Discover more from History Killers
Review: Beyond the American Revolution by Alfred Young (ed.)
Part of an Ongoing Book Review Series
Alfred Young’s Beyond the American Revolution’s subtitle, Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, is an apt description for the collection of essays found within the work. As Young states in the book’s afterword, the essays “contribute to an understanding of two major unresolved issues in the study of radicalism of the revolutionary era: the sources of radicalism and the impact of radicalism on the results of the Revolution” (Young, 318). More specifically, the essays address “a series of internal struggles in separate but often overlapping spheres” (Young, 350). These separate but overlapping spheres include the lives of women, slaves, Yeoman farmers, the labor class, and unorthodox political thinkers.
If there is one criticism to be mentioned at the beginning of this analysis it would have to be the slightness of study and attention toward Native Americans. Every historian, or in this case group of historians, is limited by practical matters of time, space, and concentration. That said, considering that the work is intended as a sort of social history antidote to the intellectual history which had dominated American Revolution scholarship for decades at this point, it is rather surprising that no historian focused their attention to the lives of American Indians of the era. It is not as though they are entirely missing from the essays, but they are mentioned almost as passive figures whose domination and subjugation is taken as an important but minor detail. This was surprising and perhaps a little disappointing. For example, Allan Kulikoff’s essay, “The American Revolution, Capitalism, and the Formation of the Yeoman Class” comes closest to paying some attention to the lives of Native Americans in the 1790s and Kulikoff does not shy away from the brutality toward the indigenous population by western settlers in the Ohio Valley. In fact, he notes that the domination, murder, and removal of Indians from the region informed the worldview of the white settlers. Kulikoff states that confrontations “in the Ohio Valley and the Old Southwest deepened the yeomen’s attachment to land they took from Indians, but considered their own, and helped perpetuate a distinctive yeoman ideology” (Kulikoff, 104). Furthermore, he notes that settlers in the region “welcomed the military campaigns of the 1790s that ultimately ended what they saw as the Indian menace” (Kulikoff, 105). Nevertheless, the role of Indians in this history is through the eyes of the settlers and the United States federal government. My critique, however, is not toward Kulikoff. His essay is meant to address the growth, and eventual mutation, of the yeoman farmer—from self-sufficient settler to capitalist participant. This is important history and worthy of study. The criticism, rather, is toward Alfred Young as editor, for not including a historical essay which cast Native Americans as active agents rather than peripheral, however tragic, bystanders.
Kornblith and Murrin’s essay, “The Making and Unmaking of the American Ruling Class” is in some ways the most similar to the work of Gordon Wood and J.G.A. Pocock, even if it is ultimately an economic analysis of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The loss of cultural deference rings similar to Wood’s analysis (though his dive into this detail, I believe, followed publication of Beyond the American Revolution, so it may be more appropriate to say that Wood may have been influenced by this work). Pocock’s The Machiavelli Moment similarly comes to mind when the authors of this work note the connection between republicanism and an armed populace, charting the ceasing of both during the English Restoration, remarking “the British government tried to maintain a monopoly of violence, first by disarming 90 percent of the population, and—especially after 1660—by building a standing army” (Kornblith and Murrin, 31). The crux of this essay, however, is how “the triumph of the Jeffersonian Republicans over the Federalists after 1800 decisively undermined the effort to establish a national ruling class” (Kornblith and Murrin, 28). The authors appear to see Jefferson’s revolution of 1800 as having a positive impact, resulting with the expansion of political participation by those outside of the economic elite. Jefferson saw his election to the presidency as a reclaiming of revolutionary principles and the authors of this essay affirm this position. “With the resurgence of state authority in the early nineteenth century, political power moved down the social scale, much as it had during the revolutionary era” (Kornblith and Murrin, 62). That said, the authors also posit a compelling argument, arguing that the economic elite in the nineteenth century (and beyond) discovered new ways to rule which fell outside of the official political sphere. They leave the reader with a disquieting question: “Had the Revolution destroyed the ruling class? [It appears here that the Revolution means both the American Revolution as well as its Jeffersonian descendant.] Or had it created a system in which the wealthiest families had finally learned how to rule without the need to govern(?)” (Kornblith and Murrin, 65).
The essay, “Liberty is Sweet,” by Peter H. Wood, explores the lives of enslaved African Americans in the early days of the Revolution, particularly in the wake of Dunmore’s proclamation that slaves who abandon their Patriot masters and join the British would earn their freedom. The response by the American rebels was one which chose to see the freeing of their slaves as an undermining of their own liberty and cause rather than a somewhat logical ideological extrapolation of the liberty language espoused by the revolutionaries. Washington himself treated the issue as a purely military matter. He wanted Dunmore crushed, or else Dunmore’s growing army (of African American former slaves) might overwhelm the patriots. Wood capably expresses the moral blind-spot held by many (though not all) on the American side. Thomas Paine’s first published work in America was an essay calling for the end of slavery in March 1775. Paine’s essay was radical not merely for its argument in favor of emancipation but also for its proposal that freed slaves be given western lands. Instead, the Americans chose a different path. As Wood laments, the Americans preferred to see slaves running to the British side to attain their freedom not as an inherent human impulse to be free, but as a result of the British exploiting their position. “Unable to acknowledge the strength of the opposition from below [the natural desire to be free among slaves], they [the Americans] preferred to believe that outside agitators had been at work” (Wood, 172). None of this, however, should obscure the fact that Dunmore’s Proclamation was a purely opportunistic move. Dunmore himself was a slaveowner and when he was ultimately forced to flee Virginia and the burgeoning independent states, he took his enslaved human property with him. Freedom was intended for the slaves of Patriots, but not those owned by British Loyalists.
W.J. Rorabaugh’s essay about the waning decades of indentured servitude and the end of the master/apprentice system further reveals the end of a culture of deference as the Revolution and an emerging capitalist economy took root. As democracy expanded in the early nineteenth century and laborers began to desire higher wages, the deference faded further. As the author notes, revolutionary ideology “must be understood as an attack on traditional authority” (Rorabaugh, 195). Alan Taylor’s slight essay, “Agrarian Independence,” makes similar points regarding the growing independence of men in the back country in the early nineteenth century. Economic independence and diminishing values of deference enabled these men “to live free from another man’s dominion” (Taylor, 237). As cultural norms receded and economic motivations increased, an atomization among the people occurred, demarcating people into more defined special interests. The people as one body was a concept left in the late eighteenth century. Self-interest, economic and otherwise, was the cultural reality which resulted from the Revolution, for better or for worse.
Cathy Davidson’s “The Novel as Subversive Activity” is a compelling analysis of American novels between 1789 and 1820 and demonstrates the important role that novels played in women’s lives in this era. Davidson observes that novels of this period asserted “an obvious causal connection between poor female education and sexual vulnerability” (Davidson, 284). The paternalism imbued in these novels underscore the way women were positioned as something other than adults, not quite children, and that poor women were seen as especially capable of being taken advantage of. This reveals both a condescending attitude toward women and the economically disadvantaged. Nevertheless, the popularity of these novels among female readers—and the fact that some of the stories included female characters who exhibited agency—caused a stir in early American culture. It was this fact that “the early American novel took women seriously” (Davidson, 307) that this literature proved to be so controversial. This form of radicalism, found in books and the women who read them, is a fascinating aspect of culture during the early republic and acts as a sort of precedent for concerns regarding novel (pardon the pun) forms of entertainment which would come under attack throughout the nation’s history, be they comic books, rock and roll, hip hop, video games, etc. Similar to these later examples of controversial entertainment, Davidson affirms that “the novel became a scapegoat for social ills” (Davidson, 296). Most importantly, the essay’s author underscores the power of the early American novel to empower women in a way not otherwise possible for women at this time. The novel “was a subtly subversive form that accorded women a dignity and, perhaps more important, a visibility that they did not possess in the official documents of a nation ostensibly founded on principles of freedom and equality” (Davidson, 307).
The essays included in this collection do an exceptional job of examining moments, figures, and movements which highlighted radicalism in the early republican period. As stated earlier, the lack of Native American history is something of a disappointment. Perhaps casting Indian actions as radical in any way as their lands and ways of life continued to erode may not be possible. This work, otherwise, is a significant source for those interested in studying radicalism in the early republic, particularly by historians who approach the scholarship through an economic and social history lens.
[James M. Masnov is a writer, historian, and lecturer. His book, Rights Reign Supreme: An Intellectual History of Judicial Review and the Supreme Court, published by McFarland Books, is available here. His first book, History Killers and Other Essays by an Intellectual Historian, is available here.]