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Jul 9, 2005 6:35 pm

"America's Unfinished Revolution": A Symposium ...

The response to the symposium last month on Barry Gewen's"Forget the Founding Fathers" was such that we've decided to make it an irregular/monthly feature here at Cliopatria – monthly to remind us to do it periodically and irregular so we won't necessarily do one just because the calendar says so. We'll need a worthy article to discuss. Just as Jonathan Dresner manages Cliopatria's History Blogroll and Sharon Howard manages both the History Carnival and, with Julie Hofmann, the ancient/medieval and early modern festival, Carnivalesque, Manan Ahmed has agreed to keep the agenda for the symposia. If you come across an article that appears to be a likely candidate for attention here, please recommend it to him: manan*at*uchicago*dot*edu.

Today's symposium focuses on Gary B. Nash's"America's Unfinished Revolution," Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 July. While that link is subscriber only, a substantial excerpt from the article is posted here at History News Network. Nash is a professor emeritus at UCLA and a former president of the OAH. I'm especially pleased to welcome the contribution by Wilson Moses to our second symposium. A distinguished historian of African American thought, who holds an endowed chair at Penn State, Professor Moses is a Contributing Editor at Cliopatria and writes to us this summer from Paris. If there are additional contributions to this symposium, I will add them as they come in.

Timothy Burke:

Gary Nash's complaint about the historiography of the American Revolution is a familiar and powerful one, not just among Americanists but in historical scholarship in general. Once upon a time, it was a call to arms I would have readily heeded, but now there seems to me something frustratingly immobile and intellectually (if not politically) conservative about the way Nash chooses to frame his criticism. What he's calling for is not what he's really calling for: he starts by saying that we don't yet know enough, that our history is silent where it should be full of detail. But this is not really what he's saying. The problem, in his description, is not that we do not know what we should know, but that we have the wrong thoughts about what we know. The problem he sees, to paraphrase Cassius, lies not in our historiographies but in our selves. Once you clear away the rhetorical brush, I can't really agree with Nash-or at least I wish he'd just stop using historiography as a fig leaf to cover a desire to rethink the nature and character of American identity from the present back to its roots.

Nash says,"Why are our books silent about Thomas Peters or Dragging Canoe, about farmers, mariners, craftsmen?" The problem with his question, as he very well knows and quickly says, is that the books aren't silent. The scholarly writing of American history, of any era, has been as profoundly transformed by social history as any field, and this includes writing about the Revolution. As his essay proceeds, it becomes clearer that Nash isn't complaining about the scholarship, but instead the public historical discourse about the Revolution and American history in general. But it's still an odd thing to start by charging: that we lack knowledge. We don't: the historiography is now very richly replete with information about American history"from below". The knowledge is there: his complaint is with how it circulates in the culture at large.

A vague complaint it is, too: aimed variously at"the old school","them","people who cherish a more coherent, worshipful and supposedly annealing version of the past", but also confusingly"we". Nash also claims that the historiographical ascension of social history is responsible for history's new popularity, that this has created a new market niche of people interested in reading about the wider span of history. So about halfway through the essay, I am left wondering what the problem is, exactly? The historiography has changed, and"the explosion of historical knowledge has invigorated history and increased its popularity". What's not to like?

It is at this point that I began to feel that the problem for Nash is simply that the triumphalist history exists at all, that it is still possible to tell the Revolution in terms of great men, that there are best-sellers on Adams or Franklin or Jefferson, that his complaint is not that history needs still further widening and expansion but instead contraction and elimination. That Nash's preferred history of the Revolution is not one more among many, but the preferred orthodox account which should permanently displace or marginalize the version he disdains.

I find Nash's account in this excerpt as confining as the earlier parade of endlessly noble, entirely exceptional white male Founding Fathers. In his sketch of the history he prefers, Nash ends up only turning the triumphalist historiography on its head while preserving its oppositional terms. The novel move is that he claims the Revolution in positive terms for history"from below" rather than what historians on the left more conventionally did when they first started writing in this field (reject the Revolution as merely conservative). Nash doesn't really mix up the history, doesn't find diverse and ambivalent truths in the"jagged edges", where the vitality of history resides. His account is ultimately just as coherent and smoothed over. In the place of Adams, Jefferson and so on, we get the revolution"from below", standing squarely behind"equality" and"equity", while the conservative revolution of the usual suspects instrumentally uses"freedom" and"security" to squash and suppress its rival. We get a revolution that knits together Native Americans, women, tradesmen, small producers, African-Americans, all against a dominant elite. And we get a Revolution whose work in these terms is unfinished.

This is not a history laid open to the disorder and messiness of the past, but a history just as compliantly leashed to an instrumental politics of the present as the most triumphalist and mock- patriotic account. This is not an account of the American Revolution which is open in its curiosity about the past, avidly interested in the jagged edges. A truly curious and open-minded history can't afford the disdain that Nash shows for the elites, his attempt to move them from the center of the story of the Revolution off the stage entirely. A really open, new engagement with that past would have to take an interest in the ways that the Founding Fathers and the rest of late colonial America inter-related, in the strange social and cultural highways that ideas, practices and identities can travel. Indeed, why can't we have a touch of Great Man history mixed in with our history from below? Why the assumption of a necessary antagonism between the two? Why the removal of dead white men out of the body of a history that they also inhabited? Equally, why the smoothing of all interests in the Revolution into either a radical or conservative tradition? The incorporation of the real"jagged edges" of historical change tends to demonstrate that most historical actors, whether famous"great men" or anonymously ordinary people, can hold multiple and contradictory understandings of what it is that they are doing and what it is that they want to have happen-and that the results of such actions are rarely what anyone intends.

Like the triumphalists he criticizes, Nash in this essay ultimately seeks to make the past transparent and pliant to the present, available in easy, packaged terms for its use. Where is the healthy respect for the strangeness of the Revolutionary era as well as its familiarity, the interest in the ways in which the diverse political and social consciousness of that moment in time was different from our own, unfamiliar and unexpected? Perhaps now is the time to complete what Nash sees as the work of the American Revolution, but I'd just as soon he come out and argue for that as a political philosopher without mucking with the Revolution or indeed history in the first place. If what he really wants is to complicate Americans' received understanding of the American Revolution, he'd do better to ask more open-mindedly what is driving readers to histories of the Founding Fathers (perhaps it's a much healthier, more complicated phenomenon that he thinks?) and more, to appreciate the real message of the scholarship of the last two decades about the messiness, intractability and sometimes strangeness of the Revolutionary era.

Jonathan Dresner:
There are a few events that I like to use in World History as examples of the historiographical process. In the first half of the survey, it's the Fall of Rome, where the layers and generations of explanation pile onto each other like blankets and quilts on a cold night: none by themselves can keep you warm, but taken together, they are adequate to keep out the chill. In the second half there are a few, historical moments so throroughly studied and analyzed that we seem to know almost everything about them: the French Revolution, WWI, and, of course, the American Revolution.

There are lots of ways to tell the story of the American Revolution, I tell my students. First and most popular is the story of Liberty and great visionary leaders, the moderate incarnation of the radical democracy of the Enlightenment. This is the Revolution that inspired the French, the Haitians, and so many others. Second is a story of conservativism: the Revolution only succeeds because of the English traditions of the colonies, institutions of self-rule and principles of law and liberty which go back to the feudal Magna Carta, and what is most remarkable about the American Revolution is how little life in the former colonies changes after independence. In this sense, the Revolution was more of a rebellion, and the support that the United States got from monarchies like France, Spain and Russia (England wasn't very popular, at that point) certainly suggests that many contemporaries saw it that way. Third -- not final, but I've only got one lecture to spare -- is an economic/materialist history, which looks at the market relationships between the colonies and England, looks at the financial interests of the leadership, and the financial aspirations of their followers. Certainly, much of the revolutionary rhetoric centered on taxes and on trade law, and if the colonies had been a classic periphery, then the Revolution would have likely had a different result.

What's important is not that one of these is wrong and one is right (and one is irrelevant, if you want your mathematics to work out): what's important is that they are all simultaneously valid narratives which enhance each other. OK, I know that the hard-core historians reading this are yawning at this point, but you also know that my students' heads are about to explode. So are the pundits: the difference between scholars of the American Revolution at this point is one of emphasis, and though the disagreements are cast in harsh terms, the actual areas of conflict are small; important, but narrow, and more about tone than about"five W" questions.

I was struck by one particular passage:

Honest history can impart a sense of how the lone individual counts, how the possibilities of choice are infinite, how human capacity for both good and evil is ever present, and how dreams of a better society are in the hands of the dispossessed as much as in the possession of the putative brokers of our society's future.
Honest history does no such thing. Honest history describes the tension between individual and groups, between theoretical and actual options, between dreams and power, between participation and abstention and coercion, between ideals and realities, between rhetoric and achievement, between virtue and vice. Honest history isn't heartwarming without good reason; neither is it disheartening without equally strong evidence. Honest historians cannot look for hope: they must look, instead, for answers. Perhaps I'm endangering my status as a social historian when I say that oftentimes it is the"putative brokers" who very successfully impose their will and the existence of a groundswell doesn't automatically translate into power or change; perhaps my liberal credentials will be taken away when I point out that all the radical alternatives pursued by Nash's dispossessed are failures in every sense except perhaps a moral one. History is the cumulative (and incomplete) record of the individual decisions and fates of human beings; that doesn't mean, however, that it can be atomistic or naive.
KC Johnson:
When figures such as Justice Antonin Scalia cite"original intent" to justify their interpretation of the Constitution, the mainstream of the historical profession rightly protests. As Jack Rakove most convincingly has argued, the historical record from the Constitutional Convention and the subsequent ratification debates makes it impossible to determine even how the Framers themselves conceived of"original intent." And so, using the concept amounts to interpreting the past through a contemporary political lens. Moreover, left-wing critics of Scalia contend, the vast changes in American society between the 1780s and today make it inappropriate to impose the mores of the Revolutionary Era on the 21st century United States.

Yet, it seems, if doing so serves their scholarly agenda, advocates of the"race/class/gender" approach have no problems with interpreting the past in a presentist fashion or arguing for similarities between the Revolutionary Era and contemporary America. Take a look at this passage from Gary Nash's Chronicle essay:"It is not hard today to understand that Americans in all their diversity entertain a variety of ideas about what they want their nation to be. Much the same was true two centuries ago." Diversity is obviously a buzzword in the academy — although the concept means different things to just about everyone. But debates about the proper vision of America were"much the same" two centuries ago as today? If Antonin Scalia uttered this phrase, liberals would howl in protest.

A few weeks back, I commented on Gordon Wood's critique of Nash. Wood's review was not a favorable one. Wood questions Nash's class-based analysis, noting that"many, if not most, of Nash's forgotten and oppressed people either fought or wanted to fight on the side of the British, so it is hard to know what to make of his claims." Wood also takes issue with a variety of factual errors made by Nash about Revolutionary politics, arguing that"they tend to undermine the reader's confidence in Nash's knowledge of the period."

I found little in Nash's Chronicle essay that leads me to doubt Wood's critique. It was quite unclear to me in what historiographical debate Nash was participating."The great men -- the founding fathers -- of the revolutionary era," he laments,"still dominate the reigning narrative. Notwithstanding generations of prodigious scholarship, we have not appreciated the lives and labors, the sacrifices and struggles, the glorious messiness, the hopes and fears of the diverse groups that fought in the longest and most disruptive war in our history, with visions of launching a new age filling their heads."

That certainly isn't the case at Nash's former home of UCLA, which has all but written political (and other forms of"traditional") history out of its department, at least with regard to the staffing decisions it has made in American history. Nor, as I have noted previously, is it the case at the vast majority of American history departments around the country. I assume that Nash is not arguing that social historians, cultural historians, or those with a race/class/gender focus—the people who dominate the Americanist contingents of most history departments today—offer a narrative of the Revolutionary Era dominated by"the great men -- the founding fathers."

Interpreting the past through a politically correct lens encounters particular difficulty in his interpretation of the Indian frontier issue. In his Chronicle article, Nash contends that the"people's revolution" of the 1770s and 1780s—the advocates of a"reformed America"—demanded, among other things,"the end of the nightmare of slavery and the genocidal intentions of land-crazed frontiersmen." Yet, of course, it was the very non-elite whites celebrated by Nash in other parts of his essay who engaged in this genocide.

Other advocates of a"usable past" have taken a different approach to the Indian issue. Tuesday's New York Times featured an op-ed by Charles Mann. Like Nash, Mann makes little attempt to hide his presentism, concluding that"it is only a little exaggeration to claim that everywhere liberty is cherished—from Sweden to Soweto, from the streets of Manila to the docks of Manhattan—people are descendants of the Iroquois League and its neighbors." After an obligatory quote of Nash and his acceptance of Nash's portrayal of the Revolution as not a failure but"incomplete," Mann contended that"the framers of the Constitution, like most colonists in what would become the United States, were pervaded by Indian images of liberty," with the Iroquois Confederation's Great Law of Peace. How an elite intent on upholding, in Nash's words,"the genocidal intentions of land-crazed frontiersmen" was simultaneously enlightened enough to have borrowed from the political thought of non-white peoples neither Nash nor Mann say.

Historians such as Wood, Bernard Bailyn, or Pauline Maier do not ignore the non-elite members of Revolutionary society. They seem to part ways with Nash in arguing that the key decisions in America from 1774 to 1789 were made by the political class. I'm inclined to agree—even if such an interpretation doesn't happen to serve my contemporary political beliefs.

Ralph E. Luker:
I'd like to put claims by two of my most prominent peers among American historians next to each other and, then, comment on them. When he was rushing to the defense of George Bush and getting off some cheap shots at historians the other day, David Adesnik at Oxblog quoted Joseph Ellis of Mt. Holyoke as follows:
A kind of electromagnetic field...surrounds this entire subject [of the founding fathers], manifesting itself as a golden haze or halo for the vast majority of contemporary Americans , or as a contaminated radioactive cloud for a small but quite vocal group of critics unhappy with what America has become or how we have gotten here.

Within the scholarly community in recent years, the main tendency has been to take the latter side, or to sidestep the controversy by ignoring politics altogether. Much of the best work has taken the form of a concerted effort to recover the lost voices of the revolutionary generation -- the daily life of Martha Ballard as she raised a family and practiced midwifery on the Maine frontier; the experience of Venture Smith, a former slave who sustained his memories of Africa and a published a memoir based on them in 1798.

This trend is so pronounced that any budding historian who announces that he or she wishes to focus on the political history of the early republic and its most prominent practitioners is generally regarded as having inadvertently confessed a form of intellectual bankruptcy.

Adesnik cites Ellis's words as evidence that only idiots, Oxblog readers from North Korea, and professional historians don't know that Abraham Lincoln matters!

Now, lay that claim alongside the entire thrust of Gary Nash's"America's Unfinished Revolution." More specifically, a passage like:

Yet the great men -- the founding fathers -- of the revolutionary era still dominate the reigning narrative. Notwithstanding generations of prodigious scholarship, we have not appreciated the lives and labors, the sacrifices and struggles, the glorious messiness, the hopes and fears of the diverse groups that fought in the longest and most disruptive war in our history, with visions of launching a new age filling their heads.
Obviously, Ellis and Nash disagree with each other about the state of scholarship on the Revolutionary generation. They've both followed their own North Stars and done quite well at it. Ellis has made a career of the dead white male Founding Fathers and Nash has dug the Revolution from the bottom up for his whole career. On one level, their disagreement is understandable. Each believes that his way of doing the Revolution craves fuller attention. On another level, however, they simply cannot both be correct. They cannot both be fighting against an overwhelming tide of professional bias against their kind of work.

My sense is that they are both, simply, wrong. Never before in American history has there been greater openness to and support for knowing the Revolution as it was experienced by people of diverse backgrounds – women, African-Americans, native Americans, Hessians – all of them and more. Never have we known more about them in all their diversity. And never, in my experience, at least, have we had better work done on the Founding Fathers (and Abraham Lincoln) than is being done today. So, I think all of us ought to examine the truthfulness of our rhetorical strategies. We are"a people of plenty" – to us much has been given –"pressed down, shaken together, and running over." Adesnik should be embarrassed to have mentioned North Korea in the same breath with a reference to any poverty of interest in either Abraham Lincoln or Abraham, the slave, who ran away from his owner to fight for King George and, in doing so, won his own freedom.

Wilson J. Moses:
Nash has recycled this article several times. It is similar to an article by Robert Young that is also often anthologized. I agree with the sentiments. Nonetheless, I am working on an interpretation of the"Great White Fathers," which I believe is novel. I put a devilishly ironic sting in the tail of a statement made by [Henry Steele] Commager. Europe imagined and America realized the Enlightenment. Oh how true! How true! The founders were not democrats! Thank God! I am working on an interpretation of the revolution which argues that it was thankfully not democratic. If this country were truly democratic, I would still be picking cotton.

I disagree with [John] Lukacs who distinguishes between Democracy and populism. I think they are the same thing, and it is the guys like Jackson and Reagan we have to watch out for, because they are the voice of democracy. Why? Precisely because they are men of the people. Evil geniuses of democracy. So while I understand and agree with Nash's moral position, I am convinced that Democracy is exactly what we have when a poor child like Jessica Lynch gets her legs shot to hell. Her mangled legs are the perfect emblem of democracy, the incarnate symbol of the only meaning democracy can ever have.

Nathanael Robinson:
When Dante compares the city which was always mending its constitution with the sick man who is continually changing his posture to escape from pain, he touches with the comparison of a permanent feature of political life in Florence. The great modern fallacy that a constitution can be made, can be manufactured by a combination of existing forces and tendencies, was constantly cropping up in stormy times.

Jacob Burkhardt's observations about Renaissance Italy also applied to his hometown Basel. In 1798 the rumors of political turmoil in France overtook the people of Basel. The citizens met and wrote a new constitution that provided new liberties. Within a few days they celebrated: they had achieved a complete"revolution" in a few days, reforming the corrupt ancien regime through peaceful means. And then Napoleon came.

Basel was not alone. The cities and communities throughout Europe overturned ancien regimes, erasing the last vestiges of medieval privileges and spreading their political culture, only to have their efforts judged inadequate by the prefect or general.

The municipal revolutions (as I like to call them) are seldom studied, except by local historians, and often don't figure into the larger picture of the French Revolution. They involved entire urban communities, which examined their corporative practices and overturned vestiges of feudalism. Unfortunately they were labeled conservative. They attempted to amend their constitutions; in the minds of the bourgeoisies, revolution had clear goals and clear endpoints. And they believed, in their arrogance, that as an estate, they thought and acted as one. The larger revolution disturbed them: the Jacobin desire to recreate society de novo, to centralize, to homogenize, and to break down resistance. Subsequently, the national revolution overwrote the accomplishments of the municipal revolutions.

What is unfair is to label the bourgeoisies" conservative", or worse," counterrevolutionary". Without their presence the French Revolution is unthinkable. The values that impregnated political change, as Guizot and de Tocqueville noted, originated from the political culture that bourgeoisies had cultivated in their own municipal constitutions. Citizenship, rational government, democracy - the culture of the cities valued the participation of its members in the politics of the community, and that spirit overflowed the city walls to spread throughout France.

The radical revolution - the events in Paris, the Jacobins, the Terror - emerged as revolution became a way of life. The drive to transform society overwrote the desire for liberation from the Ancien Regime. As de Tocqueville wrote, reform took precedence over freedom, and the Revolution became a machine for recreating society:
They set no limit to [the state's] rights and powers; its duty was not merely to reform but to transform the French nation - a task of which the central power alone was capable."The State makes men exactly what it wishes them to be."

In its evolution, the French Revolution feared the political participation of the people whom it claimed to liberate. And it endangered its own accomplishments.
The bourgeoisies outside of Paris distanced themselves from the revolution as an ongoing process. They saw themselves being written out of the political process, their ability to participate curtailed, and the will of the nation ruled by the Parisian mobs. This was more true outside of France, in western Germany, in cities that were sympathetic to revolution but that found themselves under repressive occupations.

Were the bourgeoisies ultimately conservative? No. If their reaction to the radicalism that the French Revolution took on is the only indication, it indicates their reserve and concern. In the larger historical frame, the bourgeoisie (having become a national and international class) continued to be the avant garde of politics in Europe, challenging aristocratic authority and restoration until 1850.

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Jonathan Dresner - 7/9/2005


The flip, short answer is "I grew up" but it's more accurate to say that I never saw history as fundamentally political. At the same time, I never saw history as disconnected from politics, either, but any time history is used to make a political point there's a double-edged sword at work (actually, it's more like a hand-grenade, sending shrapnel out in all sorts of directions) that has to be used very carefully to avoid grevious error.

As Ralph points out, the work that Nash and other have done (and my own research probably falls into this category, but I situate it differently) has indeed done a great deal to complicate and clarify our historical narratives, but it has not, as Nash would have it, changed those narratives completely. Rather, as I said above, the narratives layer and interweave; it's tone that has to change.

And I'm decidedly less sympathetic than I used to be to any attempt to shift a narrative just to serve a contemporary purpose: changing the narrative to make it more accurate, more complete, more coherent is fine; changing it without strong historical justification is propoganda.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/9/2005

Marc, I can't speak for Tim or Jonathan, but I think it's fair to say that Gary Nash's position represents a tendency that has been very powerful among historians for at least a generation, probably longer than that. It is a position that many of us in two generations of historians, now, have shared. The work by Gary Nash and hundreds of historians over two generations have largely overcome the sort of bias about which he complains. So, if I am less than enthusiastic about the program that he espouses, it isn't so much that I disagree with him, but that I think that the corrective has already been made and much of the work he espouses has been done and is being done.

Marc A. Comtois - 7/8/2005

Why the change in your receptivity to Nash's view, if I may ask?

Jonathan Dresner - 7/7/2005

This is definitely a very presentist and ... what's the word ... goal-oriented .... instrumentalist view of history. Like you, I was much more sympathetic to this ten years ago.

Timothy James Burke - 7/7/2005

The way I read it, almost everyone is making a similar critique of Nash. Wilson Moses' somewhat oblique comment on democracy and the Founding Fathers is an interesting one. I suspect I grasp what he's getting at, but I'm looking forward to seeing its expansion at some point.

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