Liberty Matters

My Response to the Responses

Let me begin by thanking my respondents for their thoughtful comments, and address each in turn.
The key passages in Onuf's treatment, to my mind, are those that stress the question of tension and conflict in the ideas and experiences of contemporaries at the time of the Declaration. As I tried to indicate in the lead essay, there are logical reasons why historians should be attentive to these points to gain a proper sense of context.
As Onuf notes, "There was no monolithic 'American Mind' to express before Americans were forced to make the fateful choice for independence, an outcome that very few, if any patriots originally intended-and many still resisted." This point I heartily agree with, and it prompted me to think again about the reasons I originally undertook writing Harmonizing Sentiments in the late 90s.
Not long after the paradigmatic model of culture had passed from the scene, a model of social thought that had undergird much of the old Classical Republican Synthesis of the Revolution and Founding, it was replaced by efforts that to my mind went too far in the other direction to the almost exclusive embrace of aporias, conflicts, tensions and contradictions. Here I think most especially of works by such scholars like Drew McCoy and Isaac Kramnick.
My concern back then was that this approach left the picture of the Revolution so fractured as to make understanding of that event altogether too obscure, problematic, even mysterious to modern readers. There is to my way of thinking always sufficient coordination of thoughts and actions on which to base some degree of meaningful interpretation. I fully concur with Onuf's observation that "The need to forge alliances at home and abroad simultaneously fostered more universal, inclusive appeals."
But what reminds me of the earlier historiography is the sentence two paragraphs on: "The conflation of contexts thus made the Declaration fundamentally incoherent. The universal, natural rights principles in its opening paragraphs enabled the revolutionaries to promote patriotic mobilization and gain international recognition, but they also could justify counter-revolutionary mobilization of the enslaved" (Emphasis added). My question is simply, where does the incoherence arise?
The notion of slavery as a positive moral good was not the majority opinion, which is why calling attention to the incoherence of slave owning in the Declaration was an embarrassment not easily born even by those most dependent on the institution. This is not to say that individuals cannot hold contradictory opinions, but contradictions do not sit comfortably in the mind, once stated and brought to awareness. They pick at the conscience until some means of resolution or reconciliation is found.
Doubtless, some persons did read the Declaration as consistent with slavery, but the reasons for this were themselves varied and took different forms of rationalization and justification. Some saw it as an evil that had been imposed and about which little could be done. A good many went further seeing it as a condition soon to be ameliorated by the separate legislatures. And a few did in fact affirm slavery as a positive good. Thus, Charles Cotesworth Pinkney from South Carolina was initially among the most prominent defenders of slavery, but this last variant was, at least in this moment and on this continent, very much an outlier position.
Thus, I would say, the contradictions and tensions did not inhere so much in the text itself but between the text and the lived experience of some of those who read it. But there were other far more coherent readings of the text that interpreted the bill of particulars against the king through the lens of the opening paragraphs as a case for universal liberty. It was this less cumbersome and easier construction that gave the document its enduring appeal both here and abroad.
In this way, the "harmonizing sentiments" of the document comprised a synthesis of the various conceptions of freedom at the time, forming an ideal typical composite of various legal, philosophical, and political notions of self-government. The point is that there was an immanent consistency of thought that facilitated the coordination of individual actions to move in a particular direction, in this instance, towards independence.
To my understanding, the real advantage of focusing on the variability of thought and the formation of ideal types for historical interpretation is that it allows for continual revision and investigation of the facts. A drawback of any a too systematic conception of social context, however, makes it very hard to work outside the categories of the model being imposed. These two points about the approximate nature of ideal types, ties in directly to Susan Love Brown's comments.
I take her three key points as follows: 1) Race had established itself early on in the America's as a critical factor in the mental furniture of the colonists from the earliest years of the 18th century forward; 2) until quite recently historians, especially of Jefferson, have largely ignored race, excluding it even from their indexes; and finally, 3) whatever else one might say of the newer scholarship, it has at the very least, put this subject on the radar of scholarly attention.
I actually do not disagree with any of these points. My real concern is how they are to be understood and situated within the context of time and place. Race as a concept had indeed very much established itself early on in the colonies, but it would be incorrect to say that it was a simple universally understood idea.
Great disparities of thinking about race permeated all levels of society, running the gamut from those who believed that environment was the source of difference to those who contended for the polygenesis of types. And each thinker on race might hold to very different ideas about the implications of these views for moral philosophy. One need not look very far beyond Jefferson in this regard to see such variety of thought. Benjamin Rush or Franklin illustrate the differences well and their thinking changed over the course of time too.
At the same time that Franklin worked for the improvement of the conditions of enslaved children, he also worried about the influence of swarthy German immigrants coming over by the droves. The point is, race and its implications was a highly shifting and variable category, and attitudes often differed dramatically where one happened to be in the north Atlantic world, not least of all in the thirteen English colonies of the North American continent.
I suspect it was the focus on the variability and tensions in the content of thought that led earlier scholarship away from listing race as a primary category in their indexes and subsuming the category under other seemingly more specific listings such as immigration, native Americans or slavery. This I would argue is what often happened in the case of Jefferson scholarship. A glance at the index of the old classic treatment of Jefferson and slavery by John Chester Miller, A Wolf by the Ears (1991) originally published in 1977, reveals that that is precisely what happened. Race does appear, but it is listed under the more general heading of slavery.
Still, I take the point to heart, that the newer treatments have placed the concept of race front and center in a way that the older more liberal and pluralist approaches did not. They have done this, however, through a very interesting theoretical orientation that posits a degree of consistency and function in thought and action that I do not think can ultimately be sustained. Let me suggest an example that points to a significant challenge to their approach.
Two sets of English settler slave societies existed in the Americas. One was the Caribbean island colonies, and the other was the southern coastal plantations of Georgia, the Carolinas, and to a lesser degree Virginia and Maryland. If there was the sort of systemic operation that is posited between notions of race and the practices of exploitation as argued for in the newer histories of Stovall, Kendi, Baptiste, Beckert, Horne, Johnson, etc., why do we not find a greater similitude of thought between the regions?
Each of these authors posits a deep linkage connecting thought, society and economy, though each lays stress on different aspects of that continuum. There were, however, contemporary oppositional ideas well developed and articulated that would actually have fit better with the arguments being proffered by the new historians, but they are not to be found principally in the colonies that rebelled.
Let me sharpen the question: If independence were motivated in large part by the defense of slavery, why did the ideas that predominated among the slave owners of the Caribbean not also predominate among their brethren on the Continent? The ideas expressed in these slave societies were very much along the lines contended for among the newer historical interpretations. And these thoughts were equally directed against the central authority of the Empire, king, and parliament.
Two important textual examples of this kind of thinking are to be found in the third volume of the Greene and Yirush collection, Exploring the Bounds of Liberty (2018) pages 2149-2230, by the Caribbean agents Edward Long and Samuel Estwick. And the latter was quite explicitly racial in his argument. Given the oft noted close familial and social ties of the Caribbean planters with their American continental counterparts, and given that the latter had been actively attempting to encourage the former to cooperate with them in the resistance movement, why would these ideas not have predominated on the Continent as well?
It was in fact in the Caribbean Island colonies, where you would find the most sustained arguments against the often-cited Somerset decision (that case freed a slave brought into the English realms and proclaimed slavery illegal throughout the kingdom), but you will not find very many representatives of that position in the thirteen colonies. If there was no actual conflict either in interests or ideas, at least none that mattered, would not the path of least resistance have led most Americans to embrace those arguments? But the thirteen colonies did not, by and large, go in this direction, and so we must try to understand why not.
Another troubling aspect that derives from the desire to see deeper machinations at work in historical processes, are the implications often drawn from those arguments respecting present political considerations. This is especially the case with Kendi's work, who published a follow-on popular book to his more substantial historical account. His is perhaps the clearest case to be made with respect to the idea of judging rather than merely understanding the past. My fear though is, that such judging often tends to close off rather than open discussion, given the categorical nature of the terms begin employed.
Kendi has quite explicitly tied his interpretation of power and exploitation in history to a very particular plan of concentrated institutional authority to intervene politically in the present. Wholly apart from the question of the viability of limiting such power simply to questions of race, comes the question of power's susceptibility of abuse when it requires so high a degree of subjective interpretation in the evaluation of motives, interests, and actions of those to be regulated.
From my perspective, it is a great advantage of the older mode of historical investigation that it tried for the most part to eschew such presentism. Indeed, by doing so, I would say it generally opened up debate in the present by allowing many different political viewpoints to draw what meaningful materials they might from the highly diverse records of the past.
Here is where Lucas Morel's comments are particularly important. His observations clearly derive from his grounding in the fields of political philosophy and theory. As such they illustrate nicely how those domains, the domains of both the citizen and the philosopher, can find meaning in the elements of the past.
The historian who tries to understand the past in its own terms is serving very much as a translator between eras. If the aim of illumination is achieved, such history permits us, in the present, to either accept, reject or modify those understandings from the past as we think best meets the needs of our current conditions, and thus Morel writes that the timeless truths of the Declaration "ought to guide later generations of Americans (not to mention other nations) as they pursue the protection of their rights within a constitutional system of self-government." This of course is to wear the hat of citizen and not historian. And Morel does not make the mistake of confusing the two.
What his comments show is that one can draw legitimate usufruct from the past to illustrate how hopeful meanings can be derived that invite further discussion. While I am very much inclined to this particular interpretation of the implications for the present, I recognize that others among the practitioners of the more liberal and pluralist approaches can draw other conclusions. That openness of interpretation needs to be preserved.
On the question of Jefferson's inconsistencies in thought which Morel would like more fully demonstrated, my point was rather to draw attention to those aspects in his writing which others cited as justifications or rationalizations for his continuing to own, buy, and sell slaves. It was Jefferson's actions that spoke a contradiction that needed explanation in light of what he himself had previously written.
Ideas of race and the animosities born of the memory of past abuses were his particular way of answering those charges of inconsistency. My point was to both illustrates that such charges of inconsistency do not sit comfortably in the mind, and also to show that the Notes on Virginia had a very different role than the higher public reason expressed in the Declaration.
Finally, I hesitate to argue that history is equivalent to irony, but it is very often the case that ironic is the best way to characterize the unintended consequences of so much intentional action, past or present. Here I have to admit that my attention was suddenly and powerfully arrested by the deeply insightful comments of Hannah Spahn.
One aspect of a too systemic interpretation of power and ideas is to miss or gloss over the vitality and variety that bursts forth in every moment in time, not least of which is the rich narrative histories within African American communities themselves. Their own uses of the Declaration stand in stark contrast to the constructions being asserted by the new histories.
But what is far more troubling, it is not only this more hopeful narrative that is being ejected, but the worst aspects of the arguments of their postbellum opponents that are being affirmed! These latter did in fact argue for a deeply racist reading of the Declaration and that their position should now so closely coincide with the treatments of the new histories is the great irony of the view that the true meaning and implications of the Declaration and Revolution are racist and exploitative.
This is not the first time of course that such disturbing parallels have been raised (Magness 2020), but Spahn has done so with a care and consideration that I think few will be able to ignore, based as her work is, on her deep engagement with the sources from within the African American past itself.
There is always so much more to be said, but in the interests of conversation, let me stop here and see where my fellow discussant would like to take our exploration. And again, I thank each of them for their thought-provoking insights.
Greene, Jack P. and Craig Yurish, Exploring the Bounds of Liberty: Political Writings of Colonial British America from the Glorious Revolution to the American Revolution, vol. III (Liberty Fund Inc, Indianapolis; 2017).
Magness, Philip W., The 1619 Project: A Critique (AIER, Great Barrington MA; 2020).
Miller, John Chester, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery (The University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 1991).