• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

This Land Is Our Land

In the crucial revolutionary years between 1774 and 1779, writes Countryman, these “committees are the heart of the matter.” They “did in New York what similar bodies would do in Paris between 1789 and 1792 and in Russia in 1917.” They drained power from the old institutions, built popular coalitions, and exercised revolutionary authority wherever they could. Because of the long occupation of New York by British troops and the border warfare with Vermont, New Yorkers only slowly put back the pieces of their society into a new constitutional order. By the time the British left New York in 1782 the new enlarged republican state legislature was already under the control of new men who had hitherto never exercised power beyond their local communities. These “radicals,” as Countryman calls them, became increasingly self-conscious and cohesive, and they built a coherent program (as measured by Countryman’s elaborate quantitative roll-call analysis) based on punishing the loyalists, making freehold land widely available, and abolishing legal privilege of all sorts. These new men were deeply resentful of all those “haughty men” who had earlier dominated New York’s politics.

By the mid-1780s more and more of these “haughty men”—members of the older landed aristocracy, established merchants, and professional men like Alexander Hamilton with ties to this traditional leadership—began reasserting themselves. These “conservatives,” as Countryman calls them, were compelled reluctantly to recognize the changes in New York’s political society that the Revolution had brought about and to develop their own organization and program in order to compete in popular politics with the radicals. It was, as they themselves said, a struggle between aristocrats and democrats.

Although by 1786 these conservatives had begun reversing the radical direction of the state’s politics—eliminating the antiloyalist legislation and controlling paper money, for example—they achieved their greatest victory with the creation of the new federal Constitution in 1787. The state suddenly became less important for matters of commerce and credit than it had been. The field of politics was enlarged in ways that benefited the conservative nationalists. Yet despite their triumph in 1787, the conservatives were not able to reestablish the hierarchical authoritarian world that existed before the Revolution. By 1790 New York was a very different place from what anyone in 1775 had expected.

This is a sweeping argument and also a familiar one: in its essential outlines at least, it is very much a refurbishing of the old progressive interpretation of the Revolutionary era. Both Becker and Beard would have recognized and been pleased with it. Yet Countryman has gone out of his way to avoid the analytical crudities and the sharp dichotomies of the old progressive interpretation. In the richness of his evidence, in the sophistication of his measurements, and in his appreciation of complexity, he has written one of the most comprehensive and detailed studies we have yet had of any state during the Revolution. It is a book scholars must take into account and it ought to be a welcome stimulant to neoprogressive approaches to the Revolution.

Unfortunately, however, in his effort to comprehend the complexity of it all, Countryman has not always made it clear what precisely happened socially during the Revolution. Often he talks about “classes”; “class,” he says, “was important” everywhere in New York, “but in no simple way.” One of the problems of colonial New York was its “deteriorating class relations.” But the relations between which social groups, other than landlords and tenants, are not made explicit. Countryman often mentions a rising “bourgeois” spirit and the emergence of a new order of “competitive interest-based capitalism.” But he does not identify exactly who the “bourgeois” agents of this “capitalism” were. Were they the crowds and tenants who mobbed in the 1760s and 1770s? “The Sons of Liberty,” he says, “were men on the make.”

Yet at other times Countryman writes that it was only “an elite” that was “moving rapidly towards a laissez-faire understanding of the world.” Many of the farmers and tenants in the Hudson Valley were “peasants”; in fact, says Countryman, “ordinary people, both middling and poor,” were stuck in “corporatist ways [that] would retain their appeal for two generations to come.” Does this mean then that the “bourgeois” agents of “capitalism” were Alexander Hamilton and his genteel merchant friends who came to advocate free trade? After all, as Countryman says, they were involved in the 1780s in “the development of a class.” Yet at the same time he recognizes that they were also the remnants of “a beleaguered ruling class.” It is a puzzlement.

Countryman simply has too many modern categories like “class” on his mind; indeed, he has left his book cluttered with the scaffolding of social science theories that he has not bothered to put away. Like other New Left historians he cannot shake off the notion that revolutions have to arise out of such palpable social deprivations as poverty. Perhaps the most revealing moment of his anachronistic present-mindedness comes when he indicts the radicalism of the Revolution for being “parochial,” “short-sighted,” and “selfish” because it had no room for justice toward black slaves, Indians, or women. Nevertheless, despite all his exaggerated comparisons with the French and Soviet revolutions and his conspicuous overuse of theory, Countryman has amassed overwhelming evidence that something was going on in the Revolution other than a simple break from Great Britain.

Perhaps we can better appreciate the nature of the momentous changes that took place in the Revolutionary era if we look at the impressive new book by Jay Fliegelman. Fliegelman, a professor of English at Stanford, is not strictly speaking a historian, and his subject, as he says, is “not the American Revolution as such.” Rather he has written about what he calls “the American revolution against patriarchal authority—a revolution in the understanding of the nature of authority that affected all aspects of eighteenth-century culture.” His book, as he summarizes it,

examines a constellation of intimately related ideas about the nature of parental authority and filial rights, moral obligation and personal autonomy, the character of God and the morality of Scripture, and the growth of the mind and the nature of historical progress [and] traces these ideas from their most important English and continental expressions in a variety of literary and pedagogical texts to their transmission, reception, and application in Revolutionary America and on through their various modifications in the early national period of American culture.

But such a spare summary can scarcely do justice to the imaginativeness and significance of Fliegelman’s book. It is one of the few works on the American Revolutionary era that recapture some of the sweeping force of what happened at the end of the eighteenth century. The American colonists did not just break away from the British empire. The French did not just kill their king. The whole of Western culture was transformed. This transformation was the great modern cataclysm from which our own present cultural crises are but distant reverberations.

Part of that great transformation took place in the family. Thanks to the work of historians such as Lawrence Stone and Daniel Blake Smith, we now know a great deal more than we used to about familial relations in the eighteenth-century Anglo-American world. The family was becoming less hierarchical, fathers were less arbitrary and distant, and children were being sentimentalized and accorded more equal and individual respect. These changes were accompanied by a “new pedagogical ideology” inspired, if a single inspiration is needed, by John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), perhaps the most practically significant book Locke ever wrote.

Whether or not Locke actually influenced other writers, his book came to stand for the new eighteenth-century ideals of family relations and child-rearing. Parents in educating their children, Locke had argued, must no longer rely on fear and force as they had in the past. Parents had to win the respect of their children through reason, benevolence, and understanding. Threats of punishment were no basis on which to rest authority in the enlightened Whig world that was emerging. Parents must prepare their children for a life of rational independence and moral self-sufficiency. The Lockean assumption that sense experience molds the minds and characters of children seemed to put it into the power of parents and teachers to begin the world over. Children especially were malleable and society was plastic. When tempered by the age’s sentimental moral theories that posited natural feelings of affection and benevolence between human beings, these Lockean assumptions formed the basis of a powerful ideology. They are in fact still the assumptions behind all our modern liberal thinking.

By the middle of the eighteenth century traditional patriarchy had been greatly eroded by this new enlightened paternalism. Older ties of blood, honor, and family pride were now thought less important than ties of personal affection and love. If parents wished to raise their children to be independent benevolent adults, they had to treat all their children equally; they had to promote the individuality of each child at the expense even of the stem line of the family; and above all they had to try to bring up their children to become their “friends.”

These new ideas about familial relations could be found in hundreds of different sources, ranging from pedagogical tracts like James Burgh’s Youth’s Friendly Monitor and Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to that most important new vehicle of eighteenth-century culture, the novel. Most popular novels, such as Richardson’s Clarissa, were all about parent-child responsibilities. Indeed, writes Fliegelman, the limits of parental tyranny and filial disobedience became “controlling themes of…eighteenth-century fiction.” Briefly Fliegelman takes us through each of many of these examples of antipatriarchal literature. Often these descriptions of mostly British and Continental works seem digressive, and one wonders what happened to the American Revolution; but in the end they become essential to the mosaic of antipatriarchal thinking that he puts together.

Fliegelman attempts to bring all this British and Continental literature to bear on American thinking essentially by emphasizing its popularity in America as measured by sales figures. He quite intelligently makes no effort to assess “influence” or “to demonstrate an immediate or direct causal relationship between a set of ideas and a sequence of political or social events.” This literature does not explain the Revolution. Instead, Fliegelman treats all these novels and pedagogical writings as important texts in which Americans found the great moral issues of their age being worked out. Fliegelman rightly argues that most historians of the Revolution have too narrowly concentrated on political tracts and on political ideology and have ignored the political implications embedded in the works of pedagogy, fiction, and other “nonpolitical” genres that he deals with.

On the eve of the Revolution these “nonpolitical” best-selling works gave Americans what was “virtually a crash course” in enlightened parent-child relations. Out of their reading, argues Fliegelman, the colonists developed a new “framework” for perceiving the larger meaning of their political situation. Whether it was a “crash course” or not, the Americans’ enlightened thinking about parent-child relations not only played into the rhetoric of their quarrel with their mother country and their fatherly king, but also prepared them for a new kind of republican ruler, one whose benevolence and sense of duty earned him the respect and gratitude of the populace.

The new rational paternalism gradually made all superior-subordinate relationships seem voluntary and affectionate, not just those between fathers and children, husbands and wives, but also those between rulers and ruled. The burden of the relationships shifted from the subject to the superior. If children were unruly and disobedient the fault now seemed to belong to the parents. Under such circumstances authority was redefined and had “to go underground.” Even God the father lost some of his awesomeness and became more of an affectionate parent. American Protestants came to stress Christ’s love at the expense of the absolutism of the Old Testament Jehovah. All of these changes were part of the general collapse of the old hierarchy of birth and its hesitant replacement by one of merit. People were no longer to be bound by either the sins or the obscurity of their fathers. Nature was to be conquered by nurture. It is a struggle that we are still very much engaged in.

These kinds of alterations in eighteenth-century Anglo-American culture help to make sense of the doubts and hesitancy of English authority that Tucker and Hendrickson are so contemptuous of. And they help to explain what it might have meant to Countryman’s “radicals” and “conservatives” in 1784 to have an obscure schoolteacher from Orange County, whom no one had ever heard of before or has since, become speaker of the New York Assembly.

Fliegelman’s book is not neat and orderly. It has little linear development; instead it is a bundle of insights and implications. It darts in and out, back and forth, throwing light on a variety of issues, from the “fortunate fall” of Adam and Eve to George Washington as the “father of his country,” finally dying away in a series of brief but brilliant intuitive flashes. It supposes, but does not demonstrate, a sufficient degree of patriarchal thinking in mid-eighteenth-century American culture to make a revolution against it meaningful. And it implies that this revolution against patriarchy was a peculiarly American affair, even though many of the writings analyzed are British or Continental. Yet in the end the book’s imaginative richness tends to overwhelm these queries and doubts. No one reading it can view late eighteenth-century American culture in quite the same way again.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print