Betrayal of Democracy by Counterrevolution

This is territory I’ve covered many times before, but it always gets to me. The lost promise of any failed revolution is profoundly sad.

This is from Taming Democracy by Terry Bouton. It is from the Introduction (Kindle Location 70). The author summarizes the entire American revolutionary period from the years preceding to the decades following.

“Moreover, much of the revolutionary generation was convinced that, during the postwar decade, the elite founding fathers had waged-and won-a counter-revolution against popular democratic ideals. During the 178os and 1790s, ordinary folk across the new nation perceived democracy to be under assault from elite leaders determined to scale it back from the broad ideal that had been articulated in 1776. To many people, the biggest victory in this counter-revolution was the creation of the new federal Constitution-a document that modern Americans often view as one of the Revolution’s crowning democratic achievements. Most revolutionary era Americans believed that democracy survived this counter-revolution. But they also thought the version that remained had been stripped of much of its meaning and was a far less potent ideal than the one that many of them had fought a war to attain.”

The author then goes into some detail explaining why the focus is put on Pennsylvania. That state more than any other held the promise of democracy. It has been called the cradle of liberty for good reason, even if the elites after the revolution conveniently forgot about those reasons. After discussing Pennsylvania, the author continues with an explanation of what the betrayal of the elites meant to “The People” who fought the American Revolution.

“This consensus shattered during the war, when much of the gentry changed their minds about democracy and began an effort to scale back its meaning and practice-in effect, attempting to tame democracy. During the war, many of the state’s founding fathers abandoned their commitment to wealth equality and a democratized political system. Instead, they redefined a “good government” as one that enriched the affluent and refashioned “liberty” as a word that meant the freedom to amass as much property as one desired and to use that property as one saw fit. The elite tried to force through redistributive policies they knew would be unpopular (and even offensive) to ordinary folk. And when they met resistance, the gentry worked to restructure the state and national governments to make them less responsive to the public will-just as Britain had done during the 176os and 1770s-The elite founders also replicated many of the economic policies that Britain had enacted, with similar results: they created an economic depression that brought hardships across the state and angered ordinary folk who saw this new order as a betrayal of the Revolution’s main ideals.

“In response, during the 1780s, ordinary Pennsylvanians attempted to defend their ideas of political and economic equality. Facing a situation similar to that of the 176os and 1770s, people from across the state petitioned for the same policies they had called for a decade earlier-policies that the gentry had supported at the time. Despite the democratization of government, however, ordinary folk had a hard time mobilizing for change. They ran up against a system that, for all of its democratic innovations, still kept many obstacles in the path of the people. And, as the common folk discovered, unless they found a way to organize around those obstacles, it did not matter if most Pennsylvanians shared an agenda for change. When it came to political power, without organization, “the people” remained little more than an abstraction. As a result, ordinary Pennsylvanians achieved only limited political victories during the 1780s. The revolutionary elite rejected most of their proposals, and when they did, many people protested in the same ways they had against Britain.

“Those protests prompted the elite founding fathers to create what the gentry called more permanent “barriers against democracy.” They rewrote constitutions and passed new laws to diminish access to power and to outlaw forms of political self-expression that many ordinary folk considered to be essential to defending their liberties. In this more hostile environment, ordinary Pennsylvanians resorted to increasingly desperate measures to protect their democratic ideals. In the end, the conflict was settled by two mass popular uprisings by thousands of ordinary Pennsylvanians, one in 1794 and another in 1799. Each of these showdowns ended with federal armies marching through Pennsylvania to uphold a far more limited democracy than the version that had existed in 1776.”

The American Revolution fully took form when the British army violently oppressed colonial protests and it ended when the new Federal army did the same. From one oppressive government to the next. The pattern endlessly repeats.

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