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Study of the American founding fathers has become a hothouse industry. The capacity of the American reading public to absorb volume after volume on Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, Madison, and others, has no limits in sight. We seem to think that if we could truly understand the founders, even across the yawning divide of more than two centuries, we would better understand our nation and ourselves. That view has become an unchallengeable item of faith, and the bestseller lists reflect it.
Darren Staloff's Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding continues in this vein. This is the work of a fine scholar, thoughtful, infectious in its enthusiasm, and briskly argued. Along the way, Staloff exhibits real skill, even outright intellectual legerdemain, in drawing the reader inside the primary documents to show the common sources of the thought of his three protagonists, while simultaneously delineating how they departed from each other, and how those departures created separate lines of political thought that continue to this day.
The more uncharitable among us might consider all of this as merely one more story of dead white men and, as far as that argument can take us, they would be correct. Staloff, however, takes us beyond such concerns and gives us a sustained and coherent account of what our forebears thought about political possibility and how what they thought continues to inform and channel our ideas about who we are and what we can achieve within the sphere of political activity. Since 1789 the mixed results of the entire western revolutionary tradition have fueled a running controversy about theses issues, as have more recent events connected to attempts by the United States to transport the democratic ideals of liberte, egalite, and fraternite to Vietnam and Iraq.
Staloff maintains that Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson were awash in the ideas of the European Enlightenment and that their ideas and actions would be unrecognizable without reference to it. In doing so, he is taking sides in an old argument within American historiography concerning the intellectual genesis of the American experiment and what constitutes our core as a people. During the Cold War, American scholars often looked upon the Enlightenment heritage as a source of abstract and baneful theories and ideologies that could only lead to Utopian attempts to reconstruct human nature and society. Too much thinking and too much abstraction, in this view, resulted in communist revolutions and the hypertrophy of the state. America, on the other hand was anti-Utopian, conceived on no grand plan, but instead in the light of everyday experience.
Daniel Boorstin, an intellectual curmudgeon of the first order, led this assault on ideology. What differentiated Americans from other peoples, he claimed, was that they found themselves on the edge of a frontier, both physically and intellectually, and that they forged a common national experience not through applying vast ideas to their problems, but through finding pragmatic, piecemeal solutions to the challenges of daily life. The idea was that Americans really had no ideas. They were not European theorizers, they were clear-eyed, practical men who had neither taste nor time for applying enormous programmatic schemes. The entire European background simply dropped out. Of course, the absurdity and antihistorical nature of this line of argument did nothing to prevent it from becoming quite widespread and quite respectable among American academics.
Staloff, on the other hand, more sensibly views early America as an extension of Europe. America may have been a farflung outpost, but it was peopled by Europeans who brought their ideas with them, studied European texts, and understood political life through the lens of European experience, from Greece and Rome, through Cromwell, Hume, Montesqieu, Smith, and Rousseau. The American Revolution and the founding of the United States coincided with the high tide of European Enlightenment and our founders looked to it with hope and excitement. They eagerly sought to apply European ideas to the American context.
Staloff is careful to note that the study of what constituted the Enlightenment is a contested field. Our attitude toward it is inevitably intertwined with how we define it. For the purposes of understanding Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson, he seeks a broad definition that most scholars could agree upon, regardless of particular points of controversy. Staloff sees the Enlightenment as a body of thought and a temperament that provided Americans with a modern, secular world view characterized by religious toleration, free speech, representative government, and a desire for headlong, unfettered commercial activity. It provided the promise of social transformation, successful challenge of authority, and the dissolution of anachronistic or unproductive traditions. It provided the avenue for an escape from the dead weight of the past. That was the primary attraction for those charged with the founding of a new nation.
Staloff is clearly stunned by the figure of Hamilton, the man who bestrode early America like a colossus, and the one among the three giants under study who was most active in laying the theoretical foundations of the early republic and then channeling the directions of its development. Staloff calls Hamilton's vision the "fulfillment of the politics of Enlightenment." Hamilton drew on Hume and Adam Smith and promoted the idea of a nation with a strong, stable, well-funded, centralized government, capable of absorbing and balancing all manner of public corruption, one that would draw its strength from a tax base dependent on the growth of commercial and industrial interests. That is, what he envisioned and sought was a modern industrial nation capable of maintaining domestic tranquility and vigorously pursuing its interests on the world stage. Hamilton saw America as the pre-eminent modern society, wealthy and efficient. It was a vision that could be applauded by any good Republican from Lincoln through Hoover to Reagan and both Bushes.
By Staloff's account, Jefferson was a more complicated, intellectually conflicted, and philosophically subtle figure. He was explicitly a racist, an inveterate defender of America's slaveocracy, and, quite possibly, a sexual predator. The upside is that his talents were legion. He may have been among our nation's first anthropologists. He was an able legislator. He was the nation's greatest architect. He was at home in both ancient and modern languages. He was an accomplished botanist. Above all, he was, at least in print, a superb rhetorician who articulated the nation's highest ideals, giving flight to phrases that continue to inspire and define us.
According to Staloff, Jefferson absorbed the great body of Enlightenment thought at a time when a series of intellectual compromises had brought its contradictory elements into a state of satisfying equipoise. Jefferson, of course, was a little too intellectually restless for such sterility. He reworked several of the main lines of thought for himself, decided on what was for him true, attractive, or useful, then distilled it through the filter of his powerful imagination into a principled vision. Jefferson's unique sensibility and his powers of expression made this democratic ethos powerful and dramatic. According to Staloff, he became more than a statesman, he became a Romantic poet, creating a politics of the heart, a politics of the common man, untrammeled by the idiocies of the past and the depredations of aristocracies and kings.
Adams, a much more difficult to characterize figure, is clearly the fly in the ointment. He was an eminently learned man, a first-rate constitutional theorist, yet he left no single, coherent political philosophy for his nation. At times he was a demagogue, at others quite capable of courting unpopularity and glorying in it. He was a power-monger who distrusted power and a democratic politician who distrusted the people. He was vain, irritable to the point of cantankerousness, and tortured by his Puritan conscience to the point of idiosyncracy. He was also our most astute critic of the brilliant, but erratic Hamilton and the idealistic, but hypocritical Jefferson.
Adams absorbed the Enlightenment, but he also transcended it. As Staloff points out, he was, early in his career, a champion of the Enlightenment idea of social and political progress based on the spread of education and the exercise of government by politically sophisticated philosophes. Experience in the wide world of affairs later taught him, however, that education brought power to the few without preventing them from using it in corrupt and self-serving ways. According to Staloff, Adams came to the viewpoint that education was a crucial source of social inequality, creating a corrupt new aristocracy of intellectuals. The well-placed and informed few would rule the uninformed many, to the detriment of democratic ideals. Although Adams continued to value enlightenment and the scientific study of politics and history, he also came to see that simple faith in the Enlightenment was based on a shallow conception of human nature and, like other faiths, was impervious to contradictory evidence. He never abandoned his hopes for an enlightened, democratic America, but his knowledge of history, the effects of power, and his Puritan skepticism of the goodness of human nature led him to a sober and more sophisticated assessment of the limits and efficacy of political activity. Staloff's recounting of this re-education of John Adams is stark, dramatic, and eye-opening.
With this book, Staloff has offered us an account of the intellectual careers of Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson that is both entertaining and enlightening. One should caution that the author has attempted to trace the lines of development from a single body of thought, albeit a crucial and formidable one. Too narrow a concentration on that single body of thought can lead to an explanation of the roots of the American nation that is too simple, because too monocausal. Futhermore, concentration on Enlightenment texts can also lead to a picture of the founding that is a bit too coherent and too tidy. One must keep in mind that American revolutionary theorists and founders were intellectual omnivores. The authors of classical antiquity, Reformation theologians, British empiricists and commonwealthmen, as well as Enlightenment philosophers were pillaged, often without scholarly care or ideological or logical consistency. There was a mad push for gaining and sustaining independence. In whatever way it might effect our national self-image, America was founded in a fit of impatient grasping and theorizing. With these caveats, Mr. Staloff's learned elucidation of these matters is highly recommended.
SOURCE: American Prospect ()
Following the Senate’s rejection of his ﬁrst two choices for the Court in 1970, Richard Nixon trumpeted Blackmun as a judge with a “strict construction” philosophy. Strict construction has been code language for reactionary objectives from its ﬁrst appearance with Jefferson’s abortive attempt to prevent the establishment of a central bank in 1792, through the convolutions of southern apologists for slavery and segregation, down to the present. In practice, the Court has to give a broad construction to the Framers’ language to ensure a “living Constitution.”
Ironically, Nixon had condemned strict construction in 1962, blaming it for the Court’s enforcement of the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment in a New York school-prayer case. But seven years later, our serial political opportunist -- now anxious to appeal to Americans alienated by judicial rulings on racial equality, church-state separation, and the rights of the accused -- revived strict construction.
Blackmun’s record as an appellate judge proved quite solid, albeit somewhat pedestrian, and his Senate hearing lasted less than four hours, during which he assured the Judiciary Committee that he would not hesitate to disagree with his boyhood friend, now Chief Justice Burger. There were no hostile witnesses, and the Senate unanimously conﬁrmed him, 94 to 0. Blackmun was 61. His mother warned him that his relationship with Burger would inevitably change. Mothers know best.
Then–Assistant Attorney General William Rehnquist had ably and perceptively reviewed Blackmun’s judicial record. “He does not uniformly come out on one side or the other, though his tendencies are certainly more in the conservative direction than in the liberal,” Rehnquist wrote. “His opinions are all carefully reasoned, and give no indication of a preconceived bias in one direction or the other.”
When Nixon’s press secretary described Blackmun as a strict constructionist, the judge responded that he did not work according to labels but “tried to call them as I see them.” Undoubtedly he saw himself as an advocate of “judicial restraint,” a term ﬂexible enough to accommodate a broad array of justices across the political and legal spectrum, from Hugo Black to Black’s great antagonist, Felix Frankfurter. It used to be axiomatic that justices deﬁed easy pigeonholing. The Washington Post presciently commented that Blackmun’s “opinions and reputation indicate that he is a conservative with an independent mind and sensitivity to new ideas.”
Blackmun ended his career in 1994, lauded and viliﬁed as the most “liberal” of the justices, but its beginnings certainly did not point in that direction. His earliest opinions were undramatic and workmanlike; most notably, he sided with the government in the Pentagon Papers case, and appeared very much as Burger’s close ally....
In this timely and well-researched book, David Gutterman, assistant professor of political science at Linfield College, examines the role of Christianity in American political life with a particular focus on four Christian social movements in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The four ecumenical, primarily Protestant, movements are Billy Sunday’s “muscular” Christianity; Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement; the conservative Christian male organization Promise Keepers; and the progressive anti- poverty organization Call to Renewal. Linfield does not claim that these four expressions of prophetic politics are necessarily the most important but rather that they are significantly representative of the influence of religion on American political life in debates about race, class, sex and gender. Violence and war should have been more extensively covered as well, although they are topics examined by the author
Particularly indebted to the work of Hannah Arendt, Gutterman uses the narrative of Exodus and the biblical prophets as his framework for understanding prophetic politics. With a highly commendable approach that is respectful of differing positions, Gutterman stresses the “sacred story” of Exodus as a common thread running through American history. The biblical story of Exodus has been told, and retold, with the powerful themes of “enslavement, liberation, faith, doubt, the longing for the ‘comforts of bondage,’ the creation of a polity, political leadership, principles of social and economic justice, holy wars, and many others ” Throughout the book, Gutterman uses the Exodus narrative as a way of examining not only four Christian social movements but the history of the United States in the way it has seen itself as a “promised land” specially chosen to promote democracy and human rights around the world. This triumphalist vision is contradicted by those who stress our being sojourners in the wilderness of injustice and oppression. The tension between the two, found in the biblical accounts, continues to the present moment.
Billy Sunday was a professional baseball player who became an evangelist in 1893 and, by World War I, was leading revivals throughout the country that literally reached millions of people and influenced evangelists who came after him such as Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson. He preached a “muscular Christianity” that was uncritically patriotic and effusive of America’s chosenness in the world. He saw World War I as a clear battle between good and evil and immediately after the United States entered the war in April 1917 he began a ten weeks revival in New York City, during which he “asked God to ‘strike down in his tracks’ any man failing to register for the draft.” In a prayer on the floor of the House of Representatives he referred to Germany as a “one of the most infamous, vile, greedy, avaricious, blood-thirsty, sensual and vicious nations that has ever disgraced the pages of history .” Sunday opposed with all his might the labor movement that he saw as dominated by foreign socialists and anarchists. His absolute Americanism led him to say, “No man who swerves in the slightest degree from absolute loyalty should be called an American citizen. America is not a country for a dissenter to live in.” What Billy Sunday preached was an anti-political form of Christian individualism that saved persons from the work of the devil and prepared them for heaven.
The gulf between the theology of Billy Sunday and that of Martin Luther King, Jr. could hardly be wider. King, growing up in the Jim Crow South, saw the underside of America with its racism, poverty and war making. He saw the America of the wilderness, not living up to its democratic creed and aspirations. In contrast to Billy Sunday who preached with the Bible in one hand and the American flag in the other, King marched and prayed for social justice and did not hesitate to condemn the America he loved for its failure to its citizens, especially the poor and minorities. His was an inclusive, all-embracing faith that ultimately reached out to the whole human family.
The third movement Gutterman examines is the Promise Keepers, founded in 1990 by Bill McCartney who at the time was the head football coach at the University of Colorado. Promise Keepers has reached out to men in the name of Jesus, bringing together thousands in sports stadiums and arenas throughout the country, as well as reaching them through its ample media resources—radio, TV, the Internet, CDs and books, Bible studies and multi-media. Unlike the civil rights’ movement’s efforts at social transformation through the political realm, Promise Keepers, with the language of sports and war, focuses not on politics but on building “godly warriors” combating their inner struggles and temptations, “private issues of the heart.” It does not endorse candidates for office nor specific legislation although it does have a conservative agenda that opposes issues like abortion and homosexuality. Seeking purity, they do not engage in politics. They see themselves as called apart from the world to enter the Promised Land. Like Moses, each man is called to respond to God’s summons to lead a holy life. This they live out in their homes and in their family life, in the work of racial reconciliation, in avoiding sexual impurities, in being fiscally responsible, etc. They believe are strengthened in this calling by “brothers” who help them along the way
The fourth movement explored by Gutterman is the Call to Renewal with a prophetic social vision that especially focuses on poverty, but also on environmental degradation and racial injustice. Under the leadership of Jim Wallis of the Sojourners community of Washington, D.C. Call to Renewal emphasizes the themes of sojourn, wilderness and exile rather than chosenness and the Promised Land. In contrast to the anti-politics of Billy Sunday and Promise Keepers, Call to Renewal is in harmony with the prophetic message of Dr. King. Call to Renewal lifts up the poor and the most vulnerable in society, putting their plight in the cold light of governmental policies that favor the wealthy and the massive budget of the Pentagon. This critique is in sharp contrast to the politics of the religious right. As Wallis pointed out in Who Speaks for God?
It is important to recognize what an historical aberration the Religious Right represents. For biblical religion to be put at the service of the rich instead of the poor, the powerful instead of the oppressed, of war instead of peace, turns Christian teaching upside down. For evangelical religion to be used to fuel the engines of racial and class division, to block the progress of women, to undermine care for the creation, to fight the banning of assault weapons, to end public legal service to those who can’t afford them, and actually encourage a public policy that abandons our poorest children runs counter to Christian Scripture, tradition and history.”
In summing up this excellent survey of these four Christian social movements and their role in American democracy, Gutterman sees the anti-political, exclusivist individualism of Billy Sunday and the Promise Keepers as a woefully inadequate force for personal rather that societal, transformation, a mirage, “a world before politics.”
In vivid contrast, he assesses the message of Dr. King and Call to Renewal as fostering, in King’s words, “a revolution of values” and “a transformation of religion and politics.” Rather than a retreat to some imagined past or a present freed of conflict, “the realm of democratic politics is an unsettled and unsettling place—a wilderness—for everyone."
Norman Davies’ Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw is a seminal account based on Polish and Soviet sources about the Polish Resistance’s uprising on August 1944 against the German occupiers, only to be sabotaged by Stalin and the Allies. The Sunday Telegraph’s reviewer, Max Hastings, put it best: “ Norman Davies knows more about Poland than any other historian in the West…his knowledge and his passion—reflected in rage towards the Allies who betrayed the Rising—are displayed in this notable book.”
Jerry Elmer’s compelling autobiographical account of his life as a draft resister and war protestor is a rare bird indeed. Other than John Balaban’s Remembering Heaven’s Face (Poseidon, 1991), memoirs by draft resisters and pacifists are relatively rare.
The son of liberal Jewish Viennese refugees from the Nazis, he grew up in Great Neck, N.Y., a New York City suburb. A student rebel, he earned mediocre grades, wore an antiwar button in class, and when told to remove it by a teacher and principal he was supported by the local school board. Soon after he left high school for the road and the cause, working with various pacifist and nonviolent organizations (like himself, pacifist but certainly not passive). The two radical Roman Catholic priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan whose draft board raids brought national publicity and jail terms for the brothers and their allies inspired him. (Eventually he thought Philip was too intolerant of anyone unwilling to break the law and take the punishment). Moved by Dan Berrigan’s famous remark that he would rather destroy paper than babies, Elmer was convicted for raiding a draft board and destroying “government property” – that is, the files of young draft-eligible young men (really boys) and then accepted—he says reluctantly-- a plea bargain and evaded jail.
While Elmer’s recollections have far too many unnecessarily sophomoric criticisms about various antiwar people he encountered– - apparently those he disliked were all imperfect save himself—he raises pertinent questions about the war, the opposition, and by extension our current impasse in yet another extremely dubious war in Iraq.
For example, who helped end the Vietnam War? What role did antiwar marchers and protestors play? And to what extent did practitioners of direct nonviolent action help stop the killing? No one, of course, can definitely tell, though Elmer makes a strong case that people like himself played a crucial role in generating opposition to the killing and mobilizing many more people to oppose the war.
Elmer is a Harvard Law School graduate and has since been admitted to practice in state and federal courts. He now practices commercial litigation in Providence, R.I. and serves as legal counsel to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith pacifist organization founded in 1915. Still a pacifist, he writes, “We pacifists are right to oppose all violence, regardless of who commits it or what excuse are given for it.” Even more significantly, and looking back at the sixties, he argues that nonviolent direct action is more effective than violence because it avoids “alienating the very people we are trying to reach and influence.”
Simon Hall of the University of Leeds would certainly approve of this sentiment. His original and stimulating Peace & Freedom points out that the extreme fringes of the antiwar movement hurt the effort to end the war sooner. Some writers have since argued that by identifying the mass of antiwar people with more radical protestors it made it easier for the entire movement of millions of people disgusted with the war and the draft to be easily dismissed by prowar elements. An obsequious media eager to present radicals as the heart of the antiwar and anti-draft movement gave beards, longhair, beads, marijuana and nude demonstrators exaggerated prominence. It may in fact be one of the reasons it convinced an overwhelming number of Americans to re-elect in 1972 a dishonorable paranoid like Nixon over George McGovern, a genuine war hero and outspoken antiwar liberal.
In Peace and Freedom, Hall turns his attention to the inability of the sixties peace movement to unite the essentially white (and male dominated) anti-war, anti-draft movement with blacks demanding that equal attention be given to American racism. Black leaders were never monolithic. Roy Wilkins, for example, was silent about the war because he approved LBJ’s ardent support for the voting rights act and anti-poverty measures. All the same, black and white radicals did agree that the draft and the war were evil. But blacks wanted to go further and connect the war with the suffering and deprivation of their people while more privileged white radicals wanted to blame the “system.” Both were riddled with ideological divisions even though ordinary American antiwar people, black and white, simply wanted the unjust war to end. But blacks insisted they too had profound grievances and black radicals responded, insisting that only they could rectify injustices toward their fellow blacks.
Gwendolyn Patton SNCC’s antiwar activist and a civil rights pioneer in Alabama and Georgia argued just that as early as 1967-68 when she wrote that whites with their “naïve intellectualism” and “deep-seated factionalism” could not understand blacks that were educated “on the streets.” Her paper, “Why Black People must develop their own Anti-War and Anti-Draft Union” concluded, “We must separate forces at this time in order to build a stable coalitions in the future.” Still, others, like Bayard Rustin, no longer a pacifist or radical, shrewdly dissented, insisting that serious racial justice could only be brought about in coalitions with other groups, including whites.
Radicals, as radicals so often do, went too far, alienating everyone with power and political muscle. Time and again, various black radicals inexplicably began assailing liberals and specifically Jews, their erstwhile allies. This phenomenon, writes Hall, “harmed efforts at constructing interracial coalitions, given the significant Jewish presence in both the New Left and antiwar ranks” –and which, parenthetically helped eventually turn some Jewish liberals into hard-line neoconservatives.
In the end, Hall concludes that the inability of black and white peace and freedom movements to work together as well as the negative impact of ongoing bitter factionalism -- badly damaged progressive forces “often at odds with each other. ” Thus, this perceptive British observer properly concludes, “the New Right’s rise to political ascendancy power was made easier.”
SOURCE: California Literary Review ()
Having recently participated in a gathering of feminist Muslim and Jewish scholars including scholars from Palestine and Israel, I was eager to read Susan Nathan’s The Other Side of Israel : My Journey Across the Jewish/Arab Divide. I wanted to hear more about the relationship between Arab and Jewish citizens of contemporary Israel. I also understood that this would be a controversial book which made me a bit apprehensive. The advance materials I read described the author as a British Jewish woman with family ties to South Africa who decided to live in an Arab village in Israel. She did this after making aliya1 and becoming a citizen of Israel herself. My worry was that this might be another leftist book that glibly made analogies between Israel and South Africa. I worried that the story would be more about being a privileged white western woman living with Palestinian others and not enough about the Arab Israeli citizens of this town and their lives.
Although my sympathies are on the left, I am also tired of trite platitudes about Israel. I know that discourse all too well. I understand the allure of being an antizionist, a Jew against Israel and yet, despite the allures of this position, I know that there are no guarantees for political or ethical purity. Instead I have come to see this stance as both illusory and dangerous. To be critical of Zionist discourse demands a much more serious interrogation of how Zionist discourse has shaped contemporary Jewish identity especially the identities of those of us who are now critical of Israel. In other words, for people like me, this means owning our own powerful and defining relationship to Zionism. As I see it, this haunting legacy most profoundly shapes our anger and disappointment with current Israeli policies and practices. It is also why what we now know about the history of the Jewish State and its ongoing discriminatory policies and practices in relation to Palestinians is so devastating. Given this, our criticism needs to be framed by the fact that we too are implicated in the promises of Jewish nationalism that we now critique. We need to own our complicity in these practices in order to be able to speak to those most in need of hearing these arguments, other Jews. Few of us are not implicated in this history.
As I began reading The Other Side of Israel, it became obvious to me that Nathan understood my reservations as those of the vast majority of her intended audience and wrote her book accordingly. Nathan rightly suspects that most of us are critical of the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza2 but that we have not given as much critical attention to the plight of Palestinians within Israel, the communities of what are referred to in Israel as “Arab Israelis.” 3 In order to see this ‘other side’ of Israel, Nathan invites us on a journey that begins with her own longstanding commitment to Zionism. She takes us with her as she moves from exercising her Jewish right to return to eventually deciding to live in an Arab village. She retraces her steps.
This is the story of a middle-aged Jewish woman who decides to make aliya and become a new immigrant to Israel. We follow her as she becomes an Israeli citizen, her time in an absorption center learning Hebrew, her move to an apartment and a job in Tel Aviv, and finally her decision to live in Tamra, an Arab town in the Galilee.
In the process of taking this journey we come to see with Nathan some of the limitations of contemporary Israeli democracy, what for many of us including Nathan was once a Zionist ideal. Instead we begin to see not only discrimination but systemic and systematic state and extra-state institutions, policies and procedures that perpetuate and extend the marginalization and oppression of Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens. Once in Tamra Nathan shows us in vivid detail the results of these policies. Especially evident in Tamra are the egregious efforts by both the Jewish National Fund and the state to keep the vast majority of land and natural resources within Israel’s borders in the hands of its Jewish citizens.
Part of what I found heartbreaking about what Nathan reports is that these are policies inflicted on Arab citizens of the State, not just Israeli policies in occupied territories. And Nathan shows how pervasive these discriminatory practices are. Although she tells numerous stories about individual Arab citizens, their families and their communities at the hands of the Israeli state, it is the broader systemic nature of these asymmetrical social arrangements that demand our attention. As Nathan makes clear these are bureaucratically instituted policies of discrimination and they permeate every aspect of Israeli society.
Most upsetting for me were the stories Nathan tells about the ongoing efforts to confiscate ancestral land and property from Arab Israeli citizens. These are places that had been inhabited by these Palestinian families for centuries. As she explains, Israel’s ongoing land acquisition policies are directly linked to efforts to contain Arab Israeli citizens in towns and villages that can no longer accommodate them. Because the state refuses to grant permits to build on what limited space is available, these Israeli citizens live under constant threat of having their presumably “illegal” homes demolished by the state. Taken together all of these policies assure that Israel will remain a Jewish State. In other words, for Israel to be a Jewish State these discriminatory policies are crucial. They also mean that Israel cannot be a truly democratic state.
In Nathan’s account it is the Palestinian Arab citizens of the State and not those Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation whose plight speaks to problems at the heart Jewish nationalism. In other words, it is not 1967 that marks a turning point in Israeli history around relations between Palestinians and Israeli Jews, but rather, 1948. And this is both a sobering and shameful truth. ...
SOURCE: NYT Book Review ()
... Ira Katznelson, the Ruggles professor of political science and history at Columbia University, enters [the debate over affirmative action and civil rights] with a provocative new book, ''When Affirmative Action Was White,'' which seeks to provide a broader historical justification for continuing affirmative action programs. Katznelson's principal focus is on the monumental social programs of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Harry Truman's Fair Deal in the 1930's and 1940's. He contends that those programs not only discriminated against blacks, but actually contributed to widening the gap between white and black Americans -- judged in terms of educational achievement, quality of jobs and housing, and attainment of higher income. Arguing for the necessity of affirmative action today, Katznelson contends that policy makers and the judiciary previously failed to consider just how unfairly blacks had been treated by the federal government in the 30 years before the civil rights revolution of the 1960's.
This history has been told before, but Katznelson offers a penetrating new analysis, supported by vivid examples and statistics. He examines closely how the federal government discriminated against black citizens as it created and administered the sweeping social programs that provided the vital framework for a vibrant and secure American middle class. Considered revolutionary at the time, the new legislation included the Social Security system, unemployment compensation, the minimum wage, protection of the right of workers to join labor unions and the G.I. Bill of Rights.
Even though blacks benefited to a degree from many of these programs, Katznelson shows how and why they received far less assistance than whites did. He documents the political process by which powerful Southern Congressional barons shaped the programs in discriminatory ways -- as their price for supporting them. (A black newspaper editorial criticized Roosevelt for excluding from the minimum wage law the black women who worked long hours for $4.50 a week at the resort the president frequented in Warm Springs, Ga.)
At the time, most blacks in the labor force were employed in agriculture or as domestic household workers. Members of Congress from the Deep South demanded that those occupations be excluded from the minimum wage, Social Security, unemployment insurance and workmen's compensation. When labor unions scored initial victories in organizing poor factory workers in the South after World War II, the Southern Congressional leaders spearheaded legislation to cripple those efforts. The Southerners' principal objective, Katznelson contends, was to safeguard the racist economic and social order known as the Southern ''way of life.''
Katznelson reserves his harshest criticism for the unfair application of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, a series of programs that poured $95 billion into expanding opportunity for soldiers returning from World War II. Over all, the G.I. Bill was a dramatic success, helping 16 million veterans attend college, receive job training, start businesses and purchase their first homes. Half a century later, President Clinton praised the G.I. Bill as ''the best deal ever made by Uncle Sam,'' and said it ''helped to unleash a prosperity never before known.''
But Katznelson demonstrates that African-American veterans received significantly less help from the G.I. Bill than their white counterparts. ''Written under Southern auspices,'' he reports, ''the law was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow.'' He cites one 1940's study that concluded it was ''as though the G.I. Bill had been earmarked 'For White Veterans Only.' '' Southern Congressional leaders made certain that the programs were directed not by Washington but by local white officials, businessmen, bankers and college administrators who would honor past practices....
Katznelson argues that the case for affirmative action today is made more effectively by citing concrete history rather than through general exhortations. Studying the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society and the civil rights movements of the 1960's could not be more relevant at a time when the administration seems determined to weaken many of the federal programs that for decades have not just sustained the nation's minorities but built its solid middle class....
SOURCE: Wa Po ()
At the center of Berry's story is Callie House. Born a slave in 1861, the first year of the Civil War, House grew up in a poor family in central Tennessee. In 1898, she was a mother of five, earning around $2 a week as a Nashville washerwoman but finding time to organize the first convention of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, an organization that provided direct aid to ex-slaves and lobbied Congress for bounties and pensions. She seems to have been born with a talent and passion for organizing. And, as Civil War veterans' organizations successfully lobbied state and federal governments for better pensions, she became outraged that the former slaves she knew, many of whom had served as laborers for the Union army, received nothing. House, who became the longtime secretary of the association, launched a petition drive to collect the signatures of all ex-slaves -- about two million were still alive in 1898 -- by using the local chapters to contact them.
House drew, in part, from an ex-slave pension bill drafted by Walter Vaughan, a Democrat from a former Alabama slaveholding family, and proposed to Congress by William J. Connell, a Republican from Nebraska. The bill proposed a sliding scale of payments: $500 bounties and $15 a month for the oldest ex-slaves; $100 bounties and $4 a month for the youngest. Vaughan pretended to care about the plight of former slaves, but, according to Berry, his true purpose was to help Southern whites by pumping federal money through the hands of blacks into the moribund Southern economy.
The national pension movement soon ran into roadblocks. Congress failed to take up the bill, and the prospects for legislation became hopeless when Woodrow Wilson, a Southern-born, pro-segregation Democrat, became president. A separate initiative by the group to sue the government for the "cotton tax" -- $68 million collected between 1862 and 1868 from the sales of cotton picked by slaves -- also fizzled. Like most modern reparations lawsuits, this one was dismissed because of sovereign immunity, the principle that the government cannot be sued without its consent.
But the U.S. Postal Service was the association's ultimate undoing. Invoking the Comstock law, which prohibited the transport of obscene or fraudulent materials through the mails, postal agents prohibited House from distributing the petition, disingenuously claiming that they were protecting blacks from scam artists....
Scientists working for the United States government under the leadership of J. Robert Oppenheimer had just triggered an atomic bomb which released the energy of an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. Barely three weeks later two nuclear bombs would be used to kill several hundred-thousand civilians and bring to a conclusion the most devastating conflict in human history. That flash, first seen sixty years ago, announced the arrival of a weapon which would haunt the nightmares of successive generations. It haunts them still.
The blasts which devastated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki culminated a revolution in the field of nuclear physics which began in 1938 when several researchers stunned the scientific community by explaining that the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi had split the uranium atom when he bombarded it with neutrons. Physicists immediately recognized that among the byproducts of “fission,” as the new process was called, was the release of a tremendous amount of energy. They realized that if the energy locked within the uranium nucleus could be released slowly it might become a source of almost inexhaustible power, but if it was released instantaneously it could become an incredibly destructive bomb. As Europe plunged into war the following year, the world’s first nuclear arms race got underway. American scientists crossed the finish line first when they conducted that test in New Mexico. The world would never be the same.
The story of the Manhattan Project has been told many times, first by Henry D. Smyth in Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, the report released by the government in 1945, but never has it been told better than by Richard Rhodes in his outstanding 1986 volume, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. During the past sixty years innumerable works have been written dealing with various aspects of nuclear weapons and their impact upon political and military affairs. But there are few if any general histories of the entire period constituting the “atomic age.” Gerard J. DeGroot’s new book, The Bomb: A Life, changes that situation. DeGroot is an historian teaching at St. Andrews in Scotland. He has written several other works dealing with war and military affairs including The First World War and A Noble Cause? America and the Vietnam War.
This is a succinct, lucid and reliable survey which begins with Ernest Rutherford who, in 1910, postulated that atoms had nuclei, and concludes with the impact of the 9/11 attacks on theories of thermonuclear deterrence and pre-emption. During the course of its “life,” the Bomb has detonated numerous controversies which have divided left and right. These range from whether Harry Truman was right to authorize the use of the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to whether Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative was wise or foolish. Despite DeGroot’s often acerbic prose, this is a surprisingly even-handed, fair, and judicious account which develops a number of significant themes.
Many physicists have lamented that, what was once a profession devoted purely to disinterested research, has been corrupted by its contact with the world of politics, war and money. This is a theme DeGroot develops as he contrasts the tightly knit international community of physicists which existed when Rutherford, Neils Bohr, and Albert Einstein dominated the field, to postwar physics with its huge budgets devoted to serving the needs of the state. Not only did many physicists such as the Hungarian émigré Leo Szilard, fear that they were falling into the hands of nationalist politicians, but that they were becoming the handmaidens of war. Such feelings as these, combined with an abiding sense of guilt occasioned by their role in developing nuclear weapons, led many scientists into politics and to found such periodicals as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1945.
These feelings however were not shared by most Americans or their leaders. DeGroot retells the well known story about an October 1945 meeting between Oppenheimer and Truman in which the former says, “Mr. President, I have blood on my hands,” and Truman replies, “Never mind, it’ll all come out in the wash.” Truman later told an aide, “Don’t bring that crybaby in here again. After all, all he did was make the bomb. I’m the guy who fired it off.” DeGroot contends that this disparate reaction to the use of the bomb grew out of entirely different visions of the purpose of the Manhattan Project. Whereas many of the physicists saw the development of atomic energy as a deterrent to potential German use of nuclear weapons, should they develop them, American political and military leaders involved in the project saw atomic bombs as legitimate weapons of war, which if built, would be used to destroy enemy targets. In short many physicists saw the bomb as a threat, while the government saw it as a weapon.
In addition to the Manhattan Project, and Harry Truman’s decision to use the bomb, the book also describes in passing the efforts of German physicists to present Hitler with an atomic bomb. In the course of this discussion, which could have been a bit more thorough, DeGroot characterizes Werner Heisenberg, a leading figure in German nuclear research, as a “worm” (p. 31) devoid of moral courage.
In a fascinating chapter DeGroot covers the post-war Soviet effort to catch up with the Americans. While giving a great deal of credit to the scientific talents of Igor Kurchatov and Andrei Sakharov, he does not hesitate to mention the role of traitors such as Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall in the success of the Soviet project. The former “managed to pass on what amounted to a blueprint for the implosion bomb,” while “at least ten members of the British contingent supplied information to the Soviets.” Some have questioned the value of this information, but DeGroot quotes participants in the Soviet project as saying that the pilfered information saved the “at least two years.” According to one Soviet researcher, “The information we received was always precise and . . . complete. . . . Never have I encountered one false instruction.”
DeGroot makes clear that Joseph Stalin was not surprised when Harry Truman mentioned to him at the Potsdam Conference just after the successful New Mexico test, that the United States had developed a powerful new weapon. He knew all about it. What surprised Stalin a couple weeks later, was that the Americans had used it, and by doing so had eliminated a Soviet invasion and occupation of Japan. Truman, Stalin believed, had robbed the Russians of the spoils of victory. To Stalin, the use of the bomb had upset the political balance of power. Accordingly, just two weeks after the Hiroshima bombing, Stalin placed Lavrenti Beria, head of the NKVD, in charge of a crash program to catch up with the Americans. Meanwhile among scientists in the west, there were many like Szilard who contended that the Americans should share their nuclear secrets with the an international agency in order to stave off a post-war nuclear arms race. DeGroot believes it would have done no good because Stalin was desperate to restore the balance of power, and to do that he had to have a bomb of his own.
In a series of additional chapters the book reviews the establishment of the Strategic Air Command, the Eisenhower Administration’s “New Look” policy, the development of Edward Teller’s “Superbomb,” and the series of tests in the Pacific which fueled the anti-nuclear movement of the 1950s. Although the book covers the arms race through the 1980s, describing Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, the Pershing missile controversy and the role of Mikhail Gorbachev in negotiating an end to the Cold War, if not nuclear weapons, DeGroot believes that the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was the decisive episode in the history of the nuclear arms race. It was at that point that an unpredictable contest stabilized into a pattern that persisted through the end of the Cold War. As he puts it, “Cuba brought the superpowers to their senses.”
Among the most fascinating chapters in this fine book is one entitled “How We Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb.” Americans it seems, at least initially were infatuated with nuclear imagery. Throughout the fifties and sixties, Americans driving along the interstate “stayed at the Atomic Motel, ate submarine sandwiches at the Atomic Café, and sipped potent Atomic Cocktails at the Atomic Saloon.” The 1947 Manhattan phone book, DeGroot informs us, listed “forty-five companies using the word ‘atomic’ in their names, including the Atomic Undergarment Company—makers, one presumes, of nuclear knickers.” Naturally DeGroot discusses Hollywood’s exploitation of nuclear themes in dozens of movies ranging from The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Day the Earth Stood Still, to MGM’s 1946 film, The Beginning or the End. Of the latter, Szilard said, “If our sin as scientists was to make and use the bomb, then our punishment was to watch The Beginning or the End.”
In addition to discussing movies like Godzilla, the beast with nuclear breath that was roused from the deep by the Bravo test, DeGroot also discusses the influence of bestsellers such as Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, and Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s Fail Safe which in turn became movies. Likewise he comments on Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic, Dr. Strangelove with its caricatures of Gen. Curtis LeMay and such academic high priests of nuclear theory as Herman Kahn, Henry Kissinger and Edward Teller.
Among other topics DeGroot considers in this chapter are Civil Defense efforts such as Operation Alert and the rage for backyard bomb shelters. He also reviews the emergence of anti-nuclear groups like SANE in 1957, under the leadership of Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins and the American Friends Service Committee. DeGroot concludes that one of the great mistakes of the anti-nuclear movement was to rely too heavily on fear to motivate opposition to government policy.
Specialists will find nothing new in this book. It is not written for them. DeGroot has done no original research in primary sources. But unlike many journalists and amateur historians, DeGroot is a scholar who is in command of the secondary literature. Furthermore, he is familiar with all the controversial issues and presents a judicious analysis of the relevant arguments and evidence which sustains them. The Bomb: A Life is a beautifully written synthesis intended for the general public. It deserves to be widely read.
SOURCE: Nation ()
- Gary Nash, The Unknown American Revolution (Viking)
- Harvey Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Hill and Wang)
- David McCullough, 1776 (Simon & Schuster)
Although undoubtedly one of the most glorious events in history, the American Revolution was also a bloody mess. It gave rise to a war that raged for fully half a dozen years, claiming the life of one colonist in a hundred. Proportionally speaking, it generated five times as many political exiles per capita as the French Revolution and saw roughly the same amount of revolutionary confiscations of private property. But if anyone questions whether it was worth it, he or she need only take a look at political conditions north of the border. Canada, where most of America's counterrevolutionary émigrés wound up, is today an increasingly authoritarian society in which elections are stolen, political corruption is rampant and religious fundamentalists hurl thunderbolts while liberals scurry for cover. Thanks to its infinitely more progressive foundations, the United States is the opposite--a sunny, relaxed social democracy admired the world over for its humane attitudes and nonviolent ways.
Er, perhaps we ought to take this once more from the top.
If the American Revolution was the first liberal democratic revolution in history, how is it that the republic it spawned has been so consistently illiberal and undemocratic? Contrary to what you may have read in this publication and others, the problem did not begin with George W. Bush or even Richard Nixon. Rather, the most striking thing about liberalism over the longue durée of US history has been its persistent weakness rather than its strength. Progressives like to dwell on the high points--the Civil War, the New Deal, the movements for social justice of the 1950s and '60s. But they forget the long sloughs of despond in between, periods in which abolitionists could barely show their face without being beaten or killed; leftists were repressed with Mussolini-like thoroughness; and hysterical crusades against sex, alcohol and drugs followed one another in rapid succession. True, liberalism did have its moment in the sun for a few decades following the New Deal. But since the great breakdown of the 1960s, liberals have increasingly reverted to their default mode of pessimism and despair.
The "democratic deficit" between the United States on the one hand and Canada and Western Europe on the other thus continues to expand nearly as rapidly as the current-account deficit. This alone would suggest that America's democratic foundations are not as sturdy as they've been made out to be and that our great founding moment--1776 and all that--deserves a much-belated second look. But the historians, at least those who show up regularly on the bestseller lists, do not agree. While some have turned out tough-minded works, the mood in general has turned soft and celebratory. Instead of careful dissections, they have given us giddy tomes trumpeting "the radicalism of the American Revolution"--not to mention the ineffable genius of a seemingly endless parade of Founding Fathers, from George Washington to Gouverneur Morris and other backbenchers. Although one might expect liberal historians to buck the trend toward filiopietism, they seem intent on serving up an alternative version of the national mythology, one emphasizing the role of slaves, indebted farmers, rebellious housewives, etc. But while they disagree about the factors that have made America so great, they don't quarrel with the assumption of American greatness. Post-9/11, we are all patriots now, liberals no less than conservatives.
Gary Nash's The Unknown American Revolution and Harvey Kaye's Thomas Paine and the Promise of America are examples of this sort of progressive me-too-ism, while David McCullough's 1776 epitomizes the kind of historiography that in today's nationalistic climate sells like hot cakes. Nash's book is the most ambitious of the three, the most well-intentioned and therefore the most disappointing. Rather than focusing on the immediate break with Great Britain, he takes a long view of the American Revolution as a social process unfolding over decades. By the 1740s, he notes, conditions in British North America were growing more and more turbulent. In New Jersey, farmers were up in arms over conflicting land titles issued some eight decades earlier by both the Dutch West India Company and James, Duke of York, brother of King Charles II. In Boston, mobs took to the streets in response to the Royal Navy's habit of sending ashore press gangs to kidnap local workingmen to fill out depleted crews, while a few years later angry Scotch-Irish settlers from western Pennsylvania marched on Quaker-dominated Philadelphia to complain that the provincial government was not doing enough to protect them from the ravages of wild Indians (pausing en route to slaughter and mutilate "twenty Christianized and entirely peaceable Conestoga Indians," Nash notes, just to show they weren't kidding).
Why the ill temper? Although Nash does not dwell on the whys and wherefores, it's clear that the colonies, growing by leaps and bounds, were rapidly outstripping haphazard governing arrangements that had taken shape in the previous century. Lines of authority were tangled, rights and responsibilities were uncertain and in dispute, while parliamentary law coexisted uneasily with homegrown law issuing forth from thirteen colonial legislatures and countless town meetings. The upshot was a chaotic structure that would have broken down even if the authorities had done nothing. But with British finances under stress due to the unprecedented cost of the Seven Years' War of 1756-63, London decided that a crackdown was overdue. Casting aside precedent, Parliament imposed a series of taxes that seemed to confirm the colonists' worst fears about the direction of British policy. Sniffing "the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze," as Edmund Burke put it, the Americans grew convinced that their most basic rights were being snatched away. In short order, Committees of Correspondence were forming up and down the Atlantic Seaboard while farmers and laborers were drilling in countless town squares.
This we know from our history books. What we don't know, but which Nash makes amply clear, is that a highly fragmented political structure fostered a highly fragmented and contradictory response. In Boston, events unfolded along classic bourgeois-revolutionary lines, with virtually the entire population, from merchants right down to laborers and nearby farmers, standing shoulder to shoulder against the imperial authorities and a narrow coterie of their upper-class supporters. But as one headed toward the West and South, conditions grew confused. In New York's Hudson Valley, where a quasi-feudal system of land tenure had taken root in the seventeenth century, tenants were in a state of perennial revolt against their aristocratic landlords. When they learned that such Hudson Valley grandees as John Van Cortlandt and Robert Livingston, the holder of some 160,000 acres, were enlisting in the patriot cause, they immediately declared in favor of the British. Along Maryland's Eastern Shore, where an upper-class officer in the patriotic militia was heard to declare that "no poor man was entitled to a vote, and those that would insist upon voting...should be put to death," impoverished farmers did likewise. So did many Regulators, a group of farmers in the North Carolina highlands who had risen in revolt in the 1760s against regressive taxes imposed by a self-aggrandizing Tidewater elite. If the big planters were supporting independence, they figured that was reason enough for them to support the Loyalists.
Instead of supporting the revolution, many of the most downtrodden members of society thus opposed it. As odd as this was, two additional factors made it even worse. One involved the Indians. Besieged by land-hungry settlers who regarded treaties as meaningless formalities, they saw the British as the only force remotely capable of holding the colonists back and sided with them as well. In April 1774, right around the time that Thomas Jefferson was meeting with other members of the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg to establish a Committee of Correspondence, a group of Virginia frontiersmen seized a Shawnee canoe floating down the Ohio River and not only killed and scalped all nine women aboard but, tearing open the womb of one of them, extracted a near-term child and stuck it "on a pole." The Shawnee took thirteen white scalps in retaliation and put thousands of families to flight. In late 1776 an Indian leader named Joseph Brant began recruiting Mohawk and Oneida warriors to fight against the colonists, and in July 1777 he managed to convince some 700 Iroquois to join him in an attack on Fort Stanwix, the westernmost American outpost in the Mohawk River Valley. Before long, the entire western frontier was ablaze. Instead of a neat and simple power struggle between patriots and Tories, America was the scene of a chaotic conflict between and among upper-class merchants and planters, British soldiers, poor farmers, urban laborers and frontier patriots (whom Nash describes as "deep-dyed Indian haters"), not to mention the Indians themselves.
A second factor, of course, had to do with the slaves, some 600,000 of them, mostly in the South but some as far north as New England. In 1774 an alarmed Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, about a plot among local slaves to send a letter to the royal governor offering to "fight for him provided he would arm them and engage to liberate them if he conquered." In November 1775 Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, returned the favor by offering freedom to any slave willing to bear arms in defense of "His Majesty's crown and dignity." Before long, slaves were fleeing to British lines by the hundreds. Running away was as risky in the 1770s as it would be in the years leading up to the Civil War. When white patriots caught up with a group of about forty runaways in North Carolina, they killed one and whipped and cut off the ears of a number of others. In South Carolina, patriots hung and then burned at the stake a free black man known only as Jeremiah, whom they accused of offering to pilot Royal Navy vessels over the sandbar blocking the entrance to Charleston harbor. Punishments like these were designed to keep blacks in their place, but by mid-1776, according to Nash, the stream of runaways had "turned into a torrent." It was nothing less, he writes, than "the greatest slave rebellion in American history." Yet it was a rebellion against the rebellion, rather as if the Hebrews had rebelled against Moses and fled back into the arms of the pharaoh.
What are we to make of this? Can a revolution opposed by society's most oppressed sectors be described as a revolution at all? Was the patriot cause nothing more than a war of secession on the part of a group of breakaway British provinces, or perhaps a barbarian invasion by Anglo-Celtic settlers determined to throw off all restraint so that they could pillage and plunder the continent all the more effectively? Were the revolutionaries out to create a new order or merely to restore a status quo ante based on slavery, low taxes and, outside New England, a nearly total absence of government control? "I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America if I could have conceived thereby that I was founding a land of slavery," declared the Marquis de Lafayette in the 1790s. Perhaps the most important legacy of 1776 was the bad taste it left in people's mouths when, by the early 1800s, increasing numbers of them woke up to the fact that they had accomplished the opposite of what they had set out to achieve.
Issues like these are no less relevant today than they were two centuries ago. Indeed, given the way the revolution seems to loom ever larger over American society, they may be even more relevant. Unfortunately, however, this is where Nash completely loses his way. Rather than tackling such questions head on, he retreats behind a smokescreen of liberal patriotic piety. Complaining of a truncated historical view that has blinded Americans to the role of blacks, artisans and others, he writes that all too "little is known...of Thomas Peters, an African-born slave who made his personal declaration of independence in early 1776, [and] fought for the freedom of African Americans" or of "Dragging Canoe, the Cherokee warrior who made the American Revolution into a two-decade life-sapping fight for his people's life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness." Both, Nash contends, were part of the revolutionary process. But Thomas Peters, who fled with his family to British lines, and Dragging Canoe, who sided with the British on the western frontier, opposed the revolution. Making them part of a political process they tried to resist not only strains logic but does their legacy a disservice. It involves a political sleight of hand little different, in the final analysis, from the sleight of hand of an earlier era that caused women, laborers and people of color to disappear from the historical annals altogether.
Somehow, an "unruly birth of democracy," to quote from Nash's subtitle, seems inadequate as a description of the mad farrago of warring elements that emerged in 1775-76. The Unknown American Revolution suffers from the besetting sin of American historiography and American political thought in general: extreme tunnel vision. It is astonishing--or, rather, it would be astonishing if we weren't already so used to it--that Nash, a professor at UCLA, can write an entire book seeking to recast our understanding of the revolution with barely a nod to the global events of which the American struggle for independence was merely a part. If he had cast a wider net, he might have been able to make better sense of his subject. After all, strange inversions of the type that took place in the Hudson Valley or the North Carolina highlands were common in other countries in "the age of the democratic revolution," as the historian Robert Palmer termed it. In Haiti, slave owners supported the French Revolution, while the slaves who rose in revolt in 1791 did so in the name of the king. Only when the French outlawed slavery in February 1794 did they declare themselves plus Jacobin que les Jacobins . In England, the slum dwellers were royalist, while radicals tended to come from the entrepreneurial middle class. Indeed, in France itself, ground zero for the democratic revolution, most radicals were royalist on the grounds that Louis XVI was settling nicely into his role as a dutiful constitutional monarch. Only when the king tried to flee to Austrian lines in June 1791 did they begin to reconsider. Revolutions sometimes take a long time to sort themselves out, although the American Revolution, such as it was, has certainly taken longer than most.
Where The Unknown American Revolution surrenders to patriotic piety, Harvey Kaye's Thomas Paine and the Promise of America fairly wallows in it. Kaye neatly sums up in a single sentence in the introduction his concept of how his hero has helped mold American character. "Endowing American experience with democratic impulses and aspirations," he writes, "Paine...turned Americans into radicals--and we have remained radicals at heart ever since." Radicals? A nation of overweight, SUV-driving mall addicts? Still, bizarre as that sentence may be, it's not entirely nonsensical--if, that is, we understand "radical" to mean messianic, apocalyptic or moralistic. If so, then yes, we can say that in some sense the American personality retains a radical edge. It is why the United States is forever embarking on wars and crusades, making itself more unpopular even than Britain at the height of the empire. But it seems unfair to hang it all on poor Tom Paine, a stubborn and cantankerous freethinker who was mostly a pretty likable sort, even if he did get in over his head in the 1790s.
Paine was a brilliant wordsmith, and for Kaye, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay, tracing his legacy consists mostly of tallying up the number of times famous Americans have echoed his phrases. "Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered," "These are the times that try men's souls," "My country is the world," "crowned ruffians"--when it comes to Paine, we are like the man who has been quoting Shakespeare all his life without ever knowing it. But the question of Paine's political or ideological legacy is another matter. Even though he thundered against George III, he is also famous for asserting that "government even in its best state is but a necessary evil," a sentiment that has endeared him to the Newt Gingriches of the world ever since. As Eric Foner showed in his perceptive 1976 study Tom Paine and Revolutionary America , Paine represented a fleeting political type, the Anglo-Saxon radical artisan of the late 1700s. A voracious reader who was trained as a corset-maker at a time when Edmund Burke was declaring that such "servile employments" could not be "a matter of honor to any person," he was both a republican and a libertarian with a visceral loathing of aristocrats and kings. While one might think this would have made him feel right at home in Philadelphia when he moved there in 1774, the ideological mix of the New World was in fact somewhat different. Where English radical artisans were urban, radical republicanism in America tended toward the agrarian, hostile to cities, banks and centralized government, all of which Paine supported. While his famous pamphlet Common Sense helped ignite a revolution, by the 1780s he found himself more and more at odds with his fellow radicals and fed up with politics in general.
Nonetheless, after sailing to England in a vain effort to interest investors in a new type of iron bridge, he was drawn back in. The occasion was Burke's famous broadside Reflections on the Revolution in France , published in November 1790. Outraged that Burke, who had distinguished himself in parliaments as a friend of the American Revolution, would attack the French for seeking to accomplish the same goals, Paine fired back with a pamphlet of his own. Titled The Rights of Man and written with his usual panache, it sold 50,000 copies within a matter of weeks and made its author one of the most famous men of his age. But something about Paine's counterattack did not augur well for the second stage of his political career. Where he looked upon one revolution as merely the continuation of the other, Burke, more perceptively, saw that this time things would be different. And indeed they were. Where the Americans never went beyond dismantling parliamentary sovereignty, the French quickly set about creating a new sovereignty even more awesome and peremptory than the old. As a result, after fleeing to France in September 1792 one step ahead of the British police, Paine found himself in uncharted waters. Foner (but not Kaye) notes that Paine, speaking little French, had barely any contact with the sans- culottes, the laborers, artisans and shopkeepers who were the most militant element in the revolution and who should have been his natural constituency. Instead, he fell in with a group of America- admiring luminaries such as Jacques Brissot and Georges Danton, who were emerging as the conservative opposition to the faction headed by Robespierre. Opposed to price controls when they were imposed in Philadelphia in the 1770s, Paine had no sympathy when radicals demanded the same in Paris in 1793. Elected to the National Convention, he delivered an eloquent speech (read by an interpreter) opposing execution of the man known since his arrest simply as Louis Capet. The speech aroused radical suspicions all the more. Paine was arrested on Christmas Eve and was nearly guillotined the following July. Ultimately, the only thing that saved him was the downfall of Robespierre a scant three days later.
Depending on one's point of view, Paine's arrest and near execution were either an example of how the French Revolution, in terms of political radicalism, left its American predecessor in the dust or an illustration of how French rationalists, lacking that healthy Anglo-American instinct for moderation and compromise, took matters too far and wound up ruining everything. But Kaye does not address such issues. All he is concerned with is establishing Paine as an authentic American hero admired by both the left and the right. Where Theodore Roosevelt once dismissed him as a "filthy little atheist," nowadays everyone from Ted Kennedy to Jesse Helms lauds his contribution to the American struggle for independence, while Christopher Hitchens, Alan Dershowitz and Howard Dean all sing his praises. "Left and right alike have depicted Paine as an opponent of the concentration of power and authority," Kaye writes, although he adds that where the left likes to think of him as an opponent of corporate power, the right prefers to believe that it is federal power he would oppose.
But is there any reason why we should care which side Tom Paine would be on any more than, say, Davy Crockett? If Paine was at sea by the late eighteenth century, is there any reason to suppose he'd be any less so by the early twenty-first? It never seems to occur to Kaye that if Kennedy and Helms agree on something, it is not a reason to take heart. In this instance, it is not an indication of how much things have improved but how much they've deteriorated from the good old days when fading memories of an aging radical could still set the ruling class's teeth on edge. If that is no longer the case, it is an indication of how fossilized the American revolutionary tradition has become. The more Americans celebrate the revolution, the less they think about all the things that made it so disturbing.
David McCullough's 1776 is a further sign of fossilization, not to mention the modern arts of packaging and commodification. Where Nash takes the long view, McCullough takes the short, restricting himself to a single calendar year and little more. Where Nash paints a picture of American society as a whole, McCullough zeroes in on a single individual--General Washington. The upshot is far from bad, however. Though McCullough's prose is anything but stylish, it's sturdy enough, and he has a novelist's sense of structure and pacing. Moreover, the choice of 1776 is a clever one. Not only is it a famous date, but it represented a roller-coaster ride in terms of American military fortunes. The year began on a high note when General Henry Knox, taking advantage of the severe winter weather, used barges and sledges to transport some sixty tons of mortars and cannon down from Fort Ticonderoga in northern New York and across the frozen Massachusetts countryside. Working frantically in the dead of night, Washington's troops succeeded in placing the artillery atop Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston Harbor, in early March. Although the British controlled the city, they were cruelly exposed and had little choice but to withdraw.
This was a political triumph of the first order. But then, when Washington marched his troops to engage the British in New York, he met with disaster. New York Harbor is much bigger than Boston Harbor and consequently far more difficult to dominate. The advantage passed to those able to control waterways like the Hudson and the East River, which in this instance meant the Royal Navy. With his troops ensconced on Manhattan Island, Washington watched while British ships, hugging the far side of the Hudson, sailed effortlessly past. He made matters worse by ferrying several thousand troops across the East River to Brooklyn to head off a British invasion of Long Island and then compounded his error by sending in 1,200 reinforcements when the Americans found themselves hemmed in along the waterfront. Only a Dunkirk-style seaborne rescue on the night of August 29-30 enabled him to transport his troops back to Manhattan and avert catastrophe.
More engagements followed at Harlem Heights, at White Plains, back in Manhattan at Fort Washington and then finally at Fort Lee, which the Americans abandoned in late November without a fight. With winter closing in, Washington's "shadow army," as one of his fellow generals called it, limped through the New Jersey countryside, its ranks depleted by mass desertions. On December 1, 2,000 troops, their enlistments up, simply walked away. The war seemed all but over.
But then, on December 25, Washington ferried his troops back across the Delaware River from the Pennsylvania side, where they had taken refuge, and marched them nine miles through rain, snow and hail to Trenton, where a Hessian force had settled in for the Christmas holiday. Seemingly everything that could go wrong with the operation did. Two of the three units failed to cross the Delaware due to the raging storm, leaving Washington and some 2,400 troops to carry on alone. Informed that the American guns were too soaked to fire, Washington grimly ordered his men to use bayonets. Breaking into a run as they entered the village, the Americans struck at 8 in the morning. After forty-five minutes of wild house-to-house fighting, they were victorious. Twenty-one Hessians were killed, ninety were wounded and approximately 900 were taken prisoner, while some 500 managed to escape. Incredibly, no Americans died and only four were wounded. It was just the triumph that Washington had been hoping for, one that proved the British would be denied a quick victory and that the war would drag on for a good deal longer.
It's a ripping yarn that McCullough tells extremely well. But the political strategy behind it is not difficult to discern. The story is filled with ups and downs, and McCullough, who is no Parson Weems, presents Washington not only as someone with more than his share of flaws but as a military amateur who was plainly out-generaled by his British opponents. But that is the point. By reducing the story to its bare military essentials, he manages to shear away all the messy and troubling political details. And by showing the depths to which American fortunes had fallen by mid-November, he makes the victory in Trenton seem all the more stirring. American heroism is affirmed yet again. "We have to value what our forebears--and not just in the eighteenth century, but our own parents and grandparents--did for us, or we're not going to take it very seriously, and it can slip away." So McCullough told a conference recently hosted by Hillsdale College, an ultra-right-wing private institution based in Michigan. In other words, the purpose of history is to conserve the good things done for us in the past so that we can prepare ourselves for the trials and tasks that still lie ahead. This is history as a form of national rearmament, which is why it fits in so well with the embattled national mood.
Reprinted with permission from the Nation. For subscription information call 1-800-333-8536. Portions of each week's Nation magazine can be accessed at http://www.thenation.com.
SOURCE: Chronicle of Higher Education ()
The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War By Andrew Bacevich
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden By Steve Coll
Preventing Surprise Attacks: Intelligence Reform in the Wake of 9/11 By Richard A. Posner
Most books on American foreign policy reflect the underlying and unstated consensus assumptions of the U.S. foreign-affairs establishment. Democrats and Republicans are passionate in criticizing each other's approach to world affairs, but that criticism is usually constrained by those common assumptions.
For example, liberals have heavily criticized President George W. Bush's "pre-emptive" -- actually, preventive -- war on terrorism and his invasion of Iraq. Yet President Bill Clinton threatened preventive war with North Korea if that nation failed to freeze its nuclear-weapons program (a harder line than the Bush administration has taken), bombed Serbia during its civil war in the province of Kosovo, and threatened an invasion of Haiti unless Jean-Bertrand Aristide was restored to power. Although Bush may win the prize for the most ill-advised overseas armed intervention, Clinton can take a bow for the greatest number of military excursions by any recent president.
Both of them, all of their recent Democratic and Republican predecessors, and most foreign-policy analysts in both parties are operating on a century-old set of principles derived from Christian missionaries sent abroad to save savage peoples from themselves. Those notions were first incorporated into U.S. government policy during the presidencies of William McKinley, a Republican, and Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat. During the Spanish-American War, McKinley wanted, at least ostensibly, to bring Christianity to the Philippines even though the islands were already predominantly Catholic. Wilson, the son of a minister, converted this overtly religious quest into a more secular version of saving implicitly inferior peoples. He believed U.S. military power should be used overseas to fight the "war to end all wars" (World War I) and to teach other peoples to "elect good men" (during his military meddling south of the U.S. border). Although the revulsion at the mass carnage of World War I temporarily interrupted the permanent enshrinement of Wilsonianism as U.S. foreign policy, Wilson has had the most enduring foreign-policy legacy of any president in the modern age. After World War II, both Democratic and Republican presidents copied his use of U.S. military power to remake the world in the American image.
Whether a president has been a leftward-leaning Wilsonian like Clinton or Lyndon Johnson, or a rightward-leaning Wilsonian like Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes, U.S. policy has been fairly consistent: an activist overuse of the powerful U.S. military to intervene in the affairs of other nations.