Drink hard, pray hard and simply vanish

Jack Rakove

  • Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776 by Jon Butler
    Harvard, 324 pp, £19.50, May 2000, ISBN 0 674 00091 9
  • Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans by Joyce Appleby
    Harvard, 322 pp, £17.95, May 2000, ISBN 0 674 00236 9

Did the 13 mainland colonies of British North America become America before their inhabitants thought of themselves as Americans? That is the question raised by these two books. Each is a work of scholarly synthesis; each deals rather uneasily with the epochal event – the Revolution – that separates their respective periods; each is finally concerned with the onset of modernity in the world’s ‘first new nation’, as Seymour Martin Lipset described the United States.

The quest to identify the origins, sources and nature of modernity is perhaps the grandest project of the human sciences – which is not to say that it lends itself to asking useful questions about particular eras. Making modernity their grail gives historians a strong incentive to discover telltale signs of its emergence. Such signs can take many forms: scepticism about revealed religion and priestly authority; the development of new modes of governance; above all, the rise of the market and capitalist entrepreneurship and the development of the autonomous liberal personality.

In many ways, 18th-century Britain, with its ‘polite and commercial people’, seems a much better candidate for first modern nation than the marchland of North America. Are the origins of modernity in America therefore to be found in its colonial past, or are they better located in the break with Britain? Jon Butler argues the former, Joyce Appleby the latter.

Butler also wants to argue, however, that although a recognisably modern society took shape in America during the ‘provincial decades’ following initial colonisation (1680-1770), the distinctive traits, attitudes and habits of mind that formed the ‘American character’ came later. Here he agrees with Appleby, who suggests that the first real Americans were the children and grandchildren of the Revolutionary generation, born in the quarter-century or so after 1776. Too young to participate in the great event itself, they were the first to convert its legacy of political independence into the ideas of individual autonomy, mobility, opportunity and equality that have supposedly shaped the American way of life ever since.

The idea that colonists of various origins were already well on their way to becoming a distinct American people has a good pedigree, including J. Hector St John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, the source of all but one of Butler’s epigraphs. Crèvecoeur’s famous question was: ‘What then is this new man the American?’ His immediate answer – ‘that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country’ – suggested that American identity was fashioned by boys meeting and getting girls in defiance of parental expectations to marry within the group. Crèvecoeur’s analysis in effect is based on the belief that the American environment and the liberality of American laws allowed European immigrants to be ambitious and aspirational as they never would have been in the Old World. In Crèvecoeur’s formulation (and Butler’s), the establishment of a distinctive society precedes the creation of a character type. Europeans were able to become Americans because America was no longer Europe.

But America had never been Europe, and to make his case, Butler has to part company with other historians who have argued that the mainland colonies were actually coming to resemble the parent society more in the 18th century than ever before. Indeed, the idea that these settlements were no longer primitive outposts but provinces anxious to replicate the urbane culture of the metropolis has been a staple theme of much recent writing. British-Americans had every incentive to think in these terms. Britain, after all, was no longer the minor maritime power with an underdeveloped economy that had gone through the political tumults of the 17th century. It now possessed a robust, innovating economy producing handsome manufactures that the prospering colonists happily consumed; a constitutional monarchy that was the envy even of the best French political science; an efficient state, capable of sustaining a potent navy and adequate army; and a vigorous intellectual life that was advancing on nearly every front of learning and culture that mattered. Why shouldn’t Anglophone colonists continue to think of themselves as British-Americans and refer to Britain as ‘home’?

Butler thinks this is all beside the point. The lasting legacy of the provincial decades cannot be a process of identification with Britain, precisely because the Revolution happened. Instead he devotes most of his book to tracing how a distinctive American society emerged.

The most conspicuous development was in the composition of the American population. Africans first arrived in Virginia in the 1610s; the legal institution of slavery was taking shape by the 1650s. But it was only after 1680 that the Southern plantation economy made its decisive commitment to slave labour, and not until the 18th century that there was a massive importation of Africans, which permanently transformed the racial character of the Southern population. Nor were Africans the only newcomers. In the same decades, the liberal policies of William Penn made his colony a magnet for the recruitment of Germans and Scots-Irish, who typically disembarked at Philadelphia but then settled a broad arc of territory from central New York down through the Carolina back-country. The ‘remarkable mixture of peoples’ that captured the imagination of Crèvecoeur and so many later commentators was an 18th-century phenomenon.

Culture and institutions, though, demand thicker description than blood. Butler’s four middle chapters are broad accounts of the colonial economy, the polity, ‘things material’ (the culture of consumption) and ‘things spiritual’. He ably summarises a substantial literature, but in doing so fails to prove the lasting importance of the 18th century. Only in his chapter on religion – his particular area of expertise – is Butler successful in making his case.

In the realm of the economy, the most striking developments were tied to slavery, which produced extremes of wealth and poverty unknown in other regions. The free economy of small farmers and a merchant class with a few grandees and many more ambitious shopkeepers produced less dramatic results. American farmers sought a decent ‘competence’ that would sustain both themselves and their children; they produced modest surpluses for the market, but did most of their exchanging with their neighbours. Avoiding grand claims for a ‘market revolution’ or a ‘transition to capitalism’, Butler describes not a transformed economy but one developing steadily while leaving pockets of poverty in its wake.

He faces a similar problem when he turns to politics. It has long been recognised that colonial politics, though firmly grounded in English antecedents, had deviated from English practice in critical ways. The colonies lacked the grand network of patronage and influence that gave structure to Georgian politics; the American electorate was far broader in proportion to the population; and perhaps most important, colonial and British norms of representation were beginning to diverge. Yet the colonists did not regard themselves as incipient democrats, and many members of the colonial elite – including many who were to become rebels – struggled to find patronage, or better yet, to acquire titles to unappropriated lands. Decades of effective autonomy did nothing more than prepare Americans for independence once it came.

The limitations of Butler’s thesis become more apparent when set against Appleby’s portrait of the world of the first post-Revolutionary generation. Appleby’s society is visibly exploding with opportunity, ambition and energy that transform every sphere of life, while deepening the regional divisions that would grow more ominous with each decade. Like many other accounts of early 19th-century America, it portrays a restless, mobile, democratic society.

Appleby opens Inheriting the Revolution with an early 19th-century story of time-travel. A Bostonian, Peter Rugg, who, while heading home on 5 March 1770 (the day of the Boston Massacre) gets caught in a storm, imprudently swears that he ‘will see home tonight, in spite of the last tempest, or may I never see home!’ He is doomed to wander the back roads for decades, until a travelling merchant takes pity and escorts him to New York City, which is in the process of becoming the great American entrepôt of the 19th century. Poor Rugg is completely unnerved, for nothing in colonial Boston has prepared him for the bustle of such a metropolis.

Rugg’s late colonial society had already become a lost world; the good old days of deference, sober religion and modest economic betterment had simply vanished. Appleby’s first Americans are a rollicking lot. They drink hard and pray hard (perhaps not by coincidence), have opinions on every subject (especially politics), and are willing to leave the security of home and hearth whenever opportunity arises. Above all, they are market-oriented and economically ambitious. Living in a rapidly expanding world in which entire populations are on the move and new settlements are springing up on lands wrested from their aboriginal occupants, Americans are boosters for themselves, their communities, their religious faith and the nation itself.

At the heart of Appleby’s story are the life histories of individual Americans who wrote memoirs revealing this transformation. The fact that Americans now found these stories worth telling – as revelations of something more than religious conversion, though that genre persisted – is itself noteworthy, for it confirms that a modern sensibility of the self as something created through a combination of choice and circumstance was becoming part of their culture.

There are too few of these stories for them to carry conviction as evidence, however. Appleby’s book, nearly as much as Butler’s, is a synthesis, and its greater power and persuasion derive from her ability to tap scholarly literature that has explored topics as diverse as the creation of new forms of religious enthusiasm during the Second Great Awakening, the settlement of the trans-Appalachian frontier, the new uses of literacy, the autonomy of unmarried men and women and the proliferation of reform movements that drew on the evangelical impulse but which were also committed to eradicating social evils, the most conspicuous of which was the state of semi-inebriation in which much of the population passed its working as well as leisure days.

The result of all the innovation, Appleby concludes, was a new sense of national identity that went well beyond anything the Revolution had succeeded in establishing. ‘The Revolution had offered patriots the rhetorical opportunity to treat America’s social diversity as a summons to a new kind of nationhood,’ she observes, ‘but a successful War for Independence did not supply the shared sentiments, symbols, and social explanations necessary for an integrative national identity.’ There were also crucial regional differences in the post-Revolution transformation. The adoption of emancipation statutes in the North, and the opening up of the political process in the wake of the Jeffersonian triumph of 1800, had the effect of awakening northern public opinion to a new agenda of reform: the South, meanwhile, was unwilling to accept the values of ‘enterprise, success, and progress that dominated Americans’ self-evaluations for the rest of the century’. As waves of reform sentiment swept over the 19th-century North, the South in effect opted out of the new American identity. Those who accepted the reigning values of the North became the ‘real’ Americans; those who held to the reigning values of the South – including a belief in the rights and privileges of racial domination – remained Southerners.

There was, of course, a terrible irony in this. Nobody, after all, contributed more to the fabrication of American national identity than the great trinity of Virginians: Washington, the hero of Independence and the first President; Madison, the federal republic’s premier constitutionalist; and Jefferson, the aesthete and slaveowner who somehow became the prophet of equality, improvement and betterment. Yet their region was tied to the peculiar institution of slavery, as they were themselves, and their legacy did not divert the South from its defensive reliance on an archaic yet profitable form of labour. While an ageing and increasingly pessimistic Jefferson became more provincial with each passing year, his real legatees were to be found in the very region whose ambitions and energy he feared.

Appleby is a Jeffersonian, but her Jefferson is less the revolutionary hero of 1776 than the successful party leader of the 1790s who drove the Federalists from all the seats of government but the judiciary. That victory cleared the way for the democratisation of both political leadership and the suffrage, and for an assault on the very principle of elitism. That in turn was essential to the release of ambition which Appleby documents.

Yet other historians have located that same development at much earlier points in American history, including the provincial decades that Butler surveys and the Revolutionary years proper. Bernard Bailyn was making much the same argument about colonial society back in the 1950s and 1960s: in the powerful concluding pages of his landmark study of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution he evoked the image of ‘a society where authority was questioned before it was obeyed’. The question of how the Revolution itself fits into the story of the modernisation of American society isn’t well answered by either Butler or Appleby. Though Butler devotes his concluding chapter to that event, he is careful not to present Independence as the inevitable outcome of nationalising processes unfolding before the successive ministries of George III embarked on their ill-advised project of imperial reform. For Appleby, on the other hand, the Revolution is a prologue that matters only in some general way. For an understanding of the transition from late colonial society to the new republic as a continuous process embracing the Revolution, Gordon Wood’s account, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992) remains the best starting point. How much does it really matter, in any event, whether we trace the origins of the American version of pluralist, democratic modernity to the late colonial era, or to 1776, or to the triumph of the Jeffersonian opposition over high-toned Federalists? Modernity, it seems, has a nasty habit of emerging all the time.