‘Revolutions,’ Barbara Tuchman writes, ‘produce other men, not new men. Half-way “between truth and endless error” the mould of the species is permanent. That is the earth’s burden.’ Edmund Morgan and Patrice Higonnet are less pessimistic. They see the great ideological transformations of the 18th century as a continuing challenge. To be sure, those who dreamed of creating a genuine liberal democracy may have failed to achieve their immediate goals, but they issued a powerful invitation to establish the sovereignty of the people. This dynamic concept, Morgan writes, ‘has continually challenged the governing few to reform the facts of political and social existence to fit the aspirations it fosters. The presumption that social rank should convey a title to political authority was only the first casualty in its reformations, and we have not yet seen the last.’
Barbara Tuchman possessed a marvellous gift for narrative, and even when the facts about which she was writing were familiar, she was able to tell the story with freshness and excitement; but individual portraits were not what she did best. Political and military leaders at a moment of crisis, sometimes sensing that they were not quite up to the challenge, sometimes intolerably bound by bureaucratic rules not of their own making, received sympathetic treatment from this woman, who insisted that history was about persons capable of affecting ‘destiny’. Academic historians sometimes grumbled about her research or her interpretative framework. She countered that she was just as ‘professional’ as anyone who taught in the universities, and at the time of her death early last year the New York Times carried a laudatory account of her life in which Tuchman is quoted as having said: ‘If I had taken a doctoral degree, it would have stifled any writing capacity.’ This may seem excessive, but there is no question that Tuchman could be a brilliant writer. Against her ‘faculty’ critics she could always claim that ‘to be a best-seller is not necessarily a measure of quality, but it is a measure of communication.’
By these standards, The First Salute is a success. The book takes its title from an obscure event that occurred on 16 November 1776. An American ship, the Andrew Doria sailing out of Maryland, put into the Dutch Caribbean port of St Eustatius. The vessel flew the flag of the Continental Congress, and instead of being turned away as the British had demanded – St Eustatius was a notorious source of contraband arms – the Andrew Doria received an official salute. By recognising American independence, a self-serving Dutch colonial governor triggered a major confrontation between Britain and the Netherlands. The British authorities badgered the Dutch, but since the Dutch had allowed their once-formidable Navy to decay, they were in no position to defend national honour. Such military weakness, especially in a country whose economy depended on long distance trade, strikes Tuchman as odd, even contemptible. In a long, leisurely review of two centuries of Dutch political history, she attempts to explain why Britain’s great commerical rival of the 17th century had deteriorated to second-class status by the mid-18th.
Her answers amount to an account of missed opportunities, of rulers who lacked the will to power, and of citizens who refused to pay the financial price of greatness. It is a didactic exercise in which Tuchman occasionally displays her own national colours. ‘In general,’ she announces, ‘the Americans, facing many of the same decisions of statehood as the Dutch, came to more sensible solutions, no doubt because they were fortunate in the sensible and sophisticated political thinkers to whom their constitution is owed.’ Lapses of this sort are rare, however, and Tuchman’s broad international perspective serves as a salutary reminder that American statehood depended upon personalities and histories over which the rebels had almost no control.
In any case, it is clear that traditional political history does not hold much attraction for Tuchman. She shifts her attention to Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney, a man who if luck and events had gone his way might have crushed the American Revolution. She depicts Rodney as an ambitious, though frustrated naval officer, a person who put on a good show at the gaming tables and ran up huge debts that nearly drove him to distraction.
These chapters are the high point of the book. Tuchman admires Rodney’s smoldering creativity, and although at a crucial moment he failed to stop the French fleet from taking command of Chesapeake Bay and thus doomed General Cornwallis to defeat at Yorktown, Rodney still possessed what another generation might call ‘the right stuff’. His fellow naval officers, either out of fear or lack of imagination, followed the official regulations as set out in the Fighting Instructions. But Rodney boldly, even recklessly challenged these outdated rules, and for his innovative behaviour Tuchman awards him high marks.
The First Salute concludes with a dramatic account of the final months of the American Revolution. The British officers, Tuchman suggests, had lost faith in the war effort. There seemed to be no plan, no will to victory. By contrast, George Washington was prepared to seize whatever opportunities came his way. In fact, as the narrative marches relentlessly towards Yorktown, Tuchman’s analysis becomes unabashedly whiggish. Even the Americans’ French allies are carried along with the teleological tide. ‘History,’ Tuchman writes, ‘had given Admiral de Grasse the task of carrying forward the Americans to completion of their break with Britain. He seemed to know it, to feel as if appointed to it, to have listened, even as a foreigner, to the call by the Declaration of Independence for a pledge of lives, fortunes and sacred honour to the cause.’ The echoes here are of George Bancroft and other providential historians of the 19th century.
Patrice Higonnet works on an even larger historical canvas than does Tuchman. In Sister Republics he attempts to explain why the American and French Revolutions turned out so differently. Higonnet writes with passion. Sister Republics offers a highly personal interpretation. Higonnet tells his readers exactly where he stands on the great political issues of the 18th century, and even where he is not entirely persuasive, he provides fresh insight and stimulating re-interpretation. Experts in the histories of Early Modern France and America will surely quibble with Higonnet about certain points. I am not convinced, for example, that he has fully worked out the relation between slavery and the development of republicanism in late 18th century America. And although he argues that the American Revolution was a genuine revolution rather than a mere war for independence, he does not demonstrate that social reform radically restructured colonial society. In fact, compared to the French Revolution the politics of America seem remarkably tame, and one wonders how much the French experience of violently overturning a monarchy, one supported by an established church and legitimised by law and tradition, can tell us about events in the United States.
These are relatively minor differences of interpretation. Higonnet’s reading of the political and social history of colonial America is particularly imaginative. He argues that by the mid-18th century Americans were completely comfortable with capitalism. They produced for the marketplace. They consumed vast quantities of imported goods. They revelled in materialistic individualism. ‘America was the most resolutely capitalist society in the world. Everything there, including human beings, was bought and sold.’
What strikes Higonnet as especially odd about these 18th-century Americans was their utter unwillingness to describe themselves as what they were: ‘bourgeois’. As they rushed about the countryside in pursuit of ‘private profit’, they never bothered to proclaim the virtues of liberal capitalism. The Americans, who ‘ought to have been Lockeans’, mouthed instead the largely inappropriate and nostalgic language of the Radical Whigs. Not surprisingly, Higonnet finds this disjuncture between social reality and political ideology hard to explain. ‘Conceptually, what seemed relevant to them was not their unabashed desire for self-enhancement and material gain but their common morality, common purpose, and their sense of being a virtuous people.’
Perhaps the colonists were too busy making money to worry about the cleavage between experience and ideology. Certainly, Higonnet’s account accurately reflects the current state of historiography. And that may be the problem. There is no question that most Americans in this period welcomed commerce. The anomaly is the so-called Radical Whig or Commonwealth ideology, a set of republican principles which allegedly shaped the way ordinary Americans perceived civil government and their relationship to it. I suspect, however, that the colonists’ political ideology was not as divorced from economic and social reality as the dominant historiography would have us believe. The members of the provincial élites may have talked of republican virtue, but the people who actually fought the revolution were genuine Lockeans, men and women who in the words of one 1754 pamphlet thought that ‘Every Man has a natural Right to enjoy the fruit of his own labour, both as to the Conveniencies and Comforts as well as Necessaries of Life. Natural Liberty is the same with one Man, as another; and unless in the Enjoyment of these Things they hurt the Community, the Poor ought to be Allow’d to use them as freely as the Rich.’ Higonnet challenges us to rethink these issues, to develop a more sophisticated understanding of ideology in a society transformed by capitalism.
The French experience contrasted sharply with that of the Americans. The Constitution of the United States helped give birth to a prosperous nation of optimistic individualists. In France, ‘the move ... from traditional corporate sensibilities to more modern individualist forms and to the cult of the private self was a chequered process, and its final result was strikingly different from the Promethean individualism of the American colonists.’ Possessive individualism strained against corporate traditionalism, and during the early years of the Revolution, the nation’s leaders swung wildly from one extreme to another. After the Feuillants bungled an attempt to legislate economic individualism, the Jacobins seized the political stage. Their more radical leaders understood that ‘the working people of France did not at all perceive market forces to be immanently natural or humane.’
Enforced communitarianism led to the Terror and the unleashing of the kind of class antagonism that the Americans had happily avoided. By 1794 the opportunity to create a liberal republic was gone, and the Revolution gave itself over to empty rhetoric about liberty and equality. Higonnet concludes sourly that ‘Jacobinism, as it had developed during the Great Terror of 1793-94, with its overblown, deceptive rhetoric and its mindless bloodiness, was a quasi-pathological political ideology.’ Higonnet is not certain whether we can do any better than the Jacobins did. The promise of liberal democracy is as compelling now as it was in the 18th century. And for Higonnet, the history of the Sister Republic still provides ‘a model for the inseparable claims of freedom, empowerment, and citizenship’.
Among those who have followed his long and productive career, Edmund Morgan is greatly admired not only for his interpretative brilliance but also for his stylistic grace. The Stamp Act Crisis, written more than thirty years ago with his wife Helen, has become a classic, and anyone curious about the coming of the American Revolution would be well-advised to start with this masterful account. It is not surprising that Inventing the People has already won several prestigious awards given to historians in the United States. In this provocative study, Morgan wonders why ordinary men and women generally obey their rulers. It was a problem that perplexed David Hume as well. ‘Nothing is more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye,’ Hume wrote in 1758, ‘than to see the easiness with which the many are governed by the few ... When we enquire by what means this wonder is brought about, we shall find, that as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion.’ The key to legitimacy is ‘fiction’. As Morgan argues, people invent stories about their relation to civil authority. Indeed, ‘government requires make-believe.’ These cultural creations help explain to the ordinary citizen why the many are governed by the few. They become part of the fabric of everyday life, and so long as these popular fictions do not get too far out of line with actual experience, the state functions relatively smoothly.
At the beginning of the 17th century the reigning political fiction was the divinity of kingship. It did not matter that some kings behaved in ways that did not suggest divinity, let alone good manners. The idea that they enjoyed a special relationship with God had a long history, and James I apparently did not feel the least embarrassment in describing himself as the Lord’s vice-gerent on earth. Even as James was lecturing Parliament about the divinity of kings, however, the ideological ground had begun to shift. The elected members of Parliament were busy inventing new fictions about popular sovereignty. During the Civil Wars, Parliament claimed that it represented the people. As one pamphleteer explained in 1642, ‘the Parliament men are no other than our selves, and therefore we cannot desert them, except we desert ourselves.’ Whether ordinary people swallowed this argument is not clear. But however one defined representation, one could not fail to appreciate the difference between the few and the many, and Morgan speculates that ‘it would perhaps not be too much to say the representatives invented the sovereignty of the people in order to claim it for themselves – in order to justify their own resistance ... to a formerly sovereign king.’
The ‘fiction’ of representation raised a host of difficult problems. Just who was being represented? All the people or only a privileged group? Political thinkers from Locke to Hume devoted considerable energy to answering these questions. The Americans, of course, drew upon the political experience of the mother country. They followed the pamphlet wars, but much of what they read about popular sovereignty must have struck them as self-evident. In the New World, the ‘fiction’ of representative government was closer to political reality than it had ever been in Stuart England. ‘The result was a situation in which the sovereignty of the people could be accepted as the basis of government in the colonies without anyone having to decide what people endowed whom with what powers.’
Whatever the rules of local politics, however, the social distance separating the people from their elected representatives remained. In an impressively original section of the book that draws upon the literature of cultural anthropology, Morgan suggests that the wildly disordered elections that occurred in some American colonies served temporarily to bridge the gap between the few and the many. Representatives drank rum punch with their constituents, asked after family members, and pretended for a day or two that they were average folks who just happened to live in larger houses and have received a better education. The election served some of the functions of a carnival. According to Morgan, such a participatory movement was ‘a legitimising ritual, a rite by which the populace renewed their consent to an oligarchical power structure.’ The achievement of national independence and the drafting of constitutions forced Americans to focus attention more carefully than they had done before on the meaning of popular sovereignty. Morgan reviews the great political debates of the 1780s, showing how Madison and his contemporaries struggled to find ways that would guarantee that the most virtuous members of republican society would be chosen to represent the people.
But is it really all make-believe? Morgan himself senses that ‘fiction’ is perhaps not the most felicitous term to describe the core elements of this political culture. ‘Myth’ might have better served his purpose. ‘Fiction’ suggests manipulative possibilities that probably did not exist even in revolutionary situations. The meaning of representation changed slowly, and the people who defined it did so within a body of tradition and experience that inevitably restrained radical innovation. The American Founding Fathers discovered – as Englishmen had a century earlier – that ‘government and people could not be the same.’ In the 18th century ordinary voters automatically deferred to their social betters. Only slowly did people in Great Britain and the United States come to appreciate the egalitarian thrust implicit in popular sovereignty. As social status became less important in selecting representatives, voters demanded ‘leadership’ rather than ‘leaders’. ‘The decline of deference and the emergence of leadership,’ Morgan explains, ‘signalled the beginnings not only of a new rhetoric but of a new mode of social relations and a new way of determining who should stand among the few to govern the many. It signalled not only the rise of the professional politician and the religious hero but the vulnerability of any institution that denied the equality in which men and women had been created.’ The initial call to explore the implications of popular sovereignty may have been made in the England of the 1640s. Just how successful we shall be in translating this powerful fiction into political reality remains unclear. In these once more revolutionary times it is the people of Eastern Europe who seem the most determined to provide new answers.