May 14, 2017


WE COULD HAVE BEEN CANADA : Was the American Revolution such a good idea? (Adam Gopnik, 5/15/17, The New Yorker)

Justin du Rivage's "Revolution Against Empire" (Yale) re-situates the Revolution not as a colonial rebellion against the mother country but as one episode in a much larger political quarrel that swept the British Empire in the second half of the eighteenth century. Basically, du Rivage thinks that the American Revolution wasn't American. The quarrels that took place in New York and Philadelphia went on with equal ferocity, and on much the same terms, in India and England, and though they got settled by force of arms and minds differently in each place, it was the same struggle everywhere. "Radicalism flourished in Boston, Bristol, and Bengal, while fears of disorder and licentiousness provoked rural elites in both the Hudson Valley and the English shires," du Rivage writes. "As radical Whigs gained strength in North America, the political culture of the British Empire became increasingly Janus-faced."

On one side were what he calls "authoritarian reformers"; on the other, those radical Whigs. (Both were seeking to sway or supplant the "establishment Whigs.") This isn't the familiarly rendered divide between Tories and Whigs; the authoritarian reformers were less fusty country squires attached to old English institutions than an élite executive class of intellectuals and aristocrats committed to the Empire and to the reform of institutions that were seen as preventing the Empire from being maximally efficient. It was a group of men who, in spirit and psychology, were not entirely unlike the "reformers" in Communist China, open to change for the purpose of reinforcing their own power in an intact hierarchy. The authoritarian reformers were "not a political party per se," du Rivage writes. "They were, rather, an ideological vanguard, a loosely organized group of politicians, publicists, and theorists." (Significantly, no famous names cling to the group; career politicians and businessmen like William Murray, Matthew Decker, and Viscount Bolingbroke were their mostly interchangeable leaders.) They wanted a strong monarch surrounded by a circle of aristocratic advisers; very limited democracy; reform in the Army and Navy; and a tax-heavy system of mercantile trade--all of it intended to make the Empire as profitable as it needed to be.

Extended taxation within the Empire was central to their agenda. They sincerely believed in "taxation without representation," because they saw citizenship not in terms of sovereignty and equality but in terms of tribute received and protection offered. Pay up, and the British Navy will keep the Frenchmen, pirates, and aboriginals away. Samuel Johnson, who was hired by the authoritarian reformers to write the 1775 pamphlet "Taxation No Tyranny," captured the argument best: the men who settled America had chosen to leave a place where they had the vote but little property in order to live in a place where they had no vote but much property. With lucid authoritarian logic, Johnson explained that even though the American citizen might not have a vote on how he was taxed, "he still is governed by his own consent; because he has consented to throw his atom of interest into the general mass of the community."

The radical Whigs, though they, too, were implanted within establishment circles--grouped around William Pitt and the pro-American Marquess of Rockingham, with the devilish John Wilkes representing their most radical popular presence--were sympathetic to Enlightenment ideas, out of both principle and self-protection, as analgesics to mollify "the mob." They represented, albeit episodically, the first stirrings of a party of the merchant class. They thought that colonists should be seen as potential consumers. Alexander Hamilton, back in New York, was a model radical Whig--trusting in bank credit and national debt as a prod toward prosperity, while the authoritarian reformers were convinced, as their successors are to this day, that debt was toxic (in part because they feared that it created chaos; in part because easy credit undermined hierarchy).

The radical Whigs were for democratization, the authoritarian reformers firmly against it. The radical Whigs were for responsible authority, the authoritarian reformers for firm authority. And so on. This quarrel, du Rivage argues, swept across the Empire and, as much as it divided colony from home country, it united proponents of either view transnationally. Those we think of as "loyalists" in the American context were simply authoritarian reformers who lost their war; those we think of as "patriots" were simply radical Whigs who won.

Some of the force of du Rivage's account of the Revolution lies in his dogged insistence that the great political quarrel of the time really was a quarrel of principles. His book, he tells us in the introduction, is ultimately about "how ideas and politics shape social and economic experience." This is a more radically Whiggish proposition than it sounds. For a long time, under the influence of the formidable Lewis Namier, the historian of Britain's eighteenth-century Parliament, the pervasive ideas in the political life of the period were held to depend on clans and clan relations, not systems of thought. Even Edmund Burke, we were told, was no more drawn to Rockingham by ideology than Tom Hagen was drawn to the Corleone family because he shared Vito's views on urban governance.

Though there is obviously truth in this approach, then and now, du Rivage deprecates it as much as it has ever been deprecated. (His evidence for the power and specificity of this battle of ideas includes a number of political cartoons, drawn by the participants: it is astonishing how often the political figures of the time, from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Revere, communicated in comic images.) Throughout, he makes a convincing case for the view that people quarrelled not about clans but about concepts. In fact, participants in the quarrels could cross clan lines: the radical Pitt's brother-in-law, George Grenville, himself a Prime Minister, was the leader of the authoritarian reformers in Parliament.

This account cuts against the American specificity of the Revolution--the sense that it was a rebellion against a king and a distant country. No one at the time, du Rivage suggests, saw what was happening as pitting a distinct "American" nation against an alien British one. Participants largely saw the conflict in terms of two parties fighting for dominance in the English-speaking world. The scandalous high-water mark of du Rivage's iconography occurs in January of 1775, when Pitt (now ennobled as the Earl of Chatham) brought Franklin, then living in London, into the House of Lords to witness his speech on behalf of the American radicals, in effect sealing the unity of the single party across the ocean. This scene--though nowhere captured in the familiar imagery of Franklin flying his kite and inventing bifocals--was, in its day, as significant as that of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The transnational nature of the Revolution, du Rivage shows, has been blanked out. The promise of transatlantic unity in a move toward modernity was very real. Had the radical Whigs secured their power in Britain, our Revolution might well have taken on a look and feel far more like those of the later Canadian and Australian dissolutions from the Brits: a political break toward "home rule" but without any of the elaborate paraphernalia of patriotism attached to it. We would probably still have had some piece of the British flag upon our own, and Betsy Ross would have sewn in vain. [....]

Holger Hoock, in his new book, "Scars of Independence" (Crown), has a somewhat simpler point to make. The Revolution, he shows, was far more brutal than our usual memory of it allows. (Mel Gibson's Revolutionary War movie, "The Patriot," made this point, as his "The Passion of the Christ" did of Roman crucifixion; say what you will about his politics, Gibson is good at reminding us of the core violence in our favorite myths. Crosses and muskets really are lethal weapons.) Page after page, the reader blanches while reading of massacres and counter-massacres, of floggings and rapes, of socket bayonets plunged into pitiful patriots and of competitive hangings and murders. The effect is made all the more hallucinatory by the fact that these horrors took place not in Poland or Algeria but in what are now, in effect, rest stops along I-95, in Connecticut and New Jersey, in a time we still think of as all three-cornered hats and the clip-clop of Hollywood equipages on cobblestoned streets.

Not only would it have been possible to end American slavery non-violently, but it would have been less likely that continental powers would have sought global wars against an England that included America from Jump Street.
Posted by at May 14, 2017 9:10 AM


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