In response to:
The Other Founders from the September 22, 2005 issue
To the Editors:
In reviewing The Unknown American Revolution by Gary Nash [“The Other Founders,” NYR, September 22], Edmund Morgan says that New Left historians have “compensated for political isolation by identifying themselves with the dispossessed of earlier times.” He offers no evidence for this canard, which I think is sufficiently rebutted by the activity of Howard Zinn, myself, and many others in the civil rights and antiwar movements.
The essential difference between Morgan and historians who practice what Jesse Lemisch christened “history from the bottom up” becomes clear halfway through Morgan’s review. Morgan asserts that it was the Founding Fathers who offered “the most radical challenge” at that time, namely, to declare independence. “Only after that,” according to Morgan, “did the views, or rather the attitudes, of the people Nash celebrates begin to find expression in the institutions of the new republic.” Morgan believes that it was the drafters of the Declaration of Independence who “let loose” the idea of equality among other social groups. He appears to conclude that movements of seamen, tenant farmers, city artisans, slaves, Native Americans, and women had little to do with “the revolution that established the independent United States,” probably would never have occurred without the prior Declaration of Independence, and very likely did not “change anything at the time.”
But to take the most obvious counter-example, what about Thomas Paine? Paine, the son of a corset maker, called for independence in his Common Sense before John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, or others of the best and brightest. Writing retrospectively in The Rights of Man, Paine also celebrated the self-constituted popular committees which (Paine believed) from 1775 to 1777 successfully governed the new nation. These committees did not magically appear after Lexington and Concord. As Alfred Young has painstakingly shown, the self-activity of artisans and others on the streets of Boston in the 1760s and early 1770s invoked imagery and even participants’ names from the English Revolution of the 1640s, which executed a king and declared a republic.
Finally, in contrast to the Founding Fathers who Morgan correctly says “accepted the continuance of slavery,” Paine denounced slavery in his first published essays after arriving in the colonies; assisted in the passage of Pennsylvania’s emancipation law; and shortly before his lonely death, wrote a long letter to Jefferson about how forms of labor other than chattel slavery might be introduced in the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase.
The historians for whom Professor Nash speaks in his new book thankfully include younger historians as well as aging New Leftists. One of them, Thomas Humphrey, has written that we “have succeeded only in pressing the authors of the master narrative to alter their stories slightly, or to add another box for ‘the poor’ on the side of the page.”
What might it mean to alter the master narrative more than slightly? We would have to confront the fact that in their political choices the poor (as I found to be true of tenant farmers and artisans) were often motivated not by ideology, but by economic self-interest. But also, we would once and for all stop thinking of the American Revolution as if social security and collective bargaining were first imagined by Franklin Roosevelt, as if the civil rights movement was started by the Kennedy brothers, or as if the movement against the Vietnam War originated in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The history of the American Revolution from below has only begun to be written.
Edmund Morgan replies:
I am a little puzzled by Staughton Lynd’s letter. I honor his dedication to civil rights and his opposition to a war that, like the present one, should never have happened. But I am not aware that the New Left ever gained an effective role in national politics.
Lynd is certainly correct in saying that I consider the Declaration of Independence to have offered a more radical challenge to constituted authority than the various movements described by Nash. My point is that these movements were disparate, local, and mostly unsuccessful, that the known Revolution, the one described in what Lynd and Thomas Humphrey call the “master narrative,” was nationwide and successful. It created a national government committed to the principle of human equality, and capable of effecting egalitarian reforms on a national scale, as it ultimately did in abolishing slavery.
Thomas Paine and the self-generating committees that ran the country from 1775 (actually 1774) to 1777 present another puzzle as a “counterexample.” These committees were in some measure self-constituted and may have had some continuity with pre-Revolutionary committees, but most were formed in response to the recommendation of the First Continental Congress in 1774, to enforce the Continental Association against trade with Britain. Their existence made the Congress, in effect, our first national government. An independent “continental government” is what Paine called for in Common Sense. His role in bringing about the Declaration of Independence by the Congress is a standard part of the “master narrative” in every textbook. His retrospective view in The Rights of Man in 1792 held up the national government created by the Constitution of 1787 as a model for the rest of the world, “the only real republic in character and politics that now exists.” Washington and Franklin were his heroes.
Nowhere in Paine’s treatise do I find a celebration of the self-constituted popular committees, though he certainly would have approved of them as a way to begin constitutional government. The committees did exist, Paine himself played a role in the creation of Pennsylvania’s, and Nash, in part of a chapter, gives a scholarly account of the dominant role of ordinary people in several of them. But Paine will not do as a contrast to “the best and the brightest.” He was one of them. Nor do the activities of the local committees in the early stages of the Revolution diminish the achievement of those who wrote the Declaration and then created “the only real republic.”