Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution
Publication Year: 2011
Published by: University of Virginia Press
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The origins of this book go back to a remark once made by Jack P. Greene calling for attention to the ‘‘deep and abiding commitment’’ of the American Founders to inequality. I have always felt that the nature of this commitment needed to be examined more fully, and what follows is an attempt to do so. My debt to Jack P...
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This book is not a history of liberty in the age of the American Revolution. It is a book about the history of liberty in the age of the American Revolution. It is less concerned with constitutional issues, jurisprudence, and philosophical theories (which already have a very large literature), and more with extending our knowledge about the various modes of liberty’s existence in the minds and experiences...
1. A Critique of Self-Evident Liberty
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If liberty was the conceptual axis of the ideology of the American Founding, it was also its dominant metaphor. The overlapping of the two has diverted our attention from the fact that both were political and cultural instruments rather than objective descriptions of the essence of the Revolution...
2. British Legacies
I. Privilege at the Heart of Freedom
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The historical genesis of early modern British liberty was inseparably tied to privilege, and American liberty as formulated and understood by the Founders was part of this blueprint. Acknowledging this more fully would bring about profound historiographical consequences. First of all, it would make clear that the widespread acceptance of various forms of unfreedom (including even slavery) by eighteenth-century...
II. The Marriage of Rights and Inequality
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One of the most intellectually thorny discoveries for students of Enlightenment in England and America is that natural rights not only coexisted, but coexisted quite effortlessly with inequalities and unfreedoms. Upon deeper examination, an even more inconvenient truth emerges...
3. The Transmission of Restricted Liberty to Colonial America
I. Reproducing the Old World Order in the Provinces
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It has long been a commonplace that late colonial American society was less structured than the mother country. This undisputed fact is often flanked by a belief that an order of ranks had never meant much to the provincials, and that ‘‘Americans, conscious that they lacked the extremes of wealth characteristic of older European countries...
II. Fear of Levelling and Licentiousness
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One of the reasons for the colonials’ urge to reproduce familiar and recognizable social structures was their fear of chaos—the antithesis of a well-ordered society, traditionally understood as one based on a harmonious balance between its unequal ranks...
III. Property and the Cult of Liberty
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An effective social hierarchy did emerge in British America by the early eighteenth century, but it developed along different lines than in England, in that it was almost exclusively centered around property. In contrast to the metropolis and its celebration of lineage, the rise in the 1730s of a stable colonial upper class was primarily based on economics. The resulting convergence between commercial activities and a genteel lifestyle was more effortless than in Britain...
4. The Revolution
I. A Radical Script for a Preservationist Struggle
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The classical argument in American historiography has long been that the old signification of liberty was renounced during the Revolution and replaced by a much more universal and socially progressive understanding, reflected in the language of the Declaration of Independence. The inference is that such a modern meaning should be used as a criterion of interpretation...
II. The Universalization of the Language of Freedom
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Perhaps the foremost reason why we today perceive such a discrepancy between the Revolutionary narrative and contemporary political practice is that its authors had a penchant for speaking about liberty in absolute and all-embracing, rather than specific, terms. It was a mannerism de rigueur among late-Enlightenment writers, although it was also practiced, to a lesser extent, in the seventeenth century...
III. Delegitimizing Pedigreed Advantage
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In order to delegitimize the main enemy—the metropolitan ruling class—American Revolutionary authors created a dark image of hereditary nobility in England. They characterized its members as a parasitic, immoral group, wallowing in luxury and debauchery, who betrayed the nation’s...
IV. Inventing Patriotic Traditions
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On august 22, 1768, the Boston Evening Post carried an announcement of an ‘‘extraordinary festivity’’ in town to commemorate the original demonstration by the Sons of Liberty on August 14, 1765, when the e≈gies of Stamp Act supporters had been hanged. At dawn, ‘‘the British flag was displayed on the Tree of liberty...
V. Constituting the People
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Throughout the revolution, a struggle to attach names to events was an integral component of the political conflict. For instance, if London’s policy of taxation could successfully be labeled as a case of ‘‘slavery,’’ the contest for the meaning of reality would tilt toward the Americans...
VI.Equality as the Future of America
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To return to the query posed earlier about the apparent discrepancy between the words and actions of the Revolutionary leaders regarding equal liberty, a careful examination of their writings reveals that they were well aware that equal rights, so central to their rhetoric, were more figurative and symbolic than factual...
5. The Sway of Symbolic Power
I. Captains of the Ship of Progress
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Before asking why the Founders did not implement the system of universalist liberty they so enthusiastically embraced in their rhetoric, we should inquire into what caused their enthusiasm in the first place. What did the challenge of devising a new, republican state as an empire of liberty mean to them? When viewed from a cultural rather than political or constitutional...
II. The Meaning of Representation
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The fact that prominent political texts of the era contained copious references to genuine, as opposed to virtual, representation of the American colonists (not to be confused with the term ‘‘representation’’ used elsewhere in this book to denote a symbolic portrayal) has sometimes led us to believe that the authors understood it in a way more modern than was the case...
III. Claims of Liberty Claim Their Authors
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We are often tempted to view the lofty statements about virtue and freedom made by Revolutionary leaders with the knowledge of hindsight—as cases of self-fashioning or political propaganda that should be separated from social realities. We would be wrong to make such a separation. Although their liberty talk was certainly not a mirror...
6. Usurpers and Dupes: The Backlash
I. Revolutionary Vocabulary against Revolutionary Government
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The two decades following Independence were a laboratory where the Revolutionary conceptual package was tested. The environment had changed; justifying the war and the Patriot cause gave way to the practice of governing. At the same time, various groups began to voice their grievances in terms of the new language of rights popularized by the Revolution...
II. Party Struggles and the Expansion of Liberty
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If shays’s rebellion demonstrated how the Revolutionary liberty talk was being picked up by non-elites in the pursuit of their own goals, the years that followed it witnessed further changes in political culture that pushed the now popular language of freedom even further...
III. The Ruling Class: A Crisis of Identity
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The period between 1786 and 1800 witnessed a growing countero√ ensive against ‘‘usurpers’’ to liberty. There were two principal causes of this reaction. One was that the late colonial gentry had always taken for granted that they would remain in power in the post-Revolutionary world, but now were beginning to realize that it was no longer a certainty...
IV. The Useful Mob
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Looking back on the Boston Massacre nearly five decades after the event, John Adams still saw a clear distinction between the two categories of actors involved: the helpful but unreliable street crowd, also known as the mob; and the ‘‘virtuous, substantial, independent, disinterested...
V. A People's Aristocracy
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One of the responses of the American political elite to the post- Revolutionary crisis of their identity was an attempt at a conceptual substitution of ‘‘natural aristocracy,’’ or ‘‘aristocracy of merit,’’ for the earlier ‘‘gentry,’’ ‘‘aristocracy,’’ ‘‘better sort,’’ and other collective terms...
Conclusion: Liberty and the Web of Culture
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There is a distinct strain of wishful thinking that haunts the historiography on Revolutionary liberty. Its presence is noticeable in studies of all methodological and ideological orientations. We, as the investigating culture, largely select the questions we ask of the past from our own lists of what is ‘‘natural,’’ ‘‘just,’’ and ‘‘up to standard.’...
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Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 6 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2011