Wednesday, February 3, 2021

It's Complicated

Liberty Tree, corner of Essex and Washington Streets, Boston, undated, via

I've been wanting to go back to the piece on historiography last week, and to correct something misleading I said, that led Redhand to comment

At this point in my life, I really am beginning to wonder what the hell the American Revolution was about, to begin with. "No taxation without representation," or as Yas suggests, no taxation at all, at least if you're part of the American meritocracy (or is it, actually, aristocracy?) Or, more darkly, (pun intended) was the revolution intended to enshrine under the banner of "freedom" the privileges of those "urban and urbane" white elites who were happy to see "the embattled farmers" do the real fighting at Lexington and Concord?

I didn't mean to try to substitute one categorical statement (the liberal postwar consensus view of the Revolution as a movement of pure idealistic principle) with another one (a strawman picture of the revolutionaries as purely selfish and self-interested actors). What I really wanted to praise in the older, cynical history of the early 20th century and by implication in the critical history of now is the possibility of not insisting on categorical judgments at all, of not requiring a decision on who was the good guy and who was the bad guy, of recognizing that it's complicated.

I got my basic ideas about historiography back in the days when I was actively academic, but mostly at second hand, from people who were hip to the French fashions, I guess, of the Annales historians and poststructuralists and whatnot: on the one hand that social forces, not individuals, are the drivers of change, as the Marxists always claimed, but on the other hand that's at least in part because the lives of individuals pushed in different directions by social forces are so fantastically complex (think Martin Guerre, or the 17th-century sinners and their priest-confessors studied by Michel Foucault), and this must apply to the famous Great Men just as much as it applies to those fascinating little guys, and gals, whose lives are less familiar and accessible from the documents. I'm not a historian, of course, let alone a historian of America, and I don't even know to what extent these ideas have had any purchase in American history; but they don't seem to have had much influence on the kind of popular American history I have easy access to. I know I'd like to see some Revolutionary history taking the viewpoint that Hamilton and Jefferson, Adams and Franklin, and Washington himself weren't really in control of events, so that we might relax a little on the question of whether they were good or not. 

What grabbed me about William Hogeland's essay was the sense of how the more honest you were as a researcher the more complex a picture of motivations you would end up with. The fact is that the American tax protests were varied: sometimes they cohered with a legal theory (distinguishing between internal taxes, which could only be levied by the local authorities elected by the colonists, and external ones which they accepted), and sometimes they didn't. There was also the famous case where they protested against a cut in taxes, on the tea duty, meant to favor the East India Company monopoly on the tea trade against the Boston tea smugglers who couldn't offer such a cheap price. I imagine a Revolutionary history in which all these contradictory responses reflect a growing inevitable conflict in which the revolutionary third of the colonists and the rulers in London simply had different interests all the time, and the separation became inevitable even as some England-loving leaders—Franklin and John Adams—struggled against it, while others, like Adams's cousin Samuel, egged it forward, and the nation invented itself, not for good or evil or anybody's ideological motivation but out of some kind of ecological process, years before the Continental Congress declared it and got Jefferson to write it up.

In that sense, the 1619 perspective is a valuable counter to the City on a Hill perspective of the liberal consensus, but what I really want is the story of how chance, economic necessity, and cosmic irony (of course) brought about the thing we have, the phenomenon, as we seek to do our small parts in trying to make it better. I'm not going to cancel Jefferson, but I have to recognize it's somebody else's job to forgive him, I"m not entitled to do that; at the same time I can go on trying to understand his behavior, including his blindnesses, better...

None of this is what we want to be talking about at the moment, which is occupied with the amazing activity of the Biden White House and its executive orders, the Democratic Congress and their budget resolution making its way toward the reconciliation process, the impeachment trial, the developing character of the Trumpy rebellion, if that's what it is, political events ranging from the interesting in Germany and Italy to the cataclysmic in Myanmar and Russia, and so on. I've been having a kind of brain collapse over it all, and I'm having a hard time recollecting a voice to talk about it with, which is part of the reason I've been posting so little, but stay patient.

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