Enter Hamilton

Eric Foner

  • American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 by Alan Taylor
    Norton, 704 pp, £30.00, November 2016, ISBN 978 0 393 08281 4

The racism, xenophobia and violence of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is widely seen as an aberration, as if reasoned debate had been the default mode of American politics. But precursors to Trump do exist, candidates who struck electoral gold by appealing to exaggerated fears, real grievances and visceral prejudices. Among Trump’s predecessors are the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings of the 1850s, white supremacist politicians of the Jim Crow era, and more recent hucksters and demagogues including Joe McCarthy and George Wallace. Not to mention more respectable types such as Richard Nixon, whose ‘Southern strategy’ offered a blueprint for mobilising white resentment over the gains of the Civil Rights movement. (That ‘respectable’ and ‘Nixon’ can be included in the same sentence illustrates how far our political standards have evolved since the 1970s.) Violence isn’t unknown in American political history. The 19th century saw fistfights in Congress and riots at election time in major American cities. Until well into the 20th century, Southern blacks who wanted to exercise the right to vote faced violent retribution from the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups.

Where does all this originate? In American Revolutions, Alan Taylor offers a surprising answer: the struggle for independence itself. Racism, violence, scurrilous attacks on opponents: all, he argues, were part of American political culture from the outset. Taylor breaks decisively with a trope of Cold War propaganda which has worked its way into historical scholarship: the idea that unlike the ‘bad’ French and Russian Revolutions, which degenerated into violent class conflict, a united American people rebelled against British overlords with restraint and decorum. In fact, as he makes clear, the American Revolution was a bitter, multi-sided conflict that pitted Loyalists against Patriots and white Americans against blacks and Indians. Hence the plural in his title.

Taylor rejects the common view of the colonial era as essentially a prelude to independence. In the 18th century, he points out, colonists throughout British North America were drawing closer to the mother country, not further away. They ‘rejoiced in the British constitution’, celebrated military victories over France and idealised the king as their champion against Catholic enemies. Economically, too, they became more and more closely tied to Britain while leaders of different colonies had more contact with London than with one another. When the First Continental Congress convened in 1774, John Adams reported that the delegates were ‘strangers’, unfamiliar with each other’s ideas and experiences.

What then explains the road to independence? While most accounts of the coming of the Revolution focus on protests in eastern cities against British efforts to tax the colonies and to elicit greater obedience to imperial authority in general, Taylor is more interested in what was happening in the West (in the colonial era, this meant the region beyond the Appalachian mountains). Victory in the Seven Years’ War led to the end of the French Empire in mainland North America and gave Britain control of the trans-Appalachian region. It was quickly followed by the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited settlement there in order to avoid constant warfare with Indians. Instead, London urged colonists who wanted land to look to other areas acquired from France and Spain: Canada, East and West Florida, and a number of islands in the Caribbean. Few Americans were interested. The colonists ‘expect now to do as they please’, one British official wrote in 1768. By 1774, 50,000 settlers lived beyond the Proclamation line, and violence between settlers, Indians and land speculators was endemic. The British found themselves in an impossible situation, inviting opposition to their supposed tyranny by attempting to stop settlement and contempt for failing to enforce the policy and seeming to side with Indians who resisted white intrusions onto their land. By 1775, Taylor writes, ‘the British Empire had lost all credibility and influence’ among Western settlers.

Taylor doesn’t ignore the more familiar story of the growing crisis over British taxation, from the Stamp Act of 1765 through the Boston Tea Party and Intolerable Acts ten years later, and on to war and independence. But he also examines the increasingly violent divisions among the colonists. Leaders of the resistance to British measures relied not only on abstract arguments about taxation and representation but also on extra-legal committees and violent mobs; opponents were tarred and feathered. ‘In the name of liberty,’ Taylor writes, ‘Patriots suppressed free speech, broke into private mail, and terrorised their critics.’ When war with Britain broke out in 1775, American society fractured along numerous faultlines. Rather than being waged ‘by a united American people’, Taylor writes, the War of Independence quickly turned into a civil war that divided families and neighbours and unleashed local violence more extreme than military battles. ‘A plundered farm,’ he observes, ‘was a more common experience than a glorious and victorious charge.’ ‘The whole country,’ the American general Nathaniel Greene wrote of the Southern back country, ‘is in danger of being laid waste by the Whigs and Torys, who pursue each other with as much relentless fury as beasts of prey.’

Even within Patriot ranks, conflict quickly emerged. In a world of kings, aristocrats and rigid social hierarchies, Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, ‘all men are created equal,’ became a rallying cry of the dispossessed. Abigail Adams’s plea to her husband, John, to ‘remember the ladies,’ her observation that women, no less than men, should not be bound by laws in whose passage they had no voice, are widely recalled today. Less familiar is Adams’s response, which not only sloughed off his wife’s claim but noted that the revolutionaries’ rhetoric of liberty and equality had, to his surprise and alarm, unleashed widespread demands for greater rights: ‘We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bands 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.’ For Adams, a radical when it came to independence but not to the social structure of the new nation, this egalitarian upheaval was an affront to the natural order of things. For others, it was the essence of the American Revolution.

Newly empowered ordinary Americans seized the opportunity to act on longstanding grievances. During the war, urban mobs assaulted merchants accused of withholding goods from market, and local committees imposed ‘just prices’ for necessities to combat rampant inflation. Congress introduced conscription but allowed draftees to avoid service by producing a substitute or paying £20, a sum far beyond the means of most Americans. As a result, George Washington’s army was increasingly composed of those unable to avoid the draft – Taylor describes the troops as ‘apprentices, transients, beggars, drunks, slaves and indentured immigrants’. As poor men filled the ranks, Congress often failed to provide pay and supplies on time. One soldier complained that men like himself ‘have nothing to expect, but that if America maintain her independencey, they must become slaves to the rich’.

Particularly vicious fighting took place on the western frontier. Indians allied with the British burned settlements while Patriot armies destroyed native villages. Washington himself ordered one military commander in upstate New York to aim at ‘the total destruction and devastation’ of Indian communities there. On the frontier, Taylor argues, the War of Independence became ‘racialised’: a white nationalism emerged that viewed all Indians, friend or foe, as enemies who must be removed.

The ‘insolent’ slaves mentioned by Adams appropriated the language of liberty for their own purposes. ‘We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow men to enslave them,’ one group in Boston announced sardonically in 1773. But it was the British, not the Patriots, who emerged as liberators. In 1775, the Earl of Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, offered freedom to any slave who joined the ranks of his army. Later, British commanders expanded the offer to include all slaves owned by Patriots who managed to escape to British-held areas. (At the same time, they assisted Loyalists in retaining control of their slave property.) In the northern colonies, some slaves gained freedom by enlisting in Washington’s army. But in the South, Taylor writes, ‘Patriots fought to preserve slavery for blacks as well as the freedom of whites’ – a point underscored by the Virginia law that offered white recruits a hundred acres of land plus a slave.

Taylor calls his book a ‘continental history’, and on occasion he expands his focus to include events elsewhere in the Western hemisphere. He notes that the American War of Independence wasn’t the only uprising for liberty in these years. In Peru, a Jesuit priest who took the name Tupac Amaru, after an Inca king, led a native rebellion to drive out the Spanish. By the time it was suppressed in 1783, 100,000 natives and 10,000 Spaniards had died. And, of course, there was the slave revolution of the 1790s that established the hemisphere’s second independent nation, Haiti (to which the US refused to grant diplomatic recognition until 1862, an early example of the distinction between good and bad revolutions).

The ‘continental’ approach enables Taylor to show how slavery affected the course of the War of Independence. He makes the point that the 13 colonies that eventually formed the United States represented fewer than half of the colonies that comprised Britain’s empire in the Western hemisphere. Local leaders in the Caribbean disliked parliamentary taxation as much as their mainland counterparts but declined to join the movement for independence. Given the large slave majorities in their populations – 50,000 white West Indians compared to 275,000 slaves – Caribbean elites desperately needed British protection. Slavery affected British policies as well. Once France entered the war on the American side in 1778, the British government’s most pressing concern was to prevent the capture of lucrative Caribbean colonies. London despatched more reinforcements to the West Indies than to the mainland. And while the war on the mainland effectively ended with the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, it continued in the West Indies until a year later, when a fleet commanded by Sir George Rodney defeated the French navy and saved British rule in Jamaica. Overall, Taylor writes, key West Indian sugar islands such as Jamaica and Barbados were ‘far more important’ to Britain than the rebellious American colonies.

The achievement of independence didn’t quell the turmoil unleashed by the war. Tens of thousands of Loyalists, many of them prominent lawyers, merchants and Anglican prelates, fled the country, opening the door for ambitious new men to step into positions of authority (in the South, this meant acquiring, at bargain basement prices, the land and slaves of exiled Loyalists). Conflict with Indians continued on the frontier. State politics devolved into contests between farmers seeking laws suspending the collection of debts and creditors defending the rights of property. The perceived excesses of democratic politics in the states produced an upper-class reaction. The initial national frame of government, the Articles of Confederation, gave the federal government little power over the states – too little, in the view of a group of nationalists who concluded that stronger central authority was needed to keep popular passions under control and deal effectively with Indians and European powers.

This is where Alexander Hamilton enters the story. Long eclipsed in popular memory by his great rival Jefferson, Hamilton has lately achieved cult status thanks to Broadway. There he is a poor but ambitious immigrant whose rise exemplifies the opportunities America offers the common man. Taylor’s Hamilton is a cunning striver who gets ahead by marrying into one of the colonies’ wealthiest families and who rails against the ‘democratic spirit’ unleashed by the revolution. Rather than a man of the people, the Hamilton of American Revolutions consistently promotes the interests of wealthy merchants and great landlords. In a tirade at the Constitutional Convention, he warned that the ‘mass of people … seldom judge or determine right’ on matters of public policy and advocated a president and senate serving for life, modelled on the British monarchy and House of Lords. The delegates listened respectfully, then ignored his proposals. But the Constitution did strengthen federal authority and forbade the states from interfering with the collection of debts and from violating property rights in general. And through his contributions to the Federalist, a series of newspaper articles that made the case for ratification, Hamilton played a key role in mobilising popular sentiment in favour of the Constitution.

Hamilton had grown up in the West Indies, and disliked slavery. Although his in-laws were prominent slaveowners, he pushed for emancipation in New York State. His contributions to the Federalist, however, made no mention of the Constitution’s clauses protecting the institution. At the insistence of South Carolina and Georgia, the document allowed states to continue to import slaves from Africa or the West Indies for at least twenty more years, with the result that an additional 200,000 slaves were brought into the country. The Constitution also gave slave states added political power by counting three-fifths of their human property as part of the population when it came to determining apportionment in the House of Representatives, while also mandating that slaves who managed to escape to another state be returned to their owners. As Linda Colley recently pointed out, written constitutions often function as ‘weapons of control, not just documents of liberation and rights’. Certainly this was true of the American example.

Overall, the founders of the republic proved unwilling to confront the presence of slavery in a nation supposedly dedicated to freedom. Too many historians have claimed that the revolutionaries’ exposition of the rights of mankind set the new nation on the path to abolition. It is certainly true that many founders hoped slavery would die out and that later campaigners drew on revolutionary ideology. But no teleological straight line existed from the revolution to the Emancipation Proclamation. In fact, after independence slavery expanded dramatically, until the Old South became the largest slave society the modern world has known. It was a bloody civil war, not the logic of liberty, that rid the US of slavery (something many countries that lack its rhetorical commitment to freedom and equality managed to accomplish less violently) and led to a rewriting of the Constitution to sever rights and citizenship from race.

In his final chapters, Taylor briefly surveys the political history of the early republic. Although the founders didn’t intend to create political parties and the Constitution makes no provision for their existence, parties quickly emerged out of divisions over economic policy and the proper response to the French Revolution. By the mid-1790s the political nation was divided between Federalists, led by Washington and Hamilton, and Jeffersonian Republicans. Neither took the high road. Federalists demonised immigrants as a threat to the new republic. In 1798 they pushed through Congress the Alien Act, which sharply increased the waiting period before an immigrant could become a citizen and authorised the president to deport any alien whose presence he believed threatened the nation’s ‘peace and safety’. In the campaign of 1800, Federalists described Jefferson as a dangerous atheist (with a slave paramour to boot), whose election would encourage ‘murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest’. Republicans, led by wealthy Virginia plantation owners, denounced their opponents as elitists and emphasised their own commitment to political equality and economic opportunity for ordinary white men, while at the same time whipping up the electorate’s feelings of superiority to blacks and Indians. It all seems depressingly familiar.