The Untold History of Independence Day
Historian Peter Linebaugh: The rights and freedoms that we celebrate on the Fourth of July are the product of vast human struggle that remains unfinished
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
July 4 is celebrated here in the U.S. as Independence Day to mark the adoption of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain by the Second Continental Congress in 1776.
Now joining us to discuss the radical, little-known history of Independence Day is Peter Linebaugh. Peter is a historian and author. He just retired from the University of Toledo, where he taught for 20 years. He’s the author of many books, including The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. He’s also the author of the The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All, as well as, most recently, Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance.
Thank you so much for joining us, Peter.
PETER LINEBAUGH, AUTHOR, THE MANY-HEADED HYDRA: You’re welcome, Jaisal.
LINEBAUGH: So, Peter, you know, in popular memory, this day, Independence Day, we remember the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but it was a long process that got the colonists to that point. Talk a little bit about the different political forces, social forces that helped get the US–and this was just within the first year or two of the Revolutionary War, but it had been a decade or longer that this conflict had been ongoing between the colonies and Great Britain. Talk about how we got to this point.
LINEBAUGH: Okay, Jaisal, I will talk about that, but it’s hard. And even your question, you referred to how the U.S. got to this point, but, of course, it wasn’t the U.S. at the time. The United States of America is an expression that Tom Payne invented and used to apply to what had been 13 colonies in revolt against Great Britain. So we’re talking about an era before the U.S. has been formed. We’re talking about a period of historical creation.
And it’s complex. There are several sides to it. One side, it’s the struggle of freedom against monarchy, a struggle of the notion of a republic against monarchy. And that is probably the principal theme of the Declaration of Independence.
I would suggest, you know, that people reread the Declaration of Independence, because they’ll find 28 reasons for declaring independence from Great Britain. And these reasons reflect “a long train of abuses and usurpations” (or takeovers), to use Thomas Jefferson’s language in the Declaration of Independence.
And I think one of the most important of these grievances was that the King of England had opposed conditions for new appropriation of land. This is the seventh of 28 different reasons for declaring independence. And what that meant was that these settlers from Europe wanted to appropriate lands belonging to the Indians, belonging to different Native American peoples–the Haudenosaunee people, a confederation in New York; the Cherokee people of what’s now Tennessee and the Carolinas; the Potawatomi, from my part of the country, in Michigan and Ohio. The settlers wanted these lands. But Great Britain, as a result of the Seven Years’ War, had said that these lands were off-limits to settlement. This was part of the Treaty of Paris of 1763. So here is one of the lesser-known reasons for declaring independence, that is, that the settlers could not take as much land as they wanted.
On that same theme of wars against Native Americans, the 28th reason given is really misleading. It claims that the king of England, George III, and his ministry and parliament had caused the inhabitants of, quote, “our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions”–. So this was like–Jaisal, I liken it to a jihad or I liken it to a crusade, because this is precisely what Thomas Jefferson claims of the Native Americans is actually what will happen to them as a result of the Declaration of Independence, that is, that the wars against Great Britain led to a merciless destruction–in New York particularly of Sullivan’s raid of 1779 of the orchards, the cornfields, the senior citizens, the men and the women of the Haudenosaunee people of the Confederation in New York.
NOOR: And, Peter, it’s worth mentioning that the British weren’t necessarily against expanding and taking more of the natives’ land. It was just getting too expensive for them. They had, you know, spent an enormous amount of money fighting the French in the French and Indian War, as well as–and so they had been taxing the colonists, which had, you know, caused a great protest.
LINEBAUGH: Yes, a very good point, very good. They wanted the settlers, the settler colonists to pay for those wars against France. Quite right. And that’s where the famous phrase “no taxation without representation” comes in, and it’s–I think it’s the 17th reason given in the Declaration of Independence for severing the connection with Great Britain, that. And also the 19th reason–I’ll quote that–is “for transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences”.
And that–I pause there for a minute to let the words sink in, because what will come to mind to those who’ve been following subsequent U.S. history is the practice by the CIA to render terrorist suspects and have them tried overseas, where torture is a form of investigation in secret courts in Egypt and Poland and in other countries we don’t know about. This process is called rendition. But I was amazed, you know, in the early part of this millennium, after the invasion of Iraq and when this kind of torturing began, that it was explicitly given as a reason for independence back in 1776, that is, transporting people beyond the seas to be tried for pretended offenses in foreign courts. So excuse me, Jaisal, for jumping, you know, right into the Iraq Wars, but the Declaration of Independence, if it’s going to live at all in current realities, you know, we must–we go back and forth between our present and our past.
NOOR: And, Peter, so we were going to talk about a whole range of issues, but, you know, in your book Many-Headed Hydra, you talk about the little-known role that commoners and even slaves played in fomenting the American Revolution. Can you give us a little bit of that history?
LINEBAUGH: I can give you a little bit of it. The Dunmore’s Proclamation in Virginia promised freedom to slaves. Dunmore was a British general. So the slave, like the Indian, was caught between a rock and a hard place, that is, whether to join the colonists in their bid for independence, or whether to join the British, who promised immediate emancipation.
But slave revolts preceding the War of Independence, like the Indian revolts, like the great revolt of Pontiac in 1763, or the revolts against impressment that took place up and down the coast of the colonies, all of these here–you know, I gesture to Indians, to African Americans, and to European sailors and workers–I call them–we call them commoners because so many of them before they came to colonies under terms of coerced labor, so many of them had participated in economies which were not based on private property or incessant accumulation and aggression for land belonging or used by others. And these forms of other forms of economies, especially in England, were called commons. They were common lands. And when those lands were enclosed are fenced off, the people who formerly had subsisted on them now had few choices in life. And even if they weren’t enslaved or coerced as teenagers in West Africa or as commoners in England who were impressed, they began in the United States, in Philadelphia and Boston, in Providence, Rhode Island, they began to get to know each other, they began, and they did so in taverns, they did so in poorer parts of the town, and they did so above all on ships. So the ship itself was a machine–we usually see it as a machine of commerce or a machine of war, but it was also a machine where the people of the world first got to know each other, they first get to hear one another’s stories. And in some ways you can say, this is where multicultural America began to be formed.
NOOR: And so, Peter, you call that the motley crew, because it’s a multiethnic crew. Then the population may–oh, not even a crew, not just a crew, but also bands of people that worked on land as well, and, you know, they were multiethnic, and, you know, their relationships might have crossed class lines as well.
LINEBAUGH: Yes, this is quite true. You know, Herman Melville was the man who had the imagination to see this in all his great nautical books, whether Billy Budd or /taɪfuː/ or White-Jacket, and then of course Moby-Dick. But that reality of democracy on shipboard and, as you say, multiethnic communication was a big part of the background to the American Revolution. And it was–even though those people did not lead the revolution in the sense of signing their names to documents, they led the freedom from actual slavery, they led the freedom from actual coerced labor on ships, and they also led–in Philadelphia here I’m thinking, Jaisal–they led the struggle for fair prices, and they led the struggle against debt. And these are two issues that remain with us. So this motley crew will provide the force of the revolutionary armies. And when they’re not paid or when they’re mistreated, they are perfectly capable of mutiny.
NOOR: And, Peter, you mentioned one of the slogans of the revolution, “no taxation without representation”. But as we touched upon in this conversation already, there were many groups that were not franchised at the culmination of the revolution–obviously African-Americans, women, and men that were not–that didn’t don’t land. And, you know, it’s often portrayed as the elites created this framework, they created a constitution that would eventually grant these rights and, you know, the right to vote and other civil rights to the entire population. But talk about the revolutionary process that actually led to those rights being achieved.
LINEBAUGH: Okay, Jaisal, that’s a process of American history, that’s a process of struggle. That’s a–I hesitate to say class struggle, though it is a class struggle of slaves, it’s a struggle of poor people, it’s a struggle of weavers and spinners, it’s a struggle of housewives, it’s a struggle of women more generally, it’s a struggle that is not over. And sometimes the American Civil War is seen as a continuation, as the Chapter 2 where the Declaration of Independence and Fourth of July was Chapter 1.
This is why the Fourth of July, you know, has this military flavor to it, you know, and we all turn out and we watch the fireworks. But the first fireworks, of course, were, as we know from the song, “the rockets’ red glare”. This came from a war. Speaking to you in Baltimore, I don’t need to remind you that Fort McHenry in Baltimore was where the British invaded in 1812. So what I’m trying to say is that war is the most extreme form of struggle, on a large scale, anyway. And those powers and rights and freedoms that you referred to and that we celebrate on the Fourth of July, they are the product of vast human struggle. I mean, the struggle for American independence was not just that war but was goes back to the 17th century.
The struggle against slavery was at least 100 years old. You know, if you take 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation, 100 years earlier it was 1763. That’s the plantation of George Washington. A hundred years before that, 1673, you also have slavery. So the struggle against slavery is a very old and long struggle and reaches a great, great culmination in the war between the states, in the Civil War. And may I quote, Jaisal, from Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist?
NOOR: Yes, absolutely.
LINEBAUGH: Okay, because he says something that I’m thinking about, and I wonder whether you all are thinking about it too. This is the speech he gave on the Fourth of July. And I think a lot of you are familiar with that speech where he says, what is the meaning of the Fourth of July to the slave? But before he says that, he says, what it is that we need. In this now is just a few years before John Brown’s raid, it’s a few years before Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War. Here in the words of Frederick Douglass is what we need:
[I]t is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
Isn’t that powerful? Here he’s using the rhetoric from the era of the Declaration of Independence, and he’s prophesying–it’s a prophetic voice from the Old Testament imagining the war to come, the American Civil War that at last put an end–well, not quite; it didn’t quite end slavery, did it? Because the Thirteenth Amendment permits slavery or involuntary servitude in cases of prison. And so I think it’s–you know, if we’re going to jump from the past to the present continuously, then we need to say, that is not yet finished, as the prison population of the U.S. continues to grow and to grow.
NOOR: Peter Linebaugh, thank you so much for joining us.
LINEBAUGH: You’re very welcome.
NOOR: And we’ll continue this conversation at TheRealNews.com. Thank you so much for joining us.
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