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…

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