[Marxism] Fwd: Book review & recommendation: UNSINKABLE PATRIOT

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 26 11:07:54 MDT 2016



Unsinkable Patriot: The Life and Times of Thomas Cave in Revolutionary 
America, by Michael Schreiber, 2016.

Thomas who? If Thomas Cave’s name does not ring any bells, it does not 
indicate a deficit in your education. He was not an outstanding 
historical figure in any sense, and his name was lost to history until 
Michael Schreiber recently undertook a prodigious effort to restore it 
to our collective human memory. So why would anyone want to read a 
lengthy biography of a thoroughly ordinary person named Thomas Cave? I 
can think of several good reasons.

One is that even ordinary people often live lives that have their 
extraordinary aspects and moments, or at least produce the material for 
interesting stories, and Thomas Cave’s was exemplary in that respect. 
His is an epic saga of war, battles on the high seas, revolution, the 
birth of a new nation, imprisonment and escape from prison, epidemic 
disease, love, financial ruin, and triumph. Everything a novelist could 
want, with the added bonus that it is, as movie publicity often boasts, 
“based on a true story.” The chapters devoted to Cave’s maritime 
adventures, for example, are as drama-packed as the sea novels of 
Patrick O’Brian.

Another reason is that the very act of rescuing a 
forgotten-for-two-centuries life from oblivion can itself make for a 
fascinating tale. The subtext of this biography—the author’s sleuthing 
in the archives—is a detective story worthy of Agatha Christie.

But the book’s primary virtue stems from the fact that it is not only a 
biography—a “life”—but a “life and times.” The times Thomas Cave 
witnessed and participated in were among the most transformative periods 
in all of human history. It was the era of what some historians have 
called the Atlantic Revolution, which combined the American Revolution, 
the French Revolution, the liberation of Haiti by a slave uprising, the 
Great Rebellion in Ireland, and a powerful radicalization in Great 
Britain. As is generally acknowledged, three of these historic 
upheavals, the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions, resulted in 
irreversible social change that—for better and for worse—created the 
world we inhabit today.

Furthermore, the other two social cataclysms, generally perceived as 
unsuccessful revolutions, nonetheless also indelibly affected the 
futures of their countries. The divisions in Irish society that were 
exacerbated by the 1798 Rebellion have to this day not fully healed. The 
resistance of the rebels to British savagery was so courageous that 
today, more than two hundred years later, Irish nationalists still 
derive inspiration from the spirit of 1798. And the lasting relevance of 
the deep radicalization in late-18th-century Britain is encapsulated in 
the title of E. P. Thompson’s well-known history of the epoch, The 
Making of the English Working Class.

Schreiber gives attention in several chapters to the activities of Irish 
rebels who sought refuge in Philadelphia, and reports on the prejudice 
and repression that some of them were subjected to while in exile.

Students of the history of France will find valuable material on that 
country and its people throughout the volume. There are two major 
sections on France; the first discusses Thomas Cave's visits to Nantes 
and Paris as a seaman, and the second has to do with French visitors and 
immigrants in Philadelphia. The latter included acrobat and pastry chef 
Etienne Simonet; the balloonist Jean Paul Blanchard; the controversial 
French ambassador Edmund-Charles Genet; French doctors, including Jean 
Deveze, who treated victims of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic; and 
French colonialist refugees fleeing the Haitian Revolution.

Thomas Cave’s very “ordinariness” meant that he was as representative a 
participant in the Atlantic Revolution as anyone could possibly have 
been. He was born in Ireland to a family of “middling” social status, 
emigrated to America as an indentured servant, served in the American 
navy during the Revolutionary War, was imprisoned in England for a 
number of years, and found his way to France, where Benjamin Franklin 
helped him and other revolutionary fighters return to America. After the 
Revolution, Cave settled in the capital city of the newborn United 
States, Philadelphia; politically supported the democratic opposition to 
the conservative Federalist party; defended the Revolution’s gains as a 
lifelong militiaman; felt the impact of the Haitian Revolution as 
fleeing French colonialists sought refuge in Philadelphia; and wound up, 
at the time of the War of 1812, in charge of Pennsylvania’s main arms 
depot, the State Magazine.

Meanwhile, like most ordinary people, Thomas Cave married and had 
children, and had to find a way to provide for them and himself. He 
began during his term of indenture as a semiskilled artisan, developed 
his skills first as a miller and later as a brewer, and eventually 
transformed himself into a small businessman by opening his own 
breweries in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and even New York City. His career 
as an entrepreneur, however, was fraught with rapid swings between 
success and failure. Just as in earlier life he had survived servitude, 
extreme difficulties at sea, and years of harsh imprisonment, he 
likewise rose repeatedly from bankruptcies and debtors’ prison to embark 
on new commercial ventures. That, combined with his devotion to the 
American Revolution, explains the book’s title: Unsinkable Patriot.

There are two particular aspects of Michael Schreiber’s writing that 
make Unsinkable Patriot simultaneously an enjoyable and an educational 
reading experience. First is his narrative skill—a gift for storytelling 
that elevates a mass of detailed data above its mundane context and 
commands a reader’s attention. And second is that he is a historian with 
social consciousness and a social conscience, joining the likes of 
C.L R. James, William Appleman Williams, Mary Frances Berry, Howard 
Zinn, and the aforementioned E. P. Thompson, to name just a few. As such 
he does not simply parrot the standard patriotic foundation myths that 
are taught to American schoolchildren, but clarifies the deeply 
contradictory nature of the Revolution.

Thomas Cave paid for his passage from Ireland to the Land of the Free by 
agreeing to be unfree for four years as an indentured servant in 
Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley. "By the time Thomas was brought to the 
valley in 1771, almost all of the local Indian peoples,” Schreiber 
writes, “had been wiped out by warfare and disease or pushed west." In 
the war against the Indians that had preceded Thomas’s arrival, the 
whites’ strategy had shifted early on “from defense to extermination, as 
some settlers formed armed death squads.” At the same time, “British 
army commanders authorized germ warfare against the Indians, giving them 
blankets laden with smallpox.”

Schreiber illustrates the state of contemporary relations between the 
settlers and the natives with an anecdote about a white woman who made 
the difficult journey from the Cumberland Valley to Philadelphia 
carrying the scalp of a dead Indian: “Money was given for dead Indians 
much as it was for the tails of wolves, big cats, and squirrels—all of 
which were marked as competitors for the land's resources."

When the American Revolution erupted in 1776, it undeniably represented 
a major step forward in the history of human progress, but its moral and 
political paradoxes were equally undeniable: “Some of the men who in 
years past had participated with . . . vigilante groups against the 
Native American people quickly transformed themselves into ardent 
revolutionists and advocates of popular democracy.”

Some historians have labeled the genocide of the Native Americans, not 
unjustly, “the American Holocaust.” But perhaps an even deeper 
contradiction was the presence of slavery within an ostensible movement 
for universal human liberation. Describing Thomas Cave’s social 
environment in the early 1770s, Schreiber writes:

	Most of the Cumberland Valley residents of that era would have thought 
it unremarkable that their pastor, who preached 'the brotherhood of 
Man,' would have held another human being in permanent bondage. In fact, 
most of the large landowners of the district, the core supporters of the 
Presbyterian Church, were slaveholders themselves, and hardly feared the 
wrath of hellfire for such actions. Dominance by the white race, they 
reasoned, was the natural order of things.

Even Thomas Cave himself, for one period of his life, was a slaveholder. 
After the death of his first wife, Catherine, in 1795, he remarried two 
years later. His second wife, Lydia, was the daughter of a large 
landholder, and she apparently brought some slaves with her into the 
marriage. Although Schreiber has quite a bit to say about the sociology 
of slavery in the Revolutionary era, he was unable to unearth much 
information about the specific circumstances of the Cave family’s human 

Cave’s death in May 1815 neatly coincided with a major watershed in 
world history. "Historians frequently focus on 1815 as the year in which 
the revolutionary era . . . was at last reduced to embers,” Schreiber 

	The clarion call of egalitarianism, sounded first in the American 
Revolution and far more distinctly in the French, was now muffled. . . . 
And so, as America heedlessly raced toward its 'manifest destiny,' 
slavery was expanded into new cotton-producing territories in the West, 
exclusion and terror were redoubled against Black people in the North, 
and the Native peoples were uprooted and massacred.

By focusing on the life of Thomas Cave, Michael Schreiber has created a 
meticulous portrait of the era as seen through the eyes of a 
rank-and-file American revolutionary. This is, therefore, an exemplary 
“people’s history”—a comprehensive and highly coherent account, from an 
essentially working-class perspective, of the American experience from 
the 1770s through the War of 1812.

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