- Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution
Paul A. Gilje argues that American sailors between 1750 and 1850 were not "a proletariat ready to assert class consciousness" nor were they "a group of would-be embattled patriots responsible for founding a nation" (xiii). These statements, particularly the first, are a frontal assault on the ideas of Jesse Lemisch, Marcus Rediker, and Peter Linebaugh, who have long argued that sailors were part of an early maritime working-class that was conscious of their status and politically active in their resistance to global capitalism. Gilje's sailors live for the moment and are not "ideological"; instead they are pragmatic men who care more about getting drunk, or finding a ship with better pay, than remaining committed to abstract ideals. Instead of understanding them as part of a class (the term working class is nearly absent from the text), Gilje believes that pursuit of liberty best describes sailors' experience. Liberty, for Gilje, describes their attachment to American Revolutionary ideals but just as often it conveys the pursuit of individual freedom that the author describes as a release from unhappy attachments. Sailors ran away to ships to get away from debts and failed relationships and after a time a sea they sought the liberty of the land, a place were the cruelties of the captain and crew were left behind. Gilje is anxious to avoid the "standard ideological boxes that historians like to use" and thus he presents sailors as sharing a common occupational identity but not a class-consciousness (151).
What is most strange about this book is that much of the evidence and analysis Gilje employs supports the view he seeks to overturn. Gilje finds that sailors signed up mostly because their economic circumstance made them do so, that they opposed authoritarian officers by desertion and mutiny, that sailors carried their rejection of authority ashore where they challenged the social hierarchy of colonial and early national society, and that they injected the American Revolution with an egalitarian flavor. Early on he asserts a "unified maritime culture," a view that would seem compatible with the Marxist notion that class superceded national, ethnic, and racial identities in the eighteenth-century Atlantic (xii). African American sailors do appear in the book but they do not play a prominent role in his thesis or fracture the maritime world in any significant way. Sexuality did not divide the workers either. Gilje dismisses evidence of homosexual behavior as unrepresentative and instead stresses the common experience of heterosexual relationships stressed by long voyages and poverty. One [End Page 1123] of the best sections of the book is Gilje's examination of the nineteenth-century middle-class reformers' efforts to cleanse sailors of ungodly ways, but here again his own evidence only supports the notion that the waterfront really was a place where distinct values and ideas flourished.
Gilje describes a perfect environment for class-consciousness to emerge yet firmly rejects it. He apparently believes that day-to-day concerns such as the liberty to desert and get drunk or the liberty to jump ship for higher wages somehow precludes adherence to what he sees as more abstract "ideology". But none of these examples would bother the New Left maritime historians who see class identities as being developed out of these very day-to-day struggles.
Gilje does not adequately address sailors' collective rituals and actions, the centerpiece of the argument for their consciousness. He dismisses the egalitarian ethos of pirates with a few anecdotes of bloodthirsty plunderers and totally ignores the most interesting element of the historiography, namely the role of sailors as bearers of news and information. What about the role of sailors in carrying the word of San Domingue? How do we explain the role of maritime workers in revolutionary plots such as Gabriel's Rebellion? Or the 1741 New York plot? What of the role of sailors in spreading David Walker's Appeal to the slaves of the South? Or...