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.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014 All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Commuting is old as the hills….

Well, OK, maybe not quite as old as the hills.

But "commuting" has a very American history, all the way back to the 1830s in Boston.

Throughout modern human history (last 1,500 years or so), folks who weren't doing farming or "cottage industry" work purposefully tended to live within an hour's walk (or hour's travel time) from the place where they worked. That makes sense, especially centuries ago, when there was no public lighting and darkness tended to shut down a lot of activity, and so spending no more than a couple hours a day getting to and from work seemed like a really smart thing to do….and, of course, a lot of folks lived a lot closer than that to their workplace.

In the 1830s, Boston investors and entrepreneurs started building the railroad infrastructure that would create "spokes" of rail lines leading from the central city "hub" to sparsely populated places that would become Newton, Providence, Worcester, Lowell, Salem, Newburyport, Plymouth, Fitchburg….

Now, here's the thing: these railroad pioneers built their lines to handle freight. Gradually it dawned on them that they could profitably carry people. Add in a little real estate speculation, and some homebuilding, and upper class folks who wanted to get out of the city, and Voila! The first approximation of suburbs appeared along the tracks extending outward from Boston.

The owners of the Eastern Railroad running to Newburyport, and the folks at Boston & Worcester R.R. serving Newton, started offering reduced price "season tickets" to regular users of their lines, that is, the folks who lived outside Boston and went in to the city to work or do business regularly. These tickets were said to have "commuted" prices—an old-fashioned meaning of "commute" is "to change or reduce."

So these early suburban travelers taking advantage of the "commuted" tickets came to be called "commuters." They could live outside Boston and still have an hour or less travel time to their work.

By 1849, there were 105 commuter trains arriving in Boston every weekday….and, y'know, they didn't have any traffic jams on the rail lines. We could use more rail lines today.

My sources for this historical tidbit:
Henry C. Binford, The First Suburbs: Residential Communities on the Boston Periphery, 1815-1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 95.
James C. O'Connell, The Hub's Development: Greater Boston's Development from Railroad Suburbs to Smart Growth (Cambridge, MA, 2013), 42.

Friday, January 3, 2014

More on British resources and commitment in Revolutionary War

There are some interesting details, about British capability and will to win the Revolutionary War, in a recent discussion thread in the American Historical Association group on LinkedIn.

It's clear that there are substantial economic and military considerations in any assessment of the relative value to the British of the North American colonies and the West Indies "sugar islands." As I've mentioned before, I infer from my reading that the British did not have enough troops and ships to simultaneously suppress the North American rebellion and also defend the sugar islands against French and Spanish predators. It seems to me that this suggests an interesting question: how hard did the British try to win the Revolutionary War?

I don't know the answer, but I'm working on learning more about the circumstances and expectations that shaped 18th century diplomacy and military initiatives by the British.

The Journal of the American Revolution looks like an interesting site.