Friday, July 08, 2005

"America's Unfinished Revolution": A Symposium ...

The Cliopatria blog is hosting another symposium. This time it's on Gary Nash's essay (partial excerpt) entitled "America's Unfinished Revolution." Go to the symposium for reaction by some of the big boys before reading my two cents.

I've done some research into the historiography of how Bernard Bailyn's "paradigmic" Ideological Origins of the American Revolution has been interpreted, reinterpreted, over-interpreted, misinterpreted and criticized. Included in this is the contemporary critique made by Nash on a 1973 essay written by Bailyn. Bailyn had contributed the lead essay in a compilation of papers [Essays on the American Revolution, ed., Kurtz and Hudson] that had been read at a symposium on the American Revolution held at Williamsburg in 1971. Entitled “The Central Themes of the American Revolution: An Interpretation,” it was a summary of Bailyn’s understanding of the core factors of the American Revolution, based mostly on his previous work. He also addressed the difficulty of explaining the roles of loyalists and slaveholders within his interpretative framework and recounted the years after independence, in which he emphasized both the optimism of Americans and their distrust of power and those of privilege who tended to wield it.

In his review [Nash, The William and Mary Quarterly 31, no.2 (1974), 311-314], Nash contended that the fundamental flaw in Bailyn’s overall interpretation of the Revolution was his insistence on according minimal credit to socioeconomic forces as important causative factors of the Revolution. This particular criticism was nothihng new. In fact, others, such as Gordon Wood, had implied as much nearly a decade earlier. [Wood, The William and Mary Quarterly 23, no.1 (1966): 3-32.] Nash's criticism was much more strident in tone. He argued that the relationship between various social groups and the particular ideologies that they embraced was inseparable. Nash also charged that Bailyn seemed too cavalier in his treatment of the slavery issue. He took particular umbrage with Bailyn for saying that the failure to abolish slavery was “an admirable ‘refusal,’” which kept the Revolutionary movement from sliding off into the “’fanaticism’” of abolition. Finally, Nash criticized the entire compilation of essays, and took the editors of the work to task for not including any essays that addressed the issues of either African-American or Native American viewpoints during the Revolutionary era.

Bailyn responded to Nash’s critique first by stating his original goals in writing his essay and then by addressing Nash’s particular charges. Bailyn reiterated his statement in the essay that his explanation “does not drain the Revolution of its internal social struggles” nor any of the other favorite themes of social or radical historians. What it did do, Bailyn wrote, was describe “why at a particular time the colonists rebelled and establishes the point of departure for the constructive efforts that followed.” As to the slavery issue, Bailyn stated that he was only attempting to explain the reasons why the revolutionaries failed to abolish slavery, not to excuse them. Bailyn’s explanation for why the revolutionaries didn’t address the issue was that “they generally saw the incompatibility of slavery with the free states they hoped to create, condemned the institution, and did eliminate it in the northeast and northwest.” According to Bailyn, the contemporary reasons given were fear of societal tensions with many newly released slaves and, more importantly, a desire to not sunder the nation over the slavery issue, “which a fanatical pursuit of abolition at that point would almost certainly have done.” He again referred to his own essay, quoting "A successful and liberty-loving republic might someday destroy the slavery that it had been obliged to tolerate at the start; a weak and fragmented nation would never be able to do so.” Nash replied by criticizing Bailyn’s “Anglocentric history with a passion” and inability to be properly critical of the founders’ attitude toward slavery.

With this over 30-year old debate as perspective, we can see that, according to Nash in his latest essay, nothing has changed. But as the respondents of the symposium at Cliopatria have shown, that's not quite true. As such, could it be that Nash merely wants to continue a battle already won because that's the only arena he knows? Is this what happens when "history with a purpose" achieves its essential goals? Apparently the answer is yes. Instead of looking for a new method or focus, the contemporary moral historian must continue to write as if nothing has changed since he took up the "good fight." Thus, his perspective becomes akin to that of Quixote as he regarded the windmills.

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