Declaring Independence

Photo: Kevin Hagen

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.

“Angry loser” Thomas Jefferson.

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…”

Thomas Paine, another angry loser.

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.

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  • Brad4980

    Can we please stop deifying the founding fathers

    • Midori

      This isn’t deification. It’s putting current events in historical context.

  • John Delaney

    The Gettysburg Address

    Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

    Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

    But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

    • Dalecurt

      Under electoral politics, it is exact opposite of government of the people, by the people, for the people. It is government of the few, by the few, for the few. It has no different to that of under monarchy of the United Kingdom. You can petition, but you can never rule. Under OWS, it is different. The people don’t have to petition, the people can rule themselves through a system of direct democracy.

  • Frances A. Chiu

    Great observations! And yes, at the present, we seem to have little more than government of the 1%, by the 1%, and for the 1%. A far cry from the Gettysburg Address! And really, a far cry from what our nation stands for, from its very inception.

    The following remarks made by Judge Rakoff on June 8th when he allowed OWS to proceed in their lawsuit against the NYPD say a lot:

    “What a huge debt this nation owes to its ‘troublemakers.’ From Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King Jr., they have forced us to focus on problems we would prefer to downplay or ignore. Yet it is often only with hindsight that we can distinguish those troublemakers who brought us to our senses from those who are simply troublemakers. Prudence, and respect for the constitutional rights to free speech and free association, therefore dictate that the legal system cut all nonviolent protesters a fair amount of slack.”

    The facts are we can’t and shouldn’t forget the past. History is not always a perfect model, but it often provides us with insights into our present situation–and possibly even solutions. Just as some of the Founding Fathers reached back to the Civil War of 1642 in Britain for inspiration, the French revolution of 1789 looked back in a matter of a few short years to the American one. And maybe one day, in the next few centuries (provided that the planet has not been completely obliterated by wars or global warming), others will look back to OWS, studying our thoughts, strategies, and interpretations for possible inspirations.

    Human nature does not change a whole lot: but I subscribe to the notion that we can and do try to improve. Over the last 60 years or so, Western Europe has been trying to avert the vast disparities and inequalities of their feudal, ancien-regime past: this is partly why they endeavored to create a truly public health care and higher education (even if some have still retained monarchies and hereditary peerage, e.g., the UK). This is also why their CEOs make far less than our own and why their 1% share a greater burden of taxes. In effect, they are the New Old World, while our government, esp. the GOP, is busy trying to establish Feudalism 2.0. (Alas, recent European leaders have been attempting to emulate us by cutting taxes on the corporations and the wealthy without accounting for their public services, which is why they’re in a mess right now!)

    I have a blog, “History is on our side: the 99% writes back,” where I compare some of the similarities (and differences) between the past and present: the ways in which past 1%ers have abused their powers–and the ways in which the more perceptive segments of the 99% have analyzed and criticized the problems of the day: i.e., the problem of big bucks (or big quid) in elections, taxes that were burdened on the poor and middle classes rather than the 1%, and substandard education for the masses. Does any of this sound familiar? And in case you’re wondering, this was all from 18th century Britain.

    Ultimately, we are shaped by history–but we have the power to shape it too.

  • SpectacleStudy

    While it’s all well and good that these observations are being made there is no need to bow to the dogmatism of nationalist rhetoric. What does it mean to be un-American? What it invokes is some sort of ethically meaningless spin. There is no reason that the Occupied should be bowing to nationalist demands for a contest that really doesn’t have any pragmatic value. If measuring “patriotism” means validating the the continuance of all sorts of morally repugnant eccentricities of the state, then why would anyone desire to be patriotic?

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