Teaching American Revolutions

The last few days I’ve been teaching students about the lead-up to the American Revolution (1763 to 1775 AD) from the perspective of the following rough outline of the basic structure of a revolution:

  1. Popular sense of oppression — ordinary people under the existing form of government feel that they are oppressed or repressed or controlled in some way, and there are genuine reasons to believe their feelings.
  2. Popular discontent — public sources of opinion such as music or writing reflect this feeling of discontent and amplify it.
  3. Grievance — the populace, the people, use the regular and normative means of communicating with their government to request relief from hardship and/or an end to the repression.
  4. Double-Seizure — (This is a two-parter): the regular government demonstrates its complete inability to provide relief from hardship or oppression, OR demonstrates that it serves private interest rather than the public interest; and (not or) the movement of popular discontent finds itself the beneficiary of sponsorship of some kind: sometimes commercial, sometimes political, and sometimes military.
  5. Conflict — The people (with their newfound sponsorship) organize active resistance to government, and the government (fearing the new force behind the people) organizes deliberate efforts to frighten or terrify the people to their former level of inactivity or relative passivity.
  6. Violence — As a result of deliberate or accidental provocation, one side commits an ‘unforgivable’ act of violence against the other.  Existing popular discontent, and the fact of Double-Seizure, make it impossible to back down from the fight.
  7. Revolt — The Sponsors of The People organize an alternate government to replace the existing governmental structures, and design it to counteract the real or perceived failures of the existing government, while the People and the Government duke it out for the right to control sovereign power. Even greater hardship becomes common.
  8. Victory — one side (usually the Sponsors of the People rather than the People themselves) achieve victory, often by the government being unable to carry on the conflict.  The hardships of before are somewhat alleviated.
  9. Equilibrium — in order to maintain power, the new government must forswear some of the powers of the old government, or redistribute them to reassure the People that the conflict was fought on their behalf, or otherwise demonstrate the good faith and credit of the new government.
Our textbook does not lay things out this clearly.  However, in a particularly subtle passage, the textbook makes clear that in 1773, after literally YEARS of messages and petitions from the colonies demanding changes to laws that grossly restricted the legal rights of colonists under English rule in America, the British Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773 — effectively, a bailout of the bankrupted and broke BEIC, or British East India Company, using tax moneys obtained from the American Colonies.  The BEIC had been actively involved in inflating several nasty economic bubbles and crashes, and had been allowed to borrow the British Army and Navy for military operations in Indonesia, India, eastern Africa and a couple of other Islamic countries… and now it was getting massive cash from the British Treasury because it was “too big to fail.”
 The Colonies of New York and Virginia and Georgia refused to let the BEIC ships land quite sensibly — but the royal governor of Massachusetts was (likely) a BEIC investor, and refused to let the ships depart.   And it was at that point that the Boston mercantile community used the general unhappiness with the British to unite and strike a blow against their greatest competitor, and destroy a three-hull shipment of their competitor’s products.
The British closed the port of Boston with their navy, and stationed troops in Bostonians’ houses, and made clear their intention to starve the city into submission.  Hardship, on hardship, on hardship, combined with Double-Seizure: the Boston mercantile community and the Virginia planter society making common cause with each other on behalf of “the American people”, while the British Parliament used the tax money of their American colonists to enrich the executives and investors of the then-largest corporation in the world… and then stationed regular troops in major American cities to enforce that tax policy and cow the People back into letter writing and complaining in tea-houses.
Oh, right. The tea houses were closed, because they refused to serve BEIC-certified tea.
I think we have to wonder, as we watch the Occupy Wall Street crowd hanging around in Lower Manhattan and other cities all around the country and all around the world, just how far down this particular road we’re willing to travel.  We’re well on our way through the first part of Double-Seizure, and all the real unpleasantness may not be that much farther ahead.

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