Monday, August 13, 2012

What CBS wants you to know about the American Revolution

In a seminar on Ethics and International Affairs last Tuesday, Debbie Main was giving a talk on Black Patriots and Loyalists. On July 30th, she noted, ABC did nationwide coverage of a new museum on the American Revolution soon to open in Philadelphia. See here.

Given the tone of the report, her feeling about it was pretty acid:

“Hi Alan

I have to attend our homeowners board meeting at 600p (about pigeons), and will be over to DU a little after 700p. I have read most of your book and am prepared to talk. I've answered the first question, but the two comments that I would like to make concern research ethics. I was so pleased by your approach of including as many "fragments" as you could from blacks. I take away that their numbers are seriously under-reported for a variety of reasons, their individual names were not worthy of being collected [with a movement from below, this has, over 50 years, changed among historians and even the D.A.R, see here], and although most were illiterate, I guess that the reasons for so few personal stories are deeper.

I think it is important for people to be able to tell their own story, as opposed to white historians in the vein of Wood who on CBS news last night said that ‘all the things we believe in came out of the revolution.’ I'm sure that he was only referring to all the positive things, and from a white perspective. A romantic version of the war for sure. Please have a listen.


In the CBS interview, Gordon Wood, an important historian of the American Revolution over the last 40 years, made two comments. First, he noted, there are museums to many American historical figures, but none to this “most important event” in our history: the revolution for independence.

The museum will open with 3,000 objects. Among them are George Washington’s tent which the curator burbled over, a recently discovered letter about the alliance with France [nearly all of Washington’s works are on line and in several published collections] and a powder horn whittled with the phrases: “kill or be killed” and “liberty or death.” A printed recruiting announcement stresses the importance of fighting for the liberties of the American colonists in the fledgling “ustates.”

Why is there no museum to the American Revolution until now, 2012, 229 years after the Revolution? Neither Wood nor the curator offers an answer. CBS does not ask…

Are Americans really so forgetful about their liberties?

Why for two decades are most of the books on the New York Times best seller lists biographers of revolutionary heroes, endlessly recycled, ever shiny accounts of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, but with little new?

Why are most books on the French Revolution, except Ruth Scurr‘s Robespierre – see here – especially books by French historians, histories of class struggle?

Black Patriots and Loyalists reveals some of these secrets. For instance, a second great revolution, one against bondage, preceded the American – the first revolution for independence – and shaped it. Thus, there were some 20 slave uprisings throughout the Caribbean in the 1750s and 1760s. Sailors, black and white, brought emancipatory ideas to J. Philmore in London (1760, Two Dialogues concerning the Man Trade) and James Otis in Boston (1764, The Rights of British Colonists Asserted and Proved). Otis spoke of the “natural rights of all men, black as well as white…”

These sailors had been dragged by roaming press-gangs into the Imperial navy, kidnapped and enslaved aboard ship. Riots against press gangs were a leading feature of the pre-Revolutionary period (along with demonstrations against the Stamp Act and the price of tea) and shaped the outlook of revolutionary crowds.

In the 1760s, sailors and artisans had long discussed abolitionist ideas in taverns catering to the working poor.

The elite did not, except for John Laurens, Tom Paine, and gradually Benjamin Franklin speak out against slavery. But in churches, ministers like Samuel Hopkins denounced “this sin of crimson dye,” responsible for every American defeat by the Crown. Like those who opposed the second Gulf War but did not make corporate newspaper or media headlines or the Democratic platform of 2004 (when Medea Benjamin of Code Pink was dragged out for unfurling a banner "US out of Iraq," perhaps 90% of the delegates agreed with the thought...), poor revolutionaries were often abolitionists (see also pp. 255-56 on Western Massachusetts farmers in the Shays rebellion).

Meanwhile, the great charge by Britain against the Revolution was offered in “Taxation No Tyranny” by Samuel Johnson: “How come we hear the greatest yelps for liberty from the drivers of slaves?” I discovered this devastating quip while doing research for this book. No one taught it to me in high school or college – there is no British side or account in the American Revolution as taught in the United States - and no breath of it occurs in Gordon Wood’s often good books.

Wood’s primary thesis is that the revolution centered around the value of equality. It was the outlook which shaped this first revolution, which gave it a radical character. This is a powerful thought, one linked to the actual fight for equality – that each might equally hold property in her own person – of blacks. But he abstracts from the actual history of the Revolution into claims about ideals. So his thesis is belied by his omission of blacks for whom the Constitution – preserving bondage in the American South, treating blacks as 3/5ths a man to elect their owners President and Congressmen - traduced the very idea of liberty (see my conversations with Duncan Campbell here and here).** In this important sense, the Constitution betrayed the first words of the Declaration of Independence as well as the fight for abolition from below.

Surely, the ending of the bondage of a person for her whole life, as the New Jersey Quaker David Cooper said in 1775, is more important than a three penny tax on tea…

It is shocking, as Cooper said, to discover that by the freedom of all men, the Declaration of Independence means only white men…

Though unmentioned by Wood, black freedom was not secondary to Wood’s revolution for freedom and equality. On the contrary, freedom is for all. The uprising against slavery was thus integral to and the culmination of the American Revolution.

Blacks also played a central role in the fighting of the Revolution.

And a sense of social history would have forced Wood to confront the fact that gradual emancipation occurred during and after the Revolution in and only in the North. The first place was Vermont in 1777 (not one of the original 13 states), then Pennsylvania 1780, Massachusetts 1782, Rhode Island and Connecticut 1784, New York 1799 and New Jersey 1804.

Recognition of these facts might also include the thought that political equality was restricted even in the North. There, freedom was fully achieved only when the last gradual emancipees were finally set free in New York and New Jersey in the 1840s – some 60 years after the Treaty of Paris which ended hostilities….

On April 12, 2012, Wood gave a C-SPAN interview on his new short book on The American Revolution: a History. He here ignores what happened in the North and the social history of the last 20 years, asserting a false, silly and rather ill-read thesis that this interest is an "anachronism":

"LAMB: Go back to your comment about your peers not liking the fact that Newt Gingrich was heralding your book. There are conservatives watching this program that are saying, 'Yeah, that's what's wrong with academia. They're not the slightest bit interested in the other side.'

WOOD: Well, there is, of course, and has been over the last, well, maybe 30 years, a good deal of criticism of ourselves. It's self-criticism. I don't think that's wrong. I think any democracy, any healthy democracy has to have a certain amount of self-criticism, and that often takes the form, for historians, of writing critically about the past. I think there can be excesses in that, and I think people who say that the American Revolution was a failure are making a mistake. But nonetheless, one understands that self-criticism is a healthy thing. And I have no gripe with that.

And it goes on all the time, and I think that's good. I think it goes too far if you begin to see your past as totally full of faults and not see any good at all. As I try to say in the introduction to this book, I don't think our history should be seen as a moral tale, either good or bad. I think historians should try to understand where we came from as honestly as we can, without trying to say this was a great celebration or that this was a disaster. I don't think either of those extremes are true of our history.

LAMB: I don't want to put words in your mouth, but are you saying that a lot of academics think that the Revolution was bad?

WOOD: Well, I -- that's too strong. I think there are a lot of academics who have emphasized over the last 30 years that we didn't do enough. We didn't, for example, free slaves. We didn't change the lot of women. And because those are current issues, there is always a tendency in history to go back and to look at the past through the lenses of the present and lament the fact that slavery was not abolished and that the lot of women did not change substantially and that the lot of Indians was worsened by the Revolution. That -- those are -- those facts are true, but I think it's anachronistic to apply 21st century standards to an 18th century world." See here.

Pace Wood, I have yet to meet the American who thinks that a revolution for freedom, even quite limited, against English colonialism, was a "failure." But surely the role of demands for abolition in making that revolution successful and realizing its claims of freedom at least in the North was important. And seeing that former slaves played a leading role in the fighting at Yorktown on both sides - that the efforts culminating in gradual emancipation, realizing the Revolution's promise. in the North are just as significant as the sinking back into bondage in the South, expressed in leading provisions in the Constitution - is not only central to Black Patriots and Loyalists, but to sound history writing about the Revolution. One might also underline, as I do, the heroic role of black troops, led in battle by John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton, on the Patriot side. But neither Wood nor this new Museum nor CBS is anything but sleepy about these central issues.

Unsurprisingly, social history is also weakly covered in New York Times’s book reviews And among historians, most of the writing about blacks – Gary Nash, Sylvia Frey, Graham Hodges and Simon Schama, for example – is primarily about the Crown. They treat freedom as important, but name it a matter of identity politics (though there is a deeper tone about this, particularly in Frey, Nash and Hodges). The fact that most blacks fought for and were liberated by the British is the “dirty secret” of the Revolution for independence (Nash, The Forgotten Fifth).

An exception is Douglas Egerton’s Gabriel’s Revolt (1993), see here.***

Second, in the CBS broadcast, Wood spoke well of what it is to be an American. It is to affirm the values of the American Revolution, all of which, he says, are enshrined in it. This is true of freedom for whites and some blacks and the Bill of Rights. But bondage was a betrayal of that Revolution which took a later Civil War to resolve….

Wood’s snippet is false. His writings do not create a different impression.

In contrast, Black Patriots and Loyalists explodes the still common view among historians that blacks were occasional participants, on the American side, in the Revolution. See here and especially the University of Chicago Facebook page on the book here. And it gives a new and international importance, to emancipatory efforts on the Imperial side, particularly to the black democracy in Freetown, Sierra Leone, founded by black Loyalists and led by Thomas Peters and Isaac Anderson. See here.

It is interesting that even after the publication of Black Patriots and Loyalists by the University of Chicago Press, the publicity on the American Revolution and its new museum is as empty and racist as ever…

*Henry Wiencek’s biography, Imperfect God: George Washington, his Slaves and the Creation of America 2004, did focus importantly on bondage, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, also 2004 and winner of the George Washington Book Prize, did include his relationship with John Laurens, including a fleeting reference to Hamilton’s bisexuality. see here, and a lot on the Laurens’ proposal to recruit and free 3,000 blacks in South Carolina and 2,000 in Georgia.

**From 1788 until the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, slave-owners were President 52 of the first 72 years of the Republic, and the only Presidents elected to two terms.

***In Herbert Apheker’s Negro Slave Revolts (1943), Benjamin Quarles' Negro in the American Revolution – 1961 – Vincent Harding's There is a River (1981), and Mike Goldfield’s, The Color of Politics (1997), there is also a different tone. And Frey's Water from the Rock treats blacks as a third force, operating with their own revolutionary motivations.

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