[Marxism] On the waterfront

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jan 23 09:12:52 MST 2006


H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-Atlantic at h-net.msu.edu (November, 2005)

Paul Gilje. _Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the
Age of Revolution_. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,
2004. xiv + 344 pp. Illustrations, glossary, notes, bibliography, index.
$29.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8122-3756-0.

Reviewed for H-Atlantic by Timothy G. Lynch, Department of
Global and Maritime Studies, California Maritime Academy, California
State University.

Workers of the Waterfront, Rebel!

In _Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of 
Revolution_, historian Paul Gilje offers a much-needed assessment of the 
role that maritime workers played in the early years of the American 
Republic and the ambivalent nature that the ideology of liberty played in 
the lives of maritime workers. As Gilje asserts, "Sometimes Jack Tar 
thought about an immediate liberty 
 at other times he thought about larger 
issues connected to the revolution 
  most times he had several ideas of 
liberty swimming through his head simultaneously. Whatever definitions of 
liberty appeared on the waterfront, the maritime world's understanding of 
liberty helped to shape America" (p. 99). This wide-ranging study, based on 
an impressive collection of primary and secondary sources, focuses chiefly 
on the century between 1750 and 1850 and is an important contribution to 
American maritime history and to our understanding of the social history of 
the colonial era.

Gilje is a skilled writer who uses his sources well. We are treated to 
first-hand accounts that support the author's thesis that maritime 
workers--sailors, longshoremen, and others--consciously and assiduously 
adopted and used the rhetoric of the American Revolution to assert their 
own rights. While serving in the vanguard of America's fight for 
independence, either as waterfront rioters or as sacrificial lambs in 
hulking British prison ships, maritime workers also challenged traditional 
notions of hierarchy, deference, and social comportment. Gilje represents 
Jack Tar's world as a rough and egalitarian counterculture, where knowledge 
of the sea and shiphandling skills mattered above all else. At the same 
time, Jack Tar's ideals of liberty, based on freedom of action and 
immediate gratification, were in direct contrast to the acquisitive 
middle-class virtues being espoused in early national America.

Gilje shows how maritime work in early America was itself a study in 
contrasts, simultaneously offering unfettered liberty and a life akin to 
slavery. Ironically, sailors saw in capricious shipboard treatment an 
appreciation for their own particular, and peculiar, brand of liberty, one 
that allowed a sailor to affirm his identity as a "free man" by willfully 
resisting authority figures and flouting contemporary conventions. Reveling 
in his deviancy, Jack Tar stood as an embodiment of, and challenge to, the 
promises of the American Revolution.

Gilje is at his best when he analyzes the attachment of waterfront workers 
to the American Revolution. While it is a well-known fact that maritime 
workers were at the heart of the political upheaval accompanying the move 
towards independence, Gilje asserts that earlier hagiographic 
treatments--which attributed to maritime workers the highest of patriotic 
ideals--are misleading and that their motivations and loyalty to the 
greater cause were often ambiguous. Indeed, Jack Tar's penchant for 
pursuing his own self-interest (economic and otherwise)--a penchant that 
evades the standard ideological boxes so favored by many historians--was at 
the heart of his often fleeting commitment to the cause of the nation. Many 
on the waterfront were less concerned with the ideals of the Revolution, 
and more concerned with survival; only when the two dovetailed were 
maritime workers wholeheartedly committed to the cause of the Revolution.

During the early national period, politicians of all stripes tried to lay 
claim to Jack Tar in the public discourse; when quarrels with France and 
Great Britain arose in the 1790s, Federalists and Republicans elevated the 
maritime worker as the ideal American, a "symbol of the new republic," a 
"common man who reflected national values," and sought to capture his 
allegiance (p. 175). Showing their political savvy, sailors and sundry 
other waterfront workers played this game astutely, subscribing to 
whichever party offered the best hopes of personal gain. As sailors 
continued to pursue their own varied agendas, their political motivations 
consistently "combined pragmatism and patriotism" (p. 169). And even if 
there were those among them who were committed to the ideals of the 
Revolution, "economic and social reality kept many on the waterfront 
clinging to their own peculiar notions of liberty" (p. 234).

Gilje's work is more than just an examination of maritime culture in the 
Age of Revolution. It is also an appraisal of society's reaction to this 
world. Maritime workers' understanding of liberty, a view so antithetical 
to the rest of society, occasioned a variety of responses. Evangelicals saw 
maritime workers as "proper objects of Christian compassion" and built a 
network of organizations to protect Jack Tar from landlords, brothels, and 
grog shop owners (p. 195). They were unsuccessful. When reformers turned 
their attention to shipboard conditions, conditions that Jack deplored 
(such as the ritual flogging--which Melville saw as a sign that the 
"Revolution was in vain; that the Declaration of Independence was fraud," 
p.233) and abuses of power (that were "un-American and not fit for a 
republic that cherished liberty," p. 216), they were more successful. 
Again, Gilje shows that maritime workers were astute actors who took 
advantage of situations when they could manipulate them to their advantage.

Gilje does state that many of the ideas and ideals of the Age of Revolution 
eventually worked their way into the fo'csle, allowing common seamen to 
challenge the dictatorship of the quarterdeck. But his lack of economic and 
social mobility left Jack Tar powerless in the face of the forces of the 
standing order. Unable to triumph over these conditions, he made the best 
of his world, employing the logic and rhetoric of the Age of Revolution, to 
claim for himself a place in American society. Gilje, then, ascribes to 
maritime workers a level of political sophistication and agency that few 
had previously imagined.

_Liberty on the Waterfront_ is an important work. Building on the work of 
Marcus Rediker, Jeff Bolster, Peter Linebaugh, and Jesse Lemisch, it is a 
valuable addition to the growing literature on maritime workers in the 
early republic. Focusing on both naval and merchant fleets, on society 
afloat and ashore (including "the maid left behind"), and on literature as 
well as first-person accounts, it is a scholarly treatment of a specific 
topic that manages to steer clear of an overly myopic attention to detail. 
This work is sure to become the standard treatment of American maritime 
culture in the Age of Revolution.

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