The Fall of the First British Empire: Origins of the War of American Independence
A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760-1790
Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800
The American Revolution has always appeared to be a strange revolution. It seems very different from the other great modern revolutions, the French and Russian, which presumably arose out of real oppression and real deprivations. The eighteenth-century colonists who revolted were not by any stretch of the imagination an oppressed people. They had no crushing monarchical or imperial chains to throw off. There were few vestiges of feudalism left in colonial America, and there was little of the widespread poverty still afflicting France and Britain. Nowhere in America was there anything comparable to the vile and violent gin-soaked slums of London. In America there were no great aristocrats like those of eighteenth-century England who built such magnificent palaces for themselves. William Byrd’s Virginia Westover was one of the largest of colonial mansions. Yet it was scarcely a tenth of the size of the marquess of Rockingham’s country house, Wentworth Woodhouse, which was longer than two football fields.
In America there was no titled nobility to speak of, no court, no powerful overarching established church. Most of the white population was composed of freeholders, and most of them could vote. In short, the eighteenth-century colonists were freer, had less inequality, were more prosperous and less burdened with cumbersome feudal restraints than any other part of mankind in the eighteenth century, and more important they knew it. Why then a revolution? Why should such a free and prosperous people want to change things? The objective political and social reality does not seem capable of explaining a revolution.
Most historians, from Moses Coit Tyler to Edmund S. Morgan, have conceded the unusual character of the American Revolution. It was not, they say, a typical social revolution; instead, it was a peculiarly intellectual affair. Americans revolted not out of actual suffering but out of reasoned principle; they revolted not against tyranny inflicted but tyranny anticipated. The American Revolution, many historians have suggested, was designed not to change but to preserve the existing social order. It was a rationally conservative movement involving mainly a constitutional defense by the colonists of their political liberties against the abrupt and unexpected encroachments of the British government. If the British government had not tried to change the empire in the 1760s and 1770s, the colonists would never have rebelled.
Since this was largely the view of the Whig patriots who led the Revolution, historians who have repeated it have not inappropriately been called “Whig” or “neo-Whig” historians. This interpretation of the Revolution as a principled defense of American rights against British encroachments (“no taxation without representation”) is intrinsically slanted toward the patriots; however subtly presented, it aims to justify the Revolution. It is against this Whig bias in our history writing that Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson have written their new study of the origins of the American Revolution.
Robert W. Tucker, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins, has not previously written about eighteenth-century American history. He is in fact best known for his hard-nosed and iconoclastic analyses of present-day international politics and American world interests. To get some historical leverage on the present, he set out a few years back to write a history of America’s rise to world power, of which this book was to be merely the first chapter. Not only did the chapter grow into a book but Tucker’s graduate assistant, David C. Hendrickson, eventually became the book’s joint author. Tucker and his assistant thus approach the origins of the Revolution not as traditional historians. They have the world politics of the present century very much on their minds and are eager to apply their knowledge of the “science” of international diplomacy to the breakup of the first British empire.
Tucker and Hendrickson treat the crisis between Great Britain and its North American colonies in the 1760s and 1770s as if the antagonists were two separate states or powers in international politics. It is a curious approach to say the least, but it is important for the authors’ argument; for only in such a political-science view can they distinguish between status quo powers on the one hand and rising challenging powers on the other. Since the traditional Whig interpretation of the origins of the Revolution rests on the assumption that it was Great Britain that upset the status quo, Tucker and Hendrickson are eager to show the contrary: that the colonies were really the challenging power and that Britain, far from being the aggressor American Whigs said it was, was in fact throughout the crisis much too passive, too soft, too conciliatory, and too unwilling to defend its legitimate interests until it was too late. The book is therefore not another narrative history of the events of the 1760s and 1770s leading up to the Revolution but an intensive analysis of British policy carried on in the form of a running quarrel with all those Whig historians who have depicted the colonies as the victims of British aggression.
The book is divided into four parts. After Part One, which contains two chapters superbly analyzing the causes and consequences of the Peace of 1763 ending the Seven Years’ War, Tucker and Hendrickson devote five chapters to Part Two, “The Status Quo,” in order to set it straight just who was challenging whom. In this section the authors argue that the colonists’ conception of the status quo was not the same as that of Great Britain, that indeed it was a conception of the status quo that no imperial power at any time could have accepted—breathtaking in the freedom and autonomy it allowed the colonists. “Given this conception of the status quo,” the authors write, “it is not surprising that the colonists should have taken a position rising powers have but rarely taken and that they should have resisted the British measures of imperial reform in the name of the status quo.” British officials, however, had a very different understanding of the imperial relationship, one “in which the colonies remained in a clearly subordinate status” and which “enabled the mother country to take such measures as would insure the continuance of this status.” Why, the authors quite pointedly ask, should the colonists’ rather than Britain’s version of the status quo be the one accepted by historians?
From the British perspective (which is the authors’ throughout) the actions by the mother country in the 1760s were thus not radical and arbitrary changes but rather simple adjustments to an imperial relationship that Britain had pressing need of making and had every right as an imperial power to make in order to protect its vital interests. Tucker and Hendrickson are certainly right in saying that most British officials did not conceive of the Proclamation of 1763, the Sugar Act of 1764, or even the Stamp Act of 1765 as constituting any fundamental alteration of the empire. This is an explanation but hardly a justification for their actions, however, for the fact was the colonists saw the relationship differently. Whatever the legal or theoretical situation, the empire had long become something else in reality from what British officials thought it was, and Britain’s ignorance and neglect of that reality through the first half of the eighteenth century was its ultimate undoing. At any rate we ought to be long past the point where we are asking: who was responsible for the breakup of the first British Empire? From what we now know of the complexity of the event, it simply is not a good historical question to ask.
It is, however, the question that Tucker and Hendrickson ask throughout, essentially because, as they rightly complain, it is the question that the Whig historians have always implicitly asked. Like the Whig historians they too end up blaming the British, but not for the same reasons. For Tucker and Hendrickson Great Britain was at fault because when once confronted with American resistance to the Stamp Act, it showed itself unwilling to use force to back up its interests. “The authority of empire,” the authors declare, “is endangered by verbal defiance that goes unpunished. It is lost through the failure to respond effectively to active resistance.” Tucker and Hendrickson are merciless in their criticism of the British government for “asserting sovereign authority without a willingness to enforce that authority.” By repealing the Stamp Act the British government found itself on a slippery slope of concessions. Not to put too fine a point on it, “the pattern of policy that resulted—and that would persist for nearly a decade—was one of appeasement.” Thus Part Three of the book, constituting four crucial chapters dealing with the period between 1765 and 1773, is entitled “The Diplomacy of Appeasement.”
“Appeasement” is a loaded word for us, and the authors mean for us to feel its force. Do not be persuaded, they say, by British arguments that the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 was done to protect commercial interests, “for appeasement is nearly always marked by self-deception. To believe that it is undertaken for reasons other than fear and a sense of impotence is part of its pathology.” And so in the subsequent years the British government made one concession after another, retreated from one position to another. When it once took a hard line, as with Secretary Hills-borough’s response to the Massachusetts circular letter in 1768, it quickly backed away from the consequences of its momentary resolution. It had no policy at all but simply hoped that the crisis with its colonies would die away. When its officials were attacked by the colonists, it refused to back them up or protect them. Indeed, as in the case of the colonists’ sinking of HMS Gaspée in Rhode Island in 1772, it tended to blame its own officials for causing the trouble. Its timidity and irresolution only earned the colonists’ contempt, and so its authority rapidly drained away.
Only when its authority in Massachusetts was gone did the British government finally decide to act. This becomes Part Four of the book, “The Final Reckoning.” But even the Coercive Acts of 1774, which Tucker and Hendrickson say were neither “arbitrary” nor “disproportionate to the situation,” were not implemented, at least not at first. From the beginning until it was too late, the authors charge, the British government showed itself to be faint-hearted and weak-kneed, incapable of acting with force and determination to defend its quite legitimate interests. One has the feeling from the book that if only someone like Margaret Thatcher had been in charge, all might have been different.
It is a strained argument, and with its “best case” and “worst case” models and its juridical and rationalistic tone it is ultimately an unhistorical one. It is also a bit frightening, if it is at all revealing of the way scientists of international politics go about their business; for these authors after all are the sorts of scholars who advise great powers how they ought to behave in the world. Models and theories are undoubtedly good things, but they are no substitute for knowledge of particular circumstances—dense, intimate, detailed knowledge of the way particular people think and behave. That kind of knowledge of the eighteenth-century British world the authors lack. To be sure, Tucker and Hendrickson have read a great deal about the imperial crisis, and they have many shrewd things to say about what happened. And their redressing of the Whig bias in the historical literature is surely welcome. But ultimately they do not have a historical feeling for their subject.
First, the authors’ conception of Great Britain and its colonies as two distinct powers in international politics is flawed from the outset. Britain was never in a position to treat its fellow subjects in America as a subordinate power. The colonists were Englishmen, no doubt living in distant provinces, but still Englishmen entitled to all the liberties that were the birthright of Englishmen. When it came to dealing with its subjects both at home and in the colonies, every English government inevitably had to adopt a policy of “appeasement.” Appeasement of its subjects by government was built into the heart of English culture. No people in the eighteenth century were more obsessed with liberty and more suspicious of authority. Members of the ruling classes were just as proud of England’s reputation for liberty as the lowliest of the populace. Englishmen were known throughout Europe for their insubordination and disrespect for authority; they mobbed and rioted with an abandon that shocked visitors from the Continent, who could never understand why the English failed to keep the poor in their place.
Because the English authorities were as much believers in the rights of freeborn Englishmen as the mob, they necessarily had to vacillate and conciliate in the face of disorder. Magistrates were always reluctant to use force against the people. Even after the week-long Gordon riots in 1780, which left huge parts of London in shambles and hundreds dead, Englishmen still shied away from bolstering authority at the expense of liberty. When Lord Shelburne suggested to the House of Lords that it was high time London had a police force, he was accused of being an apologist for French tyranny.
The English government’s confusion and indecision in the 1760s, its backing and retreating in the face of popular pressure, were not new. The repeal in 1766 of an act of Parliament under popular protest, about which Tucker and Hendrickson make so much, was not unprecedented. English governments had done the same earlier, most notably in repealing the 1753 act to naturalize Jews and in withdrawing an excise bill in 1733. In 1737 the British government had backed away from its harsh punishment of Edinburgh for the Porteus riots. It was simply not possible for English officials in the eighteenth century to act toward their own subjects with the firmness and forcefulness that they might have displayed, say, toward the French. To assume, as Tucker and Hendrickson have, that they might have done so is to misunderstand eighteenth-century English culture.
The same lack of familiarity with this distinctive eighteenth-century British world mars their discussion of British politics and government. Tucker and Hendrickson treat the English government as a simple single entity without fully appreciating the differences that existed between the Crown’s ministers, the members of Parliament, and the bureaucrats. They have no comprehension whatsoever of the peculiar pressures and alignments of English politics that led to the “salutary neglect” (in Burke’s famous phrase) of the colonies during the first half of the eighteenth century. They simply throw up their hands and conclude that such neglect “must remain one of the many mysteries attending the governance of the First British Empire.”
They can write in this way because they have no grasp of the problems of those Whig ministers who played upon popular fears of Tory Jacobitism and the royal prerogative in order to control Parliament and yet who had to govern what was essentially the king’s empire. In the decades prior to the 1760 accession of George III, Sir Robert Walpole and other Whig ministers knew that questions concerning this royal empire were the one thing that might unite the opposition in Parliament against them. It is not a mystery therefore that the ministers tended to keep such questions out of Parliament, even to the extent of squelching the many efforts to reform the empire brought forward by eager, tidy-minded bureaucrats in the Board of Trade and in the executive departments.
In the 1760s all this changed dramatically. The continuity and stability that had marked British politics earlier now disappeared. Ministries rose and fell and politicians shuffled in and out of offices with disturbing frequency. Between 1730 and 1760 the Board of Trade had only three presidents; yet between 1761 and 1766 it had no fewer than six. Between 1761 and 1768 six different persons were successively appointed and dismissed as secretary of state for the Southern Department, the executive officer responsible for colonial affairs, for reasons that had nothing to do with the imperial crisis. Ministers soon discovered that colonial issues were now something that could divide the opposition in Parliament. So all the earlier inhibitions against the Crown’s using Parliament in ruling the empire fell away, and long-frustrated subministers and undersecretaries with ideas for reforming the empire could at last have a say.
That all this political disarray might have contributed both to the newness and to the vacillations of British imperial policy in the 1760s one would never know from Tucker and Hendrickson’s account. Their model of international conflict does not allow for such gritty details. Although the authors are well aware of the ways in which diplomatic alignments limited the choices of British officials in the international sphere, they do not show the same understanding of the mass of other historical circumstances in which such officials were caught up. If they had, they might not have been so eager to criticize the British government for being so timid and wishy-washy in defense of its vital interests.
Ultimately, of course, Tucker and Hendrickson’s message to all such spineless governments may not have the effect they intend. After all, Great Britain did manage to recover rather well from the breakup of its first empire.
Tucker and Hendrickson have equated the war for independence with the American Revolution, and for many historians that is enough: the Revolution, many believe, was merely a colonial rebellion and nothing more. But for other historians, particularly for those writing during the first half of the twentieth century and including Carl Becker, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., Charles Beard, and more recently Merrill Jensen, the Revolution has always seemed to be something broader and deeper than a simple colonial war for independence. The Revolution, wrote Becker in a memorable phrase of 1909 that ushered in a generation or more of what has been called progressive history writing, was not only over “home rule”; it was also over “who should rule at home.” There were, in other words, conflicts and developments within colonial society itself that ultimately made the Revolution not just a colonial rebellion but a great democratic movement.
Tucker and Hendrickson are quite correct in assuming that the colonies were not the passive victims of British aggression. Americans were a dynamic, expansive people who were growing faster than any in the Western world and on the move as never before. These people were straining to break through what remained of the social crusts inherited from the Old World in order to become even more democratic and egalitarian than they already were. The internal conflicts and tensions experienced by these energetic and restless people not only contributed to the escalation of the crisis with Britain but eventually transformed that crisis into a real revolutionary movement with a powerful regenerative ideology. The so-called progressive interpretation, by focusing on the internal dynamics of colonial society, has made it clear that we shall never understand the world-shattering origins of the United States if we treat the Revolution as simply a colonial break from Great Britain.
This progressive interpretation of the Revolution, which treated the democratization of American society and politics as more important than the conflict with Great Britain, was largely overwhelmed by the neo-Whig interpretations of the two decades following World War II. During the past fifteen years or so, however, a number of young historians have resumed the earlier progressive generation’s attack on the traditional Whig view that the Revolution involved mainly a conservative defense of American liberties against British aggression. These historians, sometimes called the “New Left” and including Joseph Ernst, Marc Egnal, Gary Nash, Ronald Hoffman, Jesse Lemisch, and Alfred F. Young, have scoured colonial society looking for the signs of oppression and deprivation—popular discontent, class division, and poverty—that might make the American Revolution explicable in the terms common to the explanations of other revolutions. One of the best, most sophisticated, and most carefully worked out of these neoprogressive studies is the recent book, which won the Bancroft Prize, on New York during the Revolution written by Edward Countryman, a member of the faculty of the University of Warwick in England.
New York, as Becker discovered long ago, is an ideal colony in which to demonstrate that the Revolution was some sort of democratic transformation. By the eve of the Revolution New York’s ethnically diverse population was growing rapidly. In New York City the proportion of destitute had expanded fourfold in twenty years, and there were increasing numbers of artisans and other “middling” sorts—petty merchants and shopkeepers—whose political and social status was not commensurate with their economic importance. New York, moreover, was burdened with an archaic manorial system of landholding that was actually strengthening on the eve of the Revolution, although landlord-tenant relations were being defined more and more in monetary terms. Popular involvement in government and jury duty was more limited than historians have assumed. All in all, New York had a political and social system that was profoundly out of harmony with the expanding needs and desires of its populace. These internal problems and tensions, writes Countryman, contributed as much to the revolutionary movement as did the crisis with Great Britain.
In the 1760s New York erupted in a series of riots and crowd disturbances. Popular uprisings were common to the Anglo-American world of the eighteenth century, and they were certainly familiar to the province of New York. But Countryman believes that the intensity and numbers of them in these few years—between 1764 and 1775 he counts nearly sixty uprisings in New York, both in the countryside and in the City—cumulatively stretched the tenuous fabric of New York society until it ruptured. These disturbances coupled with the imperial crisis led to intensifying attacks by New York’s political leaders not only on Great Britain but on each other. Competing patrician families exploited the imperial dispute, sought the aid of the Sons of Liberty, and used Whig rhetoric to win the support of widening proportions of the people with little awareness of the implications of what they were doing. In the end all traditional political authority was undermined.
In the most interesting parts of his book Countryman shows how a revolutionary movement arose out of the crumbling old order. More than in most colonies the collapse of traditional authority left New York bitterly divided and fragmented. There was no simple dichotomy between rich and poor, merchants and artisans, landlords and tenants, as the progressive historians used to think. The break with Britain released a variety of “class, ethnic, ideological, and geographical tensions” that developed “their own momentum,” and people of diverse interests were mobilized into revolution for many different reasons. Guiding and controlling this mobilization were the hundreds of popular committees—of correspondence, of inspection, of safety—that linked communities everywhere throughout the state.
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.