The Other Founders

For the past ten or twelve years we have been celebrating the well-known Founding Fathers of the American Revolution in the biographies of Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Franklin that have graced the best-seller lists. Is there an element of self-gratification here, of self-congratulation, in a wishful identification with great Americans of the past, in default of any on the scene today? If so, The Unknown American Revolution offers an antidote, a bill of particulars of what the Founding Fathers failed to do, spelled out in the stories of people for most of whom the Revolution brought betrayal, disappointment, and misery. In one sense the book is an invitation to a guilt trip for our sins of the past. But that, I think, is not its intention. It is, rather, a celebration of a different cast of players with different heroes and heroines and different villains, fitting to sustain a left-wing opposition to injustice then and now. If any of us have been content with the appellation of “liberal” in opposition to the illiberal policies confronting us, Nash invites us to become heirs to a more vigorous radicalism. A bit of explanation is necessary.

The left in America has always been more successful academically than politically. Historians in the radical “New Left” movement of the past thirty or forty years have compensated for political isolation by identifying themselves with the dispossessed of earlier times. They have occupied themselves in a scholarly recasting of history “from the bottom up,” studies of the tribulations of tenant farmers, merchant seamen, urban laborers, and others who suffered at the hands of the established authorities of their day. Untainted by the simplistic, doctrinaire interpretations of the old left, they have won for the people they study a new respect and understanding as well as a set of historical precedents for radicalism.

Their work has benefited from a coincidental academic movement away from political history toward social history. The movement was sparked not by a yearning for social revolution, but rather by the work of French historians like Fernand Braudel, who advocated histoire totale, history with nothing left out. Both European and American historians have done away with any conceptual limits on what in the past needs and deserves investigating. The result, among other things, has been a flood of works on gender history, black history, and ethnic history of all kinds. The widespread academic recognition of the New Left’s history from the bottom up owes something to this larger academic movement, though it can scarcely be considered part of it.

Academic history itself, however, in whatever form, has seldom won recognition outside the academy. Historians have mainly themselves to blame for their narrow choice of subject matter and impenetrable writing. But even when the findings of the new social history have been made more accessible, the result is not necessarily a round of public applause. No one knows this better than Gary Nash. Recognized as a leader in the New Left historical movement and …

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Letters

History from Below December 1, 2005