Sunday, February 04, 2007

Reviewing the Reviewer: Holton on Nash's The Unknown American Revolution

{Nota Bene: This is the first of an on-again, off-again series in which I plan on "Reviewing the Review" of history books that deal with a topic in which I am familiar. I'm doing it for fun and also because it'll help me keep my foot in my formerly academic interests, which are now just interesting to me in and of themselves.}

Woody Holton, University of Richmond, Review of Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America, (New York: Viking, 2005), in American Historical Review, vol.III, no.3, June 2006; p.827.

In approaching a Review of this review, I decided to focus on two pretty awful uses of hyperbole and one flawed point of analysis. Let's begin:

Hyperbole Alert #1: "When a synthesis elicits fatwas from two giants of the profession (Gordon S. Wood and Edmund S. Morgan) in two of the most popular magazines that review history (New Republic and New York Review of Books), you know the author is onto something." The reason for the Hyperbole Alert is the use of the term fatwa. Are you kidding me? Giving Holton the benefit of the doubt, I'd say he's trying to be contemporary and cute. (You see, wink wink, those tired, old historians are just as intolerant as fundamentalist Muslim clerics who can't tolerate modernity). But the cynical side of me detects an effort to associate criticism of Nash's work with contemporary unpleasantness. Especially given...

Hyperbole Alert #2: Holton closes his review with this little ditty: "Maybe, just maybe, Wood and Morgan, who completed their reviews shortly before Hurrican Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, wish they could revise their rosy estimates of the society that emerged from the War of Independence in light of what those Category 4 winds laid bare. Nash's synthesis will require no such revision." This non sequitur is clearly intended to make some sort of political point. I'm not sure how much blame Washington, Jefferson, et al have to take for Katrina. I guess that since they, like the current President, are all white males, that's enough. I guess.

Now, as for the content of the review, given the apparent pro-Nash leaning of Holton, one should not be surprised to read such glowing passages as "Nash's painstaking documentation of case after case of insurgents confronting oppressors" and "[his] technique of piling on the stories may be the only antidote to Founding Fathers hagiography." And that's fine. Nash has built his reputation of arguing for a bottom-up Revolution and there are, doubtless, many who are sympathetic to this interpretation. For good reason. And clearly, Holton is one. And, like Nash, he knows who his enemies are:

Nash's book refutes Bernard Bailyn's notion that the "contagion of liberty" first developed in whit male Patriots and then spread to women and nonwhites. It was in 1733 that a group of New York widows declared, 'We the widows of this city protest the failure to invite us to court. We are housekeepers, pay our taxes, carry on trade and most of us are she Merchants' (p.135). Long before the Stamp Act protests, the "hunchbacked, dwarfish" Philadelphia vegetarian Benjamin Lay "made homespun clothes to avoid materials made by enslaved Africans...smashed his wife's teacups to discourage the use of slave-produced sugar," splattered fellow Quakers who resisted his abolitionist crusade with fake blood, and kidnapped a white child in order to give the "slave-keepers" a taste of their own medicine (pp.39-40).
According to Holton, Nash "never tries to make us believe the people he quotes spoke for all Americans." And that observation essentially undermines Holton's own attempt to undermine the work of Bailyn within this review. Bailyn's Ideological Origins of the American Revolution may well be one of the most misunderstood--yet paradigm-shifting--works ever published in American intellectual history. Nash's anecdotes are just that: a group of unrelated episodes that together prove no sense of unified action.

Yet, each example does portray a general sense that many Americans wanted and believed in liberty. But as Bailyn explained, it was only when an ideology of Liberty spread--one that could speak to rich and poor, white and black, male and female--that the notion of a Revolution--and a desire to take the necessary actions to affect it--began to take hold.

An ideology is a framework of ideas that, together, help to explain a society and culture: either one that is or one that is desired. As Bailyn argued, much of that ideology came from the pamphlets and books written by--sorry--often-anonymous white males. And, contra Nash and Holton, much of this literature was written around the time of the Glorious Revolution by radical English Whigs (in other words, before those Philly women).

What Nash's work shows is that many Americans from across the socio-economic spectrum had a gut-level need to stand up for their own liberty. The ideals that the Whig pamphleteers and other intellectuals, such as John Locke, wrote about were adapted by later writers in both Great Britain and the American colonies. But, specifically in the colonies, these ideas were so effective because they spoke to the pre-existing, yet only partially formed ideas and habits of a substantial portion of the American population--including those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder on whom Nash focuses. Holton either doesn't understand this or chooses not to so that he can--by implication--knock down a Bailyn strawman that has been standing up and getting knocked down for 30 years or more.

The American Revolution was a complicated and dynamic event. There is no need to knock down one group to prop up another. Nash's underdog heroes are to be admired. But so are those who were able to construct the Revolutionary ideology--like Franklin and Jefferson and Adams--and who, it turns out, emerged as the leaders of that Revolution. All of them had their good and bad qualities. They were human, after all.

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