Sunday, September 23, 2007

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW: GORDON WOOD'S RADICALISM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

GORDON WOOD'S RADICALISM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION , March 11, 2005


Mr. Wood's book tries to put some intellectual and moral sizzle back into an American Revolution that has long come to be regarded by world scholars as something less than an earth-shaking event.

Despite much-labored efforts, Mr. Wood fails, and he is pretty dull along the way in presenting his case. It really could not be otherwise, for his basic thesis is faulty. The Revolution has been summed up, quite accurately I believe, as a group of home-grown aristocrats taking power from a group of foreign-born aristocrats.

America's central myth about its founding goes something like this: An extraordinary bunch of men, dressed in frock coats and wearing powdered wigs, closeted together after a long and heroic war against tyranny, worked unselfishly to give the United States a perfect modern system of government.

These notions manage to get thoroughly muddled with Puritan religious ones that have been around since America's colonial days, producing a story with strong overtones of a biblical legend.

This set of myths and attitudes has been called America's Civic Religion, and it is an apt name. Gordon Woods does not seriously question this fuzzy, half-mythical view.

The first truly important cause for American independence was Britain's victory in the French and Indian War (more generally called the Seven Year's War). The French in the 1750s were setting about constructing a series of forts both along the Canadian border and in places like the Ohio river valley. Their intention was to prevent the westward expansion of the British colonies and to lock up much of the valuable fur trade.

British colonists did not look favorably on this development. Their intense desire was to become rich through land speculation and endless westward expansion, the kind of activity, apart from marrying a rich widow, that made George Washington one of the wealthiest men in the colonies, one with rather a reputation for sharp business practices.

The colonists were used to a rather privileged position that none of them wanted disturbed. They lived a healthy and relatively happy life, as all the statistics and observations of the time attest. Foreign observers frequently commented on how healthy Americans under the Crown were. As well, it was widely observed, and commented on in Europe, that these colonies - well before the Revolution - were amongst the freest places in the world to live.

Britain did win the war, but at considerable cost. The colonies' first reaction to British victory was joy and celebration. It was later that a series of what can only be regarded as reasonable tax measures to have the colonists help pay the costs of the war aroused such great antipathy in the colonies. The view was simply this: The war was over, the benefits to the colonists could not be re-claimed by Britain, so the colonists felt no obligation to help pay beyond what they had contributed during the war. Hatred of taxes - unavoidably associated with crippling good, sound government - has remained to this day a feature of the American cultural landscape.

So, after the French and Indian War, things at first looked favorable for the desires of settlers to build limitless land empires, but then several developments considerably darkened the view.

A key one was the Quebec Act which vastly extended the territory of Quebec to include what today is Illinois as part of a vast Quebec Territory. Most Americans will not know what a huge storm this caused in the colonies because it is not an attractive subject for elementary texts.

First, it appeared to make the possibility of endless western expansion impossible. England, quite fairly and reasonably, wanted to discourage expansion over the Appalachians into Indian territory like the Ohio valley as a way of maintaining peace. The Mother Country had a conscientious policy of avoiding further conflicts with native Americans. This policy American colonists had tended to ignore, but the creation of a new Western jurisdiction under a Catholic province like Quebec, was an entirely different matter.

There was a paranoid fear of "papism" in the colonies, peopled as they were by many Puritan extremists who had run away from the dislike they often aroused in the old country. Anti-Catholic feeling ran very high in the American colonies. Indeed, it was an old custom, and remained the custom for decades after the Revolution, to burn effigies of the pope each year on Britain's Guy Fawkes Day. America's nasty-tempered Puritan settlers wanted nothing to do with "papists." Yes, the very same nasty, hateful words we heard during the Northern Ireland conflict over the last thirty years were constantly on the tongues and in the newspapers of American colonists.

Britain's final reaction to the colonists' refusal to pay taxes, after a long period of adjustments in the taxes and talks with colonial representatives, and to their contempt for Imperial regulations over boundaries and trade - many of the colonies' richest men such as John Hancock were simply smugglers - triggered an authentic "grass-roots" revolt in Massachusetts.

When the unthinkable actually happened in Massachusetts - violent revolt being originally unthinkable for most well-known and established colonial figures like Franklin or Washington or John Adams - there was no going back. The central issue became one of how things were to be managed by the colonies' ambitious little Establishment.

Washington's appointment as commander-in-chief represented an important turning point. What had been an almost spontaneous revolt organized by militia groups who elected their leaders became an organized opposition with an organized army under an appointed commander who suddenly started lashing and hanging volunteers who didn't obey orders or show proper respect. Washington, the cold Virginia aristocrat, expressed contempt in his letters for the New England militiamen who had taken all the chances and started the whole business. He wanted to command a real army with smart uniforms and traditional discipline just like the British army he so admired. He had been frustrated for years about getting a permanent commission in the British army, something that was then rarely awarded to colonials.

The real lessons of the American Revolution include the fact that early Americans were not motivated by quite the high ideals that contemporary Americans generally attribute to them. Anti-Catholicism and greed for Western expansion were basic causes. So, too, antipathy to taxes. Still, given enough time, America outgrew some of these early narrow prejudices.

Many will recall that the Pulitzer Prize for journalism has been awarded to mediocrity and even downright fraud, but this book is the perfect example of how little the Pulitzer Prize for history means as a guide to quality and stimulating work. Perhaps this generalization is true of all prizes, but it has been egregiously so in the case of the Pulitzer.

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