Separation Anxiety

Eric Foner

  • A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution by Theodore Draper
    Little, Brown, 544 pp, £25.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 316 87802 2

The American Revolution is the subject of a rich and complex historical literature. In the 19th century, George Bancroft, the father of American historical writing, portrayed it as the culmination of a long, divinely-inspired progress – the triumph of freedom and democracy on the North American continent. The seed of liberty, planted by the earliest settlers, reached its inevitable flowering in national independence.

Early in this century, Bancroft’s self-congratulatory narrative came under attack from two sources. The ‘Progressive’ historians saw the struggle for independence as a social movement that not only pitted colonists against the mother country, but downtrodden artisans and small farmers against the American élite. ‘Who should rule at home’, Carl Becker famously maintained, was as central to the conflict as ‘home rule’, and the democratisation of American politics as much an object as nationhood. At the same time, the ‘Imperial’ school of historians sought to place the struggle for independence within the broad context of the history of the British Empire. London’s efforts to tax the colonies arose not from a conspiracy to impose tyranny on America, but from the financial problems brought on by the Seven Years’ War. Resistance was inevitable, for over the course of the 18th century the colonies had gradually grown in population, economic strength and political self-consciousness, and had come to expect more and more self-government.

The most recent generation of scholars, inspired above all by the work of Bernard Bailyn, has moved the ideas of the revolutionaries to centre stage. One can only explain the feverish American resistance to mild British measures like the Sugar and Stamp Acts, they insist, by understanding that they were refracted through an ideology inherited from Country Party writers in Britain, who viewed politics as a never-ending contest between liberty and power, with government exhibiting an inexorable tendency to infringe on the rights of citizens. Today, some historians differ with Bailyn’s delineation of colonial ideology (an intense debate has ensued over whether Americans should be described as Lockean liberals, determined to protect the individual’s natural rights, or classical republicans, concerned with civic virtue and the common good). And they have broadened this cast of characters to include women, blacks and others outside the ‘political nation’. But few doubt that the coming of the Revolution must be explained in large measure in ideological terms.

Theodore Draper’s A Struggle for Power, the most recent account of America’s path to independence, studiously ignores this vast body of historical writing. Promoted by its publisher as a radical reappraisal, the book is in fact a throwback to an earlier mode of historical interpretation. In treating the colonial period as of interest only insofar as it culminated in independence, it is reminiscent of Bancroft. In its top-down approach and its central thesis – that ‘the Revolution was basically a struggle for power between Great Britain and its American colonies’ – it recalls the Imperial school. (Indeed, when Draper cites other historians they are likely to be long-forgotten practitioners of Imperial history like Charles McLean Andrews, Samuel Beer and Herbert Osgood.)

A prolific writer on 20th-century politics, Draper has concentrated in his 13 previous books on events in which he was either a participant or a close observer. The books include studies of American Communism, Fidel Castro’s revolution, the Vietnam War and the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan Administration. Together, they left him with a distaste for political ideologies of Left and Right, and the conviction that whatever rhetoric participants in political contests employ, their struggles ultimately boil down to a question of power – who will exercise authority over whom. As the book’s title suggests, this is the point of view he brings to the American Revolution.

Although long and detailed (longer than it needs to be, in fact, because of his penchant for stringing together long quotations from contemporary documents), the main outline of Draper’s story will be familiar to those already acquainted with the road to American independence. His most original contribution comes in the very first chapter, where he examines the little known ‘pamphlet-war’ of 1759-60, in which British writers expressed forebodings of an eventual American drive towards nation-hood. Here, he rightly notes, can be observed ‘a realistic, hard-headed tradition’ of political commentary quite different from Country Party thought but no less influential. Its concern was less with the liberties of citizens than with the exercise of power. Even before the end of the Seven Years’ War, therefore, what Draper calls the ‘premonition’ of independence haunted British policy-makers – a premonition shared, he shows, by careful observers in France like the Marquis d’Argenson, Louis XV’s foreign minister.

After this promising beginning, however, the story follows a well-worn path. When the Seven Years’ War removed the French threat to British America and piled up an enormous debt for the mother country, it was inevitable that London would impose new taxes and that the colonists would feel powerful enough to resist. There follows a detailed account of the crises of the 1760s and 1770s – the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, Townshend Duties, Boston Massacre, Intolerable Acts – and finally, the outbreak of war in 1775. Although each contest had its own character, at base ‘nothing new’ happened after the mid-1760s. Following a predetermined script, British administrations asserted their right to tax and legislate for the colonies, and Americans insisted on their right to self-government, first within the Empire and then outside it.

While Draper’s investigation of these successive crises is intricate and often quite revealing, there is something bloodless about the entire account. Perhaps because of his conviction that ‘what was really at stake’ was power, not ideas, he chooses to ignore major currents of colonial thought. (It is certainly odd to encounter a book on the coming of the Revolution in which the words ‘liberalism’ and ‘republicanism’ do not appear in the index and the Country Party ideology is treated in a single paragraph.) There is much on the British view of the colonies and Americans’ understanding of themselves, but little on how the colonists viewed the mother country, or their growing conviction that Britain was sinking into moral decay and political corruption.

Draper’s choice of sources is also curious, focusing (sometimes in mind-numbing detail) on literature directly related to successive crises, while excluding broader works of the period on government and society. Thus, he virtually ignores the writings of the Commonwealthmen and religious dissenters so influential in Britain and the colonies (James Price is mentioned once; James Burgh and Joseph Priestley not at all). He gives no attention to sermons, thus missing the religious zeal that J.C.D. Clark’s The Language of Liberty has recently identified as a central component of the colonists’ world view. Clark may have erred in making militant Protestantism the hegemonic language of colonial politics, completely overshadowing secular political discourse, but his account helps to explain why the Quebec Act of 1774, which granted toleration to the Catholic Church in Canada, aroused such indignation in the colonies (a reaction to which Draper accords scant attention).

In part, these problems arise from Draper’s teleological framework. Hindsight, the historian’s most powerful analytical tool, is also his greatest liability; it can easily lull one into the assumption that everything that happened was inevitable. Certainly, no account of 18th-century America can avoid the achievement of independence. But the assumption of inevitability can produce a narrative that privileges events that seem to help history along its appointed path, while ignoring contradictory tendencies and roads not taken.

The language of inevitability pervades Draper’s history, Americans’ ‘quest for power’ began, he writes, ‘as soon as settlers arrived in New England’ in 1620. (Why not 13 years earlier, the reader may well ask, when colonists landed in Virginia? Perhaps we have here an unconscious echo of Bancroft’s claim that the Puritans, and they alone, brought the idea of liberty to the New World.) Throughout the 18th century, Draper writes, Americans were moving down the road to ‘their appointed breakaway’. As early as 1764, Draper speaks of ‘the incipient Revolution’, even though no one resisting the Sugar Act in that year had the remotest thought of independence. When resistance ebbs, as between 1771 and 1774, it does not mean that historical development has somehow detoured from its predetermined track, but that ‘revolutionary energy’ has, for the moment, ‘gone underground’, preparing for ‘the struggle next time’.

The problem with reading history backwards in this way is obvious. Defining the Revolution as the logical and inevitable culmination of a deepening sense of separate national identity among the settlers of British North America ignores the ways the colonies were becoming more, not less, like the mother country during the 18th century. The historian John Murrin has called this process a ‘feudal revival’, which produced an increasingly hierarchical social structure and a cultural identification with the Empire and its metropolis. Draper’s model fails to explain why, even after the outbreak of war, few Americans spoke openly of independence, basing resistance on the ‘rights of Englishmen’. His penchant for referring to Britain and America as the ‘two sides’, moreover, exaggerates the internal uniformity of each. Treating the colonies as an incipient nation ignores the sharp divisions between and within them, and imposes on colonial affairs a unity and coherence only achieved (and then partially) after the outbreak of the war for independence.

Here, indeed, Draper’s preoccupation with power betrays him. On one level, his thesis is self-evident: revolutions revolve to a considerable extent around the exercise of power. Yet oddly enough, power, the book’s ostensible theme, remains entirely abstract. Assemblies and governors contest for control over finances, colonists and Parliament struggle over representation and taxation. But why? Mankind, it seems, is motivated by an insatiable drive for command, pretty much for its own sake. The historian, however, needs to ask: power for whom, power for what?

One does not have to return to the Progressives’ single-minded focus on the struggle over who should rule at home to believe that consideration of contests for power within the American colonies would have added significantly to the richness and complexity of Draper’s account. He is surely correct that ‘a relatively small American élite’ initiated and guided the resistance to British policy. From this he appears to conclude mat there is no need to expand the scope of his investigation beyond the pamphlets and newspaper articles produced by members of the political nation, to include riots, strikes, tenant uprisings and other manifestations of social unrest. When the lower orders do make an unruly appearance on the stage of history, as during the Stamp Act riots of 1765, Draper seems genuinely surprised. The tax, he remarks, did not affect the ‘common people’, hence the crowd actions must reflect some ‘social discontent’ that remains unexplained, or amounted to little more than ‘exhibitions of rage’. At any rate, the Stamp Act riots ‘left no long-term mark on the society’.

Be that as it may, within a decade colonial politics had expanded far beyond the traditional élite. Draper quotes a letter from Boston written in 1774: ‘We are all, from the cobbler up to the senator, become politicians.’ But the cobblers’ voices are not heard in this book. Nor does Draper convey any sense of how the struggle with Britain unleashed the aspirations of less fortunate Americans, who claimed the language of self-government for themselves. By 1774, artisans in Philadelphia, for example, were emerging as a self-conscious element in politics, challenging the prerogative the traditional élite, demanding more frequent elections with an expanded franchise. By 1775, when Draper ends his story, journeymen and labourers were calling for measures to ‘level all distinctions’ within the ranks of the militia.

‘We have been told,’ John Adams observed on the eve of independence, ‘that our struggle had loosened the bonds of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters.’ This egalitarian social upheaval so frightened a colonial leader like John Dickinson, whose Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania had been among the most influential pamphlets of the 1760s, that he voted against the Declaration of Independence – a decision inexplicable within Draper’s teleological framework.

The issue of democratic change within the colonies, and the substitution of republican for monarchical government, seems not to interest Draper. Failing to understand these developments as rooted in internal divisions within the colonies, he sees the political changes that accompanied independence as little more than an afterthought. It was ‘obvious’, he observes, that an independent America could not become a monarchy. (He fails to note that not a few Americans hoped it would become just that.) But this is to denude the Revolution of any enduring international significance. ‘The mere independence of America,’ Tom Paine wrote years after the stirring events of the 1770s, would have been a matter of little interest, ‘were it to have been followed by a system of government modelled after the corrupt system’ of England.

Here, inadvertently perhaps, Draper poses the most challenging question of the book. Was the Revolution a decisive turning-point in history, as Americans have claimed ever since, or merely one among innumerable examples of one political élite seizing power from another? That the Revolution should be understood not as the creation of an asylum for liberty, not as the embodiment of the finest ideals of the Western tradition, but simply as an expression of mankind’s lust for power, is a truly radical idea, a salutary rebuke to the celebratory nationalism and American exceptionalism that shapes so much of our historical writing But if the Revolution was nothing but a struggle for power, why should anyone outside the United States care about it at all?