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The Oedipal Revolution

American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution

by Peter Shaw
Harvard University Press, 279 pp., $17.50

This book was inevitable. Someone was bound to write it sooner or later, and better sooner than later. Peter Shaw brings together a series of disparate psychological, anthropological, and historical insights and perspectives and develops them into a new interpretation of the American Revolution, an interpretation that some readers will see as a work of synthetic genius and others as a projection of credible scholarship into incredible flights of fantasy.

The primary ingredient is the suggestive study of ritual by the anthropologist Victor Turner, who has shown the ambiguous character of folk rituals, especially festivals that seem to challenge the social and political order of a society at the same time as they serve to support it.* The reversal of roles common in these rituals (where the servant becomes the master, the peasant becomes the lord, and a fool is king for a day) overtly defies the social order and thereby defines it, but the defiance may sometimes overcome the definition and turn into social protest.

A second ingredient is also anthropological: the rite of passage, which in various societies accompanies or brings about the transition from adolescence into manhood, another slightly ambiguous ceremony, in which young males are humbled and abused before being raised to adulthood. This is a concept that can be all too easily applied to a whole society rather than to the individuals within it. The third element in Shaw’s interpretation is straight out of Freud’s Totem and Taboo, the killing of the father by a band of brothers, which becomes the basis for later ritual enactments of the killing of a king and the succession of another.

Historians have found all three phenomena suggestive, but Turner’s delineation of rituals has been the most fruitful. Such scholars as Le Roy Ladurie, Natalie Davis, and E.P. Thompson have shown that festivals and folk rituals in France and England could be made to carry a burden of social protest and might even spark rebellions. Although folk rituals in early America were much less common than in England and France (or at any rate have left fewer traces), they have recently begun to interest American social historians. Pope’s Day, the anniversary of Guy Fawkes’s attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605, was celebrated in eighteenth-century Boston by parades, with effigies of the pope, the devil, and the “guy” carried about the streets and later hanged and burned. May Day, the king’s birthday, coronations, and various other occasions were also celebrated from time to time in various places, though the elaborate rituals that accompanied the seasonal festivals of Catholic Europe were missing.

Shaw has built his interpretation of the American Revolution on these popular ceremonies. He relies most heavily on the celebration of Pope’s Day in Boston. The Bostonians, to be sure, did not choose November 5 as the time to rise against the British, but no matter that. What does matter, according to Shaw, is that they adapted the Pope’s Day display of parades and effigies to carry out protests at other times. And the importance of these protests lies more in the symbolic rituals they enacted than in the grievances they expressed or the violence they sometimes bred. For instance, when the Stamp Act was passed in 1765, a Boston mob in August destroyed the stamp distributor’s office, but this act of real destruction was actually less significant than the symbolic destruction the mob enacted in ceremonially burning the effigies of the distributor and of several other persons who were thought to have contributed to the passage of the act.

Shaw sees these rituals in Boston, which were imitated in several other colonies, as necessary “rehearsals of revolution.” The message of his book is that such ceremonies did not simply help to make the American Revolution possible but were essential to its fulfillment. The effigies destroyed were surrogates not merely for the persons represented but for the king, the father who had to be overthrown by the children who were coming of age. The Revolution was a rite of passage, a youth movement: not only did children, especially boys, play a large role in ritual protests, but they were joined by adults “who had adopted the spirit of youth initiation.” Young or old, they could not kill the king until they had prepared themselves by killing other father figures in effigy, ritually. The ritual, we are told, enabled people to express their true inner feelings, to direct “at substitutes like Thomas Hutchinson what they actually felt toward the king.”

Actually there seems to have been no substitute quite like Hutchinson. He figures in the book as almost indispensable to the Revolution. He was not only the target of popular anger, expressed in the destruction of his house by a mob, but the surrogate father against whom patriots worked out their Oedipal antagonisms. Shaw’s rituals of revolution include not merely ceremonies adapted from folk holidays but also a pattern of subconscious adolescent rebellion that he finds rife during the pre-Revolutionary years among persons whom he calls “conscience patriots.” A major portion of the book is devoted to biographical analysis of four of these—James Otis, John Adams, Joseph Hawley, and Josiah Quincy—who suffered inner turmoil because of their symbolic patricide. Each of them transferred his antagonism against his father to Hutchinson and ultimately from Hutchinson to the king. And each of them in doing so suffered periodic feelings of guilt and “revolutionary remorse.” For example, as late as 1798, John Adams’s acceptance of the Alien and Sedition Acts is to be seen as a final gesture of expiation for his youthful hostility to Hutchinson.

The actual relationship of each man to his father seems not to have been crucial to the development of his Oedipal politics. James Otis had an overbearing father whom he attacked by seeming to defend him against Hutchinson. Adams’s father was not overbearing, so Adams attacked Hutchinson as an exemplification of evils his father had warned him against. Hawley was angry with his father for committing suicide and displaced his anger first on to Jonathan Edwards, his minister, and only later made the transference to Hutchinson and then to the king. It was not the actual parental relationship that mattered but a “widespread psychic strain” induced by a national coming of age and evident in nosebleeds, tuberculosis, and broken windows as well as in the rituals of revolution.

What makes this improbable diagnosis enticing is that it seems to offer a kind of climax to three quite different interpretations of the Revolution. Lawrence Henry Gipson in fifteen large volumes on The British Empire Before the American Revolution painted so rosy a picture of the empire that it was difficult to see why anyone should have rebelled against it. After describing the churlish behavior of the ungrateful colonists, Gipson fell back on metaphor. The colonists, he said, had arrived at maturity. They therefore resented and resisted the control of the mother country, even though that control was exercised in their best interests. Gipson did not explain what maturity was in a society as opposed to an individual. Neither, for that matter, does Shaw, but Shaw has dressed the metaphor in anthropological and psychological terms that many will find appealing. A rite of passage, as applied to colonial mob actions, is still a metaphor and nothing more, but it sounds like more.

Rites of passage also add a new twist to the work of another group of historians (the reviewer among them), who have given their attention to the colonists’ avowed objections to the British measures that brought on the Revolution. Bernard Bailyn in particular has stressed the suspicion of corruption in government that American pamphleteers derived from English radical thinkers. From the time of the Stamp Act there developed in America a suspicion that there was a conspiracy among evil-minded English statesmen to deprive Americans of their liberties. In a later work Bailyn traced the way in which this suspicion worked among the people of Massachusetts to place Thomas Hutchinson at the center of the conspiracy. Since Hutchinson had done little to deserve the hatred and suspicion that fell upon him, the men who attacked him, including those whom Shaw has singled out for attention, appeared in Bailyn’s work as little short of paranoid. Now we have another explanation: they were undergoing a private rite of passage, using Hutchinson as surrogate father in order to prepare for the killing of the king that would bring them to the political manhood they yearned for.

Finally, Shaw’s interpretation offers to make sense out of the crowd actions that have fascinated historians on the left. Every effort to see the American Revolution as a rising of the masses against an upper class has foundered on the facts. Mobs or crowds, whichever we call them, were conspicuous in the early stages of the Revolution, and historians have been trying for years to endow them with purposes distinct from those of upper-class leaders of the Revolution. None of the attempts has been persuasive. Shaw’s interpretation does not quite fill the bill, but it does give new dimensions to the actions of the inarticulate. It discovers “extra-political” motives, albeit unconscious ones, for Revolutionary crowds, and throughout it emphasizes the “insurrectionary potential”of rituals.

Because the book addresses so many of the themes that appear in recent accounts of the Revolution, it has to be taken seriously. It is the first book to consider the ritualistic character of the crowd actions of the Revolution, and it deserves credit for doing so. One can predict that historians will give much more attention to this subject in the future and ought to do so. It is nevertheless troublesome to have insights presented as fact and isolated events extrapolated into a systematic interpretation of phenomena that may be totally unrelated.

It will be noticed, for example, that the American Revolution, as it appears in this book, took place almost entirely in Massachusetts. We get only passing reference to rituals outside of Boston. And we don’t hear about the surrogate fathers of Patrick Henry or George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin. We don’t know if they had any, though it will not be beyond the ingenuity of assiduous searchers to find some. Well, all right. The author is giving us illustrative examples, not proof. What he has to say is not really susceptible of empirical demonstration anyhow. If it works for Massachusetts, maybe that is enough. But does it work even there?

The most disturbing thing about the book is the basic assumption upon which the author proceeds, namely that the Americans had unconsciously or subconsciously decided on independence by 1765 and needed only to repeat a set of rituals in order to recognize their decision. If that is the case, then all the objections they offered for resisting British taxation were just so much talk: the causes of the Revolution are to be found in the Americans’ collective psychic development, not in whatever reasons they may have offered for their rebellious behavior. Indeed their rituals proceeded without close relation to the grievances that ostensibly occasioned them, for the persons picked for symbolic punishment as surrogate fathers, particularly Hutchinson, had not actually had much to do with the measures that the colonists professed to be protesting. The choice of victims was incidental, because it was only the ritual itself, the symbolic act of killing the king or his surrogate, not any actual grievance, that was needed to propel them toward the independence they already unconsciously grasped.

What this amounts to is psychological determinism, comparable to the economic determinism that was fashionable among the Progressive historians in the early part of this century. For them too the substance of what the colonists said in objection to British measures was not worthy of serious consideration. Everyone was supposed to be moved by economic motives, hidden behind the window dressing of political and constitutional argument. Shaw does not give us economic motives. He does not give us motives at all. The measures to which the colonists objected are for him mere occasions for the performance of rituals; it is the rituals themselves that must be considered as “operative.”

The scope of their operation is, of course, limited. They only bring to conscious realization a subconscious decision of many years standing. It is in keeping with his assumption that Shaw refers to the victims of riots in 1765 as “loyalists,” as though their opponents had already rejected the king. And indeed, by Shaw’s assumption, they had. They had arrived at the stage in the psychic life cycle of their society where it was necessary to undergo a rite of passage. The Stamp Act crowds with their effigies were undertaking “the imagining of revolution in symbolic terms years before any conscious decision to repudiate submission to the king.” But the unconscious decision had already been made. Where a diarist in 1765 speaks of the Boston “Liberty Tree” (where effigies were hung) as “the Royal Elm,” Shaw sees it as a revealing slip of the pen: “It indicated that the tree represented a transfer of sovereignty from king to people several years before one took place politically.”

In other words, the Revolution had already taken place in the minds and hearts of the people before they knew it, as John Adams suggested in 1818. But John Adams was speaking with hindsight, and so is Peter Shaw. Hindsight is the one advantage that a historian has over the people he studies. But if not used with great caution it can be a trap. I think Mr. Shaw has fallen into the trap.

  1. *

    Victor Turner, The Ritual Process (University of Chicago Press, 1969).

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