Some years ago I listened to an interview with a historian whose name I cannot remember, but she made a startling observation I had never before considered. We cherish the idea of voting in our secret booths. Many regard it as impolite to ask who one voted for. But this method, so cherished as a foundation of democratic practice, has a purely modern origin.* In ye olden days we voted in public, sometimes simply by standing on one side of a room, with those voting for the other guy on the other side, and then counting heads. In a republic, thinking went, one should live openly with their fellow man. The idea of ‘private’ political opinions would have seemed absurd and anti-democratic to Americans of the early-mid 1800’s.
I come back to this nugget often, for it reminds me that things we assume about the ‘absolute’ meaning of America, or democratic identity, may not be quite what we assume. Stories like this also should help us reflect on whether or not the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Gordon Wood needs no praise from me. I find his analysis consistently penetrating and illuminating. One reason for this . . . he seems to know how to appreciate the weirdness of American history and maintain tension between competing perspectives. For those who praise America’s unique role in the history of western civilization, he can say, “Yes, but . . . ,” and for those that decry our faults, he says the same. He draws us into an appreciation for the tensions and oddities of our national life. The best historians make the past seem at once strange and yet familiar. Wood accomplishes this with deep learning and a light touch. His book Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution serves as a great summary of some of his previous work.
Some surprising details emerge here. We know that the founders had many differences on a variety of issues, but I didn’t know that they had unity in their condemnation of . . . Rhode Island. They objected not to their religious oddities, inspired by the likes of Roger William’s and Anne Hutchinson, nor to their commercial turn–something Alexander Hamilton, at least, appreciated. No, they directed their universal ire towards Rhode Island’s use of paper money. “The cry for paper money,” John Adams commented, “is downright Wickedness and Dishonesty. Every Man must see that it is the worst engine of Knavery that ever was invented.”
Of course we can choose to smile benignly and call them curmudgeons, but Wood reminds us in a variety of other places the radical and progressive nature of the American Revolution. The fact that more or less everyone across the spectrum condemned Rhode Island should tell us something. All knew that paper money represented a loosening of the hierarchy, and a preference for debtors over creditors, Whether they consciously intuited it or not, paper money also meant a more fluid and democratic society than perhaps any of the founders desired.
In discussing the Constitutional Convention, Wood mentions a curious bifurcation in American society. Some progressives and libertarians call the Constitution basically the byproduct of a conspiracy. This groups sees America in the 1780’s as flourishing and in no need of significant alteration. As usual, Wood answers, “Yes, but” and adds nuance. Various state economies performed well in this decade, but the problem lay in the strong commercial push for markets and regulated trade. The government under the Articles of Confederation had no powers regarding trade. This desire for markets ran so deep that Wood suggests a significant portion of Americans would have allied with any foreign power that would ensure their products access to the sea. George Washington commented of such folk in 1784 that, “the slightest touch of a feather would turn them any way.” We needed some kind of stronger national government. But Wood agrees that had the American people actually known how strong a government some of the delegates to Philadelphia wanted during the summer of 1787, they might very well have shut down the process entirely.
Most key members of the Convention sought to supersede state government power with the Federal government, but the theme that almost no one who helped start the American Revolution truly understood what they had unleashed runs throughout Wood’s work. This sometimes had good effects such as with the slavery question. Wood argues that we had a blindness about African-American slavery before the Revolution because we had a basic blindness towards white “slavery” as well. White “indentured servitude” was indeed not the same as “slavery” as we know it, but it was close, most particularly in the idea that owners could sell the labor contracts of their servants. Also,
“because labor was so valuable in America, colonists enacted numerous laws to control the movement of white servants and prevent runaways. There was nothing in England resembling the passes required for traveling servants. . . . No wonder newly arriving Britons were astonished to see how ruthlessly Americans treated their white servants. ‘Generally speaking,’ said William Eddis upon his introduction to Maryland society in 1769, ‘they groan beneath a burden worse than Egyptian bondage.'”
This started changing when the rhetoric of revolution started focusing on “slavery” to England, making “slavery” unacceptable to many for the first time–again–this was not the plan. Wood, a critic of the 1619 Project, wants to focus on the significant progress made by the revolutionary impulse to end slavery/servitude in most of the colonies, rather than its tragic persistence in the few. Of course, slavery didn’t just persist in southern colonies, it actually dramatically expanded from 1775-1850. At least here, Wood cannot explain how the impulse that ended slavery in some places seemed to increase it in others. By the early 19th century, one could accurately describe America both as dramatically more and less free than England.
Perhaps because Wood possesses great knowledge and a great ability to parse the details, he cannot quite bring the unusual disparities of America into an explanatory whole. We have already touched on the freedom/slavery divide, but others exist too:
- Some wanted much less central unity than England had, some wanted much more power for the federal government than King George ever had.
- The equating of land with freedom, and the “ravenous” appetite for land among colonists that shocked European observers, despite land’s vast abundance.
If we see America in a spatial, symbolic/mythological way an explanation emerges.
Many look at medieval maps and wonder, “what in the world . . . ?
At first glance, and at a second and third glance, the map gives very little physical information. At times the physical data it gives is not even accurate, such as the separation of England and Scotland on the map above. But if we see the map as a means of guiding us to understanding how to navigate the world, or a “map of meaning,” we see as the medievals (and other cultures before them) saw.**
This post has little to do with the map directly, so I will limit my comments to its application for America. If you magnify the map, you see that towards the edges, one meets strange creatures. Reality starts to blur, there exists at once a strange mixing and a strange separation of bodily form, yet also, if managed rightly, a chance for wisdom and new growth. This happens on the “fringe” of reality. Most every great story involves the hero leaving home and being remade, casting bread upon the waters that it might return–in short–heroes must successfully navigate the fringe.^
The key to managing the fringe first involves understanding its meaning. We can consider alcohol as one example of how the fringe works. Taverns and bars have always been a place to meet others and mix. This is not an arbitrary social convention. Alcohol serves to “loosen” us, which is why we should drink only in the evening, as our being naturally gets looser as we move towards sleep. This “loosening” facilitates mixing and mingling with others more easily. So, “Can I buy you a drink?” works better as a pick-up line than, “Can I buy you some carrots?”
But one must be careful. If we stay too long on the fringe–i.e., drink too much–our being splits. We may discover too late that we have “mixed” with someone we should have avoided. Notice too that those who get drunk tend to experience either an unnatural extremity of the fringe (they are over-social, thinking everything is funny, etc.) or they get surly and overly anti-social–i.e., they seek to return “home” from the fringe but return misshapen. They attempt to recalibrate their mixing but their “monstrous” form, acquired from too much transformative “mixing potion,” means they cannot “tighten” themselves with proper form and grace. The moral of the story–one should not stay too long on the fringe.
Though we may not see it easily now, for European settlers in the New World, America was “the fringe,” The glories, degradations, and strangeness of America have their explanation here. Europeans traveled out to the edge, and decided not to return but camp out for good. This has several implications:
- I have already alluded to the “more free,” and “less free” polarity.
- Those who wanted to try and implement extreme forms of religiosity might find a home here. The Puritans could implement their views, but the continual implementation of their ideas required close knit communities, which “the fringe” would naturally work against.
- Those who wanted to basically try and transplant something of the society of the English gentry, like many of transplants into Virginia, could achieve this only through strenuous effort and hence, malformation. This could explain the large number of slaves in Virginia.
- Washington’s desire that we eschew political parties had no chance of success whatsoever. The fringe brings out extremes, it divides.
- It might additionally mean that the fringe would define America. Examples might be–American literature has its origins with Twain, who lived out west. Many of our folktales involve strange, misshapen people, or those who lived in continual movement (Daniel Boone, Jonny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, etc.). African Americans, who resided obviously on the social fringe, created some of the best and most noteworthy culture, especially in terms of music. Finally, when we got out as far we could physically go on the fringe (California), we made this “fringe of the fringe” America’s heart with the advent of Hollywood.
We can quickly see that some of this is good (who wouldn’t take American 20th century music over any and all European countries?), some bad, and some of it confusing. It is the fringe, however, that defines American life, and this means that we will experience extremes, and that the lines between “good” and “bad” will blur quickly, right before our eyes. This template also explains much of early American history and the heightened versions of good and bad we see.
Thomas Jefferson took great pride in helping Virginia, and in time, all of America, to develop the practice of religious tolerance and avoiding state sponsored religions. Wood suggests that Jefferson thought this meant that a democratic people could arrive at an “enlightened” understanding. Madison thought differently, and knew better. We allowed for toleration only because we feared the monopoly that other religions might gain. Mutual collision, and not mutual understanding, made us “healthy.” Lacking a defined core, “collision” was our last, best option.
The American Revolution saw the European fringe break decisively from the core. Once free, new practices embedded in the ideas of revolution spread rapidly. Having lived on the fringe, Americans could navigate the changes rather easily. When a society with a more traditional core, such as France, tried something similar, it had a much more disruptive impact. When the ideas migrated into an even more traditional society like Russia toward the end of the 20th century, an oppressive tyranny reigned for 70 years, instead of the five we saw in France.
Americans love to spread their ideas, and always have. We believe that our beliefs and practices should transplant everywhere. Many of us look around us and surmise that significant change is coming for western civilization. I don’t think I will like many of the changes coming, but I take some comfort in knowing that America has a large bandwidth for adaptation. My concern lies in what happens when these new ideas migrate into more traditional societies. The impact there will be more traumatic (i.e., Russia and Ukraine?).
Ok, my concerns also lie with us. We need a middle to navigate the extremes, but alas, “middle ground” will always be elusive on the fringe.
*The historian was not entirely sure of why this switch happened, but speculated that it likely had something to do with Victorian ideas of propriety, and with the new involvement of women voting. In ye olden days, fisticuffs on Election Day with those on the other side were relatively normal occurrences. But with the new system, one didn’t know how the other voted, which made fighting much less likely.
**In this case, obviously the creators of the map knew that England and Scotland were geographically connected, but they remained culturally separate in their experience. The map then, reflects an understanding of their experience, not a mere physical representation.
^There is a great present in Scripture about the core, fringe, etc. if one knows how to look. Consider creation in 6 days, and leaving 1 untouched, leaving something on the edge of plowed fields, not weaving one’s garments to totality (i.e., leave the edge of your garments with a fringe), and so on. But just as Christ ministered first on Israel’s geographic fringe, He came to back “home” to Jerusalem.