Thursday, March 08, 2012

"Occupy Wall Street" and the American Revolution

Thomas Paine

by Chris Mahin

AS THE “Occupy Wall Street” movement continues, it may be helpful to look at history to see how those fighting for change have mobilised in earlier times. One such example is the American Revolution of the 1770s.
The American Revolution of the 1700s shows the tremendous importance of introducing new ideas into the fight against the powerful.
In 1763 Britain took control of Canada after defeating France in the French and Indian War. The Parliament in London soon began taking steps that pushed the residents of Britain’s 13 American colonies toward rebellion.
First the British government barred the colonists from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains (this was the Proclamation Line of 1763).
Then the Parliament passed laws requiring the colonists to pay for the French and Indian War (the Stamp Act, Tea Tax, and other measures were designed to raise money to defray the cost of that war).
These steps enraged many colonists. No longer in need of British military protection against the French in Canada, they were much less willing to tolerate interference by the British government in their affairs. The colonists refused to pay the Stamp Tax and Tea Tax because their colonial legislatures had not been consulted before those measures became law. They cited a principle which the English Parliament had forced the English king to agree to in 1628 – “No taxation without representation”.
However, at first, most colonists did not favour independence. The colonists considered themselves loyal subjects of the British king, George III, who they believed was being misled by his ministers. The colonists simply wanted to change their relationship with Britain’s central government personified by the Parliament in London.
Between 1765 and the end of 1775 many protests erupted in America against different aspects of British rule. These protests included instances of bitter street fighting (the Boston Massacre of 1770) and wholesale destruction of property (the Boston Tea Party of 1773). They culminated in full-scale, bloody battles in which hundreds died (Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill).
But despite all the militancy and violence of those 10 years of protest, as long as the colonists believed only that the British government’s policy was wrong while accepting the “right” of a king to rule them, they could not break with Britain. They didn’t even try.
This was a classic case of a revolution not being able to move forward because the fighters in the revolution, while militant, were being held back by their old ideas. The situation would not change until something happened to shake up the thinking of the American people. Fortunately, something did.
On 10th January 1776, Thomas Paine, an English radical who had lived in America for only 14 months, published a pamphlet called Common Sense.
In simple, readable language, Paine tore apart all the arguments in favour of American loyalty to the British Crown. He insisted that one honest man is worth more than all the kings who ever lived. He painted an inspiring picture of what the world would be like with an independent America to serve as an example to everyone fighting for freedom in every part of the world.
Common Sense challenged some of the basic assumptions that people in the 13 colonies had lived by for their entire lives.
Paine gave the colonists a cause – independence for America and opposition to kings and aristocrats everywhere. “The cause of America is the cause of all mankind,” he declared.
Because Paine’s ideas were, for his time, qualitatively new, they sparked great debate. His small pamphlet was circulated widely. Some 120,000 copies of Common Sense were sold in its first three months and 500,000 copies were sold in the first year after its publication.
As Common Sense was distributed throughout the 13 colonies, public opinion began to change. One by one the state delegations to the Second Continental Congress began to support the idea of proclaiming the independence of the 13 colonies from Britain.
Finally in July 1776 the Second Continental Congress voted for the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. This vote was a direct result of the publication and widespread distribution of Common Sense.
Perhaps those involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement can learn lessons from the American Revolution of the 1770s.
Like the revolutionaries of 1776, we live at a time when people have been hard hit by the status quo, but don’t fully understand what it is that has hit them. This means that we have to act like Thomas Paine; we have to change people’s thinking. We have to convince the American people to give up their old ideas and accept some new ideas so they can win the fight that they are waging against hunger and misery in this country.
The fundamental idea that we have to get across to people can be stated fairly simply:
We do not have to live like this. Today, no human being in the world “has” to be hungry. Today, the human race possesses the productive forces (computers and robots) and the scientific knowledge to guarantee that everyone could live a healthy and cultured existence. The only thing preventing that from happening is the strangle-hold that 445 billionaires have over the world’s economy and politics. Today, it is possible to unite our efforts against the billionaires and millionaires, end their control over society, and create a new society.
Like the people who made sure that copies of Common Sense reached every corner of the 13 colonies, we have to transmit our message far and wide. We have to ensure that there is as wide a debate as possible about the role of the corporations.
If we do that, we can begin to change the thinking of the American people – and help change history.