The Transformation Of Early American History
New books on the early days in American history
- The Transformation Of Early American History: Society, Authority And Ideology
Edited by James A. Henretta, Michael Kammen and Stanley N. Katz - Alfred Knopf, 1991 - 340 pp. - $35
- David Humphreys' 'Life Of General Washington' With George Washington's ‘Remarks’
Edited by Rosemarie Zagarri - University of Georgia Press, 1991 - li+ 129 pp. - $24.95
- Tea Party To Independence: The Third Phase Of The American Revolution 1773-1776
Peter D.G. Thomas - Clarendon Press, 1991 - 357 pp. - £40
Thirteen British colonies clinging to the Atlantic Seaboard, each with its own traditions, prejudices and aspirations, none of them conspicuously sympathetic to the interests of any of the others, and having in common only resentment for tyranny, are welded together into a consortium so richly endowed with determination, courage and inspired leadership that it can take on and defeat one of the great military powers of the age, and so imbued with noble philosophy that it fashions out of victory a united nation founded on a premise never previously articulated anywhere else in the world, the premise that 'all men are created equal'.
This, in brief, is the story of America in the second half of the eighteenth century as, much embellished by myth, it has been passed from generation to generation of Americans, and as such it is by them cherished as the heroic prelude to the story, no less heroic but even more glorious, the story which tells how, in the first century, the United States extended its bounds 'from sea to shining sea' and then, in its second century, moved on to achieve well-nigh undisputed supremacy among the nations.
For many years American historiography did little to combat these chauvinistic excesses in the popular view of colonial, revolutionary and federalist America; few American historians can look back to the pre-history of the United States through eyes not blurred by tears of patriotic pride; but there have been heretics (some of them British and therefore subject to the influence of their own brand of chauvinism) who have dared the proposition that the revolution was not a uniquely American phenomenon but an episode in a long-running drama: the advance towards liberty of the English-speaking peoples, and, growing in number and influence from the early 1920s, there have been revisionists less vehement than the iconoclasts but even so ready to question many of the romantic exaggerations in the conventional American version of the American past.
It is, therefore, hyperbolic to imply – as the title given to the volume published in his honour does imply – that one man, Bernard Bailyn of Harvard, has transformed early American history.
Yet there is no denying that, as writer, leader and teacher of teachers, Bailyn's influence on the historiography of that period has been immense. He is not an iconoclast nor in any generally-accepted sense a revisionist. He has enunciated no novel and seminal thesis equivalent to that presented, almost 100 years ago, by Frederick Jackson Turner in his paper 'The Significance of the Frontier in American History'. The subject-matter of his many works is diverse, so wide-ranging that there appears to be no linking theme, nor any reason for his interest that is common to all his writings.
All the essays in The Transformation of Early American History are by former students of Bailyn who are now themselves distinguished historians. The first three set out to synthesise and analyse his works and the consequence of his ideas for a younger generation of historians. But his influence is more readily comprehended if the other eight essays are considered as a whole, for these are the essays in which the precepts of the master are put into practice by his disciples.
As with the corpus of Bailyn's own writings, there is apparent in these eight essays no obvious community of purpose. Their authors choose topics as various as "Crime... in Seventeenth Century Maryland' and 'The Transition to Capitalism in America'. On first reading some of their choices appear to be blatantly eccentric to the study of the history of early America and, as is not uncommon in a festschrift, from time to time even the authors themselves appear to be reaching out desperately for some theme which will give unity to their conjoined testament.
Yet the unity is there. Persistently and consistently Bailyn looked behind the events, movements and eminent personalities which, more often than not, form the substantial core of history. The eight essayists follow his example; it is significant that in all the 340 pages of this collection there are only four references to George Washington, only one to the Stamp Act, and none to the Battle of Yorktown, Lord North or George III.
Tea Party to Independence is the third in the sequence of studies of Anglo-colonial relations in the few years which began with the crisis over the Stamp Act and ended with the Declaration of Independence. In almost every respect unlike anything written by Bailyn or his followers, it is a cool, broad and yet intricately detailed account of the eighteen months which culminated in one of history's seismic events, the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Professor Thomas concerns himself almost exclusively with public affairs, with the very public figures who directed them, and with the public opinion which influenced their course.
Thomas handles dexterously the complex mechanics of his task. He shifts attention from one side of the Atlantic to the other and from colony to colony without interrupting the flow of the narrative towards its inevitable and dramatic conclusion.
He is scholarly yet never pedantic hut his shining virtue is objectivity. He surveys those eighteen traumatic months from a mid-Atlantic observation post and, as is perhaps appropriate to a professor in the University of Wales, he is not overwhelmed by the prejudices of earlier, and mostly American popular writers on this period in American history who have, well-nigh unanimously, settled all the blame for the break between Britain and its American colonies on British folly and the obduracy of British politicians, all the honour on the high-principled colonists. He investigates the constraints on British colonial history and, even-handedly, he explores the reasons – not all of them reason- able – for the rejection by the Americans of all the compromises offered by Britain.
But objectivity implies a lack of passion and the flaw in the book is that it lacks fire and what Bailyn called the 'creative imagination'. The record of the time is here, and in elaborate detail, but the author does not often pass on to his readers any sense of the tension and schizophrenia which affected both the Americans and the British. He under-values the influence on the American community exercised by the rantings of rabblerousers – and particularly Sam Adams – and consequently pays too little attention to their part in forcing the rejection of all constitutional compromises and the decision to turn instead to trial by fire.
Even so, Tea Party to Independence is an outstanding book. Indeed with his trilogy in its entirety Professor Thomas has contributed more than any scholar since Lewis Namier to understanding of the political history of Britain and America in those years before that history can properly be considered as anything other than Anglo-American.
Not even Rosemarie Zagarri's meticulous editing, ardent and eloquent advocacy, and not even the addition of Washington's own comments on his biographer's unfinished work (some parts of it never before published and all of it generally until now forgotten) can make Humphreys' Life of' General Washington much more than an interesting curiosity.
In a comparatively short life – he was only forty-one years-old when he died – Humphreys tried many professions. He was at various times a civil servant, a secret agent, a wool-merchant, and a minister plenipotentiary. But if he is remembered at all today, it is as a pompous poetaster. However his claim to authority as a biographer of his 'Dear General' – and Rosemarie Zagarri's testimony on his behalf – is founded on his revolutionary War Service as Washington's aide-de-camp and on his experience as a resident of Mount Vernon in the year or so before its owner became the first President of the United States.
As is evident in many another biography by someone close to his subject – and blatant in Humphreys' book – intimacy does not guarantee biographical truth. Humphreys over-plays his role as Washington's confidant – for example, as spectator to Washington's battle with his conscience before finally he accepted the presidency. He ignores or elides most of those episodes in Washington's life which showed him to be less than perfect – for example, his callous and even cowardly behaviour at the time of Major Andre's execution; behaviour which reduced his stature in the eyes of some of his most ardent admirers and closest associates, among them Alexander Hamilton. When he does allow that Washington had weaknesses, they are weaknesses that enhance rather than reduce admiration. (Often he mentions, as a reason for Washington's hesitancies as a commander, his revulsion for the horrors of war – incidentally a sentiment by no means unique to Washington but felt, and frequently expressed, by soldiers of all varieties and in all times.)
Humphreys also gives prominence to Washington's concern for the welfare of his troops which he appears to regard as a virtue which made Washington unique among the commanders of that period. Yet even in the eighteenth century there were many generals – notable among them Burgoyne, Washington's first victim, who were no less scrupulous.
Yet by very reason of its bias, Humphreys' biography is valuable, not for the little it adds to the knowledge of the life and character of Washington but as a very early contribution to the creation of an idol.
The United States, a new nation, needed national saints. Washington, the commander who had fashioned victory, a man austere, incorruptible and sincere, was the obvious first choice for sanctification.
Many writers contributed to the hagiology, among them Humphreys, who knew Washington, 'and his contemporary Parson Weims, who did not know him or much about him and so planted fictional cherry-trees for the young Washington to refuse to cut down. Their collective influence was so persuasive that through much of the nineteenth century the character of Washington was by Americans considered to he – as Christ's character to Christians and Mohammed's to Muslims – too sacred to be portrayed in fiction or On the stage. The myth entered into the popularly-accepted history of America and, though there have been many objective biographies and even some that dared to debunk Washington, still today Americans are unusually sensitive to any criticism of their idol, especially if it comes from an outsider.
Nevertheless, though adulation so nearly unanimous and on such a scale is compelling, a foreign heretic remains unconvinced. For him the definitive, if sacrilegious verdict on Washington's personality is summed up in a few lines given to George Warrington by Thackeray (another heretic and also a foreigner) in his novel The Virginian:
Hang him! He has no faults, and that's why I dislike him. When he marries that widow – ah me! What a dreary life she will have of it.
J.E Morpurgo is the author of Christ’s Hospital: An Introductory History (Lofthouse, 1991)
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