Friday, July 4, 2014

“. . . that some men are created equal . . .”

A patriotic salute to our country and to all Americans on the 4th of July!

And now just a little dose of reality to leaven our celebration of the Declaration of Independence:

You probably know this, but let’s mention it anyway—those patriotic Americans who signed the Declaration really didn’t mean it when they said “all men are created equal.”

They certainly weren’t thinking about all of the poor, landless and otherwise disadvantaged white males who didn’t qualify in the various colonies to vote.

They certainly weren’t thinking about the roughly 600,000 slaves in the brand new United States. In fact, many of the signers owned slaves, and Jefferson’s draft paragraph decrying the slave trade was stricken from the officially adopted version of the Declaration.

They certainly weren’t thinking about Native Americans who lived in and west of the British colonies. The First Peoples were not mentioned in the Declaration in any positive way.

They certainly weren’t thinking about women. The prevailing mindset of the time, among men, really didn’t recognize any political role or rights for women. Abigail’s lectures to John Adams were marvelous; also, they were trivial marginalia in the great scheme of things during the Revolution.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Heard this one before?...(part 2)

Think back to the antebellum South, in 1850.

The census of that year shows that, of roughly 660,000 households in the southern states, the 1,000 leading households of the plantation elite received about $50 million in annual income.

The rest of the population earned only about $60 million annually.

Can you say “inequality”?

Any part of this sound familiar?


Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present (1980; repr., New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 236.

Friday, April 25, 2014

How many patriots didn't have guns?

Here’s a Fractured Fact in American history:

Quite a few of the colonists didn’t have guns.

Try to imagine a Revolutionary War scene, or a “Last of the Mohicans” scenario, that doesn’t include every able-bodied male walking around with a flintlock musket or pistol.

Surely, soldiers in organized units were generally pretty well armed—although in 1776 Gen. Washington complained to the Committee of Safety in Pennsylvania that militiamen were reporting for duty without muskets.

Historian Thomas Verenna says colonial American probate records suggest there were roughly only about 5.4 guns for every 10 people in 1774—gun ownership varied among the colonies, in Pennsylvania the number was closer to 3 for 10 people..

Guns were expensive, and colonial manufacturing capabilities were limited.

Today, a distinct minority of households have firearms. The Pew Research Center said last year that only 37% of households reported having a gun. In 1973, the percentage was 49%.

The percentage is dropping. I think that’s a good thing.

p.s. I searched online to find an illustration of a “Revolutionary soldier” or a “colonial patriot” without a gun, but I couldn’t find one

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The “democracy” thing ain’t working….

What if we held an election, and almost nobody showed up?

In Florida’s 19th Congressional District, voters  on Tuesday nominated a Tea Party-endorsed, very wealthy businessman to be the Republican candidate in a special June election for the now-vacant seat in the U.S. House.

The 19th is considered a “safe” Republican district, so the primary winner, Curt Clawson, is more or less a shoo-in to go to Congress.

Just for the moment, ignore the fact that Clawson loaned his own campaign $2.6 million of his money, and much of that was spent on TV ads that dominated Gulf Coast television in recent weeks. In simplest terms, he and outside PACs bought the election.

An equally gruesome fact is that only 26,857 Florida Republicans voted for Clawson in the 4-way primary race—he got about 38% of the vote.

Now, there are roughly 525,000 voting-age adults in the 19th District.

So, the bad news is: about 5% of the voting-age population has chosen Florida’s newest member of Congress.

As far as I know, at no time in our history have we had sustained, full, informed participation in voting by everyone eligible to vote at the time.

The “democracy” thing ain’t working too well.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Have you ever worked on the 8th floor?

Here are some Fractured Facts about the bad old days in New York City in 1911:

New York City Fire Chief Edward Croker was very up front about it: the ladders on his turn-of-the-century, horse-drawn firefighting vehicles could reach no higher than the 7th floor of the city’s growing number of high-rise buildings.

There were plenty of buildings with more than seven floors. The Woolworth Building, the tallest building in the world when it was completed in 1913, had 60 stories.

In 1911 it’s estimated that half of New York’s office and factory workers—about 500,000 men, women and children—spent their work day at the 8th floor or higher.

I wonder how many of them knew that the city’s firefighters had no chance of rescuing them if they got trapped in a burning building?

On March 25, 1911, a fast-moving late afternoon blaze engulfed the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in lower Manhattan, destroying the 8th, 9th and 10th floor work areas. The company had routinely and illegally locked the exit doors to prevent theft and keep employees at their work stations. When the inferno burned out, horrified firemen counted 146 bodies—mostly young immigrant women—at locked exits or on the sidewalks below windows where the desperate victims had jumped to escape the flames.

Here’s part of the printed account by the New York World:
“ . . . screaming men and women and boys and girls crowded out on the many window ledges and threw themselves into the streets far below. They jumped with their clothing ablaze. The hair of some of the girls streamed up aflame as they leaped. Thud after thud sounded on the pavements . . .”

One battalion chief of Engine Company 72 had to order spectators to clear the sidewalks so they wouldn’t be injured by the jumpers.

Chief Croker retired on May 1 of that year.

The owners of Triangle Shirtwaist Company were tried for manslaughter, but a jury acquitted them in less than two hours.

Later, lawsuits resulted in approximately $75 per victim in settlements by the insurance companies.

Have you ever thought that a fire drill at work was a pain in the ass?

Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present (1980; repr., New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 326-27.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Not fit for a king….

Americans take patriotic, sometimes whimsical and sometimes vicious pleasure in telling each other what the American spirit is all about, but I think we can agree here:

This is not what America is all about, never was, never will be….

George Washington was right:  just say no.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Columbus didn’t “discover” America

Yeah, I know what I learned in school, and you know what you learned….

Fact is, though, Columbus never set  foot on the North American mainland—strictly speaking, he didn’t “discover” America.

He “discovered” Cuba, Haiti/Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, other islands in the Caribbean, Central American and South America during his four voyages from Europe in 1492-1504.

Strictly speaking, as far as we know, Ponce de Leon was the first European to put a footstep in the sand on a North American shore, in what we now call Florida, in 1513.

….and, strictly speaking, none of the Spanish conquistadores discovered America.

The First Peoples of  the American hemisphere got there first.

There were tens of millions of Native Americans in the North, Central and South Americas at the time of the first Spanish contact and conquests. In the Viceroyalty of New Spain—including Florida, the American Southwest, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean—an estimated 25 million indigenous people had already created advanced cultures and civilizations. Perhaps there were a similar number in the South American Empire of the Incas before the advent of the Spaniards. Within 100 years, 95% of these original people of America were dead as a result of war and disease.

The Spanish adventurers did not invade an empty wilderness. They conquered and killed millions of the original inhabitants, and took their riches and their land.

Let’s call it as it was.

Bernard Bailyn, Robert Dallek, David Brion Davis, David Herbert Donald, John  L. Thomas and Gordon S. Wood, The Great Republic: A History of the American People, 4th ed. (Lexington, MA: D. C.  Heath and Company, 1992), vol. 1, 7-14. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

“. . . led by donkeys . . .”

At the outbreak of World War I, Britain had a relatively small professional army (247,000 men). Close to half of them were stationed overseas throughout the British Empire.

Thus, on the home island in August 1914, Britain’s generals mustered about 150,000 men to be the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that crossed the English Channel, to join the French in fighting the German attackers.

Within three months, that half of Britain’s professional army was gone. Most of the men in the BEF were dead.

p.s. Britain’s total WWI casualties: 673,375 dead and missing, 1,643,469 wounded

Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492- Present (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 360.

See also:

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Heard this one before?

Think back to Boston in 1767, before the Revolution.

The top 10 per cent of taxpayers in Boston held roughly two-thirds of the city’s taxable wealth.
And 30 per cent of men in Boston had no taxable property, and thus, were not eligible to vote.

Any part of this sound familiar?

Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492- Present (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 65.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

How many colonists actually saw an “Indian”?

As we study “first contact” and the tectonic engagement of two widely disparate cultures, it seems pertinent to ask: how many European colonists actually came face-to-face with a Native American, and vice versa?

I am fascinated by the demographic details of the experiences of Native Americans and Europeans in colonial North America. I'm interested in knowing more about the consequences of deadly epidemics that repeatedly reduced and devastated Native American populations. Various estimates suggest that up to 90% of the native American population died within a couple generations after the advent of Europeans, with the deaths attributable in small part to armed conflict and mostly to new diseases. Imagine that such a combination would reduce the current population of the United States from 318 million to about 30 million in the next 50 years. Would history books in the late 21st century be focused on any other topic?

My reading suggests that this wholesale reduction of Native American populations is typically noted, and the range of impacts is listed. It is acknowledged that diseases repeatedly eliminated whole families, destroyed kin networks, silenced whole villages, felled elders and chiefs and matriarchs, killed healers and others with special skills, and, most destructive of all, blanked out generational memories of tribal/clan traditions and stories that kept cultural and spiritual values alive. However, there is little reflection on how the philosophies and the world views, and the public and private aspirations, and the nightmares of the few survivors were affected. James Merrell suggests that 60,000 Catawbas were reduced, in merely 100 years, to a remnant population of only 500 in 1759. [1]  Death by disease is not, inter alia, simply a circumstance of history if it kills nearly everyone who lived within the span of memory of the few survivors. 

The magnitude of Native American populations, both before and after diseases took their toll, is a frame of reference in colonial history that I believe should receive more attention. Contemporary students have only limited awareness of the eventual minimal population numbers and sparse population densities of Native Americans throughout North America. For example, the celebrated and powerful Iroquois Confederacy in colonial New York had an estimated  combined population of  less than 22,000 when Europeans made first contact; an unrelenting decline of almost 80% reduced their numbers to only about 4,700 in mid-18th century. [2] In 1775 the largely British inhabitants of the New York colony outnumbered the Haudenosaunee about 8-to-1. [3] Analyses of alliances and the balance of power among Iroquois and Europeans do not typically make reference to these population data; such omission is a detriment to full understanding of military, political, commercial and social dynamics in the colonial era.

Population densities were quite low in colonial times. At the beginning of the 16th century, it's estimated that Northern New England Native American populations had a density of only 41 persons per 100 square miles; for comparison, an equivalent population in modern Massachusetts would be only about 4,328 people—in fact, Massachusetts today has 6.6 million residents. The English population in all of New England after 100 years of colonial settlement was only 93,000. [4] That’s just about the same as the current population of Brockton, MA. One wonders if any Native Americans and colonials seriously considering avoiding all contact with each other. It might have been relatively easy to do so for quite a long time.

I suggest that we too easily think of Native Americans and colonial Europeans as an undifferentiated mass that can be understood by characterizing groups. However, the fact of short life spans in the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries means that we should work hard at probing the evolving intentions and experiences of the relatively rapid succession of individuals who lived their lives and contributed in greater or lesser degrees to the making of "new worlds" on the North American continent. Average life expectancy of Europeans in the American Colonial era may have been under 30 years.[5] We can estimate that eight generations of Native Americans and Europeans lived during the period from initial settlement to the Revolutionary War. Manifestly, the Native Americans who dealt with the British after the close of the Seven Years' War (1763) were not similar to their own ancestors in the early 1600s. They had lived through many successive "new worlds." I think it's an error, for example, to blandly refer to the history, diplomacy and social/cultural dynamics of the Iroquois or the Catawbas without explicitly acknowledging that heterogeneous generations of them played their distinctly different roles in transforming their environment and their ways of life. In some traditional views, the European colonists were uniformly courageous, adventuresome, and hardy pioneers intent on creating the American dream. In fact, many of the European colonists were desperate escapees from Europe; their intentions were less exalted.

I think this is a fascinating question: from initial European settlement through the early years of the American republic, how many Native Americans were personally face-to-face with an Englishman or a Frenchman or a Spaniard, and vice versa? How many Europeans ever saw more than a few Native Americans during their lifetimes, and vice versa? Of course there was extensive trading and ultimately commerce, and there was some intermarriage, and social mixing, military alliances and armed conflict that brought some Native Americans and Europeans together. "New worlds" emerged because people came together, shared ways of survival and experienced mutual, social transformations. Nevertheless, I wonder if the multiple, transformative interactions were at the periphery of the lives of many or most of the individuals who lived during the transformations, but may not have felt much of the kiss, or the sting, of change.

1 - James H. Merrell, "The Indians' New World: The Catawba Experience," The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 41, no. 4 (October 1984): XX.

2 - Dean Snow, The Iroquois (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996), XX.

3 - The Papers of Sir William Johnson, Documents relative to the Colonial History of New York State, vol. 6, 993.

4 - William Cronon, Changes In The Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983), XX.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

. . . history that didn't happen . . .

Book review:
Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
261 pages

Dowd's "A Spirited Resistance" provides some examples of considering "history that didn't happen."
For every account of "history that happened" there might be a complementary book of "history that didn't happen."

It's important to emphasize that people and groups in the past continually faced decision options and critical choices and conflicting imperatives to act, as we do now. People and groups in the past continually made unique decisions in the face of uncertainties and competing exigencies, as we do now.

The "history" of an individual or a group is a distinct track, forward in time, of decisions and choices and events, some discretionary, some imperative, some unavoidably random. This process continues through a welter of known and unknown alternatives. This ever-changing process of life is unique in retrospect, but it is increasingly, incomprehensibly variable and complex as we consider the prospects for the future at any point in time.

Thus, the "history that happened" is one of the possible histories that could have happened. It never was inevitable. There is difficulty enough in reconstructing, analyzing and understanding the actual "history that happened." The discovery and illumination of the course of history, however well done, is profoundly insufficient for the student of history.

Any possible, speculative scenario of historical events is a "history that didn't happen." Any version of the "history that didn't happen" is potentially a compelling object of interest, and there are limitless different versions. There is an effectively boundless scope of interest in such histories, and a wide range of probabilities that they might have occurred.

To be clear, popular accounts of so-called "alternative history" or "what if?" history are not suitable exemplars of this theme. An historical treatment that focuses on a single, arbitrary "what if?" scenario for a known historical event or extended historical process is of course a "history that didn't happen," but it is a special case. For example, a speculative presentation of "The South Won The Civil War" can be entertaining overall, even instructive in detail, but it is flawed. The author has the benefit of hindsight and cannot avoid using it. Of necessity, the author must repeatedly, expansively and arbitrarily choose alternative versions of what actually happened; the probability of occurrence of such a single, massively multi-variable alternative actually is vanishing small. Why bother writing or reading it? One may imagine that simultaneous nasty influenza outbreaks might have sidelined all the generals in both camps on July 2 in Gettysburg. The probability of such a scenario is vanishingly small. This scenario may be entertaining, but it does not merit serious consideration. It is imaginable, but it adds little to our understanding of history. The popular "what if?" approach to history is almost always arbitrary, eccentrically narrow and overwhelmingly improbable.

A structured, exploratory consideration of "history that didn't happen" could be useful. Such a structured approach, for example, could include:
·                     examination of the knowledge, values and motivation of historical actors;
·                     identification of realistic, feasible alternative decisions and reactions that might have occurred at specific points in time or throughout an event in process;
·                     analysis of decision factors that were considered or ignored by the historical actors.

This approach envisions a retrospective presentation of history that illuminates reasonably feasible alternative courses of action, and clarifies possible explanations of why the actors did not make such decisions or pursue such courses of action. This concept does not assume and generally would avoid any attempt to prove that any particular alternative decision or action would have been better or should have been chosen. The point of this essentially objective reconsideration of history is to clarify the motives and expectations of the actors, and to gain a broader and deeper appreciation—in analytical contexts framed by hindsight—of what they thought was happening, what they wanted to happen and what they thought was possible or probable, all without the benefit of foresight.

A poignant example is Jared Diamond's question in "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." It includes a chapter on the almost complete deforestation of Easter Island and the cultural decline of its people who had depended on the trees for canoes, construction material and fuel. Diamond asks: "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?" (p. 114). By extension, what did the rest of the Easter Islanders say while he was doing it? Of course, with hindsight it's obvious that cutting down the last tree was not a good move. Was it obvious in the 17th century on Easter Island?  It would be interesting to attempt to reconstruct the ax-man's knowledge, values and motive: could he have not known it was the last tree? Was he concerned about preserving his
essential environment? Did Easter Islanders desire a tree-less landscape? Was the last tree worth a million bucks? Forward-thinking, environmentally sensitized Easter Islanders could have started planning earlier to figure out how to conserve a minimum number of trees or develop substitutes for transportation, construction and fuel. What are some possible elaborations about why that didn't happen? Was any such attempt actually made? Was tree-cutting strictly a commercial activity? Were there any social/religious/cultural imperatives regarding tree cutting? Was that ax-wielding Easter Islander a hero or a villain?

Now, back to Dowd and “A Spirited Resistance.” Apparently, a fundamental constraint to the success of the 18th century pan-Indian prophets on the East Coast was the persistent obstruction of many neutral or accommodationist chiefs who rejected their prophets' call for both violent and spiritual resistance to the Anglo-American authorities and settlers. These neutral chiefs sought to co-exist in relative peace with the Europeans. This internal division among the native Americans and the longevity of the ill-fated nativist movement suggests many questions.

In hindsight, it seems, at least superficially, that the ultimate dominance of the Europeans was inevitable. Did none of the chiefs in the late 18th century recognize this imperative? What arguments did both the nativist and neutral leaders use in their private councils to minimize their prospects for failure? How did their knowledge, values and motives sustain their doomed objectives for decades? Is it possible that the prophets might have been substantially successful if no internal Indian strife had existed?

Dowd says the inter-tribal and intra-tribal conflicts in leadership actually bolstered the motivation of the nativists, who argued that the neutral chiefs' failure to respect Indian cultural and spiritual values was partly to blame for the degradation of their culture and way of life. Did the neutral chiefs make the same criticism of the prophets? By implication, Dowd suggests that most nativist and accommodationist chiefs were doing their honorable best for their people. This viewpoint should be challenged; can it be confirmed? What was the motivation of the prophets and nativist chiefs? Did Tenskwatawa share personal attributes with Martin Luther King? with Billy Graham? with Elmer Gantry?

What primary military, political, economic and cultural factors were important to the neutral chiefs and to the prophets? Was their strife righteously motivated and conscientiously implemented? How much of it, if any, was simply opportunistic, localized internal wrangling for political power and personal prestige? Did the warriors and the people and the clans who actively supported the chiefs fully understand the implications of their commitments? Did the warriors follow Tecumseh for glory or for their informed vision of a better future? Did any Indian chiefs believe there was a third version of doing "the right thing"?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

American Revolution not about equality….

Book review:
Morgan, Edmund S. The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1977.

I like Morgan’s book. I re-learned some stuff I knew about the era of the Revolution, and learned a lot that I didn't know. He tells a coherent story; the links between events are made clear, as are the contexts in both America and in Great  Britain.

I wish there were books of this caliber about the Roman Empire, China, the Middle Ages, Egypt, the fertile Crescent….

I will say that Morgan’s prose is exuberant, perhaps he exaggerates intentionally to add color to his chronology, perhaps he’s a bit sloppy in hyping his romance with the American Revolutionary story.

There is a significant flaw in The Birth of the Republic. Morgan practically says that the rebellious colonists discovered the principal of human equality. Throughout the book he confuses “rights” with equality, and confuses “liberty” with “equality.” In fact, he allows himself to splurge with “Gunpowder is a great equalizer,” and actually says (p. 79) “The Revolution became a people’s war” ! Gee whiz….

Great Britain did not think the war was about equality. The King and parliament notably thought it was about getting the colonies to help pay for the expenses of garrisoning North America and prosecuting the Seven Years’ War.

There was less unity and singleness of purpose than Morgan describes. Neither the Revolutionary zealots nor the members of the Continental Congresses referred to themselves as "the founding fathers," and there never was political or philosophical unity among these men or among the colonies. There was a strong ideological consensus about bolstering and preserving the security of property, and of course there were economic motives that helped push the colonies into rebellion.

The Founding Fathers were generally wealthy, professional men or political leaders. Ultimately they were all politicians. There was sharp and prolonged disagreement among them on many issues. In fact, many delegates to the 1st and 2nd Continental Congresses were opposed to independence. (About 20% of colonial Americans were British loyalists).

I dispute Morgan's central theme. He argues that the concept of human equality was a central driving force in the Revolution and the creation of the constitution. I think he fails to make the case, and his preoccupation with equality mars the utility of his analysis.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The 2nd Amendment, revisited….

Many gun advocates think the 2nd Amendment  is all about “my right to own a gun, that’s it, end of story.”

They’re forgetting about the whole colonial concept of a “well regulated militia,” as opposed to a standing army.

They’re forgetting the original emphasis on non-infringement of gun ownership was explicitly tied to the obligation to turn out for service in the militia wherever and whenever needed.

Here’s the thought:
Consider that the so-called “Founding Fathers” had a broader, historically informed view. Consider that some of them weren’t so much focused on the “keep and bear arms” part as they were focused on the “well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state” part.

What they had in mind was universal standby military service.

Historian Clinton Rossiter peels the contemporary dogma away from the 2nd Amendment in The Political Thought of the American Revolution: Part  Three of Seedtime of the Republic (1963). He examines a powerful consensus among the revolutionary writers in support of a people’s militia (private soldiers) for defense of the community and country, in contrast to their fear and disdain of paid troops, in what they called “standing armies.”

Of course, men like Samuel Adams and Josiah Quincy Jr. and James Lovell were thinking of British redcoats when they thought of “standing armies,” and they were thinking of their fellow rebellious Americans when they thought of citizen soldiers in “well regulated militias.”

The point is: political thinkers and popular writers in the Revolutionary era explicitly believed that the obligation to actually serve in a militia was the whole rationale for defending the right to keep and bear arms. 

A private right to have guns was well established in English constitutional history and practice, as notably embodied in the English Bill of Rights in 1689.

The political thinkers and leaders of the American Revolution thought of the 2nd Amendment as the enabling doctrine to support the well regulated militia, which would be the defense of the newly independent colonies.

In other words, the obligation to serve in a militia in a time of threat or war was the whole point of loudly proclaiming an Englishman’s and an American’s right to keep and bear arms.

Josiah Quincy Jr.:
“The sword should never be in the hands of any, but those who have an interest in the safety of the community . . . Such are a well regulated militia composed of the freeholders, citizen and husbandman, who take up arms to preserve their property as individuals, and their rights as freemen.” (Rossiter, The Political Thought of the American Revolution, 126-27).

In other words, today’s gun advocates would be true to the spirit of their Revolutionary forebears if they would practice shouting “I have a right to own a gun, and I’m ready to go to Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever I’m needed to use it in defense of America and American interests.”

OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but not much….

In Revolutionary times, the point of owning a gun wasn’t just owning it, the point was being always ready to turn out with the militia and use it against the enemy. You had a right to own a gun because you had an obligation to be a soldier.

Rossiter, Clinton. The Political Thought of the American Revolution: Part  Three of Seedtime of the Republic. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The “Founding Fathers,” patriots and more….

Book review:
Holton, Woody. Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves & the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
231 pages

Holton is a neo-progressive who offers a backstory to the drive by Virginia's elite political leaders to support the Declaration of Independence and rebellion against England. He argues that Indians, slaves, merchants and small farmers, each in their own sphere, exerted influence on Washington, Jefferson and other Virginia leaders that helped to motivate their advocacy for independence.

There’s plenty of rich detail as he explores the obvious and not-so-obvious relationships of these interest groups. Holton describes the not wholly successful effort of the powerful landowners (in many cases, they were also land speculators) to achieve and expand their control of the factors of production: land, capital and labor.

Holton, Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, is at his most persuasive when he details circumstances in which the interests of the elites were more or less congruent with the interests of the generally disenfranchised, but nevertheless potent, subordinate classes who occupied their colonial world.

Forced Founders supports and enlarges our understanding that the so-called Founding Fathers were not a monolithic group motivated simply by patriotic fervor for independence.

Some other thoughts:

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Declaration was a re-write….

Book review:
Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House Inc., 1998.

The Declaration of Independence was a re-write….and it didn’t start the Revolution.

A quick review of what we know about the Declaration, courtesy of the late Prof. Pauline Maier: basically, it’s trash talk to King George III.

This book exposes the backstory of the Declaration. Yes, Thomas Jefferson wrote the draft in his stuffy room in Philadelphia, but the final document is the work of many hands. The Second Continental Congress substantially re-worked Jefferson's draft. The Declaration didn't "start" the American Revolution. It wasn't the "kickoff" event. It was more like a final formality to officially authorize the colonial rebellion which had been evolving for years and which had already been the subject of a shooting war for more than a year.

A point that’s interesting to me: much of the stirring prose in the Declaration had already been written in various forms by Jefferson and others in the multitude of documents approved locally throughout the colonies, expressing the colonials' increasing frustration with the failure of their efforts to negotiate a suitable accommodation with the King and his ministers and Parliament. Until the shooting started, there was persistent strong support throughout the colonies for remaining within the empire as long as American self-government could be sustained.

Finally, there is Maier's take on the Declaration as a late blooming "American Scripture." She documents, and challenges, the 19th century politicians' cumulative (and heedlessly incorrect) re-interpretation of the Declaration as a statement of governing principles and a blueprint for American political values and American democracy. Maier makes a plain case that the Declaration was intended only to demonstrate why, finally, the colonial disdain of King George had made American rebellion necessary and unavoidable.

A note for the serious reader: Chapter 4 incongruously seems to stray into anecdotal commentary on various interpretations by Abraham Lincoln and others. I understand the imputed relevance, but this section of American Scripture seemed to be casually written and insufficiently edited.