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Remembering the Violence and Elitism Behind US Independence

A sensationalized portrayal of the Boston Massacre. (Image: Wikimedia)

It’s just possible that the space of 236 years and a truckload of fireworks are obscuring our vision.

It’s hard for us to see what should be obvious.

Many nations — including Canada as the nearest example — have gained their independence without wars. We claim that a war was for independence, but if we could have had all the same advantages without the war, would that not have been better?

Back in 1986, a book was published by now Virginia State Delegate and Minority Leader David Toscano, the great nonviolent strategist Gene Sharp, and others, called “Resistance, Politics, and the American Struggle for Independence, 1765-1775.”

Those dates are not a typo. During those years, the people of the British colonies that would become the United States used boycotts, rallies, marches, theatrics, noncompliance, bans on imports and exports, parallel extra-legal governments, the lobbying of Parliament, the physical shutting down of courts and offices and ports, the destruction of tax stamps, endless educating and organizing, and the dumping of tea into a harbor — all to successfully achieve a large measure of independence, among other things, prior to the War for Independence. Home-spinning clothes to resist the British empire was practiced in the future United States long before Gandhi tried it.

The colonists didn’t talk about their activities in Gandhian terms. They didn’t foreswear violence. They sometimes threatened it and occasionally used it. They also, disturbingly, talked of resisting “slavery” to England even while maintaining actual slavery. And they spoke of their loyalty to the King even while denouncing his laws.

Yet they largely rejected violence as counter-productive. They repealed the Stamp Act after effectively nullifying it. They repealed nearly all of the Townsend Acts. The committees they organized to enforce boycotts of British goods also enforced public safety and developed a new national unity.

And then they turned decisively to violence, a choice that need not be excused, much less glorified. We’ve moved beyond many common practices of the eighteenth century. Why not that one?

While we imagine that the Iraq War has been our only war started with lies, we forget that the Boston Massacre was distorted beyond recognition, including in an engraving by Paul Revere that depicted the British as butchers. We erase the fact that Benjamin Franklin produced a fake issue of the Boston Independent in which the British boasted of scalp hunting. And we forget the elite nature of the opposition to Britain. We drop down the memory hole the reality of those early days for ordinary nameless people. Howard Zinn explains:

“Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.”

In fact, prior to the violent revolution, there had been 18 uprisings against colonial governments, six black rebellions, and 40 riots. The political elites saw a possibility for redirecting anger toward England. The poor who would not profit from the war or reap its political rewards had to be compelled by force to fight in it. Many, including slaves, promised greater liberty by the British, deserted or switched sides.

The Declaration of Independence was an indictment of King George III for various abuses of power that resembled what we happily permit U.S. presidents to engage in today, either as regards the people of the United States or the people of territories and nations that our military occupies in a manner uncomfortably resembling Britain’s rule over the 13 colonies.

Imagine if King George had kept a secret list of the individuals he would murder without due process. I am confident that such an outrage would have topped the list of complaints in the Declaration of Independence. But King George didn’t do anything that outrageous.

The war for independence was also a war to open up the west to expansion and wars against Native Americans. King George, according to the Declaration of Independence, had “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages.” But those were people fighting in defense of their lands and lives, rather like the people of Afghanistan today.

Interestingly, when the British surrendered at Yorktown and departed, the Americans didn’t cry out, “Please don’t abandon us!”

Do we really believe that Afghans have no love for independence?

Are we completely unaware that we have become the redcoats?

What exactly are we thinking when we celebrate the Fourth of July?

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