The Rebels of 1776 - Address by Daniel De Leon June 5, 1900

The People
July 22, 1995
Vol. 105 No. 7

THE REBELS OF 1776

The following address was delivered extemporaneously by Daniel De Leon on June 5, 1900, during a debate at the 10th National Convention of the Socialist Labor Party. It was made in rebutting an argument that all references to the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the Founding Fathers be deleted from the Socialist Labor Party's Platform or Declaration of Principles. This argument condemned the American Revolution as capitalist, and the lofty language of the Founding Fathers as double-talk. De Leon's purpose was to put the American Revolution of 1776 in proper historic perspective and to answer the "ultra- Marxists" in the SLP who could see nothing but a capitalist plot in the actions and statements of the Founding Fathers. De Leon's stirring reply constitutes a warm and reasoned defense of the American Revolution and its authors, and one that has ever since expressed the party's position on the birth of the American Republic.

-- EDITOR

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It is true, if you want to take the dictionary sense of "democracy," that democracy has never existed; but it is not true if you take the historic sense of it. When we use a term we do not use it in the sense that school boys use it, who go into moot courts for the purpose of showing to what extent their researches have gone, the result of which usually is to show how superficially the researches have been made. Democracy has come down through the pages of history as a recognized thing, and we mean by democracy what history means by it. True enough, there was no democracy in Athens, because the word "democracy" means "rule of the people," and if "people" means human beings, then two-thirds of Athens had nothing to say because they were workingmen. They did not have access to the marketplace, where they could vote. Nevertheless, those institutions have come down to us as so-called democracies in the sense that there was not then representative government. This is the point that I desire to make clear. "Democracy" in history means not the dictionary sense. "Democracy" in history means simply something that precedes representative government; something that is possible so long as those who rule are so few that they can meet in "committees of the whole." But just as soon as those who rule, whatever those may be -- plutocrats, capitalists, feudalists, or anybody else -- whenever they become so numerous that they cannot meet in public assemblage and decide things, representative government becomes a necessity, a useful thing, and a good thing. And it may be perverted as anything else can be perverted that is good. I therefore cannot take any stock in the criticism from Detroit. We do not use the word "democracy" in a sense that history does not justify.

As to the criticism with regard to our revolutionary fathers, that raises a highly interesting point. It seems that there are people who by the word "revolution" understand a social wreck, a splitting off from the past absolutely. I do not so understand revolution. Revolution is simply the culminating point of evolution; and this revolution that we are about to make in our generation is intimately connected with the revolution that the so-called revolutionary fathers accomplished. To say that they were absolutely bourgeois, without any feeling for anybody else, to say that their purpose was to oppress and that that motto of Franklin *1 meant that, is absolutely to ignore the fact, to ignore the philosophy of history. The revolutionary fathers were oncoming capitalists, they were bourgeois, but -- and the point, I think, has been made before me -- they imagined that if you would allow a person free access to the opportunities of labor his freedom would be guaranteed.

It is false reasoning, it is unhistoric, it is unphilosophic, to draw a comparison absolute and hard and fast between our revolutionary fathers and the French revolutionists. The French revolutionists, those who accomplished the revolution, were well- developed bourgeois; back of them were the masses, who had nothing to say, but who could give a good many blows and compel the then French revolutionists to accomplish certain results. It was not so in America. In America the men who accomplished the revolution were not the masses, but were men who really believed that by giving free opportunity to work, unhampered by feudal encroachments and feudal hampering laws, freedom was established. To say that they meant the oppression of the working people is an insult to the genius of America. [Applause.]

Will you tell me that John Adams of Massachusetts meant to oppress the people when, in his great speech turning against the Northern men who wanted to abolish slavery in the South, and who were then howling against chattel slavery, he asked the question: Please tell me what is the difference between employing a man and paying him in money just enough to keep body and soul together -- what is the difference between that and giving him just enough food for him to get along? "The one," said he, "is called slavery, and the other," said he, "is called freedom, but the two are the same thing; the difference is imaginary only." Do you tell me that that man meant to oppress the people of America? I say no; and it would have been much more to the point if the comrade who made the statement had adduced some points instead of stating generalities. Will you tell me that that sentence meant bourgeois oppression?

Will you tell me that James Madison did not understand the situation when he said in a magnificent little essay of his: "We are free today substantially but the day will come when our Republic will be an impossibility. It will be an impossibility because wealth will be concentrated in the hands of a few. A republic cannot stand upon bayonets, and when that day comes, when the wealth of the nation will be in the hands of a few, then we must rely upon the wisdom of the best elements in the country to readjust the laws of the nation to the changed conditions." [Great applause.] Will you tell me that that man was animated by strict bourgeois sentiments?

Take Franklin. I regret indeed that the comrade did not take the pains to find out where that passage was put in. That passage occurs in a little argument by Franklin on what property means. I challenge anybody to justly point out anything to bear out that the meaning of that expression is bourgeois. I would like to give you the history of that expression. The Continental Congress was engaged with the subject of the ballot. Remember that the national Constitution does not say a word upon property qualifications, but during the discussion on the federal Constitution resolutions upon the subject were proposed. Somebody wanted a property qualification. Benjamin Franklin asked: "Suppose a man comes and wants to enroll. You ask him, 'What is your name?' 'John Jones.' 'Have you any property?' 'Yes, I have a donkey.' 'How much is your donkey worth?' 'Five pounds.' 'Very well, you can vote.' Next year the same man comes around and he wants to register. You ask him, 'Have you any property?' 'No.' 'What has become of your donkey?' 'He is dead.' 'Well, then, you can't vote!'" "Now," says Franklin, "who voted last year, the man or the donkey?" [Laughter and applause.] Will you tell me that that man looked upon property as a means to oppress the workingmen? That sentence that "property is the creature of society" is a deep scientific statement, and I would like Comrade Simpson *2 or anybody else to enlighten me as to where that utterance or a similar one happens before Franklin made it. Socialism maintains that very thing, that property is the creature of society; property, mind you, not wealth -- property, that the power of holding, owning, is the creature of society.

A bourgeois never, never said that same thing. It was an aspiration of the revolutionary father, of that great scientific man, who uttered a new sentiment; a sentiment that did not come above the surface into the domain of science until Morgan wrote his work about ANCIENT SOCIETY, and we there see how property was developed. All that Morgan wrote in about 500 pages was anticipated in essence nearly 100 years by Benjamin Franklin, the one great scientist, the one great nobleman of the American Revolution. [Applause.] Franklin, when he said that, indicated that society has a right to take all of that for society's benefit. Statements of John Adams, Madison, Franklin, not to mention the more demagogic Jefferson, go far enough to indicate that those men, when they established the American Republic, did not mean to establish a republic of oppression. With the French revolutionists it was different. There they had hardly started to do anything, when they immediately passed resolutions that held the working people, those who have no property, who labor under wage slavery, under a state of subjection.

And I come back to the point: It is unscientific, unphilosophic, it is certainly not founded upon facts, to draw such a sharp comparison between the two. When the French Revolution took place, there was a proletariat ready at hand for the well- developed capitalists to jump on the back of; but in America there was no proletariat worth mentioning. In those days every man and woman, those whose hands were as empty as when they were born, had a future of wealth within bounds, certain affluence, independence. Man was then the architect of his own happiness, except the Negroes, who were chattels and not considered human. The French revolutionists are not to be compared with the American, except to a limited extent. They used grandiose phrases, which their actions immediately denied. Here, those men used phrases which they did believe in. Consequently I consider it to be an excessive display of extreme Marxism; it is running Marxism into the ground; it is carrying the thing into an excess which repels the heart and the mind, because you cannot catch even a student with that. Just as soon as he reads for himself, he will find that your facts are not there.

When we appeal to the people, we want to be careful to have ballast to our ship, so that it will not capsize, but we must also see to it that we have all the sails set up that will catch all the winds to carry our ship forward. [Applause.] We in this country have to steer against two rocks: On the one hand, the extreme ballast men, who want nothing but ballast and who would chop off every sail, who say it is superfluous -- and the ship would stand motionless as it has stood in the past and develop into Kangarooism; *3 this taxation position, for instance, is a development of it. I do not mean that Simpson would do that, but that is the danger. On the other hand are the freaks and reformers, who want nothing but sails. In the one case it is all ballast and the ship moves not; in the other, the ship is all sails, and capsizes like a catharine-wheel. We must guard against both. We must be true as to facts, and we must be up to time as to the feelings.

I will close with the statement of a man to whom the movement owes much. He has written much nonsense, and was declared insane, but he wrote some profound wisdom, and that man is Auguste Comte. Generalizing on the development of man, he says: "The heart always aspires to the best, but the mind is not, from the start, abreast of the heart. Real human progress is only possible when the two are abreast of each other." With the French revolutionists the mind was not abreast of the heart. Our revolutionists, on the contrary, really imagined that the heart and the mind were abreast of each other. Deprived of the presence of a large proletarian element, they could not conceive such a thing as wage workers by extraction, so to speak, and they opened the gates of the nation to the exploited and oppressed of others to come here and be free with them. They made a mistake. Development took place. Property, the slight thing that was to give freedom, became the weapon of oppression. We cannot blame them any more than we can blame Marx, who in several passages indicates that he does not believe that the capitalists would ever be clever enough to establish permanent trusts, monopoly. If he lived today he would know better and see how smart capitalists can be. And if Franklin lived today and the revolutionary fathers, they would realize that what they imagined would be the means of freedom had become the means of oppression.

Now we connect with the revolution of a hundred years ago. That revolution was builded from the heart upon the part of men as to whom Pitt in the British Parliament said that in the history of great men he must admit that the parliament in America consisted of the ablest men he ever had the fortune to read about. [Applause.] With hearts beating true to humanity, with a scientist like Franklin, who could fathom a truth ahead of the time, wishing for freedom, they established it to the best of their knowledge. And it may be that with ourselves, after we have accomplished our work, something new may arise. Who can tell? Remember always Columbus' experience. Traveling westward to reach China, he never saw China, but something else spread itself between him and that country. Nevertheless, his principle was correct, and China was ultimately reached on that route. So may we, after we have accomplished our revolution, find something new, something else that we know not about. Would it be just to us if our grandchildren should say that our purpose was to establish tyranny? That our purpose was to tyrannize any human being? No! They will in such case rise to the height of science, based upon facts, and say of us: "Those men did the best they knew, with the light they had, and aided by the material conditions that there were." [Applause.]

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FOOTNOTES

1 Benjamin Franklin said: "Private property therefore is a creature of society, and is subject to the calls of that society, whenever its necessities shall require it, even to its last farthing."

2 Herman Simpson, a delegate from New York.

3 In the 1890s there was an element in the SLP, then the only party in America calling itself socialist, that developed a hostile attitude toward the party's policy of opposing procapitalist trades unions and of advocating socialist unions, i.e., unions that acknowledged the principle of the class struggle. This element, led by Alexander Jonas, Morris Hillquit and the publishers of a German-language newspaper, the NEW YORKER VOLKSZEITUNG, conspired to take over the party machinery and actually organized a midnight raid on the party's national headquarters, July 10, 1899. The raid failed. Nevertheless, the conspirators set themselves up for a time as the "Socialist Labor Party," and even issued a bogus version of "THE PEOPLE," which they later called THE WORKER. De Leon, recalling the kangaroo courts of the western frontier, which set themselves up in various communities where they were not known, arrested people, held trials and levied fines -- then jumped kangaroo-like to some other place when they were about to be exposed -- christened the conspirator-usurpers "kangaroos." In 1901, the SLP "kangaroos" joined with the Social Democratic forces of Eugene V. Debs to create the reformist Socialist Party.