Friday, July 03, 2009


Over at The American Catholic, a discussion is ongoing concerning whether or not the Revolutionary War did nor did not meet the criteria for a 'just war' as the Church teaches. I am far too indolent to review the commentary and am resistant to devoting too much thought to an academic question such as this. My country is; it was a palpable reality before, during, and after the Revolution. Civic obligations, such as they are, are derived from that, not from the justice or prudence of the Patriot cause. Retrospectively, I have long found the Loyalist cause the more appealing (though I enjoyed 1776 and Johnny Tremain as much as The American Catholics's principal, and found Oliver Wiswell wanting as literature), perhaps out of contrariness or perhaps having been perturbed by the Patriots habit of dunking their opponents in concoctions of tar and feathers or perhaps not thinking excise taxes worth the bother or perhaps having spent so many years of my life in the company of German Baptist Brethren whose ancestors thought the whole mess none of their business. However, the Mother Country conceded in 1783, and that is that.

Among all the others, the question posed in such a discussion is that of what is the appropriate locus of sovereignty; derived from that question is an observation about a vexed question in political theory. 'Ere you decide what are the rights of the people, you have to decide who are 'the people'. One ought be skeptical that anyone has ever derived satisfying normative criteria which answer this question. We can can have, with clarity of mind, a discussion of justice or its absence within extant political communities; we cannot, I think, about what justice indicates are the appropriate geographic boundaries of said community. Is this perhaps because that question is not best understood through discourse on 'justice'? (Search me).

The question of the justice of secessionist movements aside, it is not readily disputable that multi-ethnic states have their signature dysfunctions, and that the manufacture and maintenance of them is prudently avoided. (Can we please seal our southern border?)

If we contemplate the American Revolution, we cannot but be impressed at the neuralgic response of the colonists to some fairly banal measures (excises on paint and paper and tea) by the imperial government. The end game was an insurrection that continued for six-and-a-half years and resulted in a death toll that exceeded (proportionately) American losses in the First World War. Given the outrages perpetrated in our time by a domestic political class which our populace seems to regard with cud chewing indifference, one must be impressed as well by the gulf which separates the latter-day American from his colonial forebear. One also must notice that the colonists came, over a period of many decades, to understand themselves as a people apart from the country from which they came. Coming to an understanding of that colonial society and the men who comprised it would seem our first task, 'ere we evaluate the justice of their cause.

A society dominated by freemen and for which the most salient strata were classes (of affluent and poor, of master and journeyman and apprentice) rather than orders of clergy, nobility, burgesses, and peasants was atypical in Europe. (I will beg off on how to characterize the United Netherlands or the Hanseatic towns, but they may have been properly described as societies of classes and not orders). Government by elective and deliberative assemblies was hardly a novelty. It did, however, manage to prosper in the American colonies (and hold its own in Britain) during a period of occidental history in which it tended to fall into abeyance except in the governance of localities (and merchant republics that scarcely exceeded the boundaries of a locality). The erection of a territorial state composed of a federation of small republics may not have been a novelty (one thinks of the Swiss Confederation or the United Netherlands), but the erection of one at a discrete moment by a conscious act of the will (not the will of an ambitious monarch but the will of contrary burgesses and planters) certainly had scant precedent. Perhaps that is how best to understand the American Revolution: 1.) a commercial and agararian element conjoined to each other render themselves masters of their political destiny; and 2.) a populace comes rapidly to understand themselves as a particular community distinct from all other communities and so in a sort of fraternity rather than as subjects with a common fealty; and 3.) all is accomplished in a fairly orderly fashion (France has enacted eleven constitutions since 1789; Chile has enacted eight; we have the same one, dysfunctional though it is).

Donald McClarey, The American Catholic's ringmaster, allows as how he reads the Declaration of Independence to his family each year. That is all very well and good. The Fourth of July is in remembrance of that event; pace the Postal Workers' Union and the VFW and Coretta Scott King's brood, you only really need one National Day (and one can say our local communities only readily sustain celebrations of one nowadays). A crank like your's truly might wish we commemorated the actual founding of this country (on or about 14 May 1607) rather than its intervening secession from the British Empire, but that would be a contrivance. An element of our popular culture, of the celebrations people undertake on their own without being hectored by others with their hobby horses, is parades and cookouts and fireworks on the Fourth of July.

That was a specifically political event. However, I must offer some regret about how this may sustain a misconception promoted by some in our chattering classes, that we are as a people understood as bearers of political institutions and political ideas. No, we are not. The political culture and political institutions and political history are only an aspect of who a people are. Thomas Jefferson et al. were not the Founders of this country in the true sense; they were the artificers of its sovereignty and of political institutions they derived from extant forms. Pace Mr. Hertzberg, we are not going to disappear as a people if we replace our extant constitution with one modeled on that of Australia. Pace Dr. Rao, it is not peculiarly difficult to be thoughtful or spiritual or committed in this country (and certainly not made difficult due to fanciful constructs like an 'Ideology of America'), nor can H.L. Mencken's conceits substitute for a serious social psychology. Pace Mr. Wattenberg, we are not 'universal', but peculiarly ourselves.

Political and military history are important; learning the discrete events therein has an ancillary use in that it provides a chronology which functions as points of reference for the history of this country most properly understood. I have had a couple of good teachers in this. One was Stanley Engerman, whose metier is economic history and cliometrics. The other is Stuart Bolger, the founding director of the Genesee Country Village and Museum (Jack Wehle of the Genesee Brewing Company provided the funds and some part of the vision. Stuart Bolger provided the expertise and a good deal of the sweat equity). I have not heard Stuart Bolger discourse on the subject of historiography (he is rather taciturn); however, his vocational life has been dedicated to making history palpable, and to reminding people that their history can be understood through material culture. (He is actually a man good to know for reasons quite apart from that, about which more anon). We are a free people? Aye, we are a people of women who make cheese and men who trade in dry goods.

Good history is historical geography and sociology: when an area was settled; how, over time, its inhabitants have made their living; how, over time, have the polarities and conflicts among them played out. We are Americans because we live in the world they made and are making ourselves; we are Americans because we recognize an affinity for eachother we do not have for others. We also have a constitutional government, but, pace Mr. Derbyshire, that is not all that uncommon in today's world, was not unknown in Early Modern Europe, has been modal in continental Europe for 150 years, and has been a feature of some locales outside the Anglo-Saxon world for centuries.

So, we are who we are. Any community composed of human beings has a history of defects and failures in addition to all the other elements of its history. There are figures, both august and scruffy, who find this flattering to themselves. For gosh sakes, improve your surroundings as you profess to see them by planting your ass elsewhere; more barbecue for the rest of us.

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