Despite its failures and limitations, the American Revolution unleashed popular aspirations to throw off tyranny of all kinds. Reviving that legacy today means challenging the arbitrary power of employers.

Engraving of the Battle of Lexington After Alonzo Chappel: American colonists and British soldiers exchange fire at the Battle of Lexington, the first skirmish in the US War of Independence. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

When we talk about the American Revolution today, it’s difficult to look past the world that came out of it: a country with stubbornly persistent racism, widespread gun violence, rampant economic inequality, and deep political dysfunction. For those of us on the political left, it’s not easy to separate the insurrectionary project of Anglo-American colonists in the late eighteenth century from the injustices that plagued American society after the revolution, and those that have plagued it since.

Nor is the Right particularly bothered by this state of affairs. They’re happy saying the revolution was simply about resistance to “big government,” a legacy right-wingers purport to carry on today. But to project the political conflicts of today onto those of American patriots almost 250 years ago obscures not only the world they lived in but, more importantly, the world they were trying to create. To pretend that their aspirations began and ended with repealing taxes ignores much of what patriots had to say about their own revolution.

It also reinforces fatal misconceptions about the ideals those patriots were fighting for. The imperial crisis over taxation was the catalyst for a much wider struggle over unaccountable authority and the distribution of property — both relevant in fights over the meaning of American democracy today.

The World of the Revolutionaries

The American colonies in the eighteenth century bear little resemblance to the nation we know today. Philadelphia, the largest city in the thirteen colonies, had a population of barely 40,000 in the year 1776 — miniscule compared to its modern population of 1.5 million, or even to London that same year, which boasted 700,000-plus inhabitants. Barely 4 percent of Americans lived in cities at the time, with the vast majority of everyone else engaged in some form of agricultural labor. (Today just 10 percent of working Americans are involved in any kind of farming.)

This predominantly agrarian society was a world away from our own, where the vast majority of people buy what they need to survive rather than produce it themselves. In revolution-era America, the word “independence” had a wholly different meaning. It was actually realistic for a family farm to produce everything they needed to survive and more or less achieve economic independence from the market.

The imperial crisis over taxation was the catalyst for a much wider struggle over unaccountable authority and the distribution of property.

So the American Revolution was about a whole lot more than political independence from the British Empire — it was about building a fundamentally independent people. The popular base behind the revolution sought to create a nation of freeholding farmers who owned their own land, were self-sufficient, and were free from the arbitrary authority of others.

Colonial society was also fundamentally monarchical. In the words of historian Gordon Wood, author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution, to live “in a monarchical society meant, first of all, being subjects of the king” and “to be a subject was to be a kind of child, to be personally subordinated to a paternal dominion.” In such a society, “authority and liberty flowed” not  “from the political organization of the society, but from the structure of its personal relationships” — namely, from the privileges granted by one’s superiors, and the domination wielded over their subordinates.

The representative bodies that did exist, like the British Parliament or French Estates General, were in constant struggle against the “divine right” of the reigning monarch to rule as he saw fit. Such struggles were at the heart of both the French Revolution and the English Civil War.

This was how Thomas Paine, the American revolutionary famous for quotes like “government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil,” also went on to pen one of the first designs for a modern welfare state in history. It wasn’t our modern idea of “big government” that the patriots were struggling against. It was arbitrary government or authority: a coercive force that gives orders without regard for the will or interests of those subjected to it.

Prior to the revolution, many colonists thought of government as essentially an alien intrusion into the lives of otherwise self-sufficient people — they conceived of the government was the private property of the ruling sovereign and his retinue of haughty noble lackeys. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the revolution was that it was the first attempt to enact what we today call “popular sovereignty” — the idea that the state belongs first and foremost to the people and, should it stop serving their interest, ought to be dissolved. The significance of this idea was not lost on Vladimir Lenin, who called the American Revolution “one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars of which there have been so few.”

In place of this hierarchical world of aristocratic tyranny, the patriots sought to create a free society of equals. Essential to that freedom was an egalitarian distribution of property, so much so that in 1776 Thomas Jefferson proposed that the state of Virginia grant fifty acres of land to every landless male. To patriots like Jefferson, property was a prerequisite to independence and freedom. After all, property in the form of land, loans, servants, and slaves was the principal source of the independence and domination of the aristocracy, in addition to their monopoly on political power. By defending and expanding colonial America’s already relatively egalitarian distribution of land and wealth, and breaking the hereditary aristocracy’s stranglehold on state power, populist American revolutionaries sought to fundamentally transform their society in the interests of ordinary people.

Revolution and Reaction

Of course, the revolution failed in achieving that vision. As Carl Becker observed in 1909, there was tension in the revolutionary movement between its popular base and its elite leadership in Philadelphia. Victory in the struggle for home rule, Becker claimed, led inexorably to the struggle over who would rule at home. The colonial elite who made up the revolutionary leadership — men like Jefferson and George Washington — were happy to ride the wave of revolutionary fervor sweeping the American countryside until it conflicted with their business interests.

Instead of peace, the “critical period” following American Independence but before the signing of the Constitution was a time of naked class warfare. Much of the colonial elite was extremely concerned about what Alexander Hamilton termed the “excess of democracy” unleashed by the revolution.

In his study of postrevolutionary America, Unruly Americans, Woody Holton reveals that during this period freeholding farmers throughout the country revolted against massive tax increases, which had been levied for the profit of wealthy speculators who had invested in government bonds during the course of the war and which multiplied the average American’s tax burden to three to four times its colonial level. Even worse from the perspective of colonial elites, the farmers were using the democratic state constitutions established during the revolution to print paper money and fight for tax relief.

In reaction, fifty-five of America’s most prominent men — the “Founding Fathers” — convened a secret meeting in Philadelphia to illegally overthrow the existing constitutional order. Holton concludes that the Founders’ ultimate objective at the Constitutional Convention was to replace the relatively democratic political order created by the state constitutions with a federal government that was less susceptible to popular pressure, and more conscientious of its obligations to private creditors.

Much of the colonial elite was extremely concerned about what Alexander Hamilton termed the ‘excess of democracy’ unleashed by the revolution.

Nor can we forget that the “free society of equals” the patriots fought for was always narrowly defined. Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal” applied only to white men: not black men, not Native Americans, and certainly not women. Just as the very concept of “unalienable” human rights was being invented, the defense of those rights came to be selective, so as not to endanger the wealth and authority of the colonial elite.

Meanwhile, American colonists continued to hunger for the vast tracts of Western land that had not yet been stolen from native tribes. This land that would serve both as a release valve for the colonies’ rapidly increasing population of landless white men, and an extremely profitable business venture for speculators like Washington and James Madison — who would buy “virgin” native land for a fraction of its value and reap massive profits through its resale and redevelopment.

Independence and Industrial Capitalism

Yet the egalitarian ideal of left-wing American patriots would ultimately be doomed by another revolution whose impact few could have predicted: the Industrial Revolution. In Private Government, Elizabeth Anderson describes how economies of scale and the advantages of hierarchically organized production characteristic of industrial capitalism rendered the free-market egalitarianism of the patriots obsolete.

American revolutionaries like Paine and even Jefferson envisioned an America dominated by freeholding farmers. Sole proprietors would own their own farms, sell off their agricultural surplus on a free market, and in exchange buy whatever manufactured goods they could not produce themselves. But, Anderson writes, “the technological changes that drove the Industrial Revolution involved huge concentrations of capital” that had to “be worked by many hands.” The fantastical efficiency of industrial production compared to agriculture came with astronomically high input costs in both labor and capital.

The combination of class war and technological advancement made a society of small, independent farmers economically untenable. Over time, the consolidation of land ownership and the efficiency of industrial production forced most people to begin looking to wage labor rather than independent farming for their livelihoods. Although wage labor was quickly becoming the dominant means of subsistence in the United States throughout the nineteenth century, it was a state that many American patriots and abolitionists considered little better than slavery — even long after the end of the Civil War. As late as 1883, Frederick Douglass remarked that “there may be a wages of slavery only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery,” and “this slavery of wages must go down with the other.”

Yet over 140 years later, some form of “wage slavery” is still the fate of most Americans. “Most workplace governments in the United States,” Anderson argues, “are dictatorships, in which bosses govern in ways that are largely unaccountable to those who are governed. They don’t merely govern workers; they dominate them.” While most Americans today happily celebrate the abolition of royal tyranny every year on the Fourth of July, we too often neglect a much more pervasive tyranny that is still with us — the exploitation and domination endemic to the modern workplace.

Freedom and Equality Today

The vast majority of Americans are not free from arbitrary authority and coercion, as most are no doubt well aware. In Private Government, Anderson recounts horror stories of life on the labor market: from Tyson poultry workers being forbidden from using the bathroom, to Walmart workers being accused of “time theft” just for greeting their coworkers.

But while capitalism has made the freeholding ideal of individual independence the patriots fought for anachronistic, that’s no reason to cast aside their dream of a free society. The progressive core of patriot ideology was a vision of society free from arbitrary, involuntary, and inescapable servitude, a state that capitalism condemns most workers to.

The progressive core of patriot ideology was a vision of society free from arbitrary, involuntary, and inescapable servitude, a state that capitalism condemns most workers to.

Anderson observes that modern employers wield power that is in important respects like that of the nobility of old. They wield “arbitrary, unaccountable power over those [they] govern,” and consider it “none of your business, across a wide range of cases, what orders it issues or why it sanctions you.” In fact, employers have sweeping powers over their employees that extend well beyond the workplace. Further, refusal to comply has serious consequences. Some estimates assert that as many as 74 percent of Americans are employed at-will and can be fired for any reason, at any time, with no explanation or prior warning. And in a country where 78 percent of workers live paycheck to paycheck, just walking away from your job is not an option for most.

But there’s no reason why managers and CEOs should be able to rule their workplace with absolute authority reminiscent of an eighteenth-century monarch. We can extend the political democracy that Americans have celebrated for generations into the economy, which would radically change many people’s lives.

Through changes like introducing profit-sharing, allowing workers to elect managers, and democratizing decisions around investment and production, we can transform the modern workplace from a focal point of collective misery to a site of equality and democracy. A mixed economy of worker co-ops and publicly owned enterprises would dramatically expand the number of Americans who own wealth — albeit collectively — while also breaking the arbitrary, unaccountable corporate authority that rules life at the workplace. (It should be noted that Anderson herself proposes more modest reforms to democratize work; but once we understand the workplace as a potential site of domination, there is no reason not to go further, to a vision of democratic socialism.)

The decommodification of basic necessities like health care, education, and housing would also go a long way toward shoring up the independence of ordinary people from the arbitrary power of employers. By providing for people’s basic needs outside of the market, we can reduce or eliminate the desperation of most people to settle for whatever jobs they can find, and which discourages them from taking the risks associated with collective action. Decommodifying basic needs will help give workers the bargaining power to haggle for a better deal for themselves and free them from the worst demands of the capitalist labor market.

The name for a system where economic life is governed by democracy rather than private tyranny, of course, is socialism. Many of its basic principles have been fought for by generations of Americans, from Thomas Paine and Frederick Douglass to Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King Jr, and Bernie Sanders. By limiting arbitrary ownership, achieving an egalitarian distribution of property, and truly expanding the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all, a democratic socialist program would realize the spirit of populist patriotism today.

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