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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Friday, July 12, 2013

Great Men and Ordinary Americans

In his New York Times review of Joseph J. Ellis’s Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, Andrew Cayton of Miami University argued that the book is missing a very big part of what constituted a revolution:
It simply won’t do to talk about a revolutionary summer in which the only voices are those of prominent white men and the recollections of 15-year-old Joseph Plumb Martin, written decades later. Ellis includes a handful of paragraphs on women, enslaved Africans and working-class artisans. But they read like generic concessions to critics who have chastised him for celebrating already celebrated white men rather than the rest of North America’s diverse population. The point Ellis misses is that attention must be paid to the people outside Congress not from a desire to make history more inclusive but because their voices were loud and their choices important, not least in their impact on the actions of the men inside Congress.

Incorporating more people would fundamentally change Ellis’s story, making it messier and less predictable. The “conspicuous consensus” on independence that emerged in Congress occurred nowhere outside of New England. Nor, again, were the maneuvers of the British Army the only challenges confronting members of Congress. It seemed obvious to many Americans that a state of war had existed with Britain since shots were fired at Lexington on April 19, 1775. Everywhere ad hoc committees were creating new political institutions, agreeing with Thomas Paine in his best-selling “Common Sense” that monarchy, not George III, was the basic problem. Honest men could govern themselves better than “the Royal Brute of Britain” could; on the day Americans proclaimed a new charter of government in which “the law is king,” they should demolish a symbolic crown and scatter its pieces “among the people whose right it is.”

This stunning proposition horrified other Americans. Just as thousands were choosing independence because it promised revolution in favor of natural rights and self-government, so thousands were choosing the British Empire because they dreaded a democratic revolution that they feared would degenerate into anarchy and popular tyranny. Many believed the imperial tensions reflected inept administration rather than structural failure. Ellis writes that “most probably, a poll of the American population” in September 1776 “would have revealed a citizenry more politically divided and receptive” to Richard Howe’s peace terms “than the Continental Congress or its diplomatic representatives.” It is a point he fails to develop. [John] Adams spoke for a small percentage of the population. So did [John] Dickinson. . . .

In short, what made the summer of 1776 revolutionary was the range of options, the cacophony of voices, the increasing resort to violence, the growing sense that nothing was safe. Americans like to believe that their revolution as well as their independence was a moderate affair in which the founding fathers were in control of events rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, “Revolutionary Summer” reinforces that perception.
In a big sense, Ellis already responded to that sort of critique of his work twelve years earlier in his preface to Founding Brothers:
The apparently irresistible urge to capitalize and mythologize as “Founding Fathers” the most prominent members of the political leadership during this formative phase has some historical as well as psychological foundation, for in a very real sense we are, politically, if not genetically, still living their legacy. And the same principle also explains the parallel urge to demonize them, since any discussion of their achievement is also an implicit conversation about the distinctive character of American imperialism, both foreign and domestic.

A kind of electromagnetic field, therefore, surrounds this entire subject, manifesting itself as a golden haze or halo for the vast majority of contemporary Americans, or as a contaminated radioactive cloud for a smaller but quite vocal group of critics unhappy with what America has become or how we have gotten here. Within the scholarly community in recent years, the main tendency has been to take the latter side, or to sidestep the controversy by ignoring mainstream politics altogether. Much of the best work has taken the form of a concerted effort to recover the lost voices from the revolutionary generation—the daily life of Marsha Ballard as she raised a family and practiced midwifery on the Maine frontier; the experience of Venture Smith, a former slave who sustained his memories of Africa and published a memoir based on them in 1798. This trend is so pronounced that any budding historian who announces that he or she wishes to focus on the political history of the early republic and its most prominent practitioners is generally regarded as having inadvertently confessed a form of intellectual bankruptcy.

Though no longer a budding historian, my own efforts in recent years, including the pages that follow, constitute what I hope is a polite argument against the scholarly grain, based on a set of presumptions that are so disarmingly old-fashioned that they might begin to seem novel in the current climate. In my opinion, the central events and achievements of the revolutionary era and the early republic were political. These events and achievements are historically significant because they shaped the subsequent history of the United States, including our own time. The central players in the drama were not the marginal or peripheral figures, whose lives are more typical, but rather the political leaders at the center of the national story who wielded power. What's more, the shape and character of the political institutions were determined by a relatively small number of leaders who knew each other, who collaborated and collided with one another in patterns that replicated at the level of personality and ideology the principle of checks and balances imbedded structurally in the Constitution.
Given how much power elite men wielded in eighteenth-century society, it does make sense to look at their words and actions. And Cayton doesn’t argue that Revolutionary Summer should ignore the arguments of the politicians in Philadelphia. Rather, he reminds us that those men were influenced by the populace around them, sometimes in ways they didn’t recognize. It’s valuable to study the Revolution from both the top and the bottom.

And the fact that Ellis misspelled the name of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s subject Martha Ballard as “Marsha” undercut his implicit claim to have carefully considered other approaches.


Daud Alzayer said...

But what about you Mr. Bell? Do you think Ellis' work has value or is it just useless Filiopietism?

J. L. Bell said...

I think Ellis’s oeuvre definitely has value. Even when he retells rather familiar stories, he does so with a clear, lively style, and I think he really is good at what he sets out to do: get inside the heads of the topmost Founders.

But I also think that approach has some severe limitations: for example, recognizing the social forces that those Founders, given their personalities and class, were loath to acknowledge as affecting them.

And then there's the larger question that the extracts above are debating: the "Great Man" versus "social movement" schools of history. I agree with Ellis that individual choices can be very influential in national history. Of course, we can't be sure about that, or about which individual choices mattered most. And while Venture Smith wasn't as influential on subsequent history as George Washington, Venture Smith was in some important ways representative of thousands of other people in similar siutations, and thousands of people can be more influential even than Washington.