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  • Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution
  • Sarah Knott (bio)

Liberty, Equality, Culture, Class, Zygmunt Bauman

Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution. By Michal Jan Rozbicki. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011). Pp. 304. Cloth, $35.00.)

Liberty is a social relation and, as such, signifies an asymmetry of social conditions. This is the well-known insight of sociologist and cultural critic Zygmunt Bauman. Armed with an organic and hierarchical view of society, early moderns also knew this. Inequality did not just precede ideas about freedom; it was the very basis of eighteenth-century notions of liberty. The coexistence of inequality and freedom, and the insight that liberty is inherently a privilege that comes at the expense of others, challenges fond modern beliefs in universal human rights.

In Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution, Michal Jan Rozbicki seeks to apply the understandings of Bauman, and of eighteenth-century commentators, to the American Revolution. Historiography has been hampered, he suggests, by importing purist modern notions of liberty into a premodern past. Elite-centered and hagiographic accounts of the Revolution, such as those of Gordon Wood, just like the people-centered and "prosecutorial" (231) accounts of Gary Nash and Howard Zinn, presume that "modern" liberty was foundational. All have followed too naively the universalist intonations of "all men are created equal" and "unalienable rights" of the Declaration of Independence. Interpreters of both celebrated and forgotten Founders, Rozbicki argues, have indulged in a pious and fundamentally ahistorical accounting of the national founding, falsely celebrating the Founders' courageous prescience, or wrongly chastising leaders for the rank betrayal of women, slaves and ordinary people. Interpretations that point more gently to [End Page 320] "inconsistencies" or to the "paradox" of freedom and slavery, he suggests, are just as wrong-headed.

The ambitious task Rozbicki sets is marked by a welcome openness to theory and a determined historicization. He seeks nothing less than to shuck off modern-minded delusions and to retell the history of liberty and the American Revolution from scratch. The grounding for such a history is culture: "[s]etting our sights on culture—the space where shared meanings were formed, identities were negotiated, beliefs were expressed, values were reproduced, and symbolic representations of reality and order were fashioned—would bring Revolutionary liberty down to earth, where it actually resided" (234). On that ground, the evolution of American liberty depended primarily on the pursuit of advantage over others and on social aspiration.

The resulting account begins with British legacies. The British political classes' belief in an unequal society and in the social order underlay their understandings of liberty; they apprehended freedom as distributed in rank-specific shares. Indeed, it was entirely possible for an Enlightenment thinker such as Frances Hutcheson to advocate the enslavement of the idle poor. Such ideas transferred to the colonial gentry, among whom a hierarchical vision of society and liberty was entirely engrained. Set on independence, the American ruling elite cleverly made an imperial conflict about taxes into a struggle for universal rights, their overblown rhetoric signaling absolute confidence in their right to rule and in the political impotence of nonelites. Meanwhile, the claim to be the natural guardians of a free people's liberty enabled a grounding of political authority even more powerful than that of heredity. But from the 1780s, other groups adopted similar tactics, taking up universal claims in order to forward particular rights and enfranchisements, and forcing a backlash among their privilege-loving rulers. Unexpected party factionalism only sped up this dynamic, with elite Federalists and Antifederalists alike appealing to ordinary people and unintentionally raising political consciousness. Ultimately, even if they won independence and succeeded in political revolution, the American elite's universalist notions of liberty proved something of an own goal. But it was never a betrayal: The ruling class never gave up on its faith in inequality and order.

While Rozbicki's task is thoroughly compelling, puzzles emerge in the handling of "culture." The mastery of culture over people's actions, he writes, "remains underestimated in the historiography of the Revolutionary era" (227). The analysis is marred by a profoundly elitist...


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pp. 320-323
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