[Marxism] Enter Hamilton

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Sep 28 06:09:13 MDT 2016


LRB, Vol. 38 No. 19 · 6 October 2016
Enter Hamilton
by Eric Foner

American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 by Alan Taylor
Norton, 704 pp, £30.00, November, ISBN 978 0 393 08281 4

The racism, xenophobia and violence of Donald Trump’s presidential 
campaign is widely seen as an aberration, as if reasoned debate had been 
the default mode of American politics. But precursors to Trump do exist, 
candidates who struck electoral gold by appealing to exaggerated fears, 
real grievances and visceral prejudices. Among Trump’s predecessors are 
the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings of the 1850s, white supremacist 
politicians of the Jim Crow era, and more recent hucksters and 
demagogues including Joe McCarthy and George Wallace. Not to mention 
more respectable types such as Richard Nixon, whose ‘Southern strategy’ 
offered a blueprint for mobilising white resentment over the gains of 
the Civil Rights movement. (That ‘respectable’ and ‘Nixon’ can be 
included in the same sentence illustrates how far our political 
standards have evolved since the 1970s.) Violence isn’t unknown in 
American political history. The 19th century saw fistfights in Congress 
and riots at election time in major American cities. Until well into the 
20th century, Southern blacks who wanted to exercise the right to vote 
faced violent retribution from the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups.

Where does all this originate? In American Revolutions, Alan Taylor 
offers a surprising answer: the struggle for independence itself. 
Racism, violence, scurrilous attacks on opponents: all, he argues, were 
part of American political culture from the outset. Taylor breaks 
decisively with a trope of Cold War propaganda which has worked its way 
into historical scholarship: the idea that unlike the ‘bad’ French and 
Russian Revolutions, which degenerated into violent class conflict, a 
united American people rebelled against British overlords with restraint 
and decorum. In fact, as he makes clear, the American Revolution was a 
bitter, multi-sided conflict that pitted Loyalists against Patriots and 
white Americans against blacks and Indians. Hence the plural in his title.

Taylor rejects the common view of the colonial era as essentially a 
prelude to independence. In the 18th century, he points out, colonists 
throughout British North America were drawing closer to the mother 
country, not further away. They ‘rejoiced in the British constitution’, 
celebrated military victories over France and idealised the king as 
their champion against Catholic enemies. Economically, too, they became 
more and more closely tied to Britain while leaders of different 
colonies had more contact with London than with one another. When the 
First Continental Congress convened in 1774, John Adams reported that 
the delegates were ‘strangers’, unfamiliar with each other’s ideas and 
experiences.

What then explains the road to independence? While most accounts of the 
coming of the Revolution focus on protests in eastern cities against 
British efforts to tax the colonies and to elicit greater obedience to 
imperial authority in general, Taylor is more interested in what was 
happening in the West (in the colonial era, this meant the region beyond 
the Appalachian mountains). Victory in the Seven Years’ War led to the 
end of the French Empire in mainland North America and gave Britain 
control of the trans-Appalachian region. It was quickly followed by the 
Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited settlement there in order to 
avoid constant warfare with Indians. Instead, London urged colonists who 
wanted land to look to other areas acquired from France and Spain: 
Canada, East and West Florida, and a number of islands in the Caribbean. 
Few Americans were interested. The colonists ‘expect now to do as they 
please’, one British official wrote in 1768. By 1774, 50,000 settlers 
lived beyond the Proclamation line, and violence between settlers, 
Indians and land speculators was endemic. The British found themselves 
in an impossible situation, inviting opposition to their supposed 
tyranny by attempting to stop settlement and contempt for failing to 
enforce the policy and seeming to side with Indians who resisted white 
intrusions onto their land. By 1775, Taylor writes, ‘the British Empire 
had lost all credibility and influence’ among Western settlers.

Taylor doesn’t ignore the more familiar story of the growing crisis over 
British taxation, from the Stamp Act of 1765 through the Boston Tea 
Party and Intolerable Acts ten years later, and on to war and 
independence. But he also examines the increasingly violent divisions 
among the colonists. Leaders of the resistance to British measures 
relied not only on abstract arguments about taxation and representation 
but also on extra-legal committees and violent mobs; opponents were 
tarred and feathered. ‘In the name of liberty,’ Taylor writes, ‘Patriots 
suppressed free speech, broke into private mail, and terrorised their 
critics.’ When war with Britain broke out in 1775, American society 
fractured along numerous faultlines. Rather than being waged ‘by a 
united American people’, Taylor writes, the War of Independence quickly 
turned into a civil war that divided families and neighbours and 
unleashed local violence more extreme than military battles. ‘A 
plundered farm,’ he observes, ‘was a more common experience than a 
glorious and victorious charge.’ ‘The whole country,’ the American 
general Nathaniel Greene wrote of the Southern back country, ‘is in 
danger of being laid waste by the Whigs and Torys, who pursue each other 
with as much relentless fury as beasts of prey.’

Even within Patriot ranks, conflict quickly emerged. In a world of 
kings, aristocrats and rigid social hierarchies, Thomas Jefferson’s 
words in the Declaration of Independence, ‘all men are created equal,’ 
became a rallying cry of the dispossessed. Abigail Adams’s plea to her 
husband, John, to ‘remember the ladies,’ her observation that women, no 
less than men, should not be bound by laws in whose passage they had no 
voice, are widely recalled today. Less familiar is Adams’s response, 
which not only sloughed off his wife’s claim but noted that the 
revolutionaries’ rhetoric of liberty and equality had, to his surprise 
and alarm, unleashed widespread demands for greater rights: ‘We have 
been told that our struggle has loosened the bands of government 
everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools 
and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their 
guardians, and Negroes grew insolent to their masters.’ For Adams, a 
radical when it came to independence but not to the social structure of 
the new nation, this egalitarian upheaval was an affront to the natural 
order of things. For others, it was the essence of the American Revolution.

Newly empowered ordinary Americans seized the opportunity to act on 
longstanding grievances. During the war, urban mobs assaulted merchants 
accused of withholding goods from market, and local committees imposed 
‘just prices’ for necessities to combat rampant inflation. Congress 
introduced conscription but allowed draftees to avoid service by 
producing a substitute or paying £20, a sum far beyond the means of most 
Americans. As a result, George Washington’s army was increasingly 
composed of those unable to avoid the draft – Taylor describes the 
troops as ‘apprentices, transients, beggars, drunks, slaves and 
indentured immigrants’. As poor men filled the ranks, Congress often 
failed to provide pay and supplies on time. One soldier complained that 
men like himself ‘have nothing to expect, but that if America maintain 
her independencey, they must become slaves to the rich’.

Particularly vicious fighting took place on the western frontier. 
Indians allied with the British burned settlements while Patriot armies 
destroyed native villages. Washington himself ordered one military 
commander in upstate New York to aim at ‘the total destruction and 
devastation’ of Indian communities there. On the frontier, Taylor 
argues, the War of Independence became ‘racialised’: a white nationalism 
emerged that viewed all Indians, friend or foe, as enemies who must be 
removed.

The ‘insolent’ slaves mentioned by Adams appropriated the language of 
liberty for their own purposes. ‘We expect great things from men who 
have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow men to 
enslave them,’ one group in Boston announced sardonically in 1773. But 
it was the British, not the Patriots, who emerged as liberators. In 
1775, the Earl of Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, offered 
freedom to any slave who joined the ranks of his army. Later, British 
commanders expanded the offer to include all slaves owned by Patriots 
who managed to escape to British-held areas. (At the same time, they 
assisted Loyalists in retaining control of their slave property.) In the 
northern colonies, some slaves gained freedom by enlisting in 
Washington’s army. But in the South, Taylor writes, ‘Patriots fought to 
preserve slavery for blacks as well as the freedom of whites’ – a point 
underscored by the Virginia law that offered white recruits a hundred 
acres of land plus a slave.

Taylor calls his book a ‘continental history’, and on occasion he 
expands his focus to include events elsewhere in the Western hemisphere. 
He notes that the American War of Independence wasn’t the only uprising 
for liberty in these years. In Peru, a Jesuit priest who took the name 
Tupac Amaru, after an Inca king, led a native rebellion to drive out the 
Spanish. By the time it was suppressed in 1783, 100,000 natives and 
10,000 Spaniards had died. And, of course, there was the slave 
revolution of the 1790s that established the hemisphere’s second 
independent nation, Haiti (to which the US refused to grant diplomatic 
recognition until 1862, an early example of the distinction between good 
and bad revolutions).

The ‘continental’ approach enables Taylor to show how slavery affected 
the course of the War of Independence. He makes the point that the 13 
colonies that eventually formed the United States represented fewer than 
half of the colonies that comprised Britain’s empire in the Western 
hemisphere. Local leaders in the Caribbean disliked parliamentary 
taxation as much as their mainland counterparts but declined to join the 
movement for independence. Given the large slave majorities in their 
populations – 50,000 white West Indians compared to 275,000 slaves – 
Caribbean elites desperately needed British protection. Slavery affected 
British policies as well. Once France entered the war on the American 
side in 1778, the British government’s most pressing concern was to 
prevent the capture of lucrative Caribbean colonies. London despatched 
more reinforcements to the West Indies than to the mainland. And while 
the war on the mainland effectively ended with the British surrender at 
Yorktown in 1781, it continued in the West Indies until a year later, 
when a fleet commanded by Sir George Rodney defeated the French navy and 
saved British rule in Jamaica. Overall, Taylor writes, key West Indian 
sugar islands such as Jamaica and Barbados were ‘far more important’ to 
Britain than the rebellious American colonies.

The achievement of independence didn’t quell the turmoil unleashed by 
the war. Tens of thousands of Loyalists, many of them prominent lawyers, 
merchants and Anglican prelates, fled the country, opening the door for 
ambitious new men to step into positions of authority (in the South, 
this meant acquiring, at bargain basement prices, the land and slaves of 
exiled Loyalists). Conflict with Indians continued on the frontier. 
State politics devolved into contests between farmers seeking laws 
suspending the collection of debts and creditors defending the rights of 
property. The perceived excesses of democratic politics in the states 
produced an upper-class reaction. The initial national frame of 
government, the Articles of Confederation, gave the federal government 
little power over the states – too little, in the view of a group of 
nationalists who concluded that stronger central authority was needed to 
keep popular passions under control and deal effectively with Indians 
and European powers.

This is where Alexander Hamilton enters the story. Long eclipsed in 
popular memory by his great rival Jefferson, Hamilton has lately 
achieved cult status thanks to Broadway. There he is a poor but 
ambitious immigrant whose rise exemplifies the opportunities America 
offers the common man. Taylor’s Hamilton is a cunning striver who gets 
ahead by marrying into one of the colonies’ wealthiest families and who 
rails against the ‘democratic spirit’ unleashed by the revolution. 
Rather than a man of the people, the Hamilton of American Revolutions 
consistently promotes the interests of wealthy merchants and great 
landlords. In a tirade at the Constitutional Convention, he warned that 
the ‘mass of people … seldom judge or determine right’ on matters of 
public policy and advocated a president and senate serving for life, 
modelled on the British monarchy and House of Lords. The delegates 
listened respectfully, then ignored his proposals. But the Constitution 
did strengthen federal authority and forbade the states from interfering 
with the collection of debts and from violating property rights in 
general. And through his contributions to the Federalist, a series of 
newspaper articles that made the case for ratification, Hamilton played 
a key role in mobilising popular sentiment in favour of the Constitution.

Hamilton had grown up in the West Indies, and disliked slavery. Although 
his in-laws were prominent slaveowners, he pushed for emancipation in 
New York State. His contributions to the Federalist, however, made no 
mention of the Constitution’s clauses protecting the institution. At the 
insistence of South Carolina and Georgia, the document allowed states to 
continue to import slaves from Africa or the West Indies for at least 
twenty more years, with the result that an additional 200,000 slaves 
were brought into the country. The Constitution also gave slave states 
added political power by counting three-fifths of their human property 
as part of the population when it came to determining apportionment in 
the House of Representatives, while also mandating that slaves who 
managed to escape to another state be returned to their owners. As Linda 
Colley recently pointed out, written constitutions often function as 
‘weapons of control, not just documents of liberation and rights’. 
Certainly this was true of the American example.

Overall, the founders of the republic proved unwilling to confront the 
presence of slavery in a nation supposedly dedicated to freedom. Too 
many historians have claimed that the revolutionaries’ exposition of the 
rights of mankind set the new nation on the path to abolition. It is 
certainly true that many founders hoped slavery would die out and that 
later campaigners drew on revolutionary ideology. But no teleological 
straight line existed from the revolution to the Emancipation 
Proclamation. In fact, after independence slavery expanded dramatically, 
until the Old South became the largest slave society the modern world 
has known. It was a bloody civil war, not the logic of liberty, that rid 
the US of slavery (something many countries that lack its rhetorical 
commitment to freedom and equality managed to accomplish less violently) 
and led to a rewriting of the Constitution to sever rights and 
citizenship from race.

In his final chapters, Taylor briefly surveys the political history of 
the early republic. Although the founders didn’t intend to create 
political parties and the Constitution makes no provision for their 
existence, parties quickly emerged out of divisions over economic policy 
and the proper response to the French Revolution. By the mid-1790s the 
political nation was divided between Federalists, led by Washington and 
Hamilton, and Jeffersonian Republicans. Neither took the high road. 
Federalists demonised immigrants as a threat to the new republic. In 
1798 they pushed through Congress the Alien Act, which sharply increased 
the waiting period before an immigrant could become a citizen and 
authorised the president to deport any alien whose presence he believed 
threatened the nation’s ‘peace and safety’. In the campaign of 1800, 
Federalists described Jefferson as a dangerous atheist (with a slave 
paramour to boot), whose election would encourage ‘murder, robbery, 
rape, adultery and incest’. Republicans, led by wealthy Virginia 
plantation owners, denounced their opponents as elitists and emphasised 
their own commitment to political equality and economic opportunity for 
ordinary white men, while at the same time whipping up the electorate’s 
feelings of superiority to blacks and Indians. It all seems depressingly 
familiar.




More information about the Marxism mailing list