As a child, I listened endlessly to Paul Robeson’s deep and sonorous tones as he sang the Ballad for Americans, celebrating the American dream of equality, justice, and opportunity. The American promise came as close as anything to a spiritual ideal for me. By the time I was in high school, I was enchanted with history classes. In college, I majored in American history and literature, and I followed that with five years of graduate study. I’d like to share some of what I learned.
We have had not one but three revolutions in American history in the march towards greater social, economic, and political justice. Each time, the purpose has been to redress a particular injustice and to move us further on the path of an inclusive democracy. Each revolution has completed the unfulfilled promises of the one before. These revolutions have been hard fought; they have required sacrifice. But believing what we do as a people—government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”—there has been no alternative, no possibility of little changes—band aids—here and there. I believe that there is a need for a fourth revolution.
Our national history begins with the Revolution of 1776. As Robeson sings:
In seventy-six the sky was red
Thunder rumbling over head
Bad King George couldn’t sleep in his bed
And on that stormy morn, Old Uncle Sam was born.
We were born in rebellion from monarchy and arbitrary power. We created a democratic form of government in order to immensely broaden the base of power, and we instituted the rule of law. By replacing powerful men with the rule of law, we guaranteed that no one could decide our fate without our consent. The first American revolution represents one of the great achievements in world history, setting the standard for others and setting a standard that we would have to live up to, ourselves.
There were limitations, though. Historians have long noted that the Revolution allowed the property-owning classes to establish their dominion. The Constitution that they wrote did not include Black slaves, poor non-land owning whites, women, and a host of others. To gain the allegiance of the Southern states, it created an Electoral College and assigned equal Senate votes to agrarian states with far smaller populations than states with urban centers.. These and many other Constitutional “deals” were set as a great wall against the rule of the “unwashed” majority. The Revolution was a monumental l event but there was work to be done to achieve a more robust democracy.
1860 brought the second revolution. At its heart, it was fought to free the slaves. Robeson intones:
Old Abe Lincoln was thin and long,
His heart was high and his faith was strong.
But he hated oppression, he hated wrong,
And he went down to his grave to free the slave.
Many historians, believe that the Revolution of 1776 could only have been completed with the Emancipation Proclamation. Other historians noted that the party of Lincoln also broke the monopoly on power held by the original property-owning class and quickened the economic freedom represented by free-market capitalism that has defined our economy ever since. In doing so, the Northern Republicans wanted also to put an end to the medieval dominance of the Southern aristocracy.
Again, these were great achievements that left much to be done. The South quickly undermined the Fourteenth Amendment and, as if by slight of hand, transformed slavery into Jim Crow. The laws of emancipation were on the books, but not the practice. The agrarian states still held inordinate power at a time when European immigrants began to overflow the Eastern cities, and nativist politics did its best to keep them in their place. What’s more, the increased vigor of “free” markets led to a form of monopoly capitalism, in which the few again found a way to rule the majority. Robber barons like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie and bankers like Jim Fisk and Jay Gould were the new monarchs of American society.
The third revolution, catalyzed first by the Progressive moment, led by Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, and then by the Great Depression of 1928, culminated in FDR’s New Deal. The masses had begun to rise against the free market “profiteers,” and to demand that government serve their end, to serve the needs of workers and small farmers, and of immigrants, of Catholics and Jews, not just White, Anglo Saxon, Protestants. If America was to be of and by the people, it could also be for the people. That meant more and better jobs, Social Security to protect aging citizens, rules that guaranteed working men and women an equal say at the bargaining table, among many other agencies and laws to even the playing field.
Like the first two revolutions, the third left much undone: Advancing he civil rights of Black people and women, not to mention those of gay and lesbian people, whose time would come sixty years later, and the right to health care for the old and the poor. In many ways, the third revolution only realized its promise during the age of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson. The period of the 1960’s and 1970’s could easily be considered a fourth revolution, with the sustained reform efforts of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society and the War on Poverty ushering in a hybrid form of government that combined social welfare with free market incentives. For most of a century, the United States became the most prosperous nation the world had ever known.
Still, much needed and needs to be done. There are many millions of Americans still in need of civil rights and economic access: people of color in particular but also poor and disenfranchised White people; everyone who is down and out or, like many home owners and college students, one step from foreclosure or dropping out.
What’s more, the freedoms wrought by the three revolutions are in jeopardy. Once again, a plutocracy, consisting of enormously wealthy people and corporations, and the “public servants” who do their bidding, threatens the American dream. Nativist ideologies threaten our efforts to be one people. The US President-elect insists on his own security guard (army?), more reminiscent of dictatorships than democratically elected government. New cabinet members threaten to roll back civil rights to the days of Jim Crow, to dismantle economic regulations that give working people a fair share of power and health care systems that protect the vulnerable.
Let me be more direct: The incoming regime threatens the most basic rights and hopes that have taken three revolutions to build: liberty, democratic governance, inclusion of all, and a safety net for the vulnerable. It should seem clear to anyone who has followed and loved the American dream that we need a fourth (but nonviolent) revolution.
We need to abandon the timid rhetoric of reform and the inadequate solutions of the liberals. They may now be our Tories. We need to build an agenda and a rhetoric that speaks to and unites all who are threatened by the “conservative” and the Trump regressions and repressions. We need to abandon the rhetoric of small tribes: Whites, Blacks, and Latinos, gay, lesbian, and “trans,” southern and northern, city and country. We need an agenda that brings together the great, great majority of Americans to rebuild the American democracy. We must fight the new property classes. We must resist a Trump monarchy. We must fight “bad King George” all over again.
I know that my rhetoric will sound naïve and idealistic to many, but so does any deeply held creed. And I hope that I am more worked up than I need to be. But I think not, and I do know that there is no revolution that succeeds without fighting hard and dreaming big. Let me end by returning to The Ballad for Americans. The chorus, America’s working people, asks: Who is this stranger and where is he going? Robeson then responds for me and, I hope for many of you:
Our country’s strong, our country’s young,
And her greatest songs are still unsung.
From her plains and mountains we have sprung,
To keep the faith with those who went before.
We nobodies who are anybody believe it.
We anybodies who are everybody have no doubts.
Our song of hope is here again.
Strong as the people who made it.
For I have always believed it, and I believe it now,
And now you know who I am.
Who are you?