A History of Direct Action and Social Change in early America
The people who make history are almost never in the history books. Anonymous people performing Direct Action have always been responsible for social change. All legislative reforms have been in response to Direct Action. Any legislative reforms have always been minimal, just enough to enable the elite to maintain their power.
Direct Actions leading to the American Constitution
The Constitution was never designed to preserve freedom. It only restricts the freedoms that the people had already achieved.
Corporate greed was responsible for the first English settlements in North America. Both the Jamestown and the Pilgrim colonies established charters or contracts with the Virginia and Plymouth Companies respectively, (groups of wealthy London merchants), before sailing for the New World. These charters limited all exports and imports to the English corporations as well as establishing the colonial governments. The Jamestown Charter was immediately challenged upon landing by the removal of Captain John Smith from the ruling council. The pilgrims revoked their charter altogether and replaced it with the famous ‘Mayflower Compact’.
Likewise, North Carolina’s colonists revolted against a constitution, written by John Locke. which called for an establishment of a newly created hereditary nobility of Landgraves and Caziques who would rule the colony under a hereditary chief officer called a Palatine. The Palatine and his deputies were immediately seized and imprisoned upon their arrival in the colony. The colonists did eventually submit, but Locke’s constitution was never implemented.
Similar pressures throughout the colonies forced England to recognize limited representative government. By the 1760’s, each of the original 13 colonies had a freely elected lower assembly. This assembly could propose laws and act as a limited check on both the appointed upper assembly and the Royal Governor. England continued to regulate trade and other external matters, while allowing the colonies to govern their own internal affairs.
Of course this freedom only applied if you were white, property holding and male. Despite very early attempts to establish equality by several of the original governors, (such as James Oglethorpe and William Penn), the colonists rapidly duplicated the class structures that they had in England. The upper and middle classes migrated here with their servants. Indentured servants comprised of convicts and/or the desperate poor of England were sold in all of the colonies. Once these ‘persons of vile and low condition’ worked off their indentures, they were little better off. Colonial legislatures passed laws restricting their rights, (particularly the right of assembly). Their conditions were only improved by constant struggle and rebellion against the upper classes.
In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon led a rebellion of frontiersmen, indentured servants, and black slaves, which burned Jamestown and forced the Royal Governor to scurry back to England. There were tenant farmer rebellions against the property owners in New Jersey in the 1740’s and in the New York’s Hudson valley during 1740’s and 1760’s. When threatened with eviction by the state of New York, Ethan Allen and his “Green Mountain Boys” led a rebellion that was responsible for the formation of Vermont. The Regulator Movement” in North Carolina in the 1760’s resulted in the death of over 2,000 men. However, it also led to the passage of land and tax reform legislation.
These rebellions were not confined to the farmers and frontiersmen. In 1636 indentured servants and fishermen mutinied in Maine. In 1663, Maryland faced strikes. In Boston during 1648 the shoemakers and coopers both organized guilds and in 1675 Boston ship carpenters issued a formal protest against conditions. There were labor strikes and stoppages New York City in 1677, 1684, 1741, and 1746. There was an ironworker’s strike in 1774, a printer’ strike in 1778, and a sailor’s and rope maker’ strike in 1779.
Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson redirected this emerging class anger from the wealthy merchants, planters and the British to the British exclusively. The founding fathers wanted a revolution to establish property and import/export rights and not human rights. Minimal improvements did occur after the revolution. Pennsylvania abolished property qualifications for voting and several other colonies lowered them. In several colonies, small tenant farmers were given portions of land formerly owned by Pro-British landlords. Nevertheless the basic class structure remained.
The Bill of Rights was only added to the constitution after the first congressional assembly due to overwhelming popular pressure. The constitution was written to protect the rights and privileges of the wealthy from future revolution. It permits minimal social reforms, while maximizing the opportunities for the upper classes to accumulate wealth.
Direct Actions leading to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation
Nowhere in American History is the efficiency of direct action more evident than in struggles of the African Americans. It is one of the greatest American myths that Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves. The slaves emancipated themselves, (working with a coalition of black, white, male and female abolitionists).
Previous slave rebellions had forced the south to perpetuate itself as an armed camp. Thousands of fugitive slaves radicalized any white Northerners with whom they came in contact and inflamed them against the south and its ‘peculiar institution’. Slaves rebelled by minimizing production on the plantations.
Consequently, by 1860, the agricultural economies of many southern states, such as Virginia and the Carolinas, were in shambles. The only way the institution of slavery could survive was by selling slaves to the western territories. The south seceded from the north out of economic necessity, fearing the Republican Party’s platform banning any further expansion of slavery. Lincoln then waged the civil war to preserve the rights a handful of greedy white northerners to continue to make profits. He was forced to issue the emancipation proclamation after a year and a half of an increasingly unpopular war in order to: forestall British or French intervention, regain popular support for a war that the North did not appear to be winning, and aid in the enlistment of Black troops.
Direct Action is seldom quick and always dangerous for the participant. But, it gets results. There were over two hundred and thirty slave rebellions and plots before 1860. The first conspiracy of slaves and poor whites was recorded in Virginia in 1663. It would take two hundred years for that conspiracy to come to fruition.
Gabriel Prosser (1800 VA ), Denmark Vesey (1821 SC ), and Nat Turner (1831 VA) led a series of armed insurrections that terrified the slave owners in Virginia and the Carolinas. Both Prosser’s and Vesey’s attempted rebellions were large (Vesey’s conspiracy involved an estimated three to six thousand men), well organized conspiracies that only failed due to a combination of informants and bad luck, (a flood washed out the bridges the day that Prosser gathered with over 900 followers to seize the Richmond armory). Nat Turner did have a temporary success. Together with an estimated sixty to ninety men, he seized the town of New Jerusalem with its arms and ammunition. He spared the poor whites but slew over seventy-five of the white planters and their families. These rebellions all failed in their immediate goals, but they ultimately acted as source of inspiration for many. And if you think they no longer inspire consider this: the South Carolina legislature recently refused to allow a statue of Denmark Vesey to be erected on the statehouse g
rounds, already littered with Confederate war memorials, on the grounds that he ‘advocated violence’.
Resistance was not confined to the southern states. In 1829, a black Bostonian who had emigrated from North Carolina named David Walker published, “An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World”, which advocated Afro-American unity and a direct rebellion against the Southern plantation owners saying, ” . . .they want us for their slaves, and think nothing of murdering us . . . therefore, if there is an attempt made by us, kill or be killed. . . and believe this, that it is no more harm for you to kill a man who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty.” This publication was distributed both in the north and widely (though clandestinely), in the south. It earned him a bounty on his head of $3,000 dead or $10,000 alive in several southern states. He also helped move Benjamin Lundly, William Lloyd Garrison, and other white, prominent, anti-slavery advocates from moderate reconciliation to a strong abolitionist stance, but someone earned that southern bounty. David Walker was dead and believed poisoned within three years, (and two re-issues), of the “Appeal”.
After 1843, the “Appeal” was republished and distributed by a former slave and Presbyterian Minister, named Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, together with his own “Address to the Slaves of America”. “Address” called for an immediate violent revolution, invoking the heroism of Vesey and Turner. It was originally submitted as a proposal to a national convention of Black leaders in Buffalo NY but failed to pass by a single vote and vehemently opposed by Fredrick Douglas who pronounced it “too radical”. But “Address” inspired the black northern communities to a more militant and organized response and was also widely read by the abolitionist organizations, which by that time had exceeded one quarter of a million registered members.
The trickle of fugitive slaves had turned into a flood. The 1840’s and 1850’s saw a dramatic increase in anti-slavery sentiments and any pro-slavery legislation that was passed by Congress only fueled this opposition. The passage of the “Fugitive Slave Act” resulted in the formation of black and white armed vigilance committees that actively opposed the slave-hunters, often at gunpoint. Many former slaves crossed back into the south to help their brethren escape. We only know of a few names but there were many more; Harriet Tubman, Jane Lewis, Elizabeth Anderson, John Mason, and Arnold Cragston.
The history books teach us that the abolitionist movement culminated with John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Is this really the case? The indications were that the both the black and white abolitionists were growing stronger and more militant. Could an independent south have survived: deprived of any geographic expansion, living in constant anticipation of slave rebellions, and, due to the abolitionists, hemorrhaging its main marketable commodity? Maybe, all Lincoln did was preempt a foreordained revolution and guarantee Afro-American economic and political enslavement for the next 140 years.