Multiculturalism and the American Revolution of 1776: A Response to David Lyons
Foster, John Bellamy, Monthly Review
The American Revolution of 1776, in a celebrated formulation by historian Carl Becker, was fought "not for home rule alone...but for the democratization of American society as well."  Most historical debates over the revolution have been concerned with the question of who were the main agents of this democratization. In the dominant interpretation, democracy flowed from the pens and swords of the Founding Fathers. In the alternative, radical interpretation, presented by such historians as Eric Foner, Staughton Lynd, Gary Nash, and Edward Countryman, a more revolutionary impulse for democracy emerged from urban artisans and farmers (and from figures like Tom Paine, James Otis and Samuel Adams), who sought to redress the enormous inequality in a society dominated by wealthy commercial and planting interests. Yet, this emphasis of historians on the struggle for democracy as it was understood in the revolutionary era has had the unfortunate result of rendering invisible most of those living in or on the borders of the thirteen colonies: American Indians, AfricanAmericans, and women. Only recently have scholars, animated by multicultural concerns, sought to re-evaluate the revolution in order to take into consideration its impact on issues of race and gender as well as nation and class.
This more inclusive approach threatens to disrupt traditional--radical as well as mainstream--conceptions of the revolution. As David Lyons argues in "The Balance of Injustice and the War for Independence," most blacks and most Indians who fought in the revolution fought on the side of the British. For African-Americans the main issue was slavery and the main enemies were southern slave-owners. For Native Americans the revolution was tied to the struggle over the Indian lands. As Howard Zinn has written, "white Americans were fighting against British imperial control in the East, and for their own imperialism in the West."  In addition, the revolution failed to address the forms of patriarchal oppression that confronted women in the colonies. These considerations have led David Lyons to raise the question as to "whether the American Revolution--the British colonies' fight for freedom from the Crown--was morally justifiable." For Lyons the answer is clearly, no.
Lyons' case is based primarily on the relation of the revolution to the struggle over Indian lands and only secondarily on the relation of the revolution to blacks and slavery and to women and patriarchy. The argument is that the Indians first sided with the French against the British because "the French came mainly for furs and other trade, whereas Britons came mainly to settle." With the defeat of the French in the French and Indian War (1756-1763), the Indians found their territories threatened by invading settlers from the British colonies. In response, the tribes of the Ohio Country (stretching North-South from the Great Lakes to the Ohio River and East-West from the Appalachians to western Ohio), rose up under the leadership of the Delaware and the Seneca in what Francis Jennings has called the "Indians' Revolution" of 1763 (traditionally miscalled "Pontiac's Conspiracy").  The British were able to put down this Indian revolt, but found their imperial finances further strained by the enormous cost of securing the western forts. In order to make peace with the Indian nations, the Crown issued the Proclamation of 1763 that barred white settlement west of the Appalachians. This Proclamation, Lyons argues, was a major factor leading to the rebellion of the colonies. And it also helps to explain why the Indians sided principally with the British who promised to protect their lands. Furthermore, under the Quebec Act of 1774 the British actually assigned the lands of the Ohio Country to Quebec, thereby invalidating the claims of the colonies to these lands. Under these circumstances, according to Lyons, "a reasonable contemporary estimate would have predicted …
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Publication information: Article title: Multiculturalism and the American Revolution of 1776: A Response to David Lyons. Contributors: Foster, John Bellamy - Author. Magazine title: Monthly Review. Volume: 45. Issue: 11 Publication date: April 1994. Page number: 27+. © 1999 Monthly Review Foundation, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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