The Haunted Moral Imagination

I want clarify and expand upon a point I’ve made before: What is it that reactionaries truly fear?

More people died in the American Revolution than died in the French Reign of Terror. The British government killed more people in their suppression of the 1798 Irish bid for independence. The Catholic Inquisition in just one province of Spain had a death count that far exceeded the number killed in the entire French Revolution.

In criticizing revolution, such counter-revolutionaries were defending colonial empires and theocracies that were more violent and oppressive than any revolution in history. For example, the Catholic Church, that ancient bastion of traditionalism and conservative morality, ordered the death of millions over six centuries. At least, a revolution is typically a single event or short period of violence. Oppressive governments can extend such violence continuously generation after generation.

Reactionaries obviously haven’t minded violence. They are criticizing the ends, not the means. It is impossible to say the world is a worse place for most people because the revolutionary era happened with its ensuing democratic reforms. But it is far worse for the elite that once ruled without having to tolerate their power being questioned. Some reactionaries would claim that they fear the disruption of the social order. Really? Whose social order? Those who suffered under those regimes would have liked a bit of social order in their favor. No revolution ever happens in order to fight all social order. Only oppressive and violent social orders incite revolutions.

What is feared by the ruling elite and those aligned with it isn’t even necessarily overtly physical violence. The French Revolution started off fairly peaceful and moderate. But what the French revolutionaries wanted to take away from the ruling elite was their privilege over everyone else and their power to wantonly abuse those below them. The French Revolutionaries began with no desire to kill the king, take the land away from the rich, or abolish religion. They simply wanted a democratic society. It was only after that was denied and undermined by those in power, both domestic and foreign, that the revolutionaries eventually turned to more drastic measures.

If the reactionaries hadn’t fought against democracy, the French Revolution may have been more like the American Revolution. That is the main difference. In the American Revolution. the ruling elite mostly decided to fight on the side of the masses instead of against them. It was only later on that the American ruling elite co-opted power and suppressed the very people who fought for democracy.

So, what exactly is the fear that reactionaries have?

Edmund Burke wrote his famous passage about the French Queen and her demise. While untold numbers suffered in prisons and from starvation, Burke decried the end of an age of chivalry because the masses refused to chivalrously lay down and die. Thomas Paine offered an incisive response, even more famous:

“Through the whole of Mr. Burke’s book I do not observe that the Bastille is mentioned more than once, and that with a kind of implication as if he were sorry it was pulled down, and wished it were built up again. “We have rebuilt Newgate,” says he, “and tenanted the mansion; and we have prisons almost as strong as the Bastille for those who dare to libel the queens of France.” As to what a madman like the person called Lord George Gordon might say, and to whom Newgate is rather a bedlam than a prison, it is unworthy a rational consideration. It was a madman that libelled, and that is sufficient apology; and it afforded an opportunity for confining him, which was the thing that was wished for. But certain it is that Mr. Burke, who does not call himself a madman (whatever other people may do), has libelled in the most unprovoked manner, and in the grossest style of the most vulgar abuse, the whole representative authority of France, and yet Mr. Burke takes his seat in the British House of Commons! From his violence and his grief, his silence on some points and his excess on others, it is difficult not to believe that Mr. Burke is sorry, extremely sorry, that arbitrary power, the power of the Pope and the Bastille, are pulled down.

Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself. Nature has been kinder to Mr. Burke than he is to her. He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird. Accustomed to kiss the aristocratical hand that hath purloined him from himself, he degenerates into a composition of art, and the genuine soul of nature forsakes him. His hero or his heroine must be a tragedy-victim expiring in show, and not the real prisoner of misery, sliding into death in the silence of a dungeon.

To someone like Burke, a single queen or rather what she symbolically represented is worth more than the lives of thousands of people oppressed and thousands more dead because of that same despotic power. The personal is lost within Burke’s moral imagination. He complains about the supposed abstract ideals of revolutionaries while he himself gets lost in his own abstractions. The conservative moral imagination is haunted by its own imaginings.

His concern isn’t with the mere violent force that can be wielded by military and mob alike. Instead, he wishes to hold up the symbolism of power. When that symbolism is challenged, the entire symbolic order is challenged. If Burke understood nothing else, he understood the power of imagination. For the imagination to serve established power, social order must be enforced upon imagination. The true danger of revolutionaries isn’t that they threaten to bring bring down social orders but that they imagine new ones.

Nothing Is Inevitable

What is the relationship between who we used to be and who we became, who we might have been and who we might yet become? What defines who we are as a whole? Is there an essence to our identity, a center to our being? If so, is our ‘character’ destiny, does that center hold? After it is all over, who ultimately judges a life and what it means?

I’ve often contemplated these questions. It seems strange how I ended up where I now find myself, a path that I followed because other ways were blocked or hidden, difficult or treacherous. I really have no clue why I am the way I am, this self that is built on all that came before.

From moment to moment, I’ve acted according to what has made sense or seemed necessary in each given situation. This isn’t to imply there weren’t choices made, but it can feel as if life only offers forced choices. Certainly, I didn’t choose the larger context into which I was born, all the apparently random and incomprehensible variables, the typically unseen constraints upon every thought and action. Nor did I even choose the person I am who does the choosing.

I simply am who I am.

It’s hard for me to imagine myself as being different, but it isn’t entirely beyond my capacity. I sense, even if only in a haze, other possibilities and directions. I try to grasp that sense of unlived lives, potentials that on some level remain in the lived present. It is important not to forget all the choices made and that are continually made. Life is a set of endless choices, even if we don’t like the choices perceived or understand their implications. But choices once made tend to lose their sense of having been chosen.

We look at our personal and collective pasts with bias, most especially the bias of knowing what resulted. The telling of history, our own and that of others, has the air of inevitability. We read the ending into the beginning.

Historians don’t usually talk about what didn’t happen and might have happened, the flukes of circumstance that pushed events one direction rather than another. The same is true for all of us in making sense of the past. We comfort ourselves with the narrative of history as if it offers us an answer for why events happened that way, why people did what they did, why success or failure followed. We judge the individuals and societies of the past with 20/20 hindsight. But as the narrators of their story, we aren’t always reliable.

Before I go further about history, let me return to the present. I was involved in a debate that became slightly heated. The fundamental difference of opinion had to do with how society and human nature is defined and perceived, the specific topic having been victimization.

I mentioned the author Derrick Jensen as he offers the best commentary on victimization that I’ve ever come across. But one person responded that, “Lastly I just can’t have a serious conversation about Derrick Jensen. I’m sorry.” Though they never explained their dismissive comment, I suspect I know what they meant.

The thing about Jensen is that there is a distinction between his earliest writings and his more recent writings. He began as an ordinary guy asking questions and looking at the world with a sense of wonder, considering the panorama of data with a voraciousness that is rare. Then he found an answer and it was all downhill from there. The answer he found was a cynical view of society, in which he hoped for the collapse of civilization. The answer was anarcho-primitivism.

Jensen’s answer is less than satisfying. It is sad he went down that road. He wasn’t always like that. In his early writings, there is a profound sense of beauty and love of humanity, all of humanity. Yes, there was more than a hint of darkness in his first couple of books, but it was only a shadow of doubt, a potential that had not yet fully manifested, that had not yet become untethered from hope. His younger self didn’t dream of destruction.

I knew Jensen’s early writings years before he began his cynical phase. Nothing he could write would negate the worthiness of what he wrote before. But if all you knew were his later writings, it is perfectly understandable that your criticisms might be harsh.

I had the opposite experience in my discovery of George Orwell.

I mostly knew him as a name, having never read his works for myself. I had seen the movie adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four and I’ve come across quotes of his writings in various places. But I knew nothing about Orwell as a man and a writer. He was just another famous dead white guy who said some interesting stuff.

Recently, I decided to lessen my ignorance and read something by him. I randomly chose Homage to Catalonia which had an introduction by Lionel Trilling. At the same time, I did web searches about Orwell, about that particular book, and about Trilling’s intro. This led me to info about Orwell having colluded with the British government when he became an informant. He informed on people in his own social circle and, having been a critic of the British Empire, he had to have known the consequences could have destroyed lives.

That marred any respect I might have had for Orwell, maybe permanently.

So, why could I be so critical of Orwell while being so forgiving of Jensen? Well, for one, Jensen never has colluded with an oppressive government against those who voiced dissent. Plus, it might be the basic reason of my having no personal connection to Orwell’s writings. Jensen’s writings, on the other hand, helped shape my mind at a still tender age when I was looking for answers. I have a sense of knowing Jensen’s experience and worldview, and hence a sense of knowing why he turned to cynicism. But maybe I should also be more forgiving of Orwell and more accepting of his all too human weaknesses, or at least more willing to separate his early writings from his later actions.

My basic sense is that nothing in life is inevitable. As such, it wasn’t inevitable that lives of Jensen and Orwell happened as they did. Almost anything could have intervened at any moment along the way and redirected their lives, forced different choices upon them, allowed them to see new possibilities. And, in the case of Jensen, that is still possible for he remains alive.

Now, for the historical aspect, let me continue on the level of individuals and then shift to a broader perspective.

I’ll use my two favorite examples: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. They are long dead and so that air of inevitability hangs heavy over their respective histories. Whatever they might have become, it would be hard for either to surprise us at this point, unless previously unknown documents were to be found.

Both Burke and Paine began as progressive reformers. There was nothing in their childhoods or even their young adulthoods that would have portended the pathways of their lives, that would have predicted Burke becoming what some have deemed a reactionary conservative, an anti-revolutionary defender of the status quo, and that would have predicted Paine becoming a revolutionary, a radical rabblerouser, and one of the greatest threats to tyranny. Before all of that, they were friends and allies. They wrote letters to one another. Paine even visited Burke at his home. If events hadn’t intervened, they both might have remained partners in seeking progressive reform in Britain and her colonies.

What drove them apart began with the American Revolution and came to its head in the French Revolution. They came to opposite views of the historical forces that were playing out before them. Burke responded in fear and Paine in hope. But these responses were dependent on so many circumstantial factors. Change any single thing and a chain of events would have shifted into a new pattern, a new context.

Like Paine, Burke at one point considered going to America, and yet unlike Paine he never got around to it. His early life didn’t hit any major bumps as Paine’s did. There is no evidence that Paine had seriously considered going to America until all of his other options had been denied. There is nothing inevitable at all about these two lives. It was a chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin that sent Paine toward his seeming destiny. And it was the lack of such a similar chance meeting that kept Burke in Britain.

Along these lines, it was a complex web of events and factors that led the two revolutions down divergent paths. The French Revolution wasn’t fated to transform into Robespierre’s Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s empire. Likewise, the American Revolution wasn’t fated to end in the further institutionalization of slavery that would lead to a bloody civil war, wasn’t fated to lead to imperial expansion, Indian removal and genocide.

There is no shared character that predetermines a people’s fate. The potential of individual members of a nation are magnified by all of their potential combined, the choices and actions of each affecting those of others, millions of paths intertwining like a flock of birds shifting along unseen currents in the wind. History is a thing of luck and chance, infinite possibilities bounded by necessity and circumstance, an interplay of forces that can’t be controlled or predicted. People act never knowing for sure what may or may not come of it.

People and nations are filled with near infinite potential. None of us knows what might have been or what yet might become. Nothing is inevitable.

The path we seem to be on may change in an instant, may change in ways we can’t even imagine. But, no matter what changes, it will never alter all that came before. The many facets of our lives, individual and shared, offer diverse windows onto the world we see. Even as the past doesn’t change, our relationship to the past does and along with it our understanding, along with it the memories we recollect and the stories we tell. And from understanding, one hopes, comes empathy and compassion.

We are who we are, all the many selves we hold within, all the many identities we have taken. The past and the future, the potential and the manifest meets in the world in which we live. No story is completely told while the actors remain.

Revolutions: American and French, Part 2

I’ve been reading many books and listening to some lectures on the revolutionary era. It is fair to say that these sources are educating me in a way my schooling didn’t prepare me for. I’m constantly amazed how, like most Americans, I’ve been so ignorant throughout my life. Not just ignorant, but ignorant of how ignorant I was.

I really had no clue about the French Revolution, that is for sure. Anything you think you know about the French Revolution is probably wrong or severely limited. As always, context is freaking everything.

I wrote a bit about what I had learned a while back, but I have since learned so much more.

One interesting fact is the part the Basque played during the revolutionary era. The Basque region is located in the border region of Spain and France. The Basque are a separate people from the Celts and they have lived in that region for a very long time. The Irish descend from the Basque which is interesting as the English used their policies toward the Irish as a blueprint for their later colonizing efforts. The Basque and the Irish are both a proud people that had long struggles against imperialism.

The Basque were a highly respected people since for most of their history they remained unconquered. Neither the Romans nor the Moors could put them down, partly because they had a good defensible location in the mountains. This is what formed their republican tradition which inspired John Adams thinking about republicanism in America. (As a side note, many Basque immigrated to the Americas and later on helped shape the cowboy culture of open range cattle ranching; so they were the original cowboys.)

The Basque supported the French Revolution early on, like most people (like most Americans and most British). It was only later on that they experienced oppression as well and lost their independence (and only later that the French Revolution got a bad reputation during the era of anti-revolutionary backlash).

The early years of the French Revolution were more about political reform than the revolution we know from the Reign of Terror (the revolution began in 1789 and the use of the guillotine didn’t begin until 1793). Even so, keep in mind that more people died in the American Revolution than died in the French Reign of Terror. Also, keep in mind that more people suffered oppression and died because of the results of the American failure to abolish slavery than did with the entire French Revolution.

Originally, the revolutionaries were pushing for a constitutional monarchy and that would have worked out just fine except King Louis XVI didn’t want to have his power constrained, as neither did King Charles I when facing the English Civil War, and so likewise regicide followed. The revolutionaries also weren’t trying to get rid of the aristocracy, take their land or take their wealth. They simply wanted the aristocracy to be treated like everyone else with no special privileges. Also, the revolutionaries had no desire to get rid of the church. The clergy were among the strongest supporters of the early revolution.

This early period of reform lasted for several years.

So, what went wrong? I’m not sure if anything went wrong exactly. Revolutions are always a gamble. There was nothing that guaranteed the American Revolution wouldn’t have had  a similar fate. Revolutions happen because all other recourses have failed, and that was even more true for the French than for the Americans.

The French people were truly desperate in a way Americans at that time couldn’t have imagined. They were living in a severely oppressive society and the people were starving. Americans before the Revolution were among the most free people in the world. It was because Americans were so used to being free that they felt affronted by having that freedom even slightly lessened. The French, on the other hand, were dealing with problems that literally were life and death for many of them. The French government wasn’t a far off institution as was the British government. It was an everpresent reality. American colonists knew no equivalent to the Bastille.

Also, consider how much more the French revolutionaries had going against them.

Besides the constant threat of starvation, they had more enemies than allies. The French are the only reason American revolutionaries won their war. Thousands of French citizens fought and died in the American Revolution. There is no equal number of American citizens who returned the favor by fighting and dying in the French Revolution. Nor did the French Revolutionaries have a major empire on its side as the American revolutionaries had with France. Instead, the French were facing enemies from without as they were facing enemies from within. Many of the European Empires sought to attack France during its moment of weakness and so the French were forced to fight wars as a nation even as they were attempting to rebuild their nation.

It was a nearly impossible situation for a revolution. It is a miracle that it didn’t turn out worse.

Early Americans had it easy in comparison. If the American Revolution had been similar to the French Revolution, American revolutionaries would not only had to fight the British government on its own territory but simultaneously fight the Native Americans and the Spanish Empire while being abandoned by the French Empire. On top of that, American revolutionaries would have had to deal with a larger population that was facing starvation as well.

How well would the American Revolution have turned out under those conditions? Probably not so well.

When a clueless asshole like Edmund Burke complained about the French Revolution, what would he have preferred? Should the French just accepted their fate by starving to death and allowing themselves to be continually killed and imprisoned by an oppressive government? The British Empire later on killed more Irish than the number of people killed in the Reign of Terror. As an Irishman and defender of the British Empire, what answer would Burke have for that? Would he have suggested the Irish to have just taken it and not to have fought back? Of course not.

Context is everything. And to understand the context one needs to know the facts.

“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”

Here is a passage from Common Sense by Thomas Paine.

This is one of my favorites because it shows how differently Paine viewed the world than how the American Revolution has been portrayed by many mainstream scholars since. It is only in recent decades that scholars have begun to take more seriously what the Founders actually wrote.

To summarize, it is about the supposed attachment between the British Empire and her colonies and the possibility or even desirability of reconciliation. Paine, of course, argues against this. It isn’t only the view that is intriguing but the data he uses in defending it. Paine wasn’t all revolutionary rhetoric. From a modern perspective, it is attractive how he tried to ground his argument in rationality and facts, the very horrid things that Burke detested (or pretended to detest).

Most interesting to me is his focus on the diversity of the colonies. What did it mean to speak of attachment to England as a mother country when colonies like New Netherlands weren’t originally English (with laws and a population that remained largely Dutch) and when colonies like Pennsylvania and New Jersey consisted only of a minority of Englishmen. This kind of thinking seems radical to many conservatives today as it did to conservatives back then. The only difference is that the conservatives back then were British Tories.

What ever returns to my thinking is how often the arguments against Britain would now apply to our federal government. The argument against both, respectively by the Revolutionaries and the Anti-Federalists, was an argument for freedom, for democratic self-governance. The American Revolution wasn’t fought for patriotic conformity and ethnocentric nationalism, for authoritarian subservience and centralized statism; but the complete opposite. The Revolution never ended and we continue to fight for those Revolutionary ideals.

I’ll add emphasis to direct the readers attention to, in my mind, the most key parts and most interesting tidbits.

* * * *

As much hath been said of the advantages of reconciliation, which,
like an agreeable dream, hath passed away and left us as we were, it
is but right, that we should examine the contrary side of the
argument, and inquire into some of the many material injuries which
these colonies sustain, and always will sustain, by being connected
with, and dependant on Great Britain. To examine that connexion and
dependance, on the principles of nature and common sense, to see what
we have to trust to, if separated, and what we are to expect, if
dependant.

I have heard it asserted by some, that as America hath flourished
under her former connexion with Great Britain, that the same
connexion is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always
have the same effect. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind
of argument. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived
upon milk, that it is never to have meat, or that the first twenty
years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty. But
even this is admitting more than is true, for I answer roundly, that
America would have flourished as much, and probably much more, had no
European power had any thing to do with her. The commerce, by which
she hath enriched herself are the necessaries of life, and will
always have a market while eating is the custom of Europe.

But she has protected us, say some. That she hath engrossed us is
true, and defended the continent at our expence as well as her own is
admitted, and she would have defended Turkey from the same motive,
viz. the sake of trade and dominion.

Alas, we have been long led away by ancient prejudices, and made
large sacrifices to superstition. We have boasted the protection of
Great Britain, without considering, that her motive was INTEREST
not ATTACHMENT; that she did not protect us from OUR ENEMIES on
OUR ACCOUNT, but from HER ENEMIES on HER OWN ACCOUNT, from
those who had no quarrel with us on any OTHER ACCOUNT, and who will
always be our enemies on the SAME ACCOUNT. Let Britain wave her
pretensions to the continent, or the continent throw off the
dependance, and we should be at peace with France and Spain were they
at war with Britain. The miseries of Hanover last war ought to warn
us against connexions.

It hath lately been asserted in parliament, that the colonies have
no relation to each other but through the parent country, I. E.
that Pennsylvania and the Jerseys, and so on for the rest, are sister
colonies by the way of England; this is certainly a very round-about
way of proving relationship, but it is the nearest and only true way
of proving enemyship, if I may so call it. France and Spain never
were, nor perhaps ever will be our enemies as AMERICANS, but as our
being the SUBJECTS OF GREAT BRITAIN.

But Britain is the parent country, say some. Then the more shame
upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages
make war upon their families; wherefore the assertion, if true, turns
to her reproach; but it happens not to be true, or only partly so,
and the phrase PARENT or MOTHER COUNTRY hath been jesuitically
adopted by the king and his parasites, with a low papistical design
of gaining an unfair bias on the credulous weakness of our minds.
Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new
world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and
religious liberty from EVERY PART of Europe. Hither have they fled,
not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of
the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny
which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants
still.

In this extensive quarter of the globe, we forget the narrow limits
of three hundred and sixty miles (the extent of England) and carry
our friendship on a larger scale; we claim brotherhood with every
European christian, and triumph in the generosity of the sentiment.

It is pleasant to observe by what regular gradations we surmount
the force of local prejudice, as we enlarge our acquaintance with the
world. A man born in any town in England divided into parishes, will
naturally associate most with his fellow parishioners (because their
interests in many cases will be common) and distinguish him by the
name of NEIGHBOUR; if he meet him but a few miles from home, he
drops the narrow idea of a street, and salutes him by the name of
TOWNSMAN; if he travel out of the county, and meet him in any
other, he forgets the minor divisions of street and town, and calls
him COUNTRYMAN; i. e. COUNTY-MAN; but if in their foreign
excursions they should associate in France or any other part of
EUROPE, their local remembrance would be enlarged into that of
ENGLISHMEN. And by a just parity of reasoning, all Europeans
meeting in America, or any other quarter of the globe, are
COUNTRYMEN; for England, Holland, Germany, or Sweden, when compared
with the whole, stand in the same places on the larger scale, which
the divisions of street, town, and county do on the smaller ones;
distinctions too limited for continental minds. Not one third of the
inhabitants, even of this province, are of English descent. Wherefore
I reprobate the phrase of parent or mother country applied to England
only, as being false, selfish, narrow and ungenerous.

But admitting, that we were all of English descent, what does it
amount to? Nothing. Britain, being now an open enemy, extinguishes
every other name and title: And to say that reconciliation is our
duty, is truly farcical. The first king of England, of the present
line (William the Conqueror) was a Frenchman, and half the Peers of
England are descendants from the same country; wherefore, by the same
method of reasoning, England ought to be governed by France.

Much hath been said of the united strength of Britain and the
colonies, that in conjunction they might bid defiance to the world.
But this is mere presumption; the fate of war is uncertain, neither
do the expressions mean any thing; for this continent would never
suffer itself to be drained of inhabitants, to support the British
arms in either Asia, Africa, or Europe.

Besides, what have we to do with setting the world at defiance? Our
plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the
peace and friendship of all Europe; because, it is the interest of
all Europe to have America a FREE PORT. Her trade will always be a
protection, and her barrenness of gold and silver secure her from
invaders.

I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation, to shew, a
single advantage that this continent can reap, by being connected
with Great Britain. I repeat the challenge, not a single advantage is
derived. Our corn will fetch its price in any market in Europe, and
our imported goods must be paid for buy them where we will.

About The American Crisis No. III

I was randomly reading from some of Thomas Paine’s writings. I picked The American Crisis because it is about that early revolutionary period. The pamphlet, The Crisis No. III, dated April 19, 1777 caught my attention.

Paine begins with the “progress of politics” and how experience brings us to where we are, how ensuing events are built on “past occurrences” which are important to recollect. He then moves in on his target of derision, shifting from generalities to specifics. The Tories are blamed for a failure of insight into present happenings for they supposedly misconstrued what came before.

Paine, expressing impatience with the pace of events, definitely stops mincing words and gets to the meat of the matter:

“The success of the cause, the union of the people, and the means of supporting and securing both, are points which cannot be too much attended to. He who doubts of the former is a desponding coward, and he who wilfully disturbs the latter is a traitor.”

After verbally abusing the cowards and traitors, he moves onto the four “principal arguments in support of independence”:

“1st, The natural right of the continent to independence.
2d, Her interest in being independent.
3d, The necessity,- and
4th, The moral advantages arising therefrom.”

The first argument is short and sweet. He basically just says it is our self-evident natural right and there need be no further defense nor possibility of debate. So, put that in your pipe and smoke it.

The second argument intrigued me moreso:

“The interest of the continent in being independent is a point as clearly right as the former. America, by her own internal industry, and unknown to all the powers of Europe, was, at the beginning of the dispute, arrived at a pitch of greatness, trade and population, beyond which it was the interest of Britain not to suffer her to pass, lest she should grow too powerful to be kept subordinate. She began to view this country with the same uneasy malicious eye, with which a covetous guardian would view his ward, whose estate he had been enriching himself by for twenty years, and saw him just arriving at manhood. And America owes no more to Britain for her present maturity, than the ward would to the guardian for being twenty-one years of age.”

This new entity, America, owes no one anything for its existence. America owes even less for its own hard-earned success and abundance. This is the argument of rebellious youth at a perceived capricious and avaricious authority. America coming into its maturity demands its independence to now make its own way in the world.

He makes it seem as if the British government and military played no role whatsoever. The claim by the monarchy and the empire is arbitrary and meaningless.

“Britain thought it worth her while to claim them, and the continent received and acknowledged the claimer. It was, in reality, of no very great importance who was her master, seeing, that from the force and ambition of the different powers of Europe, she must, till she acquired strength enough to assert her own right, acknowledge some one. As well, perhaps, Britain as another; and it might have been as well to have been under the states of Holland as any. The same hopes of engrossing and profiting by her trade, by not oppressing it too much, would have operated alike with any master, and produced to the colonies the same effects. The clamor of protection, likewise, was all a farce; because, in order to make that protection necessary, she must first, by her own quarrels, create us enemies. Hard terms indeed!”

He does at least partly make a good point. The British Empire wants the colonists to pay for defense against the enemies the British Empire has created or otherwise inevitably attracted. Portrayed in this manner, it sounds like a protection racket.

Paine’s third argument is that the colonists were in an impossible situation under British rule. This sad state of affairs would just get harder and more cumbersome. The situation demanded to be changed. The alternatives were unacceptable to any freedom-loving population. Hence, independence must be asserted for, one way or another, its fruition was a foregone conclusion.

In his fourth argument, he brings up the injustice of militaristic imperialism and the endless European wars that followed from it. The colonists, by being part of the British Empire, became complicit in this injustice and so shared in the guilt. As Americans these centuries later, his damning criticism against Britain now cuts back against us with even greater force:

“Britain, for centuries past, has been nearly fifty years out of every hundred at war with some power or other. It certainly ought to be a conscientious as well political consideration with America, not to dip her hands in the bloody work of Europe.”

We are even more guilty. For the centuries following Paine writing this, the vast majority of years were spent in warfare along with instigating or being involved with near endless military interventions, invasions, occupations, assassinations, and coup d’etats. We have become worse than what he criticized. The United States, which Paine named, became the monster that the revolutionaries, inspired by Paine, were fighting against.

The rest of the pamphlet is largely an expounding upon the details of the revolution, congress, rivalries and conflicts. He focuses some attention on Quakers in similar terms as he righteously attacks Tories. At times, it can be dispiriting to read how much he demonizes his opponents and thus seeks to polarize (you’re with us or against us), but I guess that is how revolutions happen or they happen not at all.

I only want to bring up one more part from this pamphlet. The following is a great conclusion for this post and, as well, for my previous two posts. About reluctance in getting fully on board with independence, Paine offers a note of insight and hope:

“Error in opinion has this peculiar advantage with it, that the foremost point of the contrary ground may at any time be reached by the sudden exertion of a thought; and it frequently happens in sentimental differences, that some striking circumstance, or some forcible reason quickly conceived, will effect in an instant what neither argument nor example could produce in an age.”

We Need a Miracle

I’m going to summarize two central points about the revolutionary era. I suspect they apply to revolutions in general. There is a dynamic to what causes revolutions and how they result. There are also types of people who tend to play particular roles with predictable responses. I’ll connect these ideas and maybe clarify what this all might mean, for societies and for human nature.

* * *

The first point is an insight I had after reading a few dozen different books. I originally was reading about Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. That led me to seek a broader perspective which eventually brought me to the debate between the Federalists and anti-Federalists.

What I realized was that the debate between Burke and Paine was essentially the same debate between the Federalists and anti-Federalists. That is quite revealing. It puts everything into a different perspective. The arguments against the American Revolution beforehand were often exactly the same arguments made for the new Federalist government. Sometimes the same people made the same arguments before and after the Revolution.

John Dickinson, for similar stated reasons as Burke, argued against the Revolution and for the unwritten English Constitution and the rights of Englishmen. Both Dickinson and Burke warned of the dangers of revolution. The most interesting part is that it was that type of person who specifically warned the Revolution likely would fail, unleashing destruction instead of renewal, and it was that type of person who did their best to ensure the Revolution failed or rather ensure whatever success it achieved was short-lived. Dickinson was essentially still fighting against the Revolution even after it had happened. He wasn’t a bad guy and I don’t know that he was entirely wrong; actually, I suspect he was partly right which is a feeling I can’t shake.

Federalism was a counter-revolution that fought against the very ideals that offered the only justification for the American Revolution in the first place. If the new Federalism was justified, the American Revolution wasn’t justified. But if the American Revolution wasn’t justified, it should never have happened and the new Federal government shouldn’t have been formed. The basic justifications for the new Federal government, after all, were the same basic justifications given for defending the British Empire. So, it would have made more sense, like Canada, to have remained part of the British Empire. There are some differences between the US political system and British political system as they diverged over their respective histories, but for the most part they aren’t revolutionary-worthy differences.

* * *

That brings me to my second point. Revolutions always seem to fail according to their own ideals. Either they become new forms of oppression or else something akin to the old form of oppression. Is there any way for a revolution to succeed? This bothers me because the question of revolutionary success is tied up with whether genuine justice can ever be achieved. Is there a different way to go about revolution besides the hope of redemptive violence?

I wonder what a successful revolution would look like.

A revolution, in many ways, is a failure right from the start. First and foremost, it is a failure of the old order. Even the likes of Burke and Dickinson saw the failures of the old order. That is why they promoted reform which was rooted in their desire to prevent revolution. If their hoped for reform hadn’t failed, there wouldn’t have been a revolution. But there is a corollary to that. If the revolution hadn’t happened, the needed reforms may never have happened in British Empire and her former colonies. So, the reform’s failure was the cause of the revolution and the revolution’s failure was what finally forced some reform. Burke, however, wanted to believe that reform was still possible without revolution pounding at the door; but his faith remains unproven.

A revolution is always unreasonable according to the old order. There is always an element of the unproven and unpredictable about any revolution. Because of this, Burke had good reasons to fear revolution. But such reasonableness ultimately always fails. If social orders were capable of continuous reform, no revolution would ever happen. Yet it is because social orders resist reform that revolutions are necessary and inevitable, even in their repeated failure.

It seems that civilization as we know it isn’t possible without semi-regularly scheduled revolutions. And, considering the failures of reform in our present society, it seems some revolution in the US is overdue. Of course, revolution could be easily prevented by some thorough reforms, but that is precisely what those in power don’t want to do, just as the ruling elite during Burke’s life didn’t want admit to the need of reform. I must admit that I feel wary about any new revolution. I see no reason that it will succeed any more than previous revolutions. Still, if it takes a revolution to force reform, then revolution is what we will have, no matter who does or doesn’t want it.

* * *

Now, this brings me to the deeper issues underlying all of this.

Why does this seem so predictable, almost deterministic? Is it something inborn within our human nature?

We just go on playing the same roles in the same script. This brings us to the etymology of ‘revolution': from the Latin revolutio, “a turn around”. We just turn around and around and around, like the ancient philosophy of the wheel of fortune. But like a wheel, there is forward motion. It’s just going in circles we lose track of where we are heading and we’re never quite sure it is the direction we want to end up in.

Is the world genuinely better now than in the past? In some ways, yes. In other ways, no. What does it all add up to?

Take a concrete example. Let’s go with African-American civil rights across the centuries.

Racialized slavery was bad and no one can doubt that the abolition of it was a good thing, and it did require a civil war close to revolution to achieve it, even if the abolition was more a side effect of other societal changes. Before the Civil War, there was over a couple of million of African-Americans enslaved. Presently, there are around a million African-Americans imprisoned (not to count the many more than that number caught up in the ‘justice’ system or suffering under the oppressive conditions of the life of an ex-con). That is some improvement. We’ve reduced by about half of the African-Americans who are unjustly trapped in an oppressive system.

Even so, that is rather pathetic as a case for reform. A (conservative? moderate? failed?) revolution, a civil war, and a civil rights movement and that is all you get for it. Really? The ironic part is that slavery still exists in much of the world, maybe even growing. There might be more slaves today than there was in centuries past for the simple reason that the population is now larger (I’ve heard people make such claims, but I don’t know how slaves are counted when they are sold on black markets and usually kept hidden). Much of these present slave conditions are part of modern capitalism (just as early racialized slavery was part of the rise of early capitalism). We Americans buy products every day made by people who work under threat of violence, sometimes locked or chained to prevent escape. There has been much reporting about the work conditions in certain Chinese factories and that is only what gets reported.

The world improves in many ways. Yet it is hard to say it is actually better overall. It definitely is better if you are an upper class person in a developed country, but that is a minority of the world’s population. As we slowly reform old injustices, new injustices crop up in their place.

It can feel like we are stuck in a cycle. The problem with reform is that it leaves in place the social order that caused the problems in the first place. To build on a proven dysfunctional social order seems less than optimal. Is there something that could bring forth something entirely new, like nothing that ever came before? Are we humans capable of such large-scale ingenuity? Or for that matter are we capable of even reform that would permanently undo injustice and ensure a new injustice doesn’t take its place?

An important insight is made by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. From slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, racialized oppression never ends. It just takes new forms. Reform only deals with the symptoms instead of the disease. Symptom relief is fine for a dying patient. But what if one doesn’t want to resign oneself to the cynical view that our civilization is doomed and all that we can seek is a bit of comfort on the way down? What about hope for recovery, for a full healing?

What we need is a non-violent, democratic revolution. A transformation that is a paradigm shift across the entire population. We so desperately need for a change to happen that is greater than our own ability to envision change, a change that shifts our ability to envision new possibilities, an envisioning that is simultaneously an enactment. The means have to match the ends. We have to somehow collectively act in a way as if the change already happened.

Basically, we need a miracle.

* * *

As a bonus, I’ll leave you with a recent blog post from The (Dis)Loyal Opposition To Modernity:

The anti-primitive by El Mono Liso

Betrayal of Democracy by Counterrevolution

This is territory I’ve covered many times before, but it always gets to me. The lost promise of any failed revolution is profoundly sad.

This is from Taming Democracy by Terry Bouton. It is from the Introduction (Kindle Location 70). The author summarizes the entire American revolutionary period from the years preceding to the decades following.

“Moreover, much of the revolutionary generation was convinced that, during the postwar decade, the elite founding fathers had waged-and won-a counter-revolution against popular democratic ideals. During the 178os and 1790s, ordinary folk across the new nation perceived democracy to be under assault from elite leaders determined to scale it back from the broad ideal that had been articulated in 1776. To many people, the biggest victory in this counter-revolution was the creation of the new federal Constitution-a document that modern Americans often view as one of the Revolution’s crowning democratic achievements. Most revolutionary era Americans believed that democracy survived this counter-revolution. But they also thought the version that remained had been stripped of much of its meaning and was a far less potent ideal than the one that many of them had fought a war to attain.”

The author then goes into some detail explaining why the focus is put on Pennsylvania. That state more than any other held the promise of democracy. It has been called the cradle of liberty for good reason, even if the elites after the revolution conveniently forgot about those reasons. After discussing Pennsylvania, the author continues with an explanation of what the betrayal of the elites meant to “The People” who fought the American Revolution.

“This consensus shattered during the war, when much of the gentry changed their minds about democracy and began an effort to scale back its meaning and practice-in effect, attempting to tame democracy. During the war, many of the state’s founding fathers abandoned their commitment to wealth equality and a democratized political system. Instead, they redefined a “good government” as one that enriched the affluent and refashioned “liberty” as a word that meant the freedom to amass as much property as one desired and to use that property as one saw fit. The elite tried to force through redistributive policies they knew would be unpopular (and even offensive) to ordinary folk. And when they met resistance, the gentry worked to restructure the state and national governments to make them less responsive to the public will-just as Britain had done during the 176os and 1770s-The elite founders also replicated many of the economic policies that Britain had enacted, with similar results: they created an economic depression that brought hardships across the state and angered ordinary folk who saw this new order as a betrayal of the Revolution’s main ideals.

“In response, during the 1780s, ordinary Pennsylvanians attempted to defend their ideas of political and economic equality. Facing a situation similar to that of the 176os and 1770s, people from across the state petitioned for the same policies they had called for a decade earlier-policies that the gentry had supported at the time. Despite the democratization of government, however, ordinary folk had a hard time mobilizing for change. They ran up against a system that, for all of its democratic innovations, still kept many obstacles in the path of the people. And, as the common folk discovered, unless they found a way to organize around those obstacles, it did not matter if most Pennsylvanians shared an agenda for change. When it came to political power, without organization, “the people” remained little more than an abstraction. As a result, ordinary Pennsylvanians achieved only limited political victories during the 1780s. The revolutionary elite rejected most of their proposals, and when they did, many people protested in the same ways they had against Britain.

“Those protests prompted the elite founding fathers to create what the gentry called more permanent “barriers against democracy.” They rewrote constitutions and passed new laws to diminish access to power and to outlaw forms of political self-expression that many ordinary folk considered to be essential to defending their liberties. In this more hostile environment, ordinary Pennsylvanians resorted to increasingly desperate measures to protect their democratic ideals. In the end, the conflict was settled by two mass popular uprisings by thousands of ordinary Pennsylvanians, one in 1794 and another in 1799. Each of these showdowns ended with federal armies marching through Pennsylvania to uphold a far more limited democracy than the version that had existed in 1776.”

The American Revolution fully took form when the British army violently oppressed colonial protests and the it ended when the new Federal army did the same. From one oppressive government to the next. The pattern endlessly repeats.

Failed Revolutions All Around

I’ve been reading many comparisons of the American and French Revolutions. Unsurprisingly, I have my own take on such things that disagree with mainstream interpretations.

I don’t see these revolutions as being entirely distinct.

The American Revolution originated with the English Civil War. Actually, the entirety of the American colonial cultures and their respective social/political traditions began with the English dissenters and their enemies. The aristocrats who came to populate the South may have been or descended from Loyalists, but by the time of the American Revolution even they were swayed to the position of the religious dissenters against the Loyalists. The fight against English monarchy didn’t begin with the Enlightenment but with the Puritan split from the Anglican Church.

The French Revolution was in many ways a continuation of the American Revolution by way of influence. Part of the radical tradition that took fruit in France grew out of the English tradition. It was an Englishman like Paine that helped inspire both the American and French Revolutions. I’d say this relates to why the French Revolution was so similar to the English Civil War, a fact that would be obvious to more people if not for cultural bias.

This connection shouldn’t be so hard to understand. A large part of English culture and monarchy came from the French Normans. Both the British natives and the French natives were conquered and ruled over by the same Germanic tribes. During that era of monarchy, the kings and queens of these various countries along the North Sea tended to be closely related kin. The English got their language and their very name from the Angles and other related Northern European tribes. This created social and political conditions that were very similar across national boundaries.

The French Huguenots and Calvinists influenced the Puritans and Quakers which then shaped their dissent against the Anglican Church and the English monarchy. Those English dissenters later shaped the worldview of English colonists and English native-borns during the Revolutionary Era (Thomas Paine, was raised by a Quaker father and then spent many formative years in one of the major Puritan dissenter towns). This English radicalism then in turn came to influence the French during their revolution. It all came full circle.

A similar relationship existed between England and Netherlands. A Dutch king ruled over England for a time. Also, it was in Netherlands that John Locke sought refuge and was influenced by the Enlightenment tradition there. Classical liberalism of Netherlands and New Netherlands (present New York City) was earlier on more well established than in England and the English colonies. If not for that Dutch influence, maybe the English and their colonists would never have their Lockean tradition of natural rights. A Scotsman like Burke who was less influenced by this instead held onto the notion of the rights of Englishmen which he saw as in conflict with this European natural rights philosophy. This is why Burke not only criticized the French Revolution but never fully supported the American cause for independence.

It is only from a modern perspective that we see these societies as being so different.

For various reasons, many have sought to intellectually separate Anglo-American history from European history. In this simplistic style of analysis, the American Revolution is seen as conservative and the French Revolution as radical, the American Revolution as a success and the French Revolution as a failure.

As for the first part, it is hard to see the American Revolution as less radical for it was started by and fought by radicals. Consider the origins of the American Revolution in the War of Regulation, a violent class war if there ever was one. As for the second part, it is hard to see the American Revolution as a clear success. After the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, only a few percentage of Americans had the right to vote (the plutocratic elite of free white male landowners which added up to, as some calculate, around 6-8% of the total population who were eligible voters).

Is that what the revolution was fought for? Is that what vindicates the revolution as a success? A few percentage of elites ruling over the vast majority? With taxes being even higher after the revolution, how was taxation any more representative than before?

The American Revolution didn’t end with success. Even after the elites declared it over, the lower classes went on fighting for their rights: Shay’s Rebellion (1786-1787), Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794), Fries’s Rebellion (1799-1800), etc. These kinds of conflicts weren’t resolved even then. Because of the failure of the American Revolution, the Civil War became inevitable. Part of this failure was when the U.S. Constitution replaced rather than improved upon the Articles of Confederation.

This was a series of failures that began with the failure of the War of Regulation when the colonial elites put down those earliest of revolutionaries and had its earliest origins in the failure of the English Civil War that ended in re-establishment of the monarchy. During the Glorious Revolution that helped form the English political order that the colonists faced in the 18th century, there was the 1689 Boston Revolt which some people see as presaging the American Revolution. There was centuries of fighting and never any clear resolution, certainly not ‘success’.

Those failures of the past have their continuing influence into the present. It is because of the failure of the Articles of Confederation and the failure of the Constitutional Convention to improve upon it that has led to a gradual but inevitable centralization of power ever since. Because of that failure then, the Civil War followed. Because of the further failure of the Civil War to resolve these issues, the problems were shifted onto future generations and now we are faced with them. If we fail to resolve these issues in our lifetime, then it will continue on and maybe lead to yet another revolution or civil war.

We never seem to learn from the past or else we learn the wrong lesson entirely. It feels like we are stuck in a repeating pattern that is apparently beyond our collective comprehension. The few visionaries who are able to see clearly, whether Roger Williams during the 17th century or Thomas Paine during the 18th century, never seem to be able to get enough people to understand and so the problems continue on for another generation, another century, another era of oppression and violence.

Criticizing the French for their revolution hardly does justice to understanding our own failures and correcting them.

Revolutions: American and French

A book that has often caught my attention is Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light by Susan Dunn. I haven’t read it nor do I plan to. The title sounds like something I’d like to read, but the blurb and reviews of it lessen my interest. I’d love to read a good analysis of these two revolutions, just maybe not this one.

I mention it because of one review to which I commented. It is Completely Biased against French Rev by A Customer. The following is my response.

The problem is not all comparisons are useful.

The French Revolution was an event more similar to the English Civil War, both about the local population overthrowing a king and a new social order attempting to violently establish itself against violent oppression. The American Revolution was also very violent, but it involved more isolated populations, including little infrastructure such as roads connecting the colonies. Even if someone wanted to, an authoritarian group couldn’t have forced its will on such a spread out and disconnected population.

Besides, the American Revolution really was just the second part to the English Civil War, bringing to fruition what had been started there. The American Civil War was the final bloody conclusion to what the founding fathers failed to do. If you consider these three together, the Anglo-American political transformation was as violent as the French Revolution. It’s just that both justice and violence was severely delayed in the Anglo-American example.

You also have to consider that the French in Canada were developing a more democratic society long before the British colonies ever attempted that degree of freedom. However, the French colonial experiment in Canada was oppressively destroyed by the British, the prerogative of empires. Furthermore, consider the Basque people from Southern France who helped inspire the republican thinking of the founding fathers.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basque_American#Ties_to_Early_American_history

“Referring to the historical ties that existed between the Basque Country and the United States, some authors stress the admiration felt by John Adams, second president of the US, for the Basques’ historical form of government. Adams, who on his tour of Europe visited Biscay, was impressed. He cited the Basques as an example in A defense of the Constitution of the United States, as he wrote in 1786:

“”In a research like this, after those people in Europe who have had the skill, courage, and fortune, to preserve a voice in the government, Biscay, in Spain, ought by no means to be omitted. While their neighbours have long since resigned all their pretensions into the hands of kings and priests, this extraordinary people have preserved their ancient language, genius, laws, government, and manners, without innovation, longer than any other nation of Europe. Of Celtic extraction, they once inhabited some of the finest parts of the ancient Boetica; but their love of liberty, and unconquerable aversion to a foreign servitude, made them retire, when invaded and overpowered in their ancient feats, into these mountainous countries, called by the ancients Cantabria…”

“…It is a republic; and one of the privileges they have most insisted on, is not to have a king: another was, that every new lord, at his accession, should come into the country in person, with one of his legs bare, and take an oath to preserve the privileges of the lordship”.[1]

“Authors such as Navascues, and the Basque-American Pete T. Cenarrusa, former Secretary of the State of Idaho, agree in stressing the influence of the Forua of Biscay

on some parts of the US Constitution. John Adams traveled in 1779 to Europe to study and compare the various forms of government then found on the Old Continent. The American Constitution was approved by the first thirteen states on 17 September 1787.”

The French had their own traditions of republicanism, self-governance and social democracy. History is complex. Why some traditions come to the forefront and others get suppressed is impossible to predict in advance, but easy to see with hindsight as somehow being inevitable, some kind of inherent character. Reality is to complicated for the simple stories we project onto it.

Some say the French Revolution was a failure. Many others would say the same thing about the American Revolution. Paine saw both revolutions with his own eyes and participated in both. Without his inspiration, the American Revolution likely would never have gone anywhere.

Yet, the American Revolution was taken over by plutocrats and oligarchs, hardly a victory to be celebrated. We continue to suffer from the oppressive ruling elite that established itself after the revolution. The oppressive police state we have seen grow with the Cold War and the War on Terror is simply the endgame of the average American having lost the American Revolution. The society we have was built by the winners.

Here is a passage from The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America by Barbara Clark Smith (Kindle Locations 2707-2813):

Mass demonstrations, committee meetings, and crowd actions were more than central to the resistance movement. These experiences were also critical to Americans’ capacity to imagine independence from Great Britain. We see this clearly in the text that many historians credit with placing independence in the forefront of American thinking: Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense.

In retrospect, the colonists may seem to have been slow to consider separation from the mother country. True, by the close of 1775, faith in Britain was at low ebb. In April, British soldiers and colonial militiamen had clashed at Lexington and Concord. Men from throughout New England had gathered to contain the British troops in Boston. In June, both sides had suffered significant losses at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Over the summer, the Second Continental Congress found itself petitioning for peace but conducting a war. Congressmen quickly adopted New England’s provisional forces into a Continental army and placed the Virginian, George Washington, in command. Through fall and early winter, Washington and his men held the hills around Boston harbor in a wary standoff with British forces occupying the city. Even still, many colonists treasured their ties to Britain. Then, in January 1776, Paine’s pamphlet came off the press in Philadelphia. A second edition appeared in February, and printers in New York, Boston, Salem, Newport, Hartford, Lancaster, Norwich, Albany, and Providence all issued copies within a few months’ time. With this publication, Paine helped shift colonial discussion from reconciliation with Britain toward independence.

One element of Paine’s success was rhetorical: his work was brilliantly written and forcefully argued. Did some speak respectfully of the drama of the state? Paine wrote of government as a “puppet show,” a genre known and understood by every apprentice who had wasted time in Philadelphia streets. Paine powerfully endorsed the capacities of ordinary Americans. Common men themselves might consider and decide matters of political right and political wrong, even to issues of empire, monarchy, and the very forms of government. Paine carried this conviction through four chapters, never explicitly confronting the conventional view of cobblers and farmers but rendering it moot. Rather than defend the commonalty, he wrote as if their competence were unquestioned.134

Yet Paine’s success reflected as well an ability to fathom the extraordinary political process taking place around him and the unprecedented possibilities that it introduced. Over the resistance years, Americans witnessed, read about, and took part in repeated public negotiations that exercised and affirmed their capacities as neighbors and countrymen. In mass gatherings, local governments, and local committees, merely common men of merely common sense had become increasingly accustomed to exercising political discretion and wielding political power. New men had argued and acted along with more experienced local leaders in official and unofficial bodies. Common tradesmen and farmers had stood in judgment of men who were their social superiors, and they had grown accustomed to receiving deferential hearing from merchants, lawyers, and other educated members of the Patriot elite. When writers in the press scoffed at their abilities, ordinary men had found articulate replies and allies among their betters. For such men, Common Sense reverberated deeply. It assumed and extended the most liberating premise of Patriot practice: the sufficiency of ordinary men and ordinary knowledge.135

At the same time, Common Sense confirmed another belief central to the resistance: the power and virtue of affection, the security to be found in the social bonds that united disparate households into community and society. “Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.” Later thinkers might employ Paine’s phrase to argue for individual rights against the state or for policies of laissez-faire. Yet in 1776, Paine meant something rather different, and something rather more, for what mattered in that crucible year was the strength of colonial societies, understood primarily as arenas of obligation and mutual commitment rather than individuality.

For Paine, as for other Patriots, what was good about society was its web of commitments. Society “promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections,” he wrote. Unified affections were the very basis of any connection among people, the very ground of political identity. Paine accordingly argued that political allegiance depended on powerful social bonds that transcended mere interest to include sentiments of mutuality and sympathy. Paine offered reasons why the colonies should separate from England and reasons why their strength arose from union with one another. Did some colonists feel gratitude for occasions when Britain had protected the colonies? Their feelings were misplaced, for when Britain defended colonial borders and colonial shipping, “her motive was interest, not attachment.”136 In this logic, self-interest might bind individuals or groups into alliance, but true political unity depended on a deeper tie. Only attachment could join different neighborhoods, towns, counties, or provinces into a single people. “Present convenience” was not enough. Political unity derived from such “feelings and affections which nature justifies, and without which we should be incapable of discharging the social duties of life.”137 And though such feelings no longer subsisted between the colonies and Britain, colonists from different provinces, he maintained, did enjoy such confidence in and feeling for one another.138

Indeed, despite their manifest differences, had not many colonists of different regions, social classes, and religious beliefs forged a sense of sameness and commonality, precisely through their shared, public pursuit of the Patriot cause? There had been common resolutions of different provincial assemblies; committees chosen by hundreds of towns and counties in different parts of the continent; a gathering and acquiescence of different ranks in real and symbolic punishments, rituals that testified that every Son and Daughter of Liberty detested unconstitutional laws, overreaching officials, and invidious distinctions among neighbors and could be counted on to oppose them all. There had been renewed engagement with one another in commitment to fair and mutually beneficial exchange. In the pages of Patriot newspapers, colonists could read of one another’s actions and resolutions; they could know themselves to be part of a larger movement, a community of the like-minded and the like-hearted. If Americans could dispense with loyalty to England, it was because they possessed an equally powerful allegiance that could take its place.139

Readers responded to Common Sense with a sense of recognition and liberation. And no wonder. Here is Paine’s description of a hypothetical group of people (he called them “colonists”) beginning in an original state of “natural liberty.” Such people would quickly form a society, prompted by “a thousand motives” to “seek assistance and relief” from each other. Only when some individuals, weak in their “attachment” to their fellows, acted out of selfish motives would the colonists move toward the discipline of rudimentary government. Then, said Paine, “Some convenient tree will afford them a State-House, under the branches of which the whole colony may assemble to deliberate on public matters. It is more than probable that their first laws will have the title only of Regulations, and be enforced by no other penalty than public disesteem.”140 Could readers in British North America fail to recognize their own social and political movement in these lines? Here, surely, was the Patriot system of resistance, the meetings beneath Liberty Trees, assemblies of the many who regulated behavior with the threat of “public disesteem.” What were Patriots doing, then, other than forming a new society, laying the ground for a new political union? Americans could imagine a future of unity, cooperation, mutual benefit, and widespread prosperity. Perhaps they might rest secure in their mutual social, economic, and political ties. Paine’s pages made manifest this lesson of Patriot pacts, for all those who had been taking part in their towns, counties, and provinces. They stood at an extraordinary, pristine, and precious moment.

By spring of ’76, Paine’s words and the actions of George III worked together to convince many colonists of the need to separate from Britain. From the first, colonists had sought to recall the British people to the special relationship that they had assumed bound them to one another. Surely, the colonists believed, when Englishmen realized that Parliament’s policies would cause suffering among their brethren across the Atlantic, they would relent. But the intransigence of British policy makers prompted reconsideration. They came to realize, the Reverend Ezra Stiles said, that repeal of the Stamp Act had not come, after all, from “generous fraternal principles.” With the Townshend Acts, wrote Benjamin Franklin from London, many colonists “reflected how lightly the interest of all America had been estimated here, when the interests of a few of the inhabitants of Great Britain happened to have the smallest competition with it.”141 The British set themselves apart by “their total unfeeling neglect of the most essential concerns of us Americans,” wrote a South Carolinian. New Yorkers noted that the colonies had lost “confidence in the Tenderness of Great Britain.”142 Lingering hopes for reconciliation dwindled in the face of English policy. White southerners recoiled when they heard that the ministry was considering plans “for instigating the slaves to insurrection.” And in the wake of bloody combat between regulars and civilians, there came the news that George III, “with the pretended title of Father of his People,” was dispatching more troops against them.143 From a Patriot perspective, the parent country was guilty of a fundamental failure of feeling. It was Britain that renounced the historic connection, through lack of affection, tenderness, and fraternity. Joined with that belief was another: the security that England failed to offer, the colonists might provide for one another. In June 1776, the Second Continental Congress delegated it to a Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, to find the precise words.

In this way the Declaration of Independence was made possible by countless prior declarations of neighborly interdependence, declarations made in local meetings, in committee chambers, beneath Liberty Tree, in the press, in the hearing of a broad public. These were declarations made when the well-to-do passed up fancy imported gloves for more common American-made; when colonial women held spinning bees, sacrificed imported tea, and spent their time processing flax instead of buying fine cloth from European merchants. They were declarations made by college students who gave up liquors and merchants and storekeepers who gave up profits when commodities were in short supply. Such acts testified to faith in an ultimately common interest, a common commitment to regard no private interest apart from the whole.

Let me be clear: Patriots surely feared dependency. Their worries about vassalage and slavery were real ones. They feared the seductions of addictive consumer goods. They worried about the dangers of femininity seen in some women’s abandonment of household production and their entry into fashionable consumption. Dependence on the wealthy and powerful, indebtedness to strangers rather than neighbors-these would result in “the slavery and ignorance of the many.” Yet Patriots developed in detail and in practice, and through coercion and publicity, a potent critique of the sort of individual independence that many Americans in the nineteenth century would celebrate. For though the ideal voter and the ideal representative were each independent-not servile, not beholden to great men-that idea did not imply boundless endorsement of private judgment, individual dissent, or private accumulation of property. On the contrary: as Patriots saw it, securing the independence of the many required limits on the independence of the few.

In this context, independence meant sufficient wherewithal to allow dissent from the mighty and powerful; it did not imply independence from the locality, from the opinions of one’s neighbors, from a jury of one’s peers, or “the Tribunal of the Publick.”144 Patriots thus endorsed independence from the powerful, the wealthy, the would-be oppressor, but they opposed-sometimes violently-the independence of individuals from the judgments, standards, and interests of their neighbors. The distinction was logical and necessary for anyone who understood freedom as a matter of social arrangements, a social distribution of property. “It will be highly politic, in every free state, to keep property as equally divided among the inhabitants as possible,” said one Connecticut clergyman in 1773, “and not to suffer a few persons to amass all the riches and wealth of a country,” for the wealthy would soon control everyone else.145 Mutual dependence on neighbors represented the sole way for ordinary households to remain free of dependence on greater men. The alternative to “vassalage” and “lordships”-to the dependence of the lowly many on the exalted few-was the mutual dependence and association of the roughly equal. Within rough equality, there was room for rough inequality, so long as such inequality was countered by a shared status of inhabitant, subject, fellow, or neighbor, by constantly acknowledged and presumably continuing relationships with one another. So the tradesmen of New York might challenge the merchants: “Who is the Member of the Community that is absolutely independent of the rest?”146 No one, was the answer, and it followed that no one group might pursue its way without reference to or consultation with the others. Patriots did not require social leveling; they did require arrangements and institutions that secured ongoing mutual commitment and accountability. The independent nation and the empire that many Americans imagined would look much like a neighborhood writ large. The liberty that they sought thus required more than the absence of parliamentary oppression; it required the presence and vitality of neighborly relationships in their own societies.

American Paternalism, Honor and Manhood

I’ve been reading a number of books recently, mostly about early America and related subjects, including such topics as Quaker pacifism, Southern honor, and concepts of family. Here are some of my thoughts and observations.

First, I was only slightly shocked to learn that a mere 8% of Americans were considered legal persons when the Constitution was ratified. This means that 92% of the population had very limited rights of any sort, from voting to having one’s own bank account. Women, for example, were basically seen as property, owned by fathers and later husbands with only widowhood giving them some power and freedom.

The founding fathers wanted a society determined by class, race and gender. They wanted to create an independently wealthy class of “disinterested aristocrats” (i.e., rich white males). Talking to many conservatives, I realize that this vision of a ruling elite still has strong support.

There were two problems with this vision.

First, few of the founding fathers were independently wealthy and so a disinterested aristocracy wasn’t possible. Only someone like Franklin was wealthy enough to work as a politician for free. The rest had to work jobs on the side such as lawyers or plantation owners.

Second, the 92% of the population didn’t want to be ruled by a benevolent ruling class. Also, with Jefferson’s dismantling much of Hamilton’s centralized government, grassroots populist democracy flourished. The American people didn’t need anyone else to solve their problems, especially not about their own local self-governance. In the first half of the 19th century, government as a formal institution was almost invisible.

The founding fathers had been disappointed by their failed lofty ideals of a gentile brotherhood. Their vision was one of honor as defined by Englightenment thinking. It was about noble self-sacrifice by well-educated wise leaders (a modernized version of Plato’s philosopher kings). All of this was grounded in ancient ideas of a republic. Some of the founding fathers were more radical, but most of them didn’t want democracy as we now appreciate, heck most of them probably didn’t even understand such a concept. Rule by “The People” for them meant rule by the 8%.

Jefferson, somewhat unintentionally, made way for an entirely different vision of America. What America became in the 19th century was a country of shopkeepers and religious reformers. There was no nobility, no valor, no honor in being a shopkeeper. Anyone could be a shopkeeper. Even a lowly housewife or black person could produce something to be sold. And religious reform was an emasculating force often led by women.

Along with this, a middle class began to arise, although in some ways it was more of a perception than a reality in the 19th century. After the American Revolution had ended, there actually was more economic inequality than before. But the difference was that Americans now saw themselves as free, even if many of their freedoms had been curtailed by an overreaching and sometimes violently oppressive plutocracy (the Whiskey Rebellion comes to mind).

This also relates to Jefferson. He wanted a society based on agricultural landowners who worked their own land. This was the beginning of the American Dream of everyone owning their own home. The government artificially created a middle class by giving public land away for free or else very cheaply and by providing such things as public education. This made the American population more self-reliant and so less needing of paternalistic rulers.

Another unforseen result was the religious revivalism and the politicized religioisity that it fomented. This frightened many of the founding fathers who saw religion in more elite and intellectual terms. Adam Smith despised Evangelicalism and began to longingly speak of British aristocracy. Jefferson ended up being profoundly wrong in his prediction that Unitarianism would become the dominant religion within a few generations of America’s foundation.

What the Evangelicals and other religious reformers offered was something new. They didn’t want paternalistic benevolence such as money being given to the poor. They wanted to solve the problem of poverty itself. They tried to discover the roots of poverty and they sought to reform society. This was what would later result in the movements of Populism and Progressivism. Grassroots democracy was becoming a force to be reckoned with, especially with the new breed of populist politician (e.g., Andrew Jackson). This was only exacerbated by the influx of European immigrants during the 19th century, many of whom were escaping oppressive ruling classes and some of whom were radical revolutionaries.

The earlier ideals of honor and manhood were becoming lost. The Revolutionary generation was growing old and the public recollection of the Revolutionary era were becoming hazy. The founding fathers often felt forgotten and disrespected.

America was founded on the eve of early industrialization. Even farming was being transformed through new technology. In this marketplace society, there was no place for elitist Enlightenment thinking. Most Americans knew nothing about Enlightenment thinking and had no desire to know. Americans were becoming a people of producers and consumers.

Grand conflicts were no longer so apparent to the average American. People didn’t feel directly threatened by the French, British or even Indians. The frontier had moved so much further Westward, far away from the bustling cities of commerce.

The problem was: How were Americans to maintain a larger sense of meaning and purpose as a nation? How were boys to be made into men and how were men to prove their manhood? This problem seemed clear to the founding generation who reminisced about the ennobling effect of war. Many saw the War of 1812 as an opportunity to develop character in the American people. This feeling became strong in places like Kentucky where masculine identity had been built on romanticized notions of the early Indian fighters. However, the War of 1812 was a failure and besides it never captured the imagination of most Americans.

This sense of a problem remained. And it led to divisions in how America should be defined.

Andrew Jackson was a Scots-Irish Southerner who, along with being the first president not being born an aristocrat, embodied the Southern vision of militant honor. He combined that with an overtly racist and anti-intellectual sensibility that was particularly popular among Southern white farmers. The North was more industrialized and had a different vision of honor that was influenced by Puritan and Quaker values, but it was the South rather than the North that dominated politics at that time. It was only with the mass immigration to the North that allowed a change of political fortunes during the Civil War.

An odd thing happened, though. The Civil War was traumatizing for both sides. There was little honor in victory, but Americans began to romanticize the honor of Southern loss and so began to romanticize Southern notions of gentlemanly honor. This, of course, led to much conflict around class and race.

Going into the 20th century, Americans were still struggling with what honor and manhood meant. There was a mass exodus from farming communities. A new generation grew up in the cities, the largest generation of child labor and the first generation of modern consumers of all the products being built in the factories in which they worked. They were a generation without authority figures. They became known as the Lost Generation. They fought in WWI, a war worst than the Civil War. They travelled the world and became cosmopolitan in the way no group of Americans had been since the founding fathers.

This was the beginning of the Progressive era which was strongly promoted by religious reformers such as Evangelicals. This was when the National Parks were created and when the streams were stocked with European game fish, the idea being that such things as hunting and fishing could make men out of this urbanized generation of boys.

It’s interesting how these themes formed and how they continue to this day.

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