J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Marginalizing rhetoric

Back in June, I posted yet another piece on Samuel Adams, this one on how he wasn't the most radical politician in America, or even in Boston. In fact, in most ways his political ideals were extremely conservative by today's standards. That entry was inspired by a posting on the Daily Kos, and its author, Buckeye Hamburger, returned the favor with a comment:

I'm curious about what you think of the rest of the blog about Adams. The lesson for the present, I think, is that those who speak out with the moral conviction and passion that is appropriate to the severity of the times are likely to be scorned as excessive and irrelevant, but they shouldn't let that discourage them. We see that today in the attempt to marginalize bloggers as hysterical and profane. And, unfortunately, it drives the fear of many contemporary political leaders who are too timid to act as forthrightly as Sam Adams did.
I think there are actually two separate situations here, visible in how the blog entry quoted descriptions of Samuel Adams from two different centuries: some from his contemporaries and some from writers of the past hundred years.

One situation is current politics—current to whatever time you're living in. It's common for partisans to go beyond arguing the issues and claim that their opponents are corrupt, irrational, dishonest, opportunistic, too high-class, too low-class, or whatever other charge they can try to stick. The most baffling of these labels in American politics, I think, is "goo-goo"—too interested in good government. I suspect that last fits with many American voters' unstated aversion to voting for anyone they sense is smarter than they are.

This form of politicking by personal attack was especially strong in the early 1700s, when after a century of uprisings and revolutions British society was just starting to formulate the idea of a "loyal opposition." (See Patricia Bonomi's The Lord Cornbury Scandal for an entertaining case study in colonial politics by gossip at the start of that century.) Such name-calling was also strong in the early American republic, when the survival of the new U.S. of A. as a republic seemed uncertain and people were still feeling out the party system. Basically, every politician in America was called corrupt or insane in some way or other, often by rivals within their own party (e.g., Timothy Pickering, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton). It's no surprise that we can find such criticism about Samuel Adams from the 1700s, and he seems to have used the same sort of rhetoric about his opponents—though not as harshly as some of his colleagues.

So, yeah, people who don't like the Kos are going to see it and its organizers as "hysterical and profane." Just as we who disagree with prevailing views on the FreeRepublic see its partisans as dittohead zealots. Which is not to say that they aren't.

The other situation, which strikes me as more curious, is how historians and then popular writers have described Samuel Adams long after he and the issues he debated were dead and buried. Why is Adams criticized in deeply personal terms today, with his lifelong political convictions ascribed to adolescent resentments? Why do many writers describe Adams in ways that not only have little foundation in the historical record, but are actually at odds with what he wrote? Why do some historians ignore the criticisms that Adams's contemporaries actually made about him and criticize him for actions he didn't take?

I think that for many modern American writers—often politically conservative—Samuel Adams has become an embodiment of something they fear: mass movement by the politically frustrated. They ignore the evidence of Adams's own conservatism, preference for legislative maneuvers and newspaper debates, and regrets about mobs. Such writers want to believe in the same myths that Crown officials and Loyalists shared in the 1760s and 1770s: that popular unrest could not grow naturally and reasonably, and thus had to be caused by wily and ruthless individuals. Adams seems like a useful embodiment of that fear? Who embodies it today?


Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

I was referred to your blog through the reference in "Millard Fillmore's Bathtub." Very interesting, and I'll be reading and commenting on a good number of your entries. But here I just wanted to comment on 'goo-goos.'

There are two reasons why this was a pejorative. The first was the implication that these people were 'impractical academics/idealists' who didn't understand 'how the real world worked.' Who didn't realize the necessity, for example of patronage in holding a political machine together, or the compromises that were needed in actually running a government day to day. (I don't know what fiction you read -- other than the Oz books, and can you imagine what Baum would have had to say about today's preachers? I only wish the books had been more frequently used in schools, perhaps the Christianists would have been less successful recently. -- but if you have ever come across the works of K.C. Constantine, there is a brilliant use of a 'modern day goo-goo' in the portrait of the new mayor in ALWAYS A BODY TO TRADE.)

But the other thing about the 'goo-goos' is that they frequently represented not merely 'virtue in politics' but a strong streak of nativism. The machines they attacked were made up of the immigrants, while, in every case I can think of they were representatives of the 'old-line' business-oriented (to use an anachronism) WASPs. They were rarely interested in business corruption or manipulation of government. Rather they attacked the p[atronage systems, particularly in cities. There may be exceptions to this, but not many of them.

More on this and other posts later, but my computer is acting up and I have to wrap this up.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment. I recognize what opponents of the "goo-goos" meant by that nickname.

But by seizing on that particular term as a pejorative, they were making a statement that reflected poorly on their own view of government: that it could not be good, they weren't even going to try to improve it, they were simply going to exploit it for their own ends.

Many "goo-goos" were indeed elitist, using the shield of "good government" to justify anti-democratic maneuvers. But I think their opponents would have been on a stronger foot to show how that label was a hypocritical smokescreen, like "compassionate conservative," rather to implicitly deny the possibility of "good government" for the whole people.

Fiorello LaGuardia is a prime example of someone who understood both how government does work and how it could work for the greatest number. He got beyond the worst of the machines and the worst of the elites.