Overthrowing the Government: As American as Apple Pie

It’s nice to remind people, as they gather for July 4th picnics and the local car dealers run ads thanking the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for “our freedoms,” that the holiday they’re celebrating commemorates — as one libertarian blogger put it — the victory of an insurgency against a global military superpower.

Chris Matthews, a popular liberal news commentator on MSNBC, frequently expresses his dismay at all the Gadsden Flags and suchlike imagery at Tea Party rallies.  Why, he says, these people are using the “Don’t Tread On Me” symbolism to “attack our own government” — an utterly unheard of departure from its original appearance in a patriotic foreign war against “an enemy imperial nation.”  Rather than using it to fight a foreign government like Britain, they’re using it to fight (gasp) “their own central government”!

It’s really not fair to single Matthews out for blame.  His historical illiteracy is typical of the vast majority of people who absorbed the triumphal statist propaganda the publik skools call “civics” and “American history.”

Over a century ago anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre ascribed to her contemporaries (in “Anarchism and American Institutions”) an understanding of the subject almost word-for-word identical to that of Matthews.

“To the average American of today, the Revolution means the series of battles fought by the patriot army with the armies of England….  They have no idea why it should have been called a “revolution” instead of the “English War,” or any similar title: it’s the name of it, that’s all.”

But whether Matthews likes it or not, the American Revolution was a genuine revolution in every sense of the word.  The colonists fought to overthrow their own domestic political institutions.  King George III was not just a foreign tyrant, but the chief executive of each separate colony who appointed its governor, judges, and (in some cases) the upper house of the legislature, under the terms of its individual charter.

I can’t recommend higly enough Ray Raphael’s excellent “A People’s History of the American Revolution.”  The real American Revolution, he wrote, was not — as it’s commonly understood to have been — all the shooting that began with Lexington and Concord and led to the formation of the Continental Army under the powdered-wig aristocrat Washington.  The real American Revolution began in 1774, when the people of Massachusetts and other New England colonies began overthrowing their domestic political institutions and establishing revolutionary institutions in their place.  One such revolutionary act was the irregular and extraordinary assembly of the Massachusetts lower house as a Convention, and not pursuant to writs of election bearing His Excellency’s official seal of office — an act in conscious imitation of the Convention Parliament of 1689, which met despite having never been summoned by James II, as required by English law.  The Convention began functioning as a revolutionary legislature in defiance of Hutchinson.  Meanwhile, local committees of public safety, made up of local citizens imbued with the radical Whig ideology, met to perform the function of defunct local courts, and began drilling militia companies with the encouragement of the Convention’s standing executive committee.  Under orders of the Convention, various fortifications and arsenals were secured by patriot militia, and the colony began preparing to organize a standing army of 13,000.  His Excellency fled the colony and sought out British protection.

The British invasion that sparked the battles of Lexington and Concord was an attempt by the Empire — the central government — to retake the arsenal at Concord, as a first step toward restoring the royal charter government of Massachusetts.

In other words, the American Revolution involved the overthrow of a domestic system of power.   The American people overthrew their own colonial governments, in defiance of their own central government.  The American Revolution and its revolutionary institutions were no mere war against a foreign nation, no more than were the Russian Revolution and the soviets.

It’s odd, in a country founded by such anti-authoritarian hell-raisers, to see a modern-day political culture in which “100% Americanism” is equated to Loyalty and contrasted to “Subversion.”   It’s equally odd, when we celebrate those hell-raisers who overthrew their own government, to see reactionaries like the American Legion building a cult around a loyalty oath to “Old Glory.”

But it’s really those reactionaries and authoritarians, the Legionnaires and Mrs. Grundys, who are unAmerican.

Rebellion is 100% American.

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