[Marxism] On the waterfront
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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
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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