Paul Horton teaches history at the University of Chicago Lab School.

He writes:

Creating a Commonwealth: July 4th as a Concept

For most Americans July 4th is a celebration of American Independence. It is a day of music, fireworks, and grilling. We are bombarded with empty rhetoric about freedom from civic boosters who never learned much history. Many embrace a narrow version of American exceptionalism that claims that Americans are God’s chosen people and that the Declaration of Independence is a divinely inspired document.

Many of those who support our president believe that the Revolutionary war was fought over an effort to reduce high taxes. But this view is very short-sighted as historians from Jill Lepore to Gordon Wood have made clear.

The Declaration was written to gain the diplomatic recognition of France and other states that were hostile to the British global empire. The war had already begun, and the document that did more to unite the patriots than the Declaration, Tom Paine’s “Common Sense,” had already severed the cultural connection to the King by daring to question the royal family’s lineage.

When Teaparty advocates dress up as patriots, few of them understand that the tax on tea had been lowered and that the real patriots were more concerned with the monopoly on the sale of tea that had been given to the East India Company by Parliament. What the tea tax was used for was more concerning. These revenues were used to cover the costs of tariff enforcement and Vice Admiralty Courts that were held offshore, thus denying citizens accused of smuggling of their rights as Englishmen: the right to an impartial hearing; the right to a jury comprised of peers; the right to see and question accusers; and the right to an impartial judge. Vice Admiralty Courts were military tribunals that denied these rights and the officers who presided over them would receive a share of the value of seized property, tipping the scales of justice in favor of guilty rulings.

Teaparty followers also fail to understand that the revolution was motivated by land claims. Every colony claimed land west of the Appalachian mountains that were denied by the Proclamation of 1763 that the British established to maintain peace with western tribes following the War for Empire. Large eastern landowners who were indebted to British merchants wanted access to these lands to retire debt and small or landless farmers saw the west and cheap land as a way to establish independence in a world where dependence meant subservience.

My sixth great grandfather, Abraham Horton, fought at King’s Mountain and Cowpens for promised bounty land in what would become eastern Tennessee. He was cast out of his Quaker Meeting near Mount Airy, North Carolina, for joining the fight that would bring his family land in Cherokee country.

Unfortunately, victory in the revolutionary war for the patriots was a disaster for the Cherokee and other tribes.

Most importantly, those who subscribe to a presentist version of American exceptionalism claim that July 4th represents something about the freedoms that we must protect today as a justification for interventions in wars abroad. Wars abroad for revolutionary war patriots were wars in different republics. When the Intolerable Acts were issued in 1774, patriots began leaving colonial assemblies to form their own governments, republics based on the idea of creating a commonwealth. The Intolerable Acts suspended the assembly of Massachusetts and this served as a fire bell to those who saw a civil war approaching. When a Virginian went to Boston to fight the British, he was fighting in an allied republic that had cobbled together an allied army.

The term Commonwealth, not surprisingly, was a body where sovereign power resided in the Commons, the House of Commons, and in the idea that the Commons, land jointly owned, would be shared for the use and benefit of the people, not the crown, or those who possesses title. This idea extends back to the Magna Carta of the Forrest, the idea that the people have a right to subsist on the commons, to gather wood, hunt, graze livestock, and cultivate gardens on land not owned by those with title.

In short modern day neoliberals, tea party activists, libertarians, fail to understand why the concept of commonwealth was so important to the patriots. Parliament and crown had usurped the rights of Englishmen by attempting to destroy the right of the colonists to subsist for “the pursuit of happiness.” Patriots created commonwealths that reclaimed their rights and land that could be used for the common good. Commons meant public. Public buildings, meeting houses, courts, schools, alms-houses, and cultural institutions would be built on the commons.

By assaulting the very idea of the commonwealth: the idea that public authority, public space, and public institutions are legitimate; today’s neoliberals, tea party activists, and libertarians actively betray the ideal of freedom that was created when patriots formed state commonwealths.

The people should have the “right to pursue happiness.” To subsist in today’s world, they need a commons: good schools, a fair wage, fair access to due process, cheap good housing, and quality medical care.

America under Trump has betrayed the promise of the American Revolution. He and the Republican congressional leadership support monopolies and they support those without title who are creating a new plutocracy. They run roughshod over our rights as Americans and pollute the commons.

American must reclaim the idea of the commons, the idea of the republic, the idea of the public. To do so is to reclaim the true spirit of July 4th.