Over the last year, Occupy Wall Street has acquired a number of labels: “progressive,” “inclusive,” and “idealist” on one hand, and “directionless,” “naive,” and “un-American” on the other. Some, most notably Peter King, (R-NY), have also branded OWS as little more than a “ragtag mob” and “angry losers who live in dirt.”
Whoa. “Un-American?” “Ragtag?” Had it not been for the “ragtag mobs” and “angry losers” who successfully protested the Stamp Act of 1765, agitated when the Governor of Massachusetts dissolved the House of Representatives in 1768, and organized a real Tea Party in 1773, before finally joining Washington’s “ragtag” Continental Army, we wouldn’t be celebrating our independence 236 years later. Even though the aims and parameters of the American Revolution and OWS do not align entirely, there are nonetheless striking parallels.
Let’s begin with the notion of colonial protest itself, a subject that has been expertly examined by Pauline Maier and more recently, by Gary B. Nash. Given the prevalence of a no-nonsense, liberty-loving British Whiggish ethos, it was almost inevitable that American colonists would eventually turn against their imperial masters. Like John Locke, many believed that tolerating bad governments was “to bid men first to be slaves, and then to take care of their liberty.” Popular turbulence, as one writer in New York hinted, indicated a “certain sign of maladministration.” Future presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson concurred; the former pointed out the existence of “church-quakes and state-quakes in the moral and political world, as well as earthquakes, storms and tempests in the physical,” while the latter famously declared that rebellions were beneficial every now and then for they were like “a storm in the atmosphere.” Even conservatives like Thomas Hutchinson gave qualified approval when he noted that “mobs, a sort of them at least, are constitutional”: and this was after the ransacking of his mansion in the aftermath of the Stamp Act. In short, as one newspaper opined, it was “far less dangerous to the Freedom of a State” for laws to be disregarded “by the license among the rabble….than to dispence [sic] with their force by an act of power.”
But for all that, action geared towards independence would remain “directionless” for more than a decade after the repeal of the Stamp Act. Although pamphlets from the 1760s by James Otis, Jr. (the man who coined the slogan “No taxation without representation”), John Dickinson, and many others expressed frustration with Parliament, they stopped short of claiming any desire to declare independence: after all, a solid 2/3rds of American colonists still identified with Britain. Even Jefferson’s daring Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), which outlined the most egregious abuses on the part of Parliament, would conclude meekly with “It is neither our wish, nor our interest, to separate from her. We are willing, on our part, to sacrifice every thing…”
In fact, public sentiment for independence was not galvanized until the publication of Common Sense (1776), a fiery pamphlet penned by Thomas Paine, an unkempt English-born immigrant and formerly bankrupt – a man whom Peter King might handily dismiss as an “angry loser living in dirt.” Brushing aside the assumption that a monarchy offered the most stable form of government, Paine also asked:
“But if you say, you can still pass the violations over, then I ask, hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers…you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.”
Let’s now press forward to our day and age and tweak Paine’s questions a bit. Has your 401K shrunk? Have your bank fees increased substantially? Has your job, pay or benefits been slashed by a corporate management more interested in outsized bonuses? Have you been foreclosed or evicted? In short, do you live in fear for your future?
This is where the Occupy Wall Street Declaration of Independence meets the challenge. Back then, a foreign power sought to discourage Americans from creating their local and state governments, for “He [George III] has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good” and “dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly.” Today, transnational corporations dictate to governments around the world, urging bailouts, a dilution of financial regulation, and the slashing of top tax rates for the wealthiest: these are the “repeated injuries and usurpations” of our day, particularly with the shrinking of public coffers, from the U.S. to Greece, Spain, and Italy. And much like George III’s empire, transnational corporations today are destroying our natural environment in the process of plundering the seas and land alike for resources.
So on this 4th of July, let’s thanks the “ragtag mobs” and the “angry losers” of late-18th century America as well as the statesmen who wisely championed a little resistance now and then. All helped establish our independence, creating a blazing new vision of freedom and democracy. And let’s thank Occupy Wall Street for reminding us that the promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” must be extended to the 99%. Because at the end of the day, we hold these fundamental truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal and that we are endowed with certain unalienable rights.
Frances A. Chiu earned her doctorate at Oxford University and is an assistant professor at The New School.