Although undoubtedly one of the most glorious events in history, the American Revolution was also a bloody mess. It gave rise to a war that raged for fully half a dozen years, claiming the life of one colonist in a hundred. Proportionally speaking, it generated five times as many political exiles per capita as the French Revolution and saw roughly the same amount of revolutionary confiscations of private property. But if anyone questions whether it was worth it, he or she need only take a look at political conditions north of the border. Canada, where most of America’s counterrevolutionary émigrés wound up, is today an increasingly authoritarian society in which elections are stolen, political corruption is rampant and religious fundamentalists hurl thunderbolts while liberals scurry for cover. Thanks to its infinitely more progressive foundations, the United States is the opposite–a sunny, relaxed social democracy admired the world over for its humane attitudes and nonviolent ways.
Er, perhaps we ought to take this once more from the top.
If the American Revolution was the first liberal democratic revolution in history, how is it that the republic it spawned has been so consistently illiberal and undemocratic? Contrary to what you may have read in this publication and others, the problem did not begin with George W. Bush or even Richard Nixon. Rather, the most striking thing about liberalism over the longue durée of US history has been its persistent weakness rather than its strength. Progressives like to dwell on the high points–the Civil War, the New Deal, the movements for social justice of the 1950s and ’60s. But they forget the long sloughs of despond in between, periods in which abolitionists could barely show their face without being beaten or killed; leftists were repressed with Mussolini-like thoroughness; and hysterical crusades against sex, alcohol and drugs followed one another in rapid succession. True, liberalism did have its moment in the sun for a few decades following the New Deal. But since the great breakdown of the 1960s, liberals have increasingly reverted to their default mode of pessimism and despair.
The “democratic deficit” between the United States on the one hand and Canada and Western Europe on the other thus continues to expand nearly as rapidly as the current-account deficit. This alone would suggest that America’s democratic foundations are not as sturdy as they’ve been made out to be and that our great founding moment–1776 and all that–deserves a much-belated second look. But the historians, at least those who show up regularly on the bestseller lists, do not agree. While some have turned out tough-minded works, the mood in general has turned soft and celebratory. Instead of careful dissections, they have given us giddy tomes trumpeting “the radicalism of the American Revolution”–not to mention the ineffable genius of a seemingly endless parade of Founding Fathers, from George Washington to Gouverneur Morris and other backbenchers. Although one might expect liberal historians to buck the trend toward filiopietism, they seem intent on serving up an alternative version of the national mythology, one emphasizing the role of slaves, indebted farmers, rebellious housewives, etc. But while they disagree about the factors that have made America so great, they don’t quarrel with the assumption of American greatness. Post-9/11, we are all patriots now, liberals no less than conservatives.
Gary Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution and Harvey Kaye’s Thomas Paine and the Promise of America are examples of this sort of progressive me-too-ism, while David McCullough’s 1776 epitomizes the kind of historiography that in today’s nationalistic climate sells like hot cakes. Nash’s book is the most ambitious of the three, the most well-intentioned and therefore the most disappointing. Rather than focusing on the immediate break with Great Britain, he takes a long view of the American Revolution as a social process unfolding over decades. By the 1740s, he notes, conditions in British North America were growing more and more turbulent. In New Jersey, farmers were up in arms over conflicting land titles issued some eight decades earlier by both the Dutch West India Company and James, Duke of York, brother of King Charles II. In Boston, mobs took to the streets in response to the Royal Navy’s habit of sending ashore press gangs to kidnap local workingmen to fill out depleted crews, while a few years later angry Scotch-Irish settlers from western Pennsylvania marched on Quaker-dominated Philadelphia to complain that the provincial government was not doing enough to protect them from the ravages of wild Indians (pausing en route to slaughter and mutilate “twenty Christianized and entirely peaceable Conestoga Indians,” Nash notes, just to show they weren’t kidding).
Why the ill temper? Although Nash does not dwell on the whys and wherefores, it’s clear that the colonies, growing by leaps and bounds, were rapidly outstripping haphazard governing arrangements that had taken shape in the previous century. Lines of authority were tangled, rights and responsibilities were uncertain and in dispute, while parliamentary law coexisted uneasily with homegrown law issuing forth from thirteen colonial legislatures and countless town meetings. The upshot was a chaotic structure that would have broken down even if the authorities had done nothing. But with British finances under stress due to the unprecedented cost of the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63, London decided that a crackdown was overdue. Casting aside precedent, Parliament imposed a series of taxes that seemed to confirm the colonists’ worst fears about the direction of British policy. Sniffing “the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze,” as Edmund Burke put it, the Americans grew convinced that their most basic rights were being snatched away. In short order, Committees of Correspondence were forming up and down the Atlantic Seaboard while farmers and laborers were drilling in countless town squares.
This we know from our history books. What we don’t know, but which Nash makes amply clear, is that a highly fragmented political structure fostered a highly fragmented and contradictory response. In Boston, events unfolded along classic bourgeois-revolutionary lines, with virtually the entire population, from merchants right down to laborers and nearby farmers, standing shoulder to shoulder against the imperial authorities and a narrow coterie of their upper-class supporters. But as one headed toward the West and South, conditions grew confused. In New York’s Hudson Valley, where a quasi-feudal system of land tenure had taken root in the seventeenth century, tenants were in a state of perennial revolt against their aristocratic landlords. When they learned that such Hudson Valley grandees as John Van Cortlandt and Robert Livingston, the holder of some 160,000 acres, were enlisting in the patriot cause, they immediately declared in favor of the British. Along Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where an upper-class officer in the patriotic militia was heard to declare that “no poor man was entitled to a vote, and those that would insist upon voting…should be put to death,” impoverished farmers did likewise. So did many Regulators, a group of farmers in the North Carolina highlands who had risen in revolt in the 1760s against regressive taxes imposed by a self-aggrandizing Tidewater elite. If the big planters were supporting independence, they figured that was reason enough for them to support the Loyalists.
Instead of supporting the revolution, many of the most downtrodden members of society thus opposed it. As odd as this was, two additional factors made it even worse. One involved the Indians. Besieged by land-hungry settlers who regarded treaties as meaningless formalities, they saw the British as the only force remotely capable of holding the colonists back and sided with them as well. In April 1774, right around the time that Thomas Jefferson was meeting with other members of the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg to establish a Committee of Correspondence, a group of Virginia frontiersmen seized a Shawnee canoe floating down the Ohio River and not only killed and scalped all nine women aboard but, tearing open the womb of one of them, extracted a near-term child and stuck it “on a pole.” The Shawnee took thirteen white scalps in retaliation and put thousands of families to flight. In late 1776 an Indian leader named Joseph Brant began recruiting Mohawk and Oneida warriors to fight against the colonists, and in July 1777 he managed to convince some 700 Iroquois to join him in an attack on Fort Stanwix, the westernmost American outpost in the Mohawk River Valley. Before long, the entire western frontier was ablaze. Instead of a neat and simple power struggle between patriots and Tories, America was the scene of a chaotic conflict between and among upper-class merchants and planters, British soldiers, poor farmers, urban laborers and frontier patriots (whom Nash describes as “deep-dyed Indian haters”), not to mention the Indians themselves.
A second factor, of course, had to do with the slaves, some 600,000 of them, mostly in the South but some as far north as New England. In 1774 an alarmed Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, about a plot among local slaves to send a letter to the royal governor offering to “fight for him provided he would arm them and engage to liberate them if he conquered.” In November 1775 Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, returned the favor by offering freedom to any slave willing to bear arms in defense of “His Majesty’s crown and dignity.” Before long, slaves were fleeing to British lines by the hundreds. Running away was as risky in the 1770s as it would be in the years leading up to the Civil War. When white patriots caught up with a group of about forty runaways in North Carolina, they killed one and whipped and cut off the ears of a number of others. In South Carolina, patriots hung and then burned at the stake a free black man known only as Jeremiah, whom they accused of offering to pilot Royal Navy vessels over the sandbar blocking the entrance to Charleston harbor. Punishments like these were designed to keep blacks in their place, but by mid-1776, according to Nash, the stream of runaways had “turned into a torrent.” It was nothing less, he writes, than “the greatest slave rebellion in American history.” Yet it was a rebellion against the rebellion, rather as if the Hebrews had rebelled against Moses and fled back into the arms of the pharaoh.
What are we to make of this? Can a revolution opposed by society’s most oppressed sectors be described as a revolution at all? Was the patriot cause nothing more than a war of secession on the part of a group of breakaway British provinces, or perhaps a barbarian invasion by Anglo-Celtic settlers determined to throw off all restraint so that they could pillage and plunder the continent all the more effectively? Were the revolutionaries out to create a new order or merely to restore a status quo ante based on slavery, low taxes and, outside New England, a nearly total absence of government control? “I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America if I could have conceived thereby that I was founding a land of slavery,” declared the Marquis de Lafayette in the 1790s. Perhaps the most important legacy of 1776 was the bad taste it left in people’s mouths when, by the early 1800s, increasing numbers of them woke up to the fact that they had accomplished the opposite of what they had set out to achieve.
Issues like these are no less relevant today than they were two centuries ago. Indeed, given the way the revolution seems to loom ever larger over American society, they may be even more relevant. Unfortunately, however, this is where Nash completely loses his way. Rather than tackling such questions head on, he retreats behind a smokescreen of liberal patriotic piety. Complaining of a truncated historical view that has blinded Americans to the role of blacks, artisans and others, he writes that all too “little is known…of Thomas Peters, an African-born slave who made his personal declaration of independence in early 1776, [and] fought for the freedom of African Americans” or of “Dragging Canoe, the Cherokee warrior who made the American Revolution into a two-decade life-sapping fight for his people’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” Both, Nash contends, were part of the revolutionary process. But Thomas Peters, who fled with his family to British lines, and Dragging Canoe, who sided with the British on the western frontier, opposed the revolution. Making them part of a political process they tried to resist not only strains logic but does their legacy a disservice. It involves a political sleight of hand little different, in the final analysis, from the sleight of hand of an earlier era that caused women, laborers and people of color to disappear from the historical annals altogether.
Somehow, an “unruly birth of democracy,” to quote from Nash’s subtitle, seems inadequate as a description of the mad farrago of warring elements that emerged in 1775-76. The Unknown American Revolution suffers from the besetting sin of American historiography and American political thought in general: extreme tunnel vision. It is astonishing–or, rather, it would be astonishing if we weren’t already so used to it–that Nash, a professor at UCLA, can write an entire book seeking to recast our understanding of the revolution with barely a nod to the global events of which the American struggle for independence was merely a part. If he had cast a wider net, he might have been able to make better sense of his subject. After all, strange inversions of the type that took place in the Hudson Valley or the North Carolina highlands were common in other countries in “the age of the democratic revolution,” as the historian Robert Palmer termed it. In Haiti, slave owners supported the French Revolution, while the slaves who rose in revolt in 1791 did so in the name of the king. Only when the French outlawed slavery in February 1794 did they declare themselves plus Jacobin que les Jacobins. In England, the slum dwellers were royalist, while radicals tended to come from the entrepreneurial middle class. Indeed, in France itself, ground zero for the democratic revolution, most radicals were royalist on the grounds that Louis XVI was settling nicely into his role as a dutiful constitutional monarch. Only when the king tried to flee to Austrian lines in June 1791 did they begin to reconsider. Revolutions sometimes take a long time to sort themselves out, although the American Revolution, such as it was, has certainly taken longer than most.
Where The Unknown American Revolution surrenders to patriotic piety, Harvey Kaye’s Thomas Paine and the Promise of America fairly wallows in it. Kaye neatly sums up in a single sentence in the introduction his concept of how his hero has helped mold American character. “Endowing American experience with democratic impulses and aspirations,” he writes, “Paine…turned Americans into radicals–and we have remained radicals at heart ever since.” Radicals? A nation of overweight, SUV-driving mall addicts? Still, bizarre as that sentence may be, it’s not entirely nonsensical–if, that is, we understand “radical” to mean messianic, apocalyptic or moralistic. If so, then yes, we can say that in some sense the American personality retains a radical edge. It is why the United States is forever embarking on wars and crusades, making itself more unpopular even than Britain at the height of the empire. But it seems unfair to hang it all on poor Tom Paine, a stubborn and cantankerous freethinker who was mostly a pretty likable sort, even if he did get in over his head in the 1790s.
Paine was a brilliant wordsmith, and for Kaye, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay, tracing his legacy consists mostly of tallying up the number of times famous Americans have echoed his phrases. “Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered,” “These are the times that try men’s souls,” “My country is the world,” “crowned ruffians”–when it comes to Paine, we are like the man who has been quoting Shakespeare all his life without ever knowing it. But the question of Paine’s political or ideological legacy is another matter. Even though he thundered against George III, he is also famous for asserting that “government even in its best state is but a necessary evil,” a sentiment that has endeared him to the Newt Gingriches of the world ever since. As Eric Foner showed in his perceptive 1976 study Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, Paine represented a fleeting political type, the Anglo-Saxon radical artisan of the late 1700s. A voracious reader who was trained as a corset-maker at a time when Edmund Burke was declaring that such “servile employments” could not be “a matter of honor to any person,” he was both a republican and a libertarian with a visceral loathing of aristocrats and kings. While one might think this would have made him feel right at home in Philadelphia when he moved there in 1774, the ideological mix of the New World was in fact somewhat different. Where English radical artisans were urban, radical republicanism in America tended toward the agrarian, hostile to cities, banks and centralized government, all of which Paine supported. While his famous pamphlet Common Sense helped ignite a revolution, by the 1780s he found himself more and more at odds with his fellow radicals and fed up with politics in general.
Nonetheless, after sailing to England in a vain effort to interest investors in a new type of iron bridge, he was drawn back in. The occasion was Burke’s famous broadside Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in November 1790. Outraged that Burke, who had distinguished himself in parliaments as a friend of the American Revolution, would attack the French for seeking to accomplish the same goals, Paine fired back with a pamphlet of his own. Titled The Rights of Man and written with his usual panache, it sold 50,000 copies within a matter of weeks and made its author one of the most famous men of his age. But something about Paine’s counterattack did not augur well for the second stage of his political career. Where he looked upon one revolution as merely the continuation of the other, Burke, more perceptively, saw that this time things would be different. And indeed they were. Where the Americans never went beyond dismantling parliamentary sovereignty, the French quickly set about creating a new sovereignty even more awesome and peremptory than the old. As a result, after fleeing to France in September 1792 one step ahead of the British police, Paine found himself in uncharted waters. Foner (but not Kaye) notes that Paine, speaking little French, had barely any contact with the sans- culottes, the laborers, artisans and shopkeepers who were the most militant element in the revolution and who should have been his natural constituency. Instead, he fell in with a group of America- admiring luminaries such as Jacques Brissot and Georges Danton, who were emerging as the conservative opposition to the faction headed by Robespierre. Opposed to price controls when they were imposed in Philadelphia in the 1770s, Paine had no sympathy when radicals demanded the same in Paris in 1793. Elected to the National Convention, he delivered an eloquent speech (read by an interpreter) opposing execution of the man known since his arrest simply as Louis Capet. The speech aroused radical suspicions all the more. Paine was arrested on Christmas Eve and was nearly guillotined the following July. Ultimately, the only thing that saved him was the downfall of Robespierre a scant three days later.
Depending on one’s point of view, Paine’s arrest and near execution were either an example of how the French Revolution, in terms of political radicalism, left its American predecessor in the dust or an illustration of how French rationalists, lacking that healthy Anglo-American instinct for moderation and compromise, took matters too far and wound up ruining everything. But Kaye does not address such issues. All he is concerned with is establishing Paine as an authentic American hero admired by both the left and the right. Where Theodore Roosevelt once dismissed him as a “filthy little atheist,” nowadays everyone from Ted Kennedy to Jesse Helms lauds his contribution to the American struggle for independence, while Christopher Hitchens, Alan Dershowitz and Howard Dean all sing his praises. “Left and right alike have depicted Paine as an opponent of the concentration of power and authority,” Kaye writes, although he adds that where the left likes to think of him as an opponent of corporate power, the right prefers to believe that it is federal power he would oppose.
But is there any reason why we should care which side Tom Paine would be on any more than, say, Davy Crockett? If Paine was at sea by the late eighteenth century, is there any reason to suppose he’d be any less so by the early twenty-first? It never seems to occur to Kaye that if Kennedy and Helms agree on something, it is not a reason to take heart. In this instance, it is not an indication of how much things have improved but how much they’ve deteriorated from the good old days when fading memories of an aging radical could still set the ruling class’s teeth on edge. If that is no longer the case, it is an indication of how fossilized the American revolutionary tradition has become. The more Americans celebrate the revolution, the less they think about all the things that made it so disturbing.
David McCullough’s 1776 is a further sign of fossilization, not to mention the modern arts of packaging and commodification. Where Nash takes the long view, McCullough takes the short, restricting himself to a single calendar year and little more. Where Nash paints a picture of American society as a whole, McCullough zeroes in on a single individual–General Washington. The upshot is far from bad, however. Though McCullough’s prose is anything but stylish, it’s sturdy enough, and he has a novelist’s sense of structure and pacing. Moreover, the choice of 1776 is a clever one. Not only is it a famous date, but it represented a roller-coaster ride in terms of American military fortunes. The year began on a high note when General Henry Knox, taking advantage of the severe winter weather, used barges and sledges to transport some sixty tons of mortars and cannon down from Fort Ticonderoga in northern New York and across the frozen Massachusetts countryside. Working frantically in the dead of night, Washington’s troops succeeded in placing the artillery atop Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston Harbor, in early March. Although the British controlled the city, they were cruelly exposed and had little choice but to withdraw.
This was a political triumph of the first order. But then, when Washington marched his troops to engage the British in New York, he met with disaster. New York Harbor is much bigger than Boston Harbor and consequently far more difficult to dominate. The advantage passed to those able to control waterways like the Hudson and the East River, which in this instance meant the Royal Navy. With his troops ensconced on Manhattan Island, Washington watched while British ships, hugging the far side of the Hudson, sailed effortlessly past. He made matters worse by ferrying several thousand troops across the East River to Brooklyn to head off a British invasion of Long Island and then compounded his error by sending in 1,200 reinforcements when the Americans found themselves hemmed in along the waterfront. Only a Dunkirk-style seaborne rescue on the night of August 29-30 enabled him to transport his troops back to Manhattan and avert catastrophe.
More engagements followed at Harlem Heights, at White Plains, back in Manhattan at Fort Washington and then finally at Fort Lee, which the Americans abandoned in late November without a fight. With winter closing in, Washington’s “shadow army,” as one of his fellow generals called it, limped through the New Jersey countryside, its ranks depleted by mass desertions. On December 1, 2,000 troops, their enlistments up, simply walked away. The war seemed all but over.
But then, on December 25, Washington ferried his troops back across the Delaware River from the Pennsylvania side, where they had taken refuge, and marched them nine miles through rain, snow and hail to Trenton, where a Hessian force had settled in for the Christmas holiday. Seemingly everything that could go wrong with the operation did. Two of the three units failed to cross the Delaware due to the raging storm, leaving Washington and some 2,400 troops to carry on alone. Informed that the American guns were too soaked to fire, Washington grimly ordered his men to use bayonets. Breaking into a run as they entered the village, the Americans struck at 8 in the morning. After forty-five minutes of wild house-to-house fighting, they were victorious. Twenty-one Hessians were killed, ninety were wounded and approximately 900 were taken prisoner, while some 500 managed to escape. Incredibly, no Americans died and only four were wounded. It was just the triumph that Washington had been hoping for, one that proved the British would be denied a quick victory and that the war would drag on for a good deal longer.
It’s a ripping yarn that McCullough tells extremely well. But the political strategy behind it is not difficult to discern. The story is filled with ups and downs, and McCullough, who is no Parson Weems, presents Washington not only as someone with more than his share of flaws but as a military amateur who was plainly out-generaled by his British opponents. But that is the point. By reducing the story to its bare military essentials, he manages to shear away all the messy and troubling political details. And by showing the depths to which American fortunes had fallen by mid-November, he makes the victory in Trenton seem all the more stirring. American heroism is affirmed yet again. “We have to value what our forebears–and not just in the eighteenth century, but our own parents and grandparents–did for us, or we’re not going to take it very seriously, and it can slip away.” So McCullough told a conference recently hosted by Hillsdale College, an ultra-right-wing private institution based in Michigan. In other words, the purpose of history is to conserve the good things done for us in the past so that we can prepare ourselves for the trials and tasks that still lie ahead. This is history as a form of national rearmament, which is why it fits in so well with the embattled national mood.