2006-07-07: The Oxford History of the American People

The Oxford History of the American People (1965)

by Samuel Eliot Morison (1887-1976)

This book was recommended by Kevin Drum’s blog at www.washingtonmonthly.com. The appeal was in large part that the book ended with JFK, and so can provide a view of American society untainted by “The Sixties” and all that followed.

Although the book is interesting, and well enough written (though it emphasizes naval power for unexplained reasons), I was reading several other books at the same time, and exceeded the number of renewals allowed by the library. Following are brief notes, up to the election of Andrew Jackson, p. 422.

Page 182, regarding the attitudes of the colonists in 1776:

Thus the situation between England and her American colonies, while it had points of friction, was far from explosive. “The abilities of a Child might have governed this Country,” wrote Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut in 1776, “So strong had been their Attachment to Britain.” But the Americans were a high-spirited people who claimed all the rights for which Englishmen had fought since Magna Carta, and would settle for nothing less. They were not security-minded but liberty-minded. That is why they met the attempts of the government of George III to impair these liberties, first with loyal expostulation, next with indignant agitation, finally with armed resistance.

Make no mistake; the American Revolution was not fought to obtain freedom, but to preserve the liberties that American already had as colonials. Independence was no conscious goal, secretly nurtured in cellar or jungle by bearded conspirators, but a reluctant last resort, to preserve “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Page 268, regarding the perceived import of the American Revolution to old Europe:

They were right. As the English historian Lord Acton stated, “It was from America that the plain ideas that men ought to mind their own business, and that the nation is responsible to Heaven for the acts of the State – ideas long locked in the hearts of solitary thinkers, and hidden among Latin folios – burst forth like a conqueror upon the world they were destined to transform, under the title of the Rights of Man . . . and the principle gained ground, that a nation can never abandon its fate to an authority it cannot control.” Many, alas, have done so, but their people have always suffered for it.

Page 307, regarding the reconciliation of rival interests, during the Constitutional Convention:

How were the rival interests of seaboard merchants and back-country farmers (expressing the age-old antagonism between town and country), creditors and debtors, produce-exporting Southerners and trading Yankees, to be reconciled? Madison observed that the larger the political unit, the less likelihood of class or sectional injustice; he pointed out that Rhode Island was the place where one class had been riding roughshod over every other. “All civilized societies,” he said, were “divided into different sects, fashions, and interests, as they happened to consist of rich and poor, debtors and creditors, the landed, the manufacturing, the commercial interests, the inhabitants of this district or that district. . . . Why was America so justly apprehensive of Parliamentary injustice? Because Great Britain had a separate interest. The only remedy is to enlarge the sphere, and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties, that a majority will not be likely to have a common interest separate from that of the whole or of the minority.”

Enlarge the sphere, and balance the interests: has not American history proved Madison’s wisdom? And has not the completely contrary communist theory, of recognizing no interests except those of the “workers” and the state, brought an end to personal liberty wherever put into effect?

Page 338, regarding the formation of political parties in 1794:

That year, 1794, saw the crystallization of unstable political elements into national parties. European issues are apt to reach America without shadings, all black and white. Thus the French Revolution seemed to some a clean-cut contest between monarchy and republicanism, oppression and liberty; to others it was a fresh breaking-out of the eternal strife between anarchy and order, atheism and religion, poverty and prosperity. Americans of the first way of thinking joined the Republican party; others, the Federalists. Sectional and economic groups were polar to the completed parties; but in the reverse order to general expectation. Formerly democratic New England, especially the seaports, became the headquarters of the pro-British Federalists; whilst the landed interest, particularly in slaveholding communities, was swept by Gallomania.

The explanation is largely social and economic. In New England the clergy had been worrying over the younger generation: students preferred to read Voltaire and Gibbon rather than Jonathan Edwards. Tom Paine’s scurrilous Age of Reason caused the sincerely religious to repudiate the party that supported France. Paine himself, by a nasty attack on Washington, identified Jeffersonianism with Jacobinism in the mind of the average Northerner. But the planters of Virginia seem to have been immune to religious panic and so certain of the loyalty of their own slaves that the massacre of white people in Haiti when “”liberty, equality and fraternity” were applied in that French colony did not alarm them. Virginia’s opposition to British capital and sea power was part of her hatred for Northern capital and Hamiltonian finance schemes. The writings of the French philosophes and économistes enabled country gentlemen to rationalize their instincts that land was the unique source of wealth, that trade and finance were parasites. Chief local philosopher was Colonel John Taylor “of Caroline” a Virginia county. His pamphlets declared that every dollar made by merchants came out of the farmer’s pocket, that England through her disregard of “true economic principles” was a “sinking nation,” and that trade with her was draining America of her wealth. These absurd notions became doctrine in the South; and it took them long to die.

Page 375, regarding the legacy of Thomas Jefferson:

Of all the ironies in American history, the career and influence of Thomas Jefferson are the greatest. This Virginia aristocrat and slave-owner proclaimed the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal.” In so doing he undermined and overthrew both Tories and Federalists, who believed that man was created highly unequal and that the best, not the most, should govern. The Federalists, but for Jefferson – and their own folly – might have continued for another generation to direct the government along conservative and national lines; might even have settled the Negro question without war, which Jefferson’s disciples were unable to do. His Southern supporters accepted Jefferson’s principles with the reservation that they applied only to white men, and used them mainly as a stick to beat the Federalists and win power. But the Northerners whom Jefferson converted to his views took him seriously and literally. They came to believe that political equality meant all Americans, no matter what race or color; that democracy meant rule of the majority, not by a cultivated minority of merchants and landowners. Long did the art of politicians ignore or muffle this ambiguity; but when the issue became really acute in 1860-61, the society which Jefferson loved, and which still worshipped his name, repudiated both his basic principles; and in so doing was overthrown by the society which had taken those principles to heart.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email