The myth of the “conservative revolution”

December 14, 2011

The Tea Partiers love to claim they are standing up for the ideals of the American Revolution, but they actually represent the opposite, argues Jason Netek.

REMEMBER THE Tea Party? It seems like it was just yesterday that you couldn't turn on the television without seeing footage of crowds of ornery white people wearing tri-cornered hats, waving Gadsen Flags and talking about the "Second American Revolution."

It was pretty gross. What they meant by "revolution" was electing more politicians such as Ron Paul, who opposes making health care accessible to anyone without the money to pay for it, supports draconian measures against undocumented immigrants and is against any government spending to help people in need.

The Tea Party's idea of revolution is to keep everything how it is.

It's bad enough that there's a section of the population so hostile to even the slightest step in the direction of equality. But the Tea Party's wholesale appropriation of the rhetoric and imagery of the American Revolution is especially infuriating. Its supporters call themselves things like "Minutemen" and say that the movement of 1776 was a "conservative revolution" against big government and taxes.

A Tea Partier and Founding Father impersonator at a rally
A Tea Partier and Founding Father impersonator at a rally

It's not worth debating whether such a phenomenon as a "conservative revolution" exists. Anyone can consult the dictionary to resolve this question.

But if there is any movement in the U.S. today, which deserves to claim a link to the American Revolution, it is the Occupy movement, not the Tea Party. If the Tea Party stands for a rabid defense of the status quo, or even a few steps backward, the Occupy movement is a coming together of various forces on an increasingly radical basis.

FOR ALL of its contradictions and shortcomings, the movement of 1776 was similarly not to maintain the status quo or reassert traditional values. It was a movement to break with the established order. It was, by its very nature, not conservative.

There were conservatives in 1776, of course, and they were found on both sides of the war. There were the Tories, who were loyal to the British monarchy and opposed the creation of a democratic republic. And on the patriots' side, there were the defenders of slavery and the landed elite, who set out from day one to ensure that the U.S. would be a country governed by men of property, in which human beings could owned.

There is nothing more hypocritical than proclaiming "liberty and justice for all," while holding others in bondage. The merchant class that led the revolt in the colonies was concerned primarily with commerce, and its contradictory conceptions of liberty reflected this position.

Many of the men celebrated today as the "Founding Fathers" were slaveholders, like George Washington, whose smile included nine teeth transplanted from his slave's mouths. There was Thomas Jefferson, who occasionally spoke out about the immorality of slavery, but couldn't bring himself to emancipate his slaves. After his death, his family sold off all but one of his slaves to other owners to pay off Jefferson's debts.

Then there was Benjamin Franklin, who, toward the end of his life, freed his slaves and became president of the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society--and John Jay, who used his position as governor of New York to secure full abolition in the state.

Not all of the "Founding Fathers" were slaveholders--though most all did fear the unchecked power of the masses and worked diligently to ensure that the new republic would be controlled by the wealthy elite. Some, like Washington, represented a conservative element that sought to limit and contain the revolution. But others involved in the revolution did not have such limited vision, and were interested in exploring all of the possibilities the new era opened up.

For example, there was Thomas Paine, the chief propagandist of the American cause. Paine is best remembered for his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, which argued convincingly, and in plain language, for separation from England.

If this was all Paine wrote, his legacy might be ambiguous enough for Glenn Beck to claim him as a hero of the Tea Party. However, Paine was just about the most radical figure of the revolution. He was an outspoken opponent not just of slavery, but of economic inequality in any form and even wrote up proposals for a radical redistribution of wealth. In his 1795 pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, Paine wrote:

[T]he earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state, every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.

Far from being the godfather of the hard-right and pro-business Tea Party movement, Paine's philosophy was a kind of radical egalitarianism, with many features in common with the socialist movement of a later generation.

THE ACTUAL battles of the War for Independence from Britain weren't fought by the elite. In fact, among the Continental Army soldiers were slaves, who joined in exchange for the promise of emancipation.

For these revolutionaries, the purpose of the war was a society where common people had a stake. When the new republic proved to be less than what they fought for, many directed their anger and fighting spirit at their former leaders. The most famous example of this is Shay's Rebellion, when war veterans organized an armed insurrection of poor farmers against the new rulers and their debtors' prisons.

The Revolution of 1776 was a movement against the old order dominated by the British monarchy, but its success gave rise to a contradictory new one--a step forward in some respects, but not in others. Independence from the British Empire didn't bring about the end of slavery, nor did it liberate rural or urban dwellers from the rule of the wealthy. The majority of people in the new nation didn't even have the right to vote in the early years of the republic.

But the revolution did establish some very powerful ideas about justice and equality that those struggling in the decades to come have looked to for inspiration. For example, the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions from the 1848 Women's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls was modeled on the Declaration of Independence and includes whole passages from the original document, with "women" added in where the word should have been the first time around.

The Tea Partiers and Ron Paulites can stay on the wrong side of history if they wish, but we shouldn't tolerate their claim to be acting today in the name of the American Revolution.

James P. Cannon, one of the leading figures of the American Trotskyist movement in the 20th century, argued that socialists shouldn't relinquish the revolutionary traditions of the U.S. to the reactionaries and let the workers' movement appear as something foreign to past struggles.

The only elements of the American Revolution that the right wing can legitimately claim are those which sought to hold it back. The true revolutionaries in the U.S. of the 21st century will be those who struggle for a society where there truly is liberty and justice for all.

Further Reading

From the archives