Posted: July 10, 2014
A review of The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790, by Rhys Isaac and The Glorious Cause, The American Revolution, 1763-1789, by Robert Middlekauff
ur identity as a people and a nation and our estimation of ourselves depends, as it does in an individual, on memory. Historians, therefore, as the custodians of our national memory, determine to a great degree what we think of ourselves.
Perhaps the most important period of our history about which historians can remind us is the Revolution, including the establishment of the Federal Government. It was during that period that we set the standards by which we have since struggled to live. The two great political changes in our history, associated with the presidencies of Lincoln and Wilson, both looked to the Founding, although in different ways, in order to chart their courses. So it is that writing about the period of the Founding is the most important undertaking for historians of America, as reading and pondering these writings is one of the most important duties of an American citizen.
This is a duty not always easily discharged. History has been a profession, as opposed to an avocation of the retired or otherwise leisured, for roughly only a hundred years. Yet in that time, in the hothouse of academia, the profession has developed hybrids, the study of which would daunt even the most dutiful citizen. Historians now research an array of topics from "the nature of power, authority, and charismatic leadership" to "the causes and effects of disease" with an equally diverse array of tools, including statistical analysis, computers, and all the theories and jargon indigenous to the social sciences. They are always on the lookout for some new way of doing what they do.
This eagerness for new methods explains, perhaps, the success of Rhys Isaac's The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790. A series of Isaac's articles over the last ten years made it clear that he was innovating. He was studying eighteenth century Virginia as an anthropologist would, attempting an ethnographic analysis that promised to reveal the unfamiliar in the much-traveled terrain of Jefferson's Virginia. The new approach excited historians and made them eager to see the complete account of which Isaac's articles were parts.
Published in the prestigious series of the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Isaac's book won much praise and the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for history. His book describes a political, social, and religious revolution that transformed Virginia from a patriarchal, communal society, marked by social hierarchy and deference and dominated by a proud, assertive, and at least nominally Anglican gentry, into a more individualistic society, where newly prominent westerners and evangelicals caused diversity to overshadow integrity.
Isaac's emphasis on the conflict between the evangelicals and the gentry in Virginia was new, but on the whole he surveyed, after all the years of waiting, still pretty much the same old terrain. Edmund Morgan suggested some problems with the survey as well, particularly with reference to the core of Isaac's argument. "It is, of course, paradoxical" wrote Morgan, "that the evangelicals, stressing communal brotherhood, should also be carriers and beneficiaries of a triumphant individualism," as Isaac contends they were. "And still more paradoxical," continued Morgan, "that the individualism cherished by the great planters should be the instrument for the destruction of their dominance," as Isaac also contends. "The transformation [Isaac] describes," concluded Morgan, "may not have been quite what we are told it was."
Most reviewers, it seems, overlooked the familiarity and difficulties of Isaac's argument because they were charmed by his method, a charm stripped away in Morgan's bald recapitulation. Isaac proceeds by reconstructing the social and mental reality of eighteenth century Virginia. He studies the rituals and architecture of courthouse, church, and home, as well as literary sources to depict how Virginians saw things and what was at stake in their quarrels and disputes. It is at times a work of powerful historical imagination that can absorb the reader's attention.
The innovation that Isaac's method represents comes from his adaptation for historical purposes of "thick description," a method developed by anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Historian Lawrence Stone has described "thick description" as "the searchlight method of recording in elaborate detail a single event . . . very carefully set in its total context and very carefully analyzed for its cultural meaning." According to Stone, "a whole social system and set of values can be brilliantly illuminated" by this method.
To take just one example of this, Isaac begins his discussion of a Court Day by describing the appearance of the Courthouse set in the Virginia landscape. It was an outpost of communal activity to which citizens came from their isolated homes and plantations. He then takes up the people who attended, turning finally to the justices. "We must picture the gentlemen justices, bewigged and dressed in their fine coats and waistcoats, seated on the raised 'bench'-His Majesty's commissioners engaged in the communal dispensation of 'justice.' A ceremonial enveloped their hearings." Isaac is most concerned with this ceremonial, the trappings of the court, its clothing, oaths, and physical setting, because in an oral society like eighteenth century Virginia, only ceremony taught men about government. "The oaths and rituals were so many formulas, diagrams or models, declaring the nature of government and its laws" (p. 93). For example, according to Isaac, "in the Court House, the royal arms and the form of justice in the King's name expressed the descent of authority from above" (p. 94). In the rituals and setting of Court Day, Isaac does indeed find "a whole social system and a set of values" displayed.
This innovation in method has made Isaac's book a success despite its problems. One reviewer grouped him with Keith Thomas, E. P. Thompson, and Emmanuel Leroy Ladurie, all "brilliantly provocative" practitioners of a history that seeks to reconstruct the ordinary events in the lives of ordinary people. Edmund Morgan, after detailing the deficiencies and "blind spots" of Isaac's book, remarks that Isaac has nevertheless "set us thinking about a society and its social relations during the period of the American Revolution in ways that we never did before." Concludes Morgan, "That is perhaps as much as one should ask." Isaac agrees. In the introduction to this book, he writes, "If this
work has a distinctive contribution to make, it lies in the results of a search for means of access to the alien mentalities of a past people."
Detachment and Relativism
Isaac's success will probably never be popular. His "thick description" is, well, thick-and occurs often enough, one suspects, to deter all but the professional, inured to thickness by his training. But there is a more important reason why Isaac will probably not be read much by the citizens whose history he writes. His book lacks drama. In his account of a Court Day, for example, Isaac gives his readers little that is specific. He does not discuss any particular case. Instead, Isaac presents what one is tempted to call "Court Dayness."
The undramatic character of Isaac's work results directly from the assumptions of his method. The people of the past have mentalities alien to us, as he says, and they are alien because all values are culturally relative (p. 340). The world of Jefferson's Virginia formed around values specific only to that time and place. What Virginians contended about may have seemed important and urgent to them, but to Isaac it cannot. However much eighteenth century Virginians interest him, he no longer shares their world. Inevitably, then, the perspective of the detached social scientist diminishes the drama of Virginians' lives. They contended over what to the social scientist must now appear to be phantasms.
The short narrative with which the book opens shows the degree to which Isaac wants his readers to be detached from their history. The narrative is a brief account of Virginia from the indefinite past to the formation of the Federal Government. In it the familiar becomes alien. Most often we do not read in this account of Indians, colonials, and slaves but of "the ancient inhabitants," "the navigators who called themselves English" and "the descendants of the Africans." The absence of the familiar names is meant to disorient the reader, to make him question whether he is familiar after all with the world he is about to enter. The tone of the narrative itself is meant to produce detachment as it invites the reader to join the author in a knowledge and understanding superior to that of the people he writes about. The narrative concludes with the remark that "The sons of free settlers all along the widening margin of the great continent agreed to rule themselves in a way they were assured was distinctively American." Isaac, the modern social scientist who understands that all "value systems" are relative, knows what the assurances of the Americans were worth.
Nothing epitomizes the flat, detached, undramatic character of Isaac's book better than its final sentence. Remember that a revolution has occurred in Virginia, thousands of men have fought and died in a war of Independence; men of the moral and intellectual excellence of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison have struggled with the necessities of war and a Founding. These are Isaac's final words on revolutionary Virginia: "Virginia entered the nineteenth century still a wholly agrarian society, yet with a complex of cultures that was fractured by a widening ethnic rift and an enduring legacy of conflicting value systems" (p. 322).
Isaac is an Australian and so, it might be said, will have difficulty entering the "value system" of those, as he might put it, who call themselves Americans. This might explain his detached attitude, but it would also give credence to a bad theory. Behind Isaac's detached, undramatic account is not an "alien mentality" but two principles, once revolutionary but now common to the social sciences and other fields of intellectual endeavor.
One of these principles we have already seen acting in Isaac's book. (For examples of its early expression in America, consider Woodrow Wilson's "The Study of Administration" and "What is Progress?") If values are relative, then politics, men contending over what is good or bad for themselves and their communities, loses its intrinsic interest and compelling character. A fight over phantasms is not very interesting. The way men hold their phantasms or change them or express them in their clothing or architecture might be of interest, and this is what Isaac tells us about, but this is not politics.
The second principle common to the social sciences, especially as it relates to history, appears most clearly in the work of Fernand Braudel. Braudel's great work is The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, first published in France in 1949. Braudel begins with geography and topography, proceeds to economics and demographics, then to societies and empires. Only at the end of a very long history do we reach "Events, Politics, and People," the subject matter of political history. In the preface to the first edition of his book, Braudel tells us that he set out to write a typical political history; however, as his studies progressed he changed his mind. Speaking of a "hidden balance of forces" and "the physics of Spanish policy," Braudel tells us that he came to think that the statesmen he was studying "were, despite their illusions, more acted upon than actors. . . ." Realizing this, Braudel looked away from and beyond politics to those forces that act upon and determine politics.
Like Braudel, Isaac begins his account with geography and then proceeds by depicting society. Only then does Isaac take up "Movements and Events"; in other words, politics. For Isaac, unlike Braudel, the determining force is not geography or climate but "value systems" that constrain and direct men's actions (pp. 339-40). The statesmen who appear in Isaac's book are not characters but "value system" types wandering through Court Dayness or other abstractions and, as in Braudel's work, they are more acted upon than actors.
Relativism and determinism have joined to produce a powerful prejudice against politics and political history. Relativism diminishes the importance of political struggle as determinism, removing the actors from political life, removes the drama. The result is that many historians, if agreeing with Marx in nothing else, agree with him in finding "absurd . . . the conception of history held hitherto, which neglects the real relationships and confines itself to high-sounding dramas of princes and states."
The prejudice against political history accounts for much of the mixed reception accorded Robert Middlekauff's The Glorious Cause. Middlekauff's book, sniffed one reviewer, is "a standard political-constitutional-military account of the Revolution." A critical but more sympathetic reviewer wrote that it is "traditional narrative history: the focus is on people and events in the public sector. It is the story of men in action-in crowds, in conventions, in legislative halls, and on the battlefield." This is not what historians of the Revolution have been doing lately, and they have not all looked with favor on Middlekauff's effort. Certainly, critics have found fault with Middlekauff's book for reasons other than his writing a traditional political narrative. Nearly half the book is devoted to the War, while the period from the War to the Founding of the Federal Government is crowded into the final four chapters. Middlekauff gives religion unusual prominence in his account but, oddly, his critics contend, insufficient treatment. Nevertheless, the fundamental criticism of Middlekauff's book is that it is a traditional political narrative, a high-sounding drama of princes and states, as the title indicates.
Middlekauff's defense for spending so much time on the war itself is implicit in the central argument of his book. "The army was the Revolution," writes Middlekauff (p. 463), paraphrasing the American General, Nathaniel Greene. In the first instance, Middlekauff means what Greene meant. "The army," Greene wrote to Governor of Virginia Thomas Jefferson, "is all that the States have to depend upon for their political existence." Without the army, there was only subjugation to Britain. But Middlekauff argues as his account progresses that the army and the war it fought did more than hold off the British. It forged Americans into a people. In 1765, the Americans were merely British colonists inhabiting America. Twenty years later, tempered by the war, the Americans were a people and possessed a unity great enough to sustain them through the difficulties of the postwar years.
That one must understand the war to understand the Revolution and the Founding of America, Middlekauff tries to show by stressing how pervasive and difficult the war was. In the eight years between Lexington and peace, nearly one out of ten Americans served in the Continental Army or the State militia. "The statistics, although notoriously unreliable, show that the Revolution killed a higher percentage of those who served on the American side than any war in our history" except the Civil War (p. 496). No part of America escaped the destruction of the war altogether, and some areas were devastated. Throughout all this, the army and the larger society flowed into one another as they did in no other instance before the American Revolution. "In the long struggle of the war," writes Middlekauff, "what made the cause 'glorious,' besides its great principles, was the fact that so many believed in it. As it took hold of Americans' imagination, the 'glorious' cause became, in the popular phrase, the 'common cause'" (p. 549).
The heart of this cause was Washington. Middlekauff borrowed the phrase "the glorious cause" from Washington and sees in him the personification of the Revolution. Middlekauff argues that Washington was a commander of judgment and daring, who learned from his mistakes. By nature, almost, superb at logistics, Washington was also a sound strategist, recognizing that he must fight a defensive war. If less able as a tactician, he more than made up for this weakness by the steadiness of his character. "He did not flinch when disaster seemed" near "nor did he hesitate to seize his opportunities" (p. 580). Indeed, for Middlekauff, Washington's character was his greatness. His devotion to republican liberty and his refusal to give up inspired others. Through the defeats and profiteering, the cowardice and threatened mutinies, all of which Middlekauff details, Washington stood firm. In the end, Middlekauff argues, the Americans stood with him, now as a people. In the war and through the example of Washington, the Americans "learned that though they might be defeated, they could not be subdued" (p. 581). It was this spirit, Middlekauff suggests, that allowed America to survive the postwar years and continued to inspire the nation for years to come. It was this spirit, Middlekauff's reader may remember, that informed Lincoln's Lyceum Address, with its invocation of both the Revolutionary War veteran and his Commander.
Unlike Isaac, Middlekauff does not look down on those he writes about, as if sitting on an Olympian height, viewing puppets struggling over illusions, unaware that they jerk and twitch in response to forces of which they are ignorant. Middlekauff takes his characters on their own terms, as they understood themselves. While he submits them to examination and criticism, he does not presume any superior knowledge. His characters are actors, and there is often drama in his account as he describes their struggles.
The virtues of Middlekauff's method are best displayed, perhaps, in the first section of chapter 20, "Inside the Campaigns." After recounting in some detail the battle of Eutaw Springs at the conclusion of chapter 19, Middlekauff writes at the beginning of chapter 20 that "In the battle of Eutaw Springs over 500 Americans were killed and wounded. Nathaniel Greene had led some 2,200 men into the Springs; his casualties thus represented almost one-fourth of his army." Middlekauff then asks, "Why did these men-those who survived and those who died-fight? Why did they hold their ground, endure the strain of battle, with men dying about them and danger to themselves so obvious?"
The discussion that follows these questions is one of the best and most important sections of Middlekauff's book, a discussion worth pondering. Following the chapters that describe in detail the terror and carnage of battle and the bravery and cowardice, skill and ineptitude of those who fought, the discussion of why men fought becomes an assaying of the human soul and of the American soul.
Why Americans Fought
Middlekauff begins the discussion by considering several reasons men would stand and fight. The evidence convinces him that coercion, religion, desire for plunder, and leadership are not sufficient explanations. Middlekauff argues that camaraderie underlay these other motivations and cemented the Americans together. Continentals stood and fought because they stood and fought with men they lived with before and after their battles. This was true even of the militia. Militia from the more densely populated areas of New England and Pennsylvania were neighbors before the war and endured the test of battle together during it. Militia from the more sparsely populated southern states, composed of men less familiar to one another than their northern compatriots, were more likely to run from battle. Middlekauff rounds out his explanation of why men fought by pointing to the soldiers' common devotion to the cause of the Revolution. In defense of liberty and equality, men were willing to stand and fight.
In discussing devotion to principle among those who fought, Middlekauff raises his most important question. He argues that it was the militiamen, accustomed to independence and demonstrating their equality by electing their officers, who "best exemplified in themselves and in their behavior the ideals and purposes of the Revolution" (p. 504). But it was the militia that most often ran. Middlekauff
makes clear what is at stake here near the conclusion to this section of his book. All men in battle unavoidably made a moral decision. "By standing firm they served their fellows and honor; by running, they served only themselves" (p. 510). If the militiamen best exemplify the ideals and purposes of the Revolution, and the militiamen ran from battle more than others, and to run from battle means to desert one's fellows and disdain honor in order to serve only oneself, then the Revolution must have been in the service of mere self-interest. It could hardly, then, be a glorious cause.
It should be said that Middlekauff's argument in this section is more suggestive than definitive. The militia did often remain firm. Moreover, the regular army and such men as Washington and Greene remained faithful to their friends and their honor, and these examples cannot be discounted. Still, Middlekauff appears to side with those who find the principles of the Revolution incompatible with friendship and honor. Speaking of the soldiers, Middlekauff says that "They were to kill other men in the expectation that even if they did they might be killed themselves. However defined, especially by a Revolution in the name of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, this situation was unnatural" (p. 509). Again near the end of the section, Middlekauff remarks that the soldiers' different perceptions of the cruel trial of battle suggest "how difficult it was in the Revolution to be both a soldier and an American. Nor has it ever been easy since" (p. 510).
War, Freedom, and Morality
Middlekauff's suggestion that the principles of the Revolution encourage liberty and self-interest at the expense of friendship and honor or that it is unnatural for an American to be a soldier may be wrong. Was it possible for life and liberty to be blessings and happiness attainable for men who did not possess the courage, the faithfulness, and the taste for glory necessary to fight the Revolutionary War? However one decides this question, the merit of Middlekauff's account is that it raises it and provides much of the evidence to answer it. Not Isaac's but only Middlekauff's history, centered on politics and war, does this. Moreover, Middlekauff succeeds at this important task because he does not write as if he were beyond the problems his subjects faced. His discussion of why men fought is an account of stark moral choice that could not be avoided then (p. 509) and cannot be avoided now.
The superiority of political history argued for here assumes that morality matters or, perhaps more clearly, that morale and character matter. It assumes that men act, that they must act, and that they are free to do so, for well or ill. It assumes that their actions have consequences and that for those who have the most authority and responsibility the consequences are greatest and therefore most interesting, most instructive, and therefore most worthy of the attention of an historian and his readers.
Political history assumes that men are free to act and that character or morality does matter. Of course, Marx, for one, denied this. Such history as we have described was for him an illusion precisely because it ignored "the real relationships," the economic relationships among men.
From this account, the argument between political history and its antagonists appears to have reached a stalemate. Both rest on assumptions. Still, not all assumptions are created equal; some are more reasonable than others, and the assumption of political history is more reasonable than the assumption common to Isaac, Braudel, and Marx. Consider Isaac's version of this assumption. "Valuations . . . are determined by the culturally relative meanings with which participants imbue both actions and objects" (pp. 339-40). The very recognition that there are cultures or communities of men that hold different "values," a recognition at least as old as the work traditionally described as the first history, should compel Isaac to realize that however bound men's minds might be by the suppositions of their society, it is still possible to break these chains and to ascend to a point at which one can recognize the "values" of other cultures. If men were not free to do this, they could not know about all the different chains that bind men. In general, to assert that all men are bound, that their reason is fettered by culturally relative values, historical structures, or economic conditions requires, in contradiction of this assertion, that men can free themselves from their chains and blinders and recognize the chains of others. To the extent that it is preferable not to contradict oneself, the assumption of political history is superior to the assumption common to Isaac, Marx, and Braudel.
The flawed assumption underlying Isaac's history does not render worthless his discussion of Virginia. However undramatic, his book does help us to understand the men of eighteenth century Virginia who faced the stark choices depicted by Middlekauff. One must hope, however, that the drama of the Revolution remains uppermost in the minds of Americans and their historians. Tocqueville thought that even in his own day men were too much inclined to doubt the freedom of their wills. A style of history, itself based on a defective understanding of democracy, too absorbed with the ordinary doings of ordinary men, depicted people as dependent on a blind fatality and strengthened their inclination to doubt free will. Tocqueville thought that as deterministic history reinforced certain democratic prejudices, subservience threatened to characterize democracy. Tocqueville advised resistance to this outcome, "for we need to raise men's souls, not
complete their prostration."