Wednesday, April 06, 2011

A Struggle for Power!

Our book today is Theodore Draper's luminous, contentious 1996 volume A Struggle for Power, one of the most interesting, provocative, and clear-headed accounts of the ramp-up to the American Revolution I've ever read. Draper takes the standard narrative of the Revolution - a downtrodden people yearning to breathe free, rebelling against the cruel tyranny of their distant oppressors in order to create a land where everybody was equal - turns it upside-down, strips it of all its historical hindsight, and then substitutes a narrative of his own. His story is far less stirring, but it's also far more interesting and infinitely more recognizable. In his account of that crucial decade from 1765 to 1776, 'tisn't morals, 'tis money that saves - and everybody dances to the sound of the profitable pound. Here we have two powers - one old and great, the other new and vibrant - facing off against each other not over principles but over cold, hard cash and the clout it buys. There are civics lessons here, but they happen without the soft focus of hagiography:
The company was supposed to make more money in the American market, drive out the Dutch competition, and benefit the American consumers.

But there was a flaw in the plan. Tea smuggling was big business. New York, Boston, and Philadelphia were havens of merchant smugglers. According to a well-informed Tory view, the British made the mistake of underestimating the smuggling business in America, which "was so universal, that the Smugglers Interest had engrossed so great a Power" it would have required ten British soldiers to protect every chest of tea.

Draper consistently paints a picture that's diametrically distorted from the stars-and-stripes narrative of US history textbooks (and the dim-lit imagination of certain former US presidents). In his view, the matters of contention between the British Empire and the American colonies were never the stuff of opera (or, gulp, musical):
At this moment, the final stage of the prerevolutionary struggle hung in the balance. Yet the real stakes were comparatively minor. The tea duty to which North and his ministers were determined to cling brought in a pittance of 9,790 pounds after 1770, little more than enough to pay for a couple of governors. It was a derisory sum on which to base a policy that at best was sure to annoy the Americans and at worst enrage them. It is clear from what North said that he was fed up with the Americans and wanted to pay them back for their insobordination and insolence.

And he saves his bluntest summing-up for the fiery final pages of his book:
The entire colonial case against British rule had been largely negative - against taxation, against a "standing army," against the importation of tea, against the Coercive Acts. In all the mountain of words against the British from 1765 to 1775, few - if any - have anything to do with changing the political and certainly not the social structure as it had developed under British rule. The Revolution was not fought to bring about democracy or any kind of egalitarianism. Before 1776 very few - if any - Americans expected to bring about a republic. The British gave the colonists a revolutionary program long before the Americans were willing to admit that this was their goal.

This is bracing stuff, and A Struggle for Power is rich with it. This isn't to say more traditional narratives of this same story don't have their merits - they certainly do, and my shelves would be the poorer without them. But Draper's kind of invigoration is a large part of why I read much history in the first place - because the past never stays the same. In the hands of researchers with powerful insights (and pithy prose), the past changes its reflections according to the lights shone upon it. Really good literary journalism can do the same thing for literature, but for me, the process is always more exciting when it comes to the historical texts, periods, and people that fascinate me so much.

So was there any disinterested heroism in the American Revolution? Were there even any such thing as patriots and martyrs to the cause of freedom? Draper would cast a jaundiced eye on the very notions, and thanks to books like this, those old readings will never be quite safe again.

1 comment:

Shelley said...

In light of the current triumph of corporate power in the U.S., I think it's always helpful to "re-read" history keeping an eye on the machinations of that creeping giant.