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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Monday, September 01, 2008

Focusing on “Men of Means”

Yesterday I argued that, contrary to the focus of the widely circulated “Price They Paid” essay, the Continental Congress delegates who signed the Declaration of Independence were less likely to suffer pain and death than the ordinary American soldiers of the Revolutionary War. But that essay (in its various versions) isn’t just about physical suffering. It spends far more space on how signers lost property because of the war.

Because the delegates came from the richest class of their community, their homes were most attractive as headquarters for British commanders, their farms had the most supplies for foraging armies, and they owned the most ships that could be captured at sea. But those men also had the most money and contacts to fall back on. There was a lot of economic upheaval during the war and shortly afterwards, but many poorer Americans suffered as badly or worse than the signers.

Furthermore, few if any versions of the essay acknowledge that for many signers the biggest wartime property loss came in the form of escaped slaves. Simply bringing up that topic forces the question of who paid a higher price, especially in relation to what they got in return: the fifty-six signers or the thousands of people they held captive over the years?

“The Price They Paid” justifies its focus on privileged gentlemen by arguing that, because those men had the most, they the most to lose in rebelling against the Crown:

These were not wild-eyed, rabble-rousing ruffians. There were soft-spoken men of means and education. They had security, but they valued liberty more. . . . They gave us an independent America. Can we keep it?
By saying the signers men “gave us an independent America,” the essay presents American independence as a gift from five dozen privileged individuals, rather than the creation of hundreds of thousands of people working together, sometimes guided by that elite and sometimes pushing that elite along. Even if writers revise the essay’s phrasing to avoid factual errors, a narrow focus on the signers still carries the same elitist message.

The Rush Limbaugh version, drawing on T. R. Fehrenbach, is more explicitly ideological, saying of the signers:
They simply asked for the status quo. It was change they resisted. It was equality with the mother country they desired. It was taxation with representation they sought. They were all conservatives, yet they rebelled.

It was principle, not property, that had brought these men to Philadelphia.
Of course, “no taxation without representation” is a principle about property. Taxation is always about property. And since the wealthy and powerful always resist changes to their wealth and power, that impulse wasn’t what made America’s Revolution unusual or important.

Rather, I think the special factor was how circumstances made the wealthy and powerful unite with the bulk of the population to create new forms of government that almost guaranteed further change. By the time Andrew Jackson left the Presidency (the last Revolutionary War veteran to hold that office), the U.S. of A. had become more democratic in ways that would have surprised, perhaps even appalled, most of those conservative men of means in Philadelphia.

The American political right finds a lot to like in this essay, as shown by the men who’ve promulgated different versions—Paul Harvey, Strom Thurmond, Limbaugh, Oliver North, Jonah Goldberg, Jeff Jacoby—and the websites where it pops up. “The Price They Paid” makes heroes of the “men of means” while ignoring the price paid by small farmers, sailors, craftsmen, and of course enslaved workers. There are clear parallels between how this essay demands our admiration for Revolutionary America’s elite and their (exaggerated) suffering during the war, and the present political campaign on behalf of a son and grandson of admirals, husband of a multimillionaire heiress, champion of conservative programs to preserve the social and economic status quo, based largely on his (well documented) suffering during a war.

COMING UP: The specific case of signer Richard Stockton.


Robert S. Paul said...

I'm not sure I understand your last comment.

McCain did actually suffer, son of an Admiral or not.

If you're saying that doesn't give him the sole right to be President, I would agree, but it seemed like you were saying we shouldn't care about his stay at the Hanoi Hilton because he's from the elite upper crust of society.

I'm not sure that's fair.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, McCain definitely did suffer as a P.O.W. That’s why I distinguished his “well documented” suffering from the “exaggerated” losses of the signers in most forms of the “Price They Paid” essay.

We agree that McCain’s P.O.W. experience doesn’t give him a free pass to the Oval Office. We voters should look at his policies and his record, which are conservative and (with the exception of campaign-finance reform) largely protective of the status quo and moneyed interests.

A lot of the McCain campaign is based on reminding voters of his suffering—never more so than when his own status as a member of America’s elite comes to public notice. Last month McCain was unable to tell an interviewer how many homes he and his wife own. After criticism, the response McCain and his advisors eventually came up with was: “I spent 5 1/2 years in a prison cell. I didn't have a house. I didn't have a kitchen table. I didn't have a table.”

That remark wasn’t relevant to McCain’s current lifestyle, his understanding of the economy, voter anxieties growing out of today’s housing market, or larger questions of wealth distribution and economic policy. It was an attempt to cut off an embarrassing discussion on personal wealth and privilege by demanding people’s sympathy and admiration.

The “Price They Paid” essay in its usual form uses the same tactic, asking that we admire 56 privileged men because of how some of them personally suffered. In doing so, it asks us not to question their privileges, to ignore the Revolution as a mass movement, and to view the new republic’s increase in freedoms and opportunities as “conservative” rather than a tremendous new reform.

Robert S. Paul said...

Then I stand corrected, and we are (largely) in agreement.

J. L. Bell said...

And I appreciate the chance to clarify what I meant.