in Europe, and since

their own concept of the nature of man/woman was limited to

European man/woman, it was easy for them not to include the

Indians in their concept of humankind. Their ideas had been

advanced enough to take them across the ocean, but not universal

enough to include people from another cultural background. Up to

then, the only patterns that had been established for relations

between peoples of widely different cultures had been either that of

the more advanced dominating over the less advanced and forcing

them to assimilate the culture of the advanced; or those with a less

advanced culture conquering those of a more advanced culture and

then gradually assimilating the achievements of the more advanced

culture-as in the case of the conquest of Rome by the barbarians

from Northern Europe or of China by the Mongols.

 The Indians had neither the will nor the power to conquer the

Pilgrims. The Pilgrims made no attempt either to incorporate the

values of the Indian culture into their own or to assimilate

the Indians into their culture. Nor did they set an outer limit beyond

which no Pilgrim could settle, so that on the other side of that limit

the Indians could continue their own way of life or develop at their

own pace and by their own efforts toward a technically more

advanced civilization under their own leadership. Instead economic

expediency was allowed to govern. The Pilgrims first took from the

Indians such skills in hunting, fishing, and the growing of corn as

served their interests, and then entered into an increasingly unequal


150          James and Grace Lee Boggs


trade relation with the Indians. They traded trinkets and alcohol and

resold corn to the Indians in exchange for beaver and fox furs with

which they bought supplies and paid the debt they owed their

sponsors back in England. To meet ever increasing demands from

Europe, they stepped up their profit in the exchange with the

Indians. For less corn they demanded more fur and more land,

leaving less land and less game for the Indians and therefore greater

Indian need to buy corn and cloth from the settlers. Each year more

and more settlers poured in from the tyranny of Europe, and more

and more land was taken from the Indians. That which was not taken

outright became worthless to the Indians because the wild animals

on which they depended for food and skins fled before the tide of

advancing settlements. As the antagonisms between desperate

Indians and avaricious colonists became more bitter, some of the

most avaricious even began selling guns to the Indians, guns which

they knew would be used against other colonists. Thus, in the course

of their determination to advance their own humanity, which was

progressive in relation to their persecution in England, the settlers

became increasingly backward in relation to another section of

humanity and even among them selves. The same domination and

restrictions from which they had fled in Europe, they imposed on the


 Today many Americans think that the rapid development of this

country is the result of the Pilgrims having been a “chosen people,” a

people blessed by Providence because they were brave enough to

turn their backs on Europe, leaving behind its persecution and

tyranny, risking the dangers of the ocean voyage to come to the new

continent where there were such unlimited opportunities. Such an

explanation introduces an element of predestination and inevitability

into the decisions made by the Pilgrims. More important, it evades

the contradiction within which the settlers were trapped in their

relations with the Indians because their concept of man/woman was,

not surprisingly, limited by their historical experiences. We must rid

ourselves once and for all of this concept of “chosen people,” not to

berate the Pilgrims for their historical limitations but in order not to

get trapped ourselves in the limitations of this concept. Once you

begin to use divine providence or a supernatural power to justify

self-interest, you impose limits on your own human capacity and

responsibility to reflect on and develop an enlarged concept of


           Rediscovering the American Past         151


humanity in relation to those different from yourself and thus in

relation to your own humanity.

 How much the American mind has crippled itself by using divine

Providence to sanction the country’s rapid economic development

can be seen by the assertion of Benjamin Franklin a century later

regarding the Indians, “If it be the design of Providence,” Franklin

said, “to extirpate these savages in order to make room for the

cultivators of the earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the

appointed means. It has already annihilated all the tribes who

formerly inhabited the seacoasts.” This from the man who served

with Thomas Jefferson on the committee to draft the Declaration of


 Thus the philosophical basis was laid to bring in and enslave a

whole people from another continent to achieve the rapid agricul-

tural development which is a prerequisite to rapid industrial

development. This philosophy led, in the Mexican War, to the

seizure of millions of acres of land from “greasers” and the

destruction of the culture of the indigenous people of the Southwest;

in the Spanish-American War, to the subjugation of the Cubans and

the Filipinos; and, finally, in our day, to the genocidal war against

“gooks” in Indochina. All in the name of “Manifest Destiny.”


 In 1763 the war between the British and the French for the

domination of the American continent ended in victory for the

British. The war is known as the French and Indian War, since

the Indians fought with the French on the basis that the latter, being

less interested in settling, constituted less of a threat to their way of

life than the British. The British came out of the war with a Powerful

empire, but also with a huge post-war debt and the increased costs of

policing their empire. To pay these costs, the British Parliament

decided to impose heavy taxes on the colonies, since, after all, it

could be claimed that the war had been fought in their interests as

much as in the interests of those remaining at home.

 In resisting the British effort to tax them, the colonists were

undoubtedly motivated by economic self-interest. But as the struggle

over the tax issue intensified, these heirs to the Puritan tradition of

ideological controversy and propaganda began to develop political

ideas of a scope previously unheard of. At first, the argument took

the form chiefly of legal reasons why the British Parliament had no


152           James and Grace Lee Boggs


right to tax the colonists who were not represented in Parliament.

But before very long the intellectual leaders of the rebellion,

reflecting on the historical experience of the colonies over the

previous hundred and fifty years, began to realize how far they had

advanced beyond those who were still trying to govern them, in their

concepts and realization of the nature and potential of man/we-

man. *

 When most Americans think of the American Revolution, what

comes to mind is the 1770 Boston Massacre in which Crispus Attucks

lost his life, the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor, the ride of Paul

Revere, or the shot fired at Lexington and Concord and heard round

the world. They see the American Revolution as a series of

spontaneous and rebellious actions, which in turn led to other

militant actions and finally to a war for freedom from colonialism.

Such a scenario of the American Revolution is very similar to that

which most radicals have of the revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba,

Africa, Vietnam.

 Actually, the protracted process of creating a vigorous, independ-

ent, self-confident, self-reliant people capable of making decisions for

themselves had been taking place for over a hundred and fifty years,

beginning with the Mayflower Compact and continuing through

township meetings and the creation of representative institutions. It

was to take more than ten years of ideological struggle and

propaganda, from the passage of the Sugar Act by the British

Parliament in 1764 to the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington and

Concord in 1775, before a political base had been laid in the hearts

and minds of the American people deep enough to wage military

struggle against the most powerful military force of their day.

writing letters, publishing pamphlets, holding meetings, men and

women from every strata of the population, in the North and South

Atlantic colonies, began a vigorous ideological struggle around their

right and duty to resist taxation by the British and what this meant in

terms of their own past, their present and future relations with the

motherland, and their own future in America. Young radical

Northern intellectuals like Sam Adams and Mercy Otis Warren, and

John Adams and Abigail, his wife; Southern aristocratic intellectuals


 *A Dissertntia a Feudal ond Conon Law, written by the youthful John Adams in

1765, reveals the philosophical and historical scope of these reflections.


        Rediscovering the American Past         153


like Thomas Jefferson; Pennsylvania conservatives like James Wilson;

or farmers like John Dickinson; the British-born Tom Paine; all

struggled for ten years to convince each other and to win the people

to their views. Not until the ideological struggles to discover the right

road for the Chinese revolution inside the Chinese Communist Party

during the Yenan years, would democracy again be practiced on such

a broad scale.

 The intellectual leaders of the American Revolution did not only

speak and write. Between 1763 and 1775 they organized Committees

of Correspondence in every colony, and in nearly every town,

county, and city, to maintain contact with one another and to

organize a common resistance. Then, as the framework of the

colonial administration began to disintegrate in the sharpening

conflict between the American colonists and Great Britain, these

Committees of Correspondence were turned into Committees of

Inspection and Committees of Safety, which exercised executive

power in their jurisdictions, becoming, in effect, what we would

today call a “dual power structure.”

 As with any other people who have shared the same general

historical experience, there were many differences or tendencies

within the unified conviction that they should not pay the tax to the

British. These reflected actual differences within the population.

Some colonists were content with the prevailing relations with

England (“don’t rock the boat”). Often they were motivated by their

desire for profits in trade with England and the incipient Triangular

Trade-Africa (slaves), West Indies (sugar), New England (rum)–

with which it was linked. Many were afraid of losing their positions

as administrators for the Colonial Office. Some had accumulated

warehouses of tea, and relished the idea of British tea being tossed

overboard so that they could sell their own stock. Many were afraid

of being isolated from Europe, which was in their eyes the only

civilized continent in the world, and the home of relatives and


 As the ideological struggle became more heated, those who had

intended only to reform the relations between empire and colony

became aware that debate and protest and reform had already

unleashed the hopes of the masses to the degree that there was no

longer any room for compromise between the expanded concept


154           James and Grace Lee Boggs


which the people now had of themselves and the concept of them as

subjects which the British government held.

 As the confrontation drew near, many of those who had put

forward ideas to rid the colony of the British began to retreat. Like

liberals, they wanted to be on both sides. Some vacillated for the

entire period of the struggle. Some even moved as far inland as

possible to evade the issue. Some fled to Canada and are now part of

that country’s history.

 Essentially the American colonists were able to make and win the

revolution for independence against Britain because they had

experienced a degree of freedom from feudalism that no other

people had known. They had experienced both the opportunity and

the necessity not only to struggle for survival, but to make decisions

for themselves. They had learned that freedom is not just an abstract

concept but a way of life involving both opportunity and responsibil-

ities. They began to appreciate that on this continent they had been

creating in reality what such European philosophers as Locke and

Hume and Rousseau had only been discussing from an ideal

viewpoint. They began to see themselves as creating a new way of

life, a new way to achieve happiness, which made them the vanguard

of man/womankind, the social force of a new humanity.

 It was within this milieu of intense theoretical and practical

activity that Thomas Jefferson, then only thirty-three years old, was

able to write the Declaration of Independence in 1776, evoking a

new vision of humanity. To this day people all over the world are still

moved to struggle by the words:


 We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,

 that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,

 that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That

 to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving

 their just powers from the consent of the governed,-That whenever

 any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the

 Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new

 Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its

 powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their

 Safety and Happiness.

 A few years later, inspired by this Declaration, the French

Revolution would explode in Europe and a similar movement in

Santo Domingo.


             Rediscovering the American Past         155


 Many years later, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, John

Adams would write: “The revolution was effected before the war

commenced. The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the

people.” As a result of the revolutionary propaganda, especially of

the Adamses, the Paines, and the Jeffersons, the colonists had

discovered that there was a noble purpose in their struggle against

the British Crown, namely, to establish the dignity of the common

person· Armed with this new political concept of their human

identity, the colonists were able to defeat the more experienced

British forces. The American forces won the war for independence

with small contingents of local forces, mostly fighting on their own

terrain and with the support of the people. What they lacked in

technology and military experience, they made up for in ingenuity

and energy, and most of all by the conviction that their cause was



 When the war ended in 1783, the contradictions and differences

which had been submerged in the struggle against the common

enemy came to the surface. In his original draft of the Declaration of

Independence, Jefferson had accused the King of England of many

crimes. These included bringing “on the inhabitants of our frontiers

the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an

undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions of

existence” and the waging of “cruel war against human nature itself,

violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a

distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying

them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death

in their transportation thither.”

 In the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, which was

adopted by the Congress on July 4, 1776, after heated debate and

threats of withdrawal by the slave-trading and slave owner represen-

tatives, the passage concerning the Indians remained but that on the

slaves was completely deleted. Jefferson agonized over the deletion,

but, in the interests of unity, he capitulated.

 The fifty-five delegates who came together in 1787 to frame a

Constitution for the new nation were almost all men of distinction–

patriots, scholars, merchants, and landowners. The most distin-

guished among them–whether from the North like John Adams,

Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton, or from the South, like


156          James and Grace Lee Boggs


George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison–had all

expressed their abhorrence of the institution of slavery in the

strongest terms. But none of them believed in the equality of blacks

and none of them was ready for a principled political struggle over

the question of slavery.

 The immediate question which had brought the delegates together

was the urgent need to create a central government strong enough to

defend the nation against foreign encroachments, to negotiate trade

treaties with foreign powers, to keep the thirteen states from clashing

with one another, and to establish the sound currency necessary for

trade and economic development. But the delegates also represented

different states, based on different and potentially conflicting social

and economic relations, and fearful of domination by a government

in which other interests were represented.

 In order to increase their representation in the central govern-

ment, the slaveowning states demanded that slaves be counted in the

census as whole numbers, while the Northern states, where slavery

was virtually non-existent, did not want slaves counted at all. They

compromised on the provision to count the slave as three-fifths of a

man. Neither Northern nor Southern delegates were talking about

slaves voting. They were only concerned with the interests of their

respective states.

 Thus the United States became the only nation in history whose

best and brightest minds first led a revolution from colonialism in the

name of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all men, and

then built a contradiction into their society by explicitly denying

human dignity to a quarter of the population they aspired to govern.

 The Constitutional Convention had exposed and polarized real

contradictions in the country. But in the interests of unity, the

Founding Fathers covered up the contradictions. They evaded their

political responsibility to carry out ideological struggle and create a

principled political leadership for the country. They thereby laid the

groundwork for the Civil War.

At the time it appeared that the cover-up compromise would

work. Many blacks had fought in the War of Independence (some on

the British side). There was also a general sentiment, particularly in

the Northern and border states, that slavery would gradually


           Rediscovering the American Past         157


disappear. In fact, during and after the revolution, many slaves had

actually become free men and women–some by simply running

away, others through legislative action, court decision, or individual

manumission in the Northern states.

 However, almost before the ink was dry on the compromise

document, free blacks began to sharpen the contradictions by

agitating for the freedom of those still enslaved. In the afterglow of

victory in a just cause, many whites sympathized and supported the

black freedom movement. Then, in 1793, only six years after the

Constitution was adopted, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin,

which made it possible to utilize many more slaves in the production

of cotton than had hitherto been required on the tobacco plantations.

Cotton was a most precious commodity for the textile mills which

would provide jobs for workers and profits for capitalists in New

England. Cotton was also shipped to England, assuring a more

favorable trade balance for the infant nation, as well as the capital it

needed for new factories. So once again the economic thrust took

over, white support for the black freedom movement subsided, and

the country was flooded by racist propaganda, using the Bible,

pseudo-science, greed, and fear to justify the enslavement of blacks.

 But slaves continued to rebel and to run away. Freed blacks, like

David Walker in Boston, issued appeals to their brothers and sisters

to rise up and throw off the yoke of slavery. Periodically, spectacular

rebellions–among them those of Denmark Vesey in 1820 and Nat

Turner in 1831–struck terror into the hearts of the slavemasters and

aroused hope and anger in the blacks.

 In the 1830s a number of radical intellectuals in the North began

the Abolitionist Movement, a comprehensive attack upon slavery and

all the political, economic, and social institutions which had made it

possible and continued to enforce it. The Abolitionists, men and

women like William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Theodore

Parker, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, John Brown, were part of a

cultural renaissance which developed in the coastal cities of New

England, and which found expression not only in the anti-slavery

movement, but in the creative writings of men like Emerson,

Thoreau, and Melville. These New England intellectuals were very

different from the Southern intellectuals of an earlier period like

Thomas Jefferson, whose opportunities to reflect and create new


158          James and Grace Lee Boggs


ideas had been made possible by slave labor and who worried about,

but were still able to live with, the contradiction between their lofty

ideas and the ownership of slaves.

 In the first place, these men and women were very conscious of

their continuity with the distinctively American intellectual tradition

which had begun with the Puritans and assumed such an advanced

political form in the ideological struggles, propaganda, and organiza-

tion leading to the American Revolution. Without such a historical

consciousness of a continuing tradition, real creativity is impossible.

But they were also very conscious of going beyond this tradition.

Their horizons had been immeasurably broadened by the whaling

industry and the China trade, which took Young people like Herman

Melville, as well as ordinary seamen and merchants, to the far

corners of the earth. Enriching their historical tradition with these

new experiences, they had developed an enlarged concept of

humanity, which included, and even idealized, South Sea islanders,

Indians, and African blacks, because they had not yet been caught

up in the nexus of commercialism. Their concept of equality was not

individualistic but universalistic. As Melville put it, in Moby Dick, a

“just Spirit of Equality” had spread “one royal mantle of humanity

over all my kind.”

 In response to the black rebellions and black agitation and

propaganda, these New England intellectuals now began a ferocious

attack on the culture of the marketplace, which justified the

degradation of some human beings in order to further the economic

well-being of others. Americans, they said, had thrown off the yoke

of theocracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, only to set in its place the

yoke of money. The Constitution, they said, was a bastard document,

a compromise between the high ideals of the Declaration of

Independence and the selfish economic interests of slave traders and

slave owners. They challenged other Americans to base their

decisions on putting human beings first rather than the Almighty

Dollar. They were ready to put their lives on the line, to hide

runaway slaves, to wrest them from sheriffs trying to return them to

the South, to defend their meetings against attack, and, even as in

the case of John Brown, to organize a massacre of white settlers in

the Kansas-Nebraska armed conflict, and, five years later, an

insurrection at Harper’s Ferry.

 There were many differences among the Abolitionists over strategy


           Rediscovering the American Past         159


and tactics. They debated and split over whether it might be best

just to let the South go, rather than allow its Poison to spread into the

rest of the nation; or whether there was any point in using the

electoral process. But none of them had any use for the proposal to

ship the slaves back to Africa in order to rid the country of the

“Negro question,” the new compromise (favored by Lincoln) which

was gaining popularity and leading to the formation of Colonization

Societies. Instead they were absolutely convinced that Americans,

for the sake of their own humanity and development, must struggle

to resolve this contradiction which they had created for themselves.

They were very much aware of the fact that blacks had lived in this

country for as long as any whites–and longer than most.

 The Abolitionists concentrated on the slavery question, but they

were also active and vocal on other issues: women’s rights, peace,

debtors’ reform, abolition of capital punishment, prison reform. No

issue which involved oppressed humanity was alien to them.

However, they had very little idea of the power that would be

necessary to realize their advanced ideas or of the systematic mass

struggles which blacks would have to carry on if they were going to

be able not only to free but to develop themselves to become a

powerful part of a developing nation. Hence their propaganda and

agitation tended to appear abstract and idealistic, despite the

militancy of their actions. Objectively, they were too remote

geographically and socially from the blacks who were their chief

social force. They therefore were unable to develop what we now

call the “from the masses, to the masses” relationship out of which

could have developed the revolutionary politics and programs for

land reform around which the black masses might have organized

themselves; There were black Abolitionists who had come out of the

masses, men and women like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth,

Haniet Tubman, Samuel Ward, Henry Highland Garnet, Charles

Remond. But these were individuals, distinguished for their courage,

their eloquence, their organizational ability, rather than a political

body developing its ideas and programs through a collective and

continuing process of theory and practice.

 It is not just hindsight which leads us to raise the land issue. The

struggle over who would settle the land from which the Indians were

being driven had been a burning issue ever since the Louisiana

Purchase and the first decade of the nineteenth century. At first the


160          James and Grace Lee Boggs


slaveowning interests of the South fought to have new states

admitted as slave states in order to increase their power in Congress.

But as the soil in the slave states was threatened with exhaustion by

the wasteful methods of cultivating cotton, they began to regard

their own westward expansion as a matter of economic life and

death. On the other hand, the growing industrial capitalist class in

the Northeast saw the West chiefly as the breadbasket indispensable

to the feeding of workers in the cities, while many of these same

workers were insisting that the West remain free soil so that they

could eventually pull up stakes and go homesteading and farming.

For both the Northern worker and industrialist, economic ties to the

West were becoming more important than their economic ties to the


 Compromise after compromise had been attempted by Congress

and the politicians on the continuing conflict between North and

South over western lands. The first was the Missouri Compromise of

1820, which provided for Maine to be admitted as a free state,

Missouri as a slave state, with slavery prohibited elsewhere in the

Louisiana Purchase north of 36″30′. That compromise failed, and

Congress tried the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska

Act of 1854. Both of these provided for “squatter sovereignty,” i.e.,

Congress evaded the responsibility for deciding whether new states

should be free or slave, and left the decision to whomever got there

first. The 1850 and 1854 Compromises were open invitations to

armed struggles between the contending forces. These struggles led

directly to the Civil War.

 Thus the issue which led the majority of the American people into

the Civil War was not the abolition of slavery as a fundamental

contradiction in the American concept of man/woman, which could

have been resolved only by mass struggles to realize an enlarged

concept of humanity. Rather it was the question of how the western

lands would be used for production, i.e., whose economic interests,

those of the cotton-growing South or the industrial Northeast, would


 In failing to give principled political leadership at the Constitu-

tional Convention, the Founding Fathers had given the go-ahead

signal for politics to become the handmaiden of economics. Every

individual and every interest group was given official sanction for the

pursuit of individual or sectional advancement through economic


           Rediscovering the American Past         161


development under the benevolent auspices of a fatherly govern-

ment. This meant, for many city workers, settlement and expansion

toward the West, exterminating and driving the Indians before them,

while for new immigrants, fleeing the poverty and tyranny of

Europe, it meant jobs in the mushrooming factories. Although many

people believe that the immigrants rushed from their ships to the

frontier, the historical fact is that most of them stayed in or near their

friends in the Eastern cities. Usually those who had lived in the new

nation for some time moved West, while the new immigrants

replaced them in industry, becoming the first labor force rooted to

the mines, the mills, the tanneries, and the foundries.

 In this ideology economic development was both goal and method,

end and means. Every political decision made by government and

people was governed by how much it would further or retard the

rapid economic development of the country.

 This left to the Abolitionists, and their few supporters in the

North, and the blacks in the South, the social and political

responsibility for putting principled politics in command of econom-

ics. The Abolitionists and the blacks were governed by social thought

because they believed that what was good for the most oppressed

was good for the country as a whole. But they were geographically

separated from each other and neither had reached the stage of

consciously struggling for power in order to put their politics in

command of the entire country. On the other hand, Southern whites,

Northern industrialists, the old workers leaving the city to become

farmers, and the new immigrants swarming off the ships to become

workers, were all expressing bourgeois values. That is, they believed

that what was good for their own special, material interests was best

for the country.

 Ironically, and not surprisingly, forces with conflicting interests–

Northern industrialists, workers become farmers, Abolitionists and

blacks-would all line up on the same side in the Civil War, It was

an unholy alliance, and could not last.

 In order to lend a semblance of legitimacy to their cause, the

Southerners used the legal or Constitutional issue of States’ Rights.

The colonists had originally fought a war for independence on the

principled basis of human rights, and on this basis, it was conceivable

that, until the adoption of the Constitution, any individual could

have appealed to a national government over and above the states.


162          James and Grace Lee Boggs


But when the slaveowners won States’ Rights at the 1787 Conven-

tion, they effectively blocked off any legal or constitutional way for

dissidents in the South to transcend the control of the Southern


 Lincoln did not try to discover or propagate a deeper philosophical

basis or human vision for carrying out the struggle against the

slaveholding states. Instead he reacted to the secessionist challenge

within the framework which they had created, making “Save the

Union” the only objective of the Northern cause. In the bloodiest

internal struggle that any nation has ever undergone, the question of

unity rather than principled politics was the central issue. For whom,

by whom the nation was to be saved was obviously a matter of

conflicting interpretations on the part of the different forces on the

Northern side. Yet Lincoln’s goal, like that of the Founding Fathers,

was unity at whatever cost. He made no effort to appeal to an

enlarged sense of human identity among those on both sides, to urge

them to recognize the role which whites had played in bringing

blacks to this country by force and hence their responsibility for

developing a new society in which everyone could play an equal role.

Not until it looked as if the North might lose the military struggle did

he even issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which freed

only the slaves in Southern territory. The result of this narrow and

opportunistic approach to a long and bitter struggle was that the

more hardships the Northern workers endured in the war, the more

they tended to blame the blacks. This was especially true of the Irish

immigrants who had poured into the country in the decade

preceding the 1849 Irish famine. In the New York Draft Riots of

1863 they were foremost among those who burned and raped blacks

with more ferocity than any Southern lynch mob.

 Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, just as the war had come to

an end. There was no one around like George Washington, who had

commanded the respect of the entire country after the War of

Independence because he had been a masterful and successful

general, determined to rid the country of foreign domination. The

contradictions among the victors had advanced beyond the point

where they could be covered up by an individual figure symbolizing

unity. Vice-President Andrew Johnson, who took over the Presi-

dency, tried to carry out Lincoln’s program for binding up the


           Rediscovering the American Past         163


wounds of the nation, i.e., reconciling the interests of the victors with

those of the defeated. But what was needed after such a costly

conflict was not reconciliation but a revolutionary policy, backed by

force, which would have enabled the blacks to take over the land of

their defeated masters, and thus set the nation on a new road. So

Johnson ended up trapped by the various factions in the administra-

tion and in Congress, each of which had different views on how to

end the chaos.

 Some wanted to Punish the Southern planters by denying them the

vote and taking over their property; others wanted to treat them like

prodigal sons. Meanwhile, Confederate veterans were roving the

country in the South and West, raiding, looting, killing blacks and

Indians. The newly emancipated blacks in the South were like

stateless people without land to till, homes to live in, or food to eat.

But all the capitalists were interested in was expanding production;

all the workers wanted were jobs and land; and all the newly arrived

immigrants wanted were jobs.

 In this brief period of chaos, with the South under military control

by federal troops, black people in the South for the first time in this

country came to exercise some aspect of political decision-making. In

the process, several were elected to Congress. But far more

important was their contribution to education. The freed blacks

owned nothing, had nothing. The only chance they could see for

developing themselves was through education. And if they were to

get some education, it would have to take a social form because only

rich whites could afford private schools. So they established public

schools which not only enhanced their own opportunities but those

of the many poor whites who could not afford private schools. A few

of them were able to establish plantations, and fewer still opened up

small stores. They forced the opening up of public places, like

restaurants and hotels, and rode in the same cars on trains with

whites. For a brief period the socially conscious black forces, aware

of their destitute existence, put forward such humanitarian ideas that

even poor whites who had small landholdings as well as those who

had formerly acted as slavedrivers for the master plantation owners,

were in sympathy with their cause.

 At this point the blacks were still the largest ethnic group within

the working class. Although westward expansion was still going on,


164           James and Grace Lee Boggs


the bulk of production of agricultural goods and industrial commodi-

ties was still east of the Mississippi River, in the Northeast and


 But the efforts of the blacks to develop new social institutions

depended at this stage upon military support from a federal

government which was under pressure from profit-hungry indus-

trialists, land-hungry workers, and job-hungry immigrants, to get

back to business as usual, i.e., to the pursuit of private happiness

through economic expansion. The result was that in 1877, still

another compromise was reached between the North and South. In

exchange for “home rule” (i.e., States’ Rights under another name) or

the withdrawal of federal troops, the South agreed to support

Rutherford Hayes, the Northern businessman’s candidate, for Presi-

dent in a disputed election. Thus once again the best and brightest

minds of this country capitulated to blackmail. After fighting a

bloody civil war allegedly to free the slaves, then declaring them

legally free, the North allowed them to be put back into a state of

servitude equal to or worse than that of slavery. In exchange for the

opportunity to develop the West and North as they saw fit, the

Northern industrialists gave back to the Southern slaveholders the

right to exploit the blacks as they saw fit. Once again, the nation had

put economic development, economic expansion and the material

self-interests of the individual ahead of all human considerations.

Economics was put in command over politics, degrading politics to a

tool of economics–to “dirty politics.” Once again, it was confirmed

to those already in the country and to the millions of immigrants still

to come, that the pursuit of economic development and economic

expansion was the ideology of this nation whatever the cost in terms

of human development.

 Following the 1877 Compromise a flurry of restrictive laws, Jim

Crow laws, were passed in Southern towns, counties, and states, all

designed to keep blacks in their place–their place being what any

white person, even a small white child, said was their place. Thus the

United States became two nations, a nation with two sets of laws,

one for blacks and one for whites, with more laws than all the rest of

the world combined. State laws duplicate and conflict with national

ones, local laws conflict with and duplicate state and national laws.

Passing a law has become the passing-the-buck method for attacking

all social problems, because the nation, beginning with the Constitu-


           Rediscovering the American Past         165


tional Convention, had put behind it any concept of the transforma-

tion of people through ideological and political struggle over

principles and practice. Thus “that’s the law” has become the excuse

to evade contradictions, just as economics has become the excuse to

evade social and political issues. Courts, lawyers, prisons, guards, and

probation officers proliferate to service the proliferating prisoners

produced by the proliferating laws.

 For a brief period in the 1880s and 1890s, black and white farmers

in the South attempted to come together in what has been called the

Populist Movement. But the Populist Movement was no less a

self-interest movement just because it united two self-interested

groups. Poor blacks and poor whites, mainly farmers, combined their

forces to fight for their economic interest in credit, cheap money and

lower shipping rates against Northeastern railroad and banking

interests. The movement developed primarily in the border states

and did not include the white workers in the North nor the new

immigrants who were taking over so many of the jobs in the

expanding heavy industry. In the North these white workers were

already beating up blacks who attempted to get jobs in the mills and

mines. Motivated only by self-interest, they regarded their jobs as

Private property to be protected against other workers from other

ethnic groups, much as the farmer regards his/her piece of land.

 Although the Populist Movement had as one of its objectives to

bring poor whites and poor blacks together, the narrow concept of

economic self-interest on which it was based made it easy for

the landowners and aristocrats of the South to combine with the

Northern industrialists to whip up racist prejudice and split the

movement. Recognizing the economic threat in any united action by

blacks and whites, the landowners and industrialists stirred up white

fears that if the blacks became equal economically to the whites,

blacks would easily take away white women from white men and

mongrelize their race. Inflaming the poor whites against the blacks

on the basis of their color was not difficult in a country where the

extermination of Indians and the enslavement of blacks had been for

so long justified on the basis of their racial inferiority.

 The effect of this racist Propaganda was to increase lynching to a

level which it had never reached even under slavery. With blacks

thus terrorized and kept forcibly on the cotton plantations as

Sharecroppers, the country was free to drive forward towards


166                                  James and Grace Lee Boggs


economic expansion. Henceforth, all but a small minority would be

blind to any human or social responsibilities which might interfere

with economic self-interest. From top to bottom, depoliticization

would become the rule, reversing the process towards politicization

which had begun with the Puritans and had reached such a high

level in the period preceding the American Revolution.

 Henceforth the separation between the best and brightest minds

and the mass social forces, which had not existed in the American

Revolution but which had prevented the Abolitionist Movement

from developing into a revolutionary movement, would become

polarized into a division crippling to both sides. In the pursuit of

their own careers, American intellectuals would put their talents at

the service of the Establishment, while those who refused to do so

would be condemned to lives of isolation and frustration. At the

other pole the masses would become even more exclusively preoccu-

pied with material interests, using the excuse of “dirty politics,” i.e.,

politics under the command of economics, to justify their own

evasion of social and political responsibility. Politics would become

increasingly degraded to the struggle to get “a piece of the action” or

a piece of the power for your own individual, ethnic or sectional

interest–and eventually to the attempt to get total control of a

swelling state apparatus for yourself and your machine of dehuman-

ized supporters. Only occasionally, as in the first decade of the

twentieth century, and again in the 1930s and the 1960s, would the

opportunity arise to bridge the gap between the intellectuals and the

masses. But each time, because there had not been the necessary

philosophic, ideological and political preparation, the opportunity

would be wasted.

 At the turn of the century, Theodore Roosevelt took this

depoliticalization of the American people and their obsession with the

pursuit of economic interests to the international level. Realizing that

the United States was beginning to approach the economic strength

of Britain, and that the two were now the world’s most powerful

nations, he became convinced that it was America’s “Manifest

Destiny” to rule the world. With Theodore Roosevelt, the govern-

ment took upon itself the role of encouraging rapid economic

development of the productive forces at home and the imperialist

role of this country abroad. Production for the sake of more

production and for expanding mass consumption at home, and


    Rediscovering the American Past         167


economic and military expansion for the sake of American pro-

duction and world power abroad, were consciously accepted as the

responsibility of the central government.

 The effect of this new concept of the role of government has been

the accelerating growth over the last seventy years of big govern-

ment and executive power completely alien to the concept of feeble

central government, inhibited by regional loyalties, provided for in

the Constitution. Constantly intervening at home, to meet the

recurring economic crises of recession and inflation, and abroad, to

meet the competition of rival powers and crush the socialist and

nationalist aspirations of other peoples, the United States is now

ruled by a Warfare-Welfare State, a state which aims both to satisfy

the expanding economic appetites of an increasingly self-interested

population and to achieve domination over other powers and other

peoples. Instead of the powerless central government conceived by

the Founding Fathers, we are now confronted with a powerful

monster dedicated only to the increase of its own power.

 Once again, the people of this country are faced with the kind of

arbitrary power which John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson,

and Tom Paine faced in the 1760s, and which they could effectively

resist only after the most sober historical reflection on their previous

development, passionate ideological struggle, and revolutionary

propaganda and organization, in the course of which they arrived at

a new vision of human identity for “all men.” In our hindsight we

have the advantage of almost twice as many, much more concen-

trated years of rapid economic development and social crisis. We can

draw not only on our own historical experiences but those of the

whole world. And, most important, the oppressed peoples in this

country and the world whose attitudes and aspirations could only

have been inferred two hundred years ago, have over the intervening

period, and particularly since World War II, stood up and made

known to everybody the infinite variety of their grievances, their

aspirations, and their contradictions.









Beyond Rebellion Conversations in maine

Conversations In Maine Rebellion


“Today the  reactionary calls for more and more laws to create order.
The revolutionary should be able to conceive of struggling
for a society which is based more on the wisdom of men and
women than on laws. Fighting for more laws is like fighting
for better jails. We believe in prison reform, but those who
concentrate their energies on struggling for prison reform
are not revolutionaries. They have no vision of a new
society in which we will need fewer jails. Today, the more
you try to reform institutions rather than to change people,
the worse things become. All you are doing is increasing
human dependence upon institutions; you are multiplying
bureaucracies and diverting human energies and attention
from the changes that people have to make in

Go to Book On Boggs Center Web site:

Conversations In Maine: Exploring Our Nations
 Future  James and Grace Lee Boggs Lynan and Freddy Paine

CONVERSATIONS IN MAINE James and Grace Lee Boggs Freddy and Lyman Paine

Exploring Our Nation’s Future
James and Grace Lee Boggs   Freddy and Lyman Paine

con_maine No radicals are going to get power in this country until   we have converted a whole lot of people to recognize that   they are their own jailers; that they take the prison of   their own selves with them where ever they go; that they   are not going to be free until they have decided what they   are going to do with their freedom.             (Conversations in Maine, 1972)