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  • A Class ActRedefining Deference in Early American History
  • Gregory Nobles

No matter how much we approach "history from the bottom up," we always have to come to terms with those at the top. No less than common people in the past, historians in the present have had to consider how—and, in most cases, how successfully—powerful men exerted economic and political authority over the rest of society, and how the rest of society responded to their assertions of power. Quite often, the explanation has come down to one term: deference, the process by which, as Gordon Wood has put it, prominent men "relied on their own social respectability and private influence to compel the obedience of ordinary people." Indeed, Wood observes, "We will never comprehend the distinctiveness of that premodern world until we appreciate the extent to which many ordinary people still accepted their own lowliness."1 This argument for the acceptance of deference reflects only a more general historical explanation that has over the years gained its own intellectual respectability, [End Page 286] so much so that now, we as historians have ourselves accepted the idea of deference almost as a matter of course and have even become obedient to its influence.

But it is high time, I think, that we finally stand up and say "no" to deference. For too long we have tipped our intellectual caps and shuffled our professorial feet before this outmoded notion of apparent peace and social consensus. We have sometimes allowed ourselves to be convinced that this one concept can explain—or perhaps explain away—seemingly collegial class relations in the colonial era. We have too often accepted the authority, even the authenticity, of this unstated understanding of reciprocal social relationships between colonial elites and the lower sort. We have so easily believed that so many common folk could be so accustomed to being so cowed by the prominence of an elite leader that we have created an implicit impression of common people's static, even passive, acceptance of their inferior status in the social order. Sometimes we cover ourselves by arguing that deference was, for all its benign and placid appearance, ultimately a relationship based on quiet but clear coercion, and that was certainly true. Still, making allowance for coercion only reinforces the notion of common people's necessary acquiescence to inequality, and it certainly does not do much to alter our own implicit acceptance of the supposedly pervasive presence of deference in colonial society. Only when we get to the era of the American Revolution have we found the scholarly confidence to assert that "the casting off of deference" became a defining moment of personal and political transition for common people throughout American society.2 But even so, by looking at the Revolution as such a sharp dividing line, we too easily concede the almost two centuries preceding it to the reality—and durability—of deference. This essay challenges that notion, arguing that, whenever we see it, the appearance of deference may be just that—an appearance, a performative façade that conceals a more subtle set of responses to power. With that possibility in mind, I want to argue that we no longer fall back and bow down to an explanation of colonial social relations defined by deference, but see "deference" as a deceptive term. We historians could do well to cast it off ourselves, or at least put it in its place.

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Mike Zuckerman tried to tell us—and he tried to tell us that "Alexis de Tocqueville tried to tell us" and "Frederick Jackson Turner tried to tell us [End Page 287] too." Five years ago, in a provocative essay in the Journal of American History, Zuckerman invoked Tocqueville and Turner to assert that among the many ways that colonial Americans departed from the cultural traditions of their European counterparts, one of the main areas of difference was the failure of deference on this side of the Atlantic. No matter what degree of social respect and political reward American gentlemen might like to think stemmed almost automatically from their elevated station, their neighbors in the lower ranks apparently never failed to disappoint them. True, the wealthy...


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