Remembering, as I often have cause to do, the late Samuel Francis’s formulation “anarcho-tyranny,” I have an enhanced respect for the wonder that is our nation, for the wisdom of the government, and for the phonetic ambiguity of the word mandate, particularly as related to the blow for freedom and equality struck by the latest federal policy concerning homosexuals in the military. And I have also an augmented zest for exploring the ways in which we reached this condition—this nameless state which leaves the suitpants and the pantsuits not knowing the meaning of such challenging nouns as marriage, border, budget, and war. After all, there has been a great deal of attention given recently to the subject of American history, to the Revolution, to the Civil War, and to the Depression—to opportunities for exploring the roots or justifications of present political positions. I don’t much like to read about the Depression, not only because it is depressing, but because it is rarely mentioned without a stentorian endorsement of the caesarism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I will only mention that a look at the budgets of the 30’s and 40’s indicates that Tojo and Hitler had a lot to do with all that deficit spending so beloved of Democrats when they get the benefit, and of Republicans ditto. Yes, deficits and bombing are rather addictive and habit-forming, aren’t they? But the Glory of Franklin has been done to death by our national noodge, Paul Krugman, who is contributing to our cultural heritage by driving the New York Times into insolvency. I concede that he has had help in this commendable project from his coevals in inanity and compulsive repetition, all of the other columnists of the Gray Lady (except one).
Ingesting information about contemporary realities is hard to square with our knowledge, or even not so distant memories, of other times. Reading about Great Britain (if you are tired of the riots on YouTube) is challenging, for the British polity was not long ago a cultural matrix and even an alternative way of life, as was once taught in school systematically. In an introduction to political science, for example, we could expect a treatment of the division of the symbol of the state, the monarch, from the executive authority of the prime minister, in contrast to our own system. And we could expect treatment of a parliamentary system in which there is no divided government, again in contrast to our practice. That is familiar enough, but the malfunctions of British society go beyond the obvious sphere of politics. Violence, coarseness, crises of immigration, collapses of distinctions—these phenomena sound American and raise a question: If our country is so different from Britain, then how is it that we seem to have wound up in such a similarly precarious position, at least in terms of social degeneration and challenged identity? Was the American Revolution a mistake, if it made so little différence after all? Or, if that question is misplaced, was the divergence between our nation and the British polity justifiable then, or is our convergence significant now?
A stranger in a strange land, I wondered how I could read more about homosexuals and the schedule of privileges accorded to them as equal rights, though there wasn’t much—well, actually, to be blunt, there just wasn’t anything about homosexuals where I was looking, and that was frustrating, if only because I am used to reading about homosexuals so frequently and for sustained periods. But then the new monument to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at our Capitol was so eclipsingly stolid, massive, inert, and even Asian (if not Olmec) in its aspect, that I was left wondering if the name should be pronounced “Martin Luther: King,” as would suit the foursquare monumentality. The Maoist mass-cult embarrassment of the thing says not so much about King as about Washington, D.C., and what it has come to represent. Did King deserve such treatment, or mistreatment? Do we? I called for help from the unusual suspects.
The first of these was Prof. William C. Davis of Virginia Tech, who has written some 40 books, mostly about Southern history. He is also well known for his appearances on Civil War Journal. I noticed two particular things in my looky-look at his booky-book—one being that he writes as he talks. Indeed, his bracing personality comes across in his exposition, which is, in his case, a good thing. The other thing I noticed was that the American revolutionary spirit did not come off so well in history as he has recounted it. Thus the story of the Republic of West Florida is not only interesting but revealing.
The events of 1810 are connected with all sorts of developments with which we are familiar. The Louisiana Purchase had magnified the sense of the nation and laid Manifest Destiny on the table. The disengagement of the French from the Western Hemisphere was related both to the Haitian revolt and to Napoleon’s Eastern agenda. The enfeeblement of Spanish authority in the New World was later to be revealed dramatically in the politics of Latin America in the Romantic age, and even later in the Spanish-American War, which showed our international hand for the 20th century—a trajectory not yet altogether exhausted, as long as there is a finger to push a button.
But the West Florida revolution itself was of homely dimensions, despite all the reverberations. The old Florida districts or parishes in what is now Louisiana still maintain their sense of history and of the distinction of their entry into the Union, for as it was done, there was a back-formation or retrofitting of the untruth that those districts had been a part of the original Purchase. And so today there are those who remember that the white star on the blue field entered American history three times or more: as the flag of the Republic of West Florida; as a remembered image appropriated in the nascent Republic of Texas, the history of which was not unrelated; and as an image reconstituted at the beginning of the Civil War, with the attendant song “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” To which we would add the name of one of the offspring of Scarlett O’Hara and her third consort, Bonnie Blue Butler—so there.
Now the story is one that involves words such as violence, revolution, rebellion, bloodshed, a declaration of independence, and the provocation of a de facto annexation engineered by Jefferson and consummated by Madison. The story has an ethnic element, of Anglos against Latinos, and must be seen as the continuation of the idea of republican revolution from 1776 to this replay in miniature and on to the Monroe Doctrine and the Texan revolution, and even to the so-called Civil War itself. At some point we can sense the old American attitude of independence and self-reliance combined with community spirit slipping away, until the American identity becomes almost unrecognizable in our time. Contemporary circumstance may make it possible for us to be, not sentimental antiquarians, but enlightened skeptics who can see all politics, even our national myth, as ambiguous at best.
The story, unfolded by Davis in a manner both scholarly and colorful, features gentlemen, politicians, settlers, entrepreneurs, and rogues and rascals as well. The spirit of the revolt against legitimate Spanish authority attracted exploitative banditti as well as those with disinterested motives—even then, even there—and I think the point is illustrative. After all, the impeccably descended and educated Aaron Burr was as interested in low-hanging fruit as was a filibuster like William Walker. The name of Jean Lafitte suggests that a pirate and a patriot may be related. So if Davis’s absorbing book shows us the Kemper brothers and others in all their fiery qualities, it also shows something of the slippery nature of political power and the fog of mythology. If the story of the Republic of West Florida casts some light on larger matters, then William Davis’s account is not only a pleasure but a lesson. And it might send us back to a grander story with new eyes. Oh say—can you see?
You can see more if you take a look at Maya Jasanoff’s remarkable, even unprecedented, survey of Loyalist exiles after the Revolutionary War. Her insistence on breadth of vision and synthesis of sources, on the microhistory of individuals as well as the macrohistory of institutions and states, and her concentration on the humanity of the losers who proverbially don’t write history, has been fused in an overarching vision that encompasses events and travels from the familiar Eastern Seaboard to the great wide world—the West Indies, Africa, India—and that stretches from the Revolutionary War to the War of 1812. In the many passages she orchestrates, the emptiness and the arbitrariness of received narrative are recast, freshly and memorably. We are reminded that not only was the Revolution a civil war, it was often recognized to be such at the time. Jasanoff recalls for us, if she does not show us for the first time, that the narrative of the British Empire was as worthy as the American narrative. She is well aware that in relation to the Indians and to African slaves, the British record is one of superior policy and vision. And she knows how to make her points concrete.
The Revolution sprang, at least in part, from violence, irrationality, even hysteria. The depredations of the king were not so bad. The behavior of the patriots was highly questionable on many occasions, as in the treatment of Thomas Brown near Augusta, Georgia, in 1775. Brown refused to respond to a mob’s demand for revolutionary enthusiasm, had violence done to his person and pitch poured over him, after which he was set on fire. He survived to become a determined Loyalist soldier and commander, and no wonder. And there are many other stories to be told from a perspective that produces the sense of historical flow and of a unity within the differentiated realities.
William Augustus Bowles, for example, is one of those people who strike the imagination because they had imagination. Married to the daughter of a Creek chief, Bowles wanted to establish in Florida a pro-British Creek state called Muskogee, and he did so, with a capital near present-day Tallahassee where he enjoyed some years of rule until he ran out of luck and wound up dead in Havana in 1805. Such stories remind me of Elijah Clarke’s sadly transient Trans-Oconee Republic of not long before, and may be otherwise suggestive as well. Freebooters and filibusters and such send us a message: History isn’t settled because reality never was.
Perhaps Jasanoff’s central theme is not of the Spirit of 1776, but of the Spirit of 1783—of the story of freedom and community as seen from the perspective of Dominion, Empire, and Monarchy. And that story is both legitimate and justifiable. Jasanoff’s grasp of history, and her broad treatment of it, may suggest not only more work in the field she has explored and defined, but a further broadening to include Spanish and French analogues to the Anglo-American experience in the New World. But however that may be, Maya Jasanoff has most impressively recast our sense of American history in the early days of the Republic, relating it to the larger world. And like Davis’s, Jasanoff’s book has a personal touch. In her case, scholarship finds an individual tone: an appropriate and appealing feminine one—a rare quality, indeed.
If Professor Jasanoff of Harvard addresses any issues of orientation, I must have been asleep at the page. Tirelessly, and with unflagging commitment, I plunged on, following where destiny dared. I figured that Gordon S. Wood, University Professor Emeritus at Brown, wouldn’t disappoint me, but he did. Apparently, scholars of the Revolution are out to lunch as far as the cutting-edge human-rights issues of our time are concerned.
But what I did find was valuable. Professor Wood has organized his book as a gathering of various pieces, with subsequent modifications, which he wrote over the decades about the Revolution. And there are a number of points at which his work jibes with the books treated above, as when he acknowledges some of the Revolutionary enthusiasm as “hysterical.” But perhaps even more remarkably, Chapter Eight, “Monarchism and Republicanism in Early America,” recognizes as legitimate certain truths unexpected from an elite perspective, including much of the criticism of the Antifederalists, as they took exception to the Constitution of 1787. For he is clear on a point that the mainstream of American historians and political scientists has, by and large, fudged, from obligatory respect to the untruths of Abraham Lincoln and the needs of Wilson, Roosevelt, Johnson, Bush II, and so on. Wood compares the original Confederation to the present European Union, recognizing a union of republics. And Jefferson Davis and Alexander Hamilton Stephens would be quite satisfied with such a treatment. But then he insists, as a Federalist, that the Constitution created a new and powerful national republic, and that even Madison saw advantages in monarchy. Washington did have a regal air, and once even thought of calling himself, or rather having himself called, “His High Mightiness,” etc. People thought of him as a king, and there was a movement while he was in office to put his profile on coins. Wood makes clear what in contemporary journalism is sometimes masked—that “Hamilton surely would have loved the Pentagon and the CIA, and America’s huge standing army.” He minces no words about the swollen powers of the presidency as a problem from the beginning, resulting in all the undeclared wars and the recent embarrassment concerning the nonkinetic conflict in Libya.
There is much else in Wood’s book of interest and reward, but the larger point is a matter of historical continuity and civic concern. Certain people of 200 and more years ago tell us something, and show perhaps more. They were out for the main chance, and they took action. They did not think that being allowed to watch television with the air conditioning on was a fair bargain for the surrender of freedom and the imposition of taxes. They did not think that robotic warfare on television was either entertainment or moral justification. They did not think that “rights” were government inventions, but quite the opposite: These were naturally preexistent, to be protected from government. They knew what the withdrawal of the consent of the governed implied. They understood something about obligations and limitations. And, variously and rambunctiously, they took up arms against established authority. So I say in a whisper, Don’t let this get around.
[The Rogue Republic: How Would-Be Patriots Waged the Shortest Revolution in American History, by William C. Davis (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 400 pp.; $28.00]
[Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, by Maya Jasanoff (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 462 pp.; $30.00]
[The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, by Gordon S. Wood (New York: The Penguin Press) 384 pp.; $29.95]