A review of The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America, by Gary B. Nash.
According to most historians the Founding Fathers get far too much credit. The idea that a narrow, privileged, and clearly self-serving cadre of elite white patriarchs should be depicted in best-selling volumes as forward-looking, visionary statesmen galls them. Earlier generations of Progressive historians made an exception for Thomas Jefferson, whom they regarded as a genuine liberal; but their successors have jettisoned the Sage of Monticello from the national pantheon because of his slaveholding and racist views. The obvious next step would be to dismantle the pantheon itself. But Gary B. Nash, one of the towering figures of his generation of historians, has another solution: redefine the Revolution in a way that marginalizes great white men, populates the stage with a new, "unknown" cast of characters with a "radical agenda," and exhorts modern readers to embrace and sustain these radicals' "visionary and experimental" struggle for a "better future."
Nash believes that his readers will find "history more satisfying" if they encounter "figures like themselves—in color or class, religion, sex, or social situation." The radicals' "many-sided struggle to reinvent America" was a "seismic eruption" that has "reverberated around the world among oppressed people down to the present day." Many of Nash's protagonists—Indians, enslaved Africans, rural tenants of imperious Whig overlords—were opposed to the actual American Revolution. But its "life and soul," he insists, was in its transformative spirit, not in the patriot elites' "tussle with the mother country." The rebellious slaves who responded to the king's counter-revolutionary "call for arms" best exemplified the real "spirit of '76," and "Loyalists were among the most radical proponents of a transformed American society."
Some of Nash's revolutionaries actually supported the American Revolution. The progressive coalition, he explains, included anyone who was acutely "dissatisfied" with the colonial status quo, from "ordinary people" who suddenly saw "themselves as agents of history" and sought "elementary political rights and social justice," to Abigail Adams and other elite ladies who bridled at the misogynistic condescension of the patriot patriarchs. Because Nash's radicals chose different sides in the more familiar, better "known" revolution, they could not expect their efforts "to have an end point, final victory, or triumphant success." Yet "all of them," he writes, were "animated by a sense of freedom, justice, or dignity denied," and "could no more step away from the revolutionary agendas they had created than a mountain stream fed by melting snow can halt its rush to the valleys below." In other words, they were united by the inevitable convergence of their radical agendas, the "rivulets that fed into the mainstream of revolutionary consciousness." Their "yearning for a more equitable society" pushed the expansive boundaries of an emergent American nationhood.
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Nash's naturalistic metaphors—"seeds" are always being planted, just as "rivulets" flow—reflect and illuminate his fundamental premise of an immanent, transcendent, organic unity beneath and beyond the diversity and conflict he so eloquently chronicles. The revolution was "an upheaval among the most heterogeneous people" (my emphasis) in the Atlantic world, a "war to reform American society" (my emphasis), and an effort to fulfill the "promises of revolutionary radicalism" for all oppressed and marginalized groups. Nash assumes, in short, that all of his actors really wanted to be "Americans," not members of some other (any other!) national community that might offer better prospects for securing their natural rights—even when they quite sensibly chose to make war against "America." This is why Nash's radicals have to be "visionary," looking beyond a war that left most of its putative promises unfulfilled: otherwise, they would simply be losers or, worse yet, enemies of the new American republic. To overlook that messy, distinctly uninspiring historical reality, Nash's readers also have to be visionary. By tracing the mainstream back through its rivulets to its radical sources, they will discover a larger, progressive pattern, a transformative myth of an emerging but still incomplete "egalitarian democracy."
Notwithstanding Nash's title, the stories he tells are hardly "unknown" to American historians. In the last generation, professional historians have lavished much more attention on the history of race and slavery, intercultural encounters on the frontiers of settlement, and the changing structure and character of gender relations and family life in the revolutionary era than on the war itself. Nash makes good use of this scholarship. Where he departs from most of his fellow historians is in his forthright advocacy of a new national mythology. Nash seeks to displace the founders with a cast of characters he finds more congenial. The problem with the founders, according to Nash, is that they clearly envisioned an expansive, imperialistic, and racist republic in which Indians were obliterated, slavery was consolidated, wealth was concentrated, and the market triumphed. Staring into the heart of national darkness, Nash sees a bright if sometimes flickering aura. "The idea of independence" as patriots understood it, may have "had its limits," but Nash discovers the nation's real "life and soul" at those limits. These are where subsequent generations of radical reformers kept faith with their revolutionary forebears.
The Unknown American Revolution is anything but an exercise in founder-bashing. To the contrary, it is an ambitious effort to construct a new national pantheon, by exploiting the materials that a generation of critical historiography has made available. Nash is, in other words, a Whiggish nationalist who shares common ground with other nationalists like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Perhaps the closest parallel in recent historical writing is Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), which offers a similarly heartfelt testimonial to the rising tide of American democracy, though Wood locates his less tortured narrative in the more comfortable and familiar terrain of ideological and political history. Wood discovers a distinctly American radicalism—middle-class democracy. Nash's radicalism, by contrast, is more conventional. He tries to distinguish himself from Wood, but is only partly successful. Nash's book, like Wood's, concludes that "ordinary Americans were done with deference." Both historians also are drawn to the state constitutions that Wood explored so influentially in his monumental The Creation of the American Republic (1969), concluding that the American state-republics constituted sites for democratization, making possible future experiments with "participatory politics" and an expanding electorate. Wood may be more comfortable with ordinary, middling folk, and Nash with groups that are oppressed by their "betters," but wherever the impulse for democratization comes from, the political and constitutional means are critically important: they are the channel through which the democratizing "mainstream" flows. In that sense, Nash's book highlights the progressive foundation of Wood's work, as much as Wood's book underscores the Americanism of Nash's.
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In the end, Nash fails to make historical sense of the process of nation-making. Readers of this book might well wonder how Nash's narratives fit together. His informative account of the miserably underpaid, neglected, and largely foreign-born Continental Army underscores the "difficulties of managing a war that only about a quarter of the nation's peoples supported ideologically and an even smaller number supported materially." That very story, however, raises the question Nash overlooks: how did the Americans mobilize sufficient force across a fractured social landscape to sustain even the semblance of a "common cause"? Having discovered a "nation" in his unknown revolutionaries, many of whom actually opposed the Revolution, Nash can't explain how and why some groups acted together in their own time—and, to that extent at least, thought of themselves as "Americans"—while others were indifferent or hostile. By highlighting the formidable obstacles to patriot success, Nash (perversely, from his point of view) celebrates the heroic achievements of revolutionary leaders. Only by doing the hard political work of forging alliances across class lines and across the continent—alliances that proved just durable enough to survive battlefield setbacks, imploding finances, and pervasive war-weariness and demoralization–did those indispensable "founding fathers" win the war.
The nation-making process and its ideological and institutional concomitants gave rise to the emerging national identity, however tenuous and conflicted, that still frames our self-understanding. The survival of the republican union was a near thing. The founders themselves called it an "experiment." Its survival was by no means assured until the original, far from perfect union was demolished, and the nation given a new birth of freedom. The nation-making coalition certainly democratized politics, but the new nation's protean character pointed toward many possible futures, many of which we now disown.
The sources of our own, presumably more enlightened, conception of nationhood are not, as The Unknown American Revolution unintentionally makes clear, distinctively "American." According to at least some of the founders, the new republic rested upon truths available to men in all places, and at all times. If Nash is correct that his "unknowns" were the real revolutionaries, we would have to conclude that the "real" revolution was the counter-revolution, a strange conclusion indeed. Might it not be more historically accurate to suggest that the Americans participated in a worldwide antislavery campaign that built upon the anti-slavery elements of the founding to change the prevailing opinions in America and elsewhere? Conceptions of American nationality–of any nationality—are "mediated" through a constant renegotiation of the universal and the particular, between ideas of the nation and of the world. Why should this be so troubling? Why are historians so reluctant to jettison their exceptionalist assumptions? Doing so would allow Nash to escape his radically romantic (or, perhaps, romantically radical) conception of American nationhood and situate our history in a broader, more inclusive interpretive framework. Why can't we look beyond ourselves to better understand how "we"—to the extent we are a "we"—came to be who we are?