We are taught that the Fourth of July is Independence Day – the day in 1776 that Americans declared their independence from Great Britain. But, there’s more to the story. Just like the U.S. today, colonial America was divided between rich and poor. In the 1700’s the rich slave owners, and business elite in North America realized that if they could get rid of British economic and political control, they would be free to make profits off of the people and resources of North America for themselves. Many working people, slaves, and Native Americans, fought for independence, but independence for the rich is not the same as independence for the poor.
The Rich and Poor
About ten percent of the white population, large landholders and merchants, owned nearly half the wealth of the society. The majority of people were poor workers, farmers, or part of the one-seventh of the population who the wealthy owned as slaves.
During the Revolution of 1776, ordinary people fought for freedom, but they did it in their own way. Armed forces of poor farmers such as Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys fought for their own goals. They established the Vermont Republic, abolishing slavery nearly a hundred years before the Emancipation Proclamation. The decade after the revolution saw numerous other uprisings and protests by the poor demanding access to land and an end to debt. The biggest armed uprising was Shay’s Rebellion in 1786. Poor and indebted farmers in Massachusetts, black and white together, went to the courthouse and burned tax documents and debt records. This rebellion terrified the upper class, and they sent in troops to crush it by force. The wealthy elite realized they needed to control the poor in a more permanent way.
In 1787, fifty-five of the wealthiest citizens of the United States held a meeting to write a document that would form a new system of government – that document is the Constitution of the United States. The majority of these men were slave-owners, or owners of manufacturing and shipping companies. The meetings were held in secret, and no one was allowed to know what was being discussed.
The Constitution set up three branches of government. The House of Representatives was elected in proportion to the population, but the Senate was given two seats per state, allowing states run by a small handful of landlords the same vote as populous states like New York whose majority were farmers and workers. Slave states were given representation based on three fifths of the slave population. The office of President was given wide powers including the ability to veto the House and the Senate. The Electoral College was set up to pick the president, just in case the population voted for someone the wealthy did not approve of. Finally the Supreme Court was set up as an unelected body appointed by the President. Every step was designed to make sure that the poor could never control the government.
Their Independence Day or Ours?
The Constitution set up a new system that made way for the growth of the United States as an empire. In the next hundred years, American industry expanded across the continent on the backs of poor immigrant workers mostly from Europe. The slave plantations of the South grew with thousands of enslaved Africans working the cotton fields. The U.S. became a world power, going to war with Mexico and seizing territory including Arizona, California and Texas. And all of this was done over the dead bodies of thousands of Native Americans, killed and displaced to make way for expansion.
The 4th of July in 1776 was Independence Day for the wealthy elite of the United States. It was their independence from Britain to become a ruling class in their own right. Our Independence Day has not come yet, but this 4th of July we can remember the poor and working class people, the slaves and Native Americans who fought for independence of a different sort than the ruling class – the independence to live their lives free from domination and exploitation by the wealthy elite, their government, their laws, and their system. That’s the kind of independence we still need to fight for today.