When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory

I often discuss the historical period beginning with the Enlightenment thinkers and ending with the early modern revolutions. There are many obvious reasons for this focus, as in many ways it is the origins of the world we live in. But for the same reason, it was also the end of the world that came before.

That is what makes it so fascinating to read the words of those who were alive then. They were well aware of what was being lost. It was still within living memory, such as the last remnants of feudalism still holding on even as revolutions were remaking society. The costs of change were clearly understood and many thought it necessary to compensate in some way for what was being lost (e.g., Paine’s citizen’s dividend) or at the very least to acknowledge its passing.

That is different today. We live in a world fully changed. There is little if any living memory of what came before, although isolated traces linger in some remote places. This relates to the disconnection I see among so many people today, across the political spectrum, but it stands out most for me among liberals I observe. Liberalism has embraced modernity and so forgotten its roots, the historical development and radical thought that made it possible. Blindness to the past makes for a lack of vision in the present.

All of this was brought to mind because of something I just read. It is a Jacobin article by Alex Gourevitch, in response to Mark Lilla’s review of Corey Robin’s 2011 book, The Reactionary Mind. Gourevitch writes that,

“[I]f liberalism were really committed to the view that the individual is “metaphysically” prior to society, that would almost single-handedly eliminate the French liberal tradition, from the proto-liberalism of Montesquieu, to the sociological liberalism of Benjamin Constant, to the holist liberalism of Emile Durkheim. Constant’s famous speech in 1819 distinguishing the liberty of the moderns from that of the ancients was explicitly based on an appreciation of the social origins of modern individualism. “Ancient peoples,” wrote Constant, “could neither feel the need for [modern liberty], nor appreciate its advantages. Their social organization led them to desire an entirely different freedom from the one which this system grants to us.” Social organization “leads” and systems “grant.” No “metaphysical” priority of the individual there.”

Benjamin Constant was of French ancestry. His family had fled religious persecution and so he was born in Switzerland, but he returned to France as an adult. He was one of the first people to identify as a liberal and he was involved in the revolutionary fervor of the times, although he sought moderation. What interests me here is that it was the French Revolution that led to the abolition of feudalism in that country. Feudalism was still a major force at the time, although it was on the wane across Europe. When Constant wrote of the ancient world, he surely was speaking from the firsthand experience of the persisting ancient social order in the world around him.

Many thinkers of that era wrote about the past, specifically of Western history. They were literally and experientially closer to the past than we are now. Feudalism, for example, had developed from the landholding tradition of the Roman Empire. The influence of the ancient world was much more apparent at the time and so they could speak of the ancient world with a familiarity that we cannot. For us, that earlier social order is simply gone and at best we could read about it in history books, not that many will ever bother to do so. It’s not a living reality to us and so doesn’t compel our interest, certainly not our moral imaginations.

What and who is America?

The plutocrats have always believed they own the country. They think that by birthright or general superiority they deserve wealth and power. And they think that all the inferior Americans who risk their lives for the country and do all the hard work should simply submit.

When things go wrong, the plutocrats blame the public for getting the government they deserve. But when things go right, the plutocrats take all the credit.

Aristocrats like Washington won the American Revolution, really? Bullshit. There would have been no American Revolution, if the dirty masses hadn’t forced the issue and been fighting a class war for decades. The plutocrats only joined in because they wanted to co-opt the revolution that had become inevitable.

You want to know the real American Founders. You won’t hear much about them from mainstream historians nor did you probably learn much about them in public education. The rabble-rousers and revolutionaries were mostly poor working class folk. The lowly small farmers were protesting and fighting injustice long before the plantation owners even knew a revolution had begun.

The only way to know how change might be possible now is to understand what made it possible in the past. The people have to be their own leaders. And the ruling elite have to be forced to accept change once it is already happening and can’t be stopped.

* * *

American Power Under Challenge
By Noam Chomsky, Nation of Change

The rising opposition to the neoliberal assault highlights another crucial aspect of the standard convention: it sets aside the public, which often fails to accept the approved role of “spectators” (rather than “participants”) assigned to it in liberal democratic theory. Such disobedience has always been of concern to the dominant classes. Just keeping to American history, George Washington regarded the common people who formed the militias that he was to command as “an exceedingly dirty and nasty people [evincing] an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people.”

In Violent Politics, his masterful review of insurgencies from “the American insurgency” to contemporary Afghanistan and Iraq, William Polk concludes that General Washington “was so anxious to sideline [the fighters he despised] that he came close to losing the Revolution.” Indeed, he “might have actually done so” had France not massively intervened and “saved the Revolution,” which until then had been won by guerrillas — whom we would now call “terrorists” — while Washington’s British-style army “was defeated time after time and almost lost the war.”

A common feature of successful insurgencies, Polk records, is that once popular support dissolves after victory, the leadership suppresses the “dirty and nasty people” who actually won the war with guerrilla tactics and terror, for fear that they might challenge class privilege. The elites’ contempt for “the lower class of these people” has taken various forms throughout the years. In recent times one expression of this contempt is the call for passivity and obedience (“moderation in democracy”) by liberal internationalists reacting to the dangerous democratizing effects of the popular movements of the 1960s.

A Truly Free People

“We may awake in fetters, more grievous, than the yoke we have shaken off.”
~Abraham Clark, signer of the Declaration of Independence and member of the Annapolis Conference

How many Americans understand or even suspect the radicalism that once inspired a people to revolt against one of the most powerful empires in the world? How many grasp how daring and vast was this experiment? How many know the names of these heroes? Besides maybe Thomas Paine, how many know about Ethan Allen and Thomas Young? I must admit that Abraham Clark is new to me.

I’ve often written about Paine. His example is inspiring and his life quite amazing. He practically came out of nowhere, setting the colonial world ablaze with his words. And he walked the talk, putting his life on the line again and again. But anyone can fight. What matters is what is fought for. Paine took revolution seriously, believing it to be more than a shifting of power from one ruling elite to another. He was not alone in this thought. Nor was he alone in understanding it was a class war. Clark, for example, shared that sentiment. They understood those who possessed the land and wealth would control the government, as that was always the principle of every despotic government, the very basis of monarchy and aristocracy.

Those like Paine, however, understood that there was a difference in the past. There had been countervailing forces that protected the commoners. For all the faults of feudalism, it enforced a social order of rights and obligations, not just the peasants to their lords but also vice versa. To be a peasant meant to belong to the land, quite literally, and no one could take it away from you, that is until that social order came undone. It wasn’t revolutionaries that destroyed the ancien regime. It was those in power, the supposed defenders of the ancien regime.

What the ruling elite possessed, in many cases, had been stolen. In dismantling feudalism, eliminating the Commons and the rights of the commoners, in creating a new class of landless peasants concentrated in the cities, they made revolution all but inevitable. This radical, anti-traditional capitalism oddly became the defining character of modern ‘conservatism’.

Joseph De Maistre, a French counter-revolutionary, noted that people only identify as conservatives after so much has already been lost. Conservatism isn’t so much conserving still existing and fully thriving traditions, but lamenting and romanticizing what once was or is imagined as having been. Conservatism is just the other side of radicalism. But, according to Corey Robin, conservatives understand full well that the ultimate blame for the destruction of the old order is the old order itself. Feudalism, as such, committed suicide. Conservatives don’t care about the old order itself or any of its traditions. Their only concern is to rebuild a rigid hierarchy, but almost any new system can be made to work for this purpose, even something as radical as capitalism that was the very cause of the destruction of the old order.

I’ve pointed out many times before that there was a strange phenomenon in post-revolutionary America. How quickly conservatives took up the rhetoric of the political left. How quickly the aristocrats and plutocrats co-opted the revolution. There were increasing restrictions in certain areas, specifically those without power began to have their rights constrained. This wasn’t just seen with poor whites or white women. “In some places, propertied women, free blacks, and Native Americans could vote, but those exceptions were just that. (Ed Crews)” True, they were exceptions, and yet for during the era leading up to the American Revolution these exceptions were becoming ever more common—to such an extent that a movement was forming, the very movement that helped give such moral force to the revolutionary zeal.

The revolution gave form to that radicalism, even as it strengthened the reactionary forces against it. In the following decades, so much was lost. “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).” In several states, women had gained the right to vote and then in the early years of the new country they lost the vote again. But, of course, among the biggest losers were blacks, including free blacks, as they suddenly were perceived as a greater threat than ever before. What rights and freedoms they had slowly gained were eroded way as America moved closer to civil war. Black churches were shut down for fear of slave revolts and the few free blacks that had the vote lost it—as a newspaper described in 1838:

Since Jackson’s presidency, there’s been a push to give all white men the vote, even if they don’t own property.

Right now, free black men have the vote in several states. But as states revamp their constitutions to loosen voter requirements for white men, blacks are being stripped of rights they had.

Pennsylvania’s constitution of 1790 gave the vote to “every freeman of the age of twenty-one years.”

Today that was changed to say “every white freeman.”

It’s not just the radicalism that I wanted to bring attention to. What occurred to me is how this relates to the issue of the ancient world. Many revolutionaries looked back to ancient Rome and Greece. The idea of The People originated with the Greek démos.

It is hard for many of us today to take seriously this view of society and politics. We automatically see it as a fiction or an abstraction. But this is because organic communities are almost entirely dead in the modern West. The visceral sense of belonging to a people and a place, to one’s kin and neighbors, a coherent sense of community—this is foreign to us. We’ve become fully alienated, in terms of both the Marxian species-being and Cartesian anxiety.

I’ve had on my mind that human nature itself might in a sense be radical. It’s only in taking the ancient world seriously that we can begin to grasp who we are and what we might become. If we aren’t mere individuals, if we aren’t just billiard balls crashing into one another, then what are we? In our attempts to understand ourselves, what kind of world do we create? And in creating this world, how does this further shape that understanding?

To rethink human nature is a radical act because the very potential of radicalism exists within human nature. The new individualistic self took root in the Axial Age. And the psychological self took shape in the Renaissance. But it was the printing press that brought these ideas of the self down into the mess domain of public politics. Pandora’s Box was opened.

These were no longer just ideas to be pondered by the intelligentsia. Their radical potential became manifest. Yet enough of the older senses of self clung to the roots. The feudalism that had its origins in the ancient world was able to hold on into the revolutionary era, the memory of the old order still being fresh enough in the memory to be a source of inspiration for the 19th century Romantics.

The notion of The People was being reshaped by new ideas. But the very sense of being a people was nothing new. It was at the very heart of a still living tradition. It was that meeting of the old and new that led to such unpredictable results.

Christian G. Fritz, in American Sovereigns, writes (pp. 3-4):

It seems puzzling today that Americans once considered their sovereign to be the people acting collectively. Modern scholars suggest that sovereignty of the people a rhetorical flourish lacking practical application as a constitutional principle. As a crucial “fiction,” the people’s sovereignty had enormous political influence. But modern accounts of America’s constitutional history neglect the constitutional authority once imputed to such a collective sovereign and as such they fail to appreciate the earlier existence of a widely held belief in collective sovereignty that lost sway only after the Civil War.

The lost view of sovereignty assumed that a majority of the people created and therefore could revise constitutions at will, and that a given majority of one generation could not limit a later generation. America’s first constitutions, being an expression of people’s sovereignty, could not be turned against the majority of the people. Indeed, those constitutions frequently contained express provisions recognizing the broad scope of the people’s authority. Such statements encouraged an expansive view of the constitutional revision. The essence of the rule of law—that binding law exists above both the governors and the governed alike—was challenged by the idea that a sovereign people could not be bound even by a fundamental law of their own making.

Under the expansive view, adhering to procedures specifying constitutional change provided one means of determining the will of the sovereign. Nonetheless, constitutional text requiring special majorities could not prevail over the clear will of a majority to dispense with such requirements if that majority so desired. The key to legitimacy was whether constitutional change expressed the will of the collective sovereign, not adherence to specific procedures. While Americans frequently followed such procedures, for many those steps were simply useful, not indispensable. They were not the only legitimate tools available for a sovereign to articulate its will.

It is time we reclaim our own history.

We are still on that cusp of transformation. Much of the world has to varying degrees maintained organic communities. Many populations still have that communal sense of identity, as a present reality or in the not too distant past. The rural lifestyle and tight-knit small communities is within living memory for a significant number of Americans. Even the ancient traditions of subsistence farming and barter economy continued into early 20th century America. The majority of Americans left the rural areas less than a century ago.

I wouldn’t be so dismissive of that ancient view of being a people, a communal self, not the same thing as collectivist ideology. It’s lasted for millennia. And it was never limited to the Greeks, even though their surviving texts made it famous. For many people today, this is a very much real experience of social reality.

Maybe we should take more seriously what once motivated revolutionaries, the attempt to carry that ancient tradition into a changing world, an anchor in turbulent seas. And as we become increasingly disconnected from the past and alienated from our own human nature, this way of seeing the world becomes ever more radical. The term ‘radical’ etymologically comes from late Latin, meaning of or pertaining to the root. And, I might add, a revolution originally meant a return. We could use a radical revolution right about now, a return to our roots. That is an original intent that might mean something. We can only move forward by seeing the path we’ve been on.

Otherwise, we will be doomed to repeat history. A bad situation being replaced by worse still. That was the warning given by Abraham Clark and many others as well. Within that warning is a seed of hope, that maybe one day a generation will take up the task of becoming a truly free people.

“…from every part of Europe.”

By then, the king’s authority in America had been practically demolished, and his imperial interests elsewhere were being challenged. America was on its way to securing an independent destiny, basing the case for separation upon differences rather than likenesses between the two countries. Yet, the new nation revealed a natural kinship with the old world it professed to reject – not only with England, but with numerous other countries. In his Common Sense, Thomas Paine castigated the “false, selfish, narrow, and ungenerous” notion that England was the parent, or mother country of America. “Europe, and not England,” he protested, “is the parent country of America.” The New World had for years, he added, offered asylum to the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty “from every part of Europe.” That observation was heartily endorsed just a few years later by Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, former French soldier and sometime resident of New York, in his Letters from an American Farmer. “What then is the American, this new man?” he asked in a widely quoted passage from that book. “He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

Such observations were justified. One-third of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were of non-English stock, eight being first-generation immigrants. It was in recognition of the mixed European background of so many Americans that John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson later proposed that the official seal of the United States bear the national emblems of Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, and Holland as well as of England, thus “pointing out the countries from which these States have been peopled.” (This idea was abandoned.) The list might well have been much longer. There were Jews from Eastern Europe and from Spain and Portugal (via South America), Swedes, Walloons, Swiss, and still others. Many came, as Paine stated, in search of asylum. But they also came with an intent to preserve and refresh those aspects of life in their homelands which they best remembered and most highly valued.

In the world of 1776, Europe boasted a rich civilization, alive with dynamic ideas and with flourishing arts, with promising new concepts and methods in the sciences. The rudiments of modern industry and business administration were well founded, and social reforms were being undertaken, which Europeans took with them as they colonized and traded. They had come in contact with Eastern civilizations, above all, China, and this experience added significantly to the cosmopolitan culture of the Continent. The Pacific Ocean had been explored, and Australasia discovered; the knowledge gleaned from such expeditions was accelerating an ecological revolution of universal importance. This abundance of experience and knowledge that characterized the world of 1776 was the inheritance America shared as a birthright.

From The World in 1776
by Marshall B. Davidson
Kindle Locations 237-261

* * * *

This early diversity has been an ongoing interest of mine. I noticed this passage and was reminded again of this less known side of American history.

What particularly caught my attention was that, “One-third of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were of non-English stock, eight being first-generation immigrants.” It wasn’t just that several of the colonies had non-English majorities. The non-English ethnicity was even a major part of the ancestral background of the so-called founding fathers, among others in the upper classes.

I always wonder why such amazing facts aren’t typically taught in US schools. This is the kind of thing that would make history more interesting to students. Instead, we get over-simplified and dumbed-down boring accounts of our shared past. The actual full history would be too radical for respectable public consumption.

For more details, see my previous posts:

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

General American and the Particulars of Our Origins

Origin of American Diversity

The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty

The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence

Spirit of ’76

Spirit of ’76 (sentiment)
by Wikipedia

Historian Mellen Chamberlain wrote that the spirit of ’76 was embodied by Levi Preston, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War. Chamberlain asked Preston, then 91 years old, “Why did you go to the Concord Fight, the 19th of April, 1775? My histories tell me that you men took up arms against ‘intolerable oppressions.'” Preston responded:

Oppressions? I didn’t feel them. I never saw one of those stamps, and always understood that Governor Bernard put them all in Castle William. I am certain I never paid a penny for one of them. Tea tax! I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watt’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack. Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Smith
(commenting on Shay’s Rebellion)
Paris, November 13, 1787

What country before ever existed a century & a half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.

Fries’s Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution
by Paul Douglas Newman
p. xii

While one recent historian located Shays’s Rebellion as “The American Revolution’s Final Battle” and another described the Whiskey Rebellion as the “Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution,” the Fries Rebels would have disagreed with both implications. Rather than a story consigned to paper and concluded, the Revolution to them was a perpetual narrative for successive generations to retell, an experience to be relived, and an enduring struggle to be reengaged. Their rebellion testified to the democratizing forces in politics and society unleashed by the American Revolution. To them, the Revolution was more than a War for Independence, the founding of a national republic, or the parchment documents that defined each. It was a political, economic, and social process of expanding popular sovereignty. The Revolution was a spirit to be constantly revived and a set of political principles to be frequently redefined— always in a democratic direction— to provide more local and personal control of daily life as well as increased power over broader collective policies. The Fries Rebels believed they were upholding the Revolution’s promise and founding ideals, even when they engaged in their own discriminatory, majoritarian behavior against some of their neighbors. Perhaps other Americans equally estimated that the people could directly expand their own role in local, state, and federal government, making it more democratic and less republican in the fluid days of the post-Revolutionary political settlement when parties were only beginning to form and authority seemed so weak. Even if this was not the case, the Fries Rebels appear to have thought that way, and if we listen closely enough, we can hear them tell us so.

Benjamin Rush in 1787
“Address to the People of the United States”

There is nothing more common than to confound the terms of the American revolution with those of the late American war. The American war is over: but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government; and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens, for these forms of government, after they are established and brought to perfection. […]

PATRIOTS of 1774, 1775, 1778—HEROES of 1778, 1779, 1780! come forward! your country demands your services!—Philosophers and friends to mankind, com forward! your country demands your studies and speculations! Lovers of peace and order, who declined taking part in the late war, come forward! your country forgives your timidity, and demands your influence and advice! Hear her proclaiming, in sighs and groans, in her governments, in her finances, in her trade, in her manufactures, in her morals, and in her manners, “THE REVOLUTION IS NOT OVER!”

Founding Science

“The terms “science,”“technology,” and “scientist,” as we understand them today, were not in use in the Founders’ era. There was no distinction between science and technology, the latter being considered as the more practical, usually mechanical product resulting from scientific inquiry. The title “scientist” did not exist prior to 1833, when British scientist and historian William Whewell coined it. Before then, newspapers, magazines, books, and speeches either referred to a specific field of study by name, such as astronomy, or in the aggregate plural as “the sciences,” a label that encompassed a wide variety of fields including rhetoric and political science. Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1755 identified the “curious of nature” as “inquisitive, attentive, diligent, accurate, careful not to mistake, exact, nice, subtle, artful, rigorous.” Such men (and a few women) expressed their “genius” by engaging in “speculation”— making educated guesses about natural phenomena. “Natural philosophy” and “natural history,” the terms regularly used to denote science in the writings of the Founding Fathers and in the contemporary Philosophical Transactions of the London-based Royal Society, seem to us interchangeable. But natural philosophy then referred to what we might term the hard sciences, the mathematically based disciplines of physics, astronomy , chemistry, optics, and hydraulics. Natural history encompassed the soft sciences of botany, anthropology, anatomy, and , to a lesser extent, biology— what Foucault has called “the science of the characters that articulate the continuity and the tangle of nature.” 7”

Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries:
The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment

by Tom Shachtman
Kindle Locations 85-97

Nature’s God and American Radicalism

The following is an excerpt from a book I’m reading, Nature’s God. I’m not familiar with the author, Matthew Stewart, but maybe I should make myself more familiar with his writings.

The book fills in some holes in my knowledge of the revolutionary era. I know Thomas Paine well. I’m ever so slightly familiar with Ethan Allen. But I do believe Thomas Young is entirely new to me. I don’t recall having come across his name previously.

All three of these, along with some others, are the real founders.

They weren’t born into wealth, privilege, and education. They had to struggle their whole lives and they all put everything on the line, both their lives and their livelihoods, even their hard-earned reputations, all sacrificed for what they believed. They had a lot less to lose and a lot more to gain by challenging the status quo, but it wasn’t just desperate poverty that compelled them to seek something better. They felt genuine conviction for what others thought impossible or dangerous.

They were lovers of freedom and democracy, defenders of the common man and the common good. They were the rabblerousers and instigators, the radicals and revolutionaries. They lit the fire under the asses of the elite and of the contented, of the likes of Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington. Without these working class troublemakers, there would have been no American Revolution, no Declaration of Independence, and no new country.

The least we should do is honor their memory. Better yet, we could take seriously the values that motivated them and the ideals that inspired them.

* * * *

Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic
By Matthew Stewart
pp. 16-23

HOW DO WE DECIDE who deserves a place in history? Generations of devoted American history buffs have spent countless hours reading and writing long books about the American Revolution without ever having come across the name of Dr. Thomas Young. Yet Young was, among other things, one of the people who brought us the original Tea Party. It was he who stood before the assembled people of Boston on November 29, 1773, and first articulated the transparently illegal proposition that the only way to get rid of the East India Company’s loathsome cargo was to throw it into the harbor. 29 It was he who, on the evening of December 16, 1773, kept a crowd of thousands at the Old South Church shouting and clapping with a satirical speech on “the ill effects of tea on the constitution” while his best friends, dressed as Mohawks, quietly set off to turn the Boston harbor into a briny teapot. 30 And it turns out that kicking off the event that many years later came to be called the Boston Tea Party was not the most consequential of Thomas Young’s many unsung contributions to the founding of the American Republic.

If it is true, as John Adams famously observed, that the American Revolution took place “in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775 . . . before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington,” 31 then many of America’s most celebrated founders should properly be counted as consequences rather than causes of the course of events. In his diary Adams himself described the Tea Party on the morning after as “an Epocha in History,” 32 and yet he wrote about it as an enthusiastic bystander, not a participant, much less an instigator. George Washington seems to have had few serious doubts about America’s place in the Empire until the summer of 1774, when the ordeals of the people of Massachusetts forced him to reappraise the intentions of the King and his ministers. 33 Benjamin Franklin tarried in London until 1775, nurturing his dream of retiring to the life of a grand pooh-bah of the British Empire. Thomas Jefferson, born in 1743, “knew more of the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites than he did of what was passing in Boston,” groused the envious Adams in later life. 34 James Madison (b. 1751) and Alexander Hamilton (b. 1755 or 1757) were mere schoolboys when the hard work of changing the American mind began. As America’s busy hagiographers have been keen to observe, the men now exalted as America’s founders and framers, taken on the whole, were revolutionaries by circumstance rather than by disposition. They were ambitious, upstanding citizens, generally happy with their lot in life, who at a singular moment in history were presented with a fateful choice.

Thomas Young, on the other hand, was no accidental revolutionary. He was present at the creation of the movement, and he never left. He was unhappy, brilliant, resentful, and heroically optimistic. He was a plotter, a conspirer, an ideologue, and a provocateur. He did not disguise his belief that in order to make a revolution you have to break some eggs. He vowed always— in his own words—“ to fight the good fight.” 35 Above all, he was a man with a message, so convinced of the merit of the ideas in his head that keeping his mouth shut would have seemed like a crime against humanity.

“He published his first screed championing the natural rights of Englishmen against the injustices of imperial rule in 1764, when he was thirty-three. In the following year, he found himself at the head of a mob on the streets of Albany, leading the protests against the Stamp Act. He rose to the leadership of the local chapter of the Sons of Liberty and soon made contact with like-minded activists across the colonies. In 1766, he moved to Boston to join with the radical faction gathering around James Otis and Samuel Adams. As Boston struggled with occupation, he rapidly established himself as the most militant voice in the local newspapers and the go-to man whenever a rabble stood in need of rousing. Governor Thomas Hutchinson regularly named him as one of the four most dangerous men in town. In 1772, together with his fellow radicals, he founded the Boston Committee of Correspondence— a momentous breakthrough in propaganda technology that served to spread both rebellious sentiments and democratic practices throughout Massachusetts and the rest of the colonies. 36

“What an engine!” John Adams exclaimed in 1815. “The history of the United States can never be written” until one had inquired into the activities of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, he said. “France imitated it, and produced a revolution. England and Scotland were upon the point of imitating it, in order to produce another revolution . . . The history of the past thirty years is a sufficient commentary upon it.” 37 And Young’s handwriting was all over the project—quite literally. In the files now held in the archives of the New York Public Library, his distinctive script appears on dozens of unsigned pages of Committee papers— more than any other Committee member— including on parts of a draft of the 1772 declaration of the “rights of the colonists” that John Adams later suggested was one of the models for the Declaration of Independence. 38

“In 1775, Young tumbled into Philadelphia, the scene of his greatest contributions to the revolutionary cause, and instantly fell in with Thomas Paine. In his political polemics, Young anticipated many of the ideas and even some of the language that figured in the pamphlet that changed the world: Paine’s Common Sense of January 1776. 39 At the time, the government of Pennsylvania was mostly under the control of conservatives who favored reconciliation with Great Britain. In the decisive month of May 1776, Young, Paine, and a handful of their fellow radicals engineered a Bolshevik-style coup d’état that replaced the legitimately elected government of the province with a pro-independence faction. The new government of the colony in turn tilted the balance of the Continental Congress in favor of permanent separation from Britain, and within six weeks the Congress declared independence.

“In the summer and fall of 1776, Young and his comrades organized a convention and produced a constitution for the newly independent state of Pennsylvania. It was “the most radically democratic organic law in the world at the time of its creation,” one historian has observed. 40 It vested almost all power in a popularly elected legislature, stipulated a variety of measures to ensure that their representatives would remain answerable to the people, and included a declaration of rights along the lines of those that are familiar to us now from the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. Franklin handed out copies in Paris, and the people of the salons assumed that such a revolutionary document could only have been the great scientist’s work. “In truth,” John Adams sniffed, it was Young, Paine, and a pair of their radical friends “who were the authors of it.” 41 And when Young finished with the job in Philadelphia, he sent a copy along with an open letter to the people of Vermont— a state whose name Young himself coined from the French for “Green Mountain” 42 —where, with some further modification, it served as the basis for the first state constitution to ban slavery.

“It is the unapologetically democratic character of Young’s revolution that makes him seem such a striking figure today. By birth, by reputation, and by conviction, Young was a man of the people. In Boston he saved his highest praise for the “common tradesmen” who at town meetings displayed “the wisdom and eloquence of Athenian Senators.” 43 As a member of the Boston Committee, he demanded the overthrow of all the governments that put “the most powerful men in every county and every town” over “the common people.” 44 In Philadelphia he invited the hatred of the ruling classes with his bold proposal that all men should be entitled to vote without regard to their property qualifications. As early as 1770, he had predicted, “A very little time will show you Great Britain reduced into absolute monarchy, or exalted into a Republic!” 45 In the years preceding the Revolutionary War, it should not be forgotten, only a tiny fraction of the American colonials desired independence, and only a much smaller fraction thought in terms of a democratic transformation of society and government. Young belonged to a numerically insignificant sliver who, long before their fellow colonials dared to imagine the possibility of a break from the mother country, dreamed of independence as a means to launch a democratic revolution that would sweep through the British Empire and then around the world.

[ . . . ]

Yet Thomas Young remains, in the words of historian David Freeman Hawke, “unquestionably the most unwritten about man of distinction of the American Revolution.” Hawke made that claim in 1970— and it is still mostly true. Apart from a few worthy pieces of scholarship, the “dirty little screw” of the American Revolution continues to languish on the shop floor of history. 50

“Part of the problem is that Young died too early for his own good, succumbing in July 1777 to a sudden fever contracted while serving as a surgeon for the Continental Army. Having done his best work on the streets and in the backrooms of revolutionary committees, he left no one with any great stake in fighting for his posthumous reputation— no one, that is, except the ever-loyal Ethan Allen, who was soon busy immolating his own legacy.

The biggest obstacle that stood between Thomas Young and the history books, however, was his unabashed deism. In a fistful of bracing newspaper columns, not-so-anonymous pamphlets, and private letters, Young left few of his contemporaries in doubt about the extreme heterodoxy of his religious views. “Could we raise up the spirit of one of the murderers of St. Stephen, to tell us what a figure Paul cut, when he breathed out threatening and slaughter against his Savior, then we might form an idea of Dr. Y—— g,” said one outraged Tory. 51 “Suffice it to say, this man stands accused of rebellion, not only against his Sovereign, but against his God.”

“Young’s fellow citizens regularly accused him of being “a man of no morals,” an “infamous character,” and, of course, an “infidel.” 52 And Young— this is perhaps the most unusual thing about him— regularly responded with daring public confessions in which he let it be known, in so many words, that if with such terms his antagonists meant to identify him a deist, then they were right. Rushing to his defense after one assault on the doctor’s unacceptable creed, his fellow members of the Boston Committee of Correspondence marveled that on his journey through life he had accumulated many friends of high character, notwithstanding the fact that “uniform throughout, he appears in all places to have declared his sentiments on all subjects, natural, civil, and religious.” The thing about Young, everyone agreed, was that he could not keep his mouth shut. When he died, the nation he served found it convenient to forget such a troublesome individual. Let him now face the consequences in the afterlife whose reality he so blasphemously denied, they said, and they moved on.

“Young’s philosophical oeuvre is not large or systematic, and it is sometimes obtuse, as one might expect from a self-taught medicine man moonlighting as a global revolutionary. Yet its neglect turns out to be the most damaging of the many unfortunate consequences of his omission from the history books. In the uncomfortably personal confessions he committed to print, Young tells us what it was like to come of age as a deist in prerevolutionary America. In his sundry philosophical treatises, he articulates a form of deism that is substantially more radical than that which has traditionally figured in the stories America tells itself about its philosophical heritage. And he makes clear that, at least in his own mind, this radical philosophy was the axis on which the Revolution turned. For him, the project to free the American people from the yoke of King George was part of a grander project to liberate the world from the ghostly tyranny of supernatural religion.

 

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.