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History from the Bottom Up

Started by Staughton Lynd, April 06, 2007, 01:38:28 pm

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Staughton Lynd

April 06, 2007, 01:38:28 pm Last Edit: September 23, 2007, 05:34:32 pm by Tony Budak

    More than forty years ago, in February 1967, a young historian named Jesse Lemisch published an Occasional Paper for the Radical Education Project of Students for a Democratic Society entitled "Toward A Democratic History."  At about the same time, Lemisch published another essay in a collection of papers called Towards A New Past, edited by Stanford historian Barton Bernstein.  This article was entitled "The American Revolution Seen from the Bottom Up."  It began with a fragment from a poem by the German poet Berthold Brecht, which asked:  What do we really know about the laborers who built the pyramids?

    History from the bottom up in the United States was inspired in part by a group of British historians.  They were to a greater or lesser degree disillusioned by Khrushchev's speech about Stalin and the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary, both in 1956. The Communist Party having shown itself lacking, these scholars turned their attention to those at the bottom of the society for whom Marxist parties claim to speak.  They asked whether such folk had the capacity to act on their own behalf.  This group included Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson.  

    Thompson had the most impact in the United States.  His conception of the "agency," or self-activity, of the poor, was enormously influential.  His book The Making of the English Working Class is without doubt the most important work of history in the English language in the second half of the twentieth century.  For reasons of time I will mention only three aspects of Thompson's history making:

    1.  He wrote The Making, as well as an equally long biography of William Morris, while teaching not in a university but as an extension lecturer in workers' self-education classes in the North of England.
    2.  There is a remembered Thompsonian moment when Edward was seeking to explain some coal mining procedure to an extension class, and one of his students -- presumably a coal miner -- said, "Here, give me the chalk," and took the teacher's place at the blackboard.
    3.  Finally, Thompson was the more ready to write history from the bottom up because he believed that workers had created a network of their own local institutions -- local trade unions, Methodist chapels, cooperative societies -- beneath the surface of official society that prefigured a better world.  He repeatedly compared this network of new institutions to a rabbit warren, which, as a verb as well as a noun, was in his view "warrening" British capitalism.

   Back in the United States, Jesse Lemisch practiced what he preached by publishing a magnificent article in the July 1968 issue of the elite journal of historians of early America, The William and Mary Quarterly.  The article was entitled "Jack Tar in the Streets:  Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America."  The article began in a manner uncharacteristic of pieces in that august publication:
   Here comes Jack Tar, his bowed legs bracing him as if the very Broadway beneath his feet might begin to pitch and roll.Then followed a fourteen-line footnote on contemporary terms referring to sailors, and a second paragraph beginning:   Clothes don't make the man, nor does language; surely we can do better than these stereotypes.  Few have tried.The anecdotal history of this essay, distilled from Lemisch's Ph.D. dissertation at Yale, is that his supervising professor Edmund S. Morgan told Jesse he would not be able to find enough sources to write about the subject.  Lemisch proved Morgan wrong.

    In an afterword to a re-printed version of his essay on Jack Tar, Jesse Lemisch sets forth assumptions that have guided all of us who took this path with him.  Mainstream historians find it easy to study great white men like the Founding Fathers because they, in their affluent leisure, created letters and other documents that simplify the task of recapturing their thought and experience.  We historians from the bottom up ask, What about laborers, including slaves; Native Americans; women other than Abigail Adams; people in other countries impacted by United States foreign policy?  Here the historian is more challenged.  As Jesse wrote:
   Like other historians of my generation, I used old sources in new ways:  Admiralty records for the reality of impressment; little bits and pieces from court records, statutes, legislative records, loyalist claims, newspapers. . . .  In particular, I quested after Jack's words, denying his "inarticulateness."  I assumed reasoning capacity among rioters and a concern for liberty and right.People at the base of society do not often express themselves in written form.  One must use impersonal records created for another purpose -- court transcripts, landlord-tenant leases, bills of lading, and the like -- to excavate their history.

    Thus in a so-called riot, one looks for consciousness expressed in conduct:  which stores the crowd broke into and which they left untouched.  The word "riot" implies an animal-like spontaneity, a lack of deliberation.  I have written about and litigated issues arising from an eleven-day rebellion at Ohio's maximum security prison in 1993.  Attorneys for the State have protested my refusal to use the word "riot" to describe these events.

    "Jack Tar" was recently selected as one of the eleven best essays published by The William and Mary Quarterly during the years 1943-1993.  Yet one has to wonder to what extent other historians have been listening to the new history from the bottom up.  The single subject that takes up roughly half the pages of "Jack Tar" is impressment, the practice whereby the Royal Navy reproduced its labor force by simply kidnapping men from the streets and taverns of cities across the British empire.  Yet Adam Hochschild, in his otherwise admirable recent history of the British antislavery movement, Bury the Chains, speculates that the experience of impressment may have made it easier for Englishmen to empathize with the experience of slaves, and comments:  
   Curiously ignored by scholars, the long public struggle against [impressment] psychologically set the national stage for the much larger battle over slavery.Curiously ignored, indeed!  Hochschild seemingly has never met "Jack Tar."

   History from the bottom up is an attitude, an orientation, rather than a set of conclusions or even a specific methodology. Let me explore a few situations in which historians, including historians from the bottom up, are still finding their way.

    How did slavery and racism come into existence on the North American continent?  A threshold question is whether British settlers, who so readily gave themselves to the task of exterminating Indians, also brought with them a racism so strong that it made slavery inevitable.

    I used to ask African American students at Spelman College in Atlanta and primarily Caucasian students at Yale to read Shakespeare's play "Othello."  "Othello" appears to have been first performed in 1604, three years before the establishment of the first permanent English colony at Jamestown, Virginia.  One assumes it was performed at the Globe Theater to an audience of so-called "groundlings," that is, that it was intended to be accepted and was in fact accepted by an audience of ordinary white Englishmen.  In this way it serves the purpose of a public opinion poll asking the question, What do you think about the marriage of a black man (Othello) to a white woman (Desdemona)?

    In the very first scene, Iago seeks to poison the mind of Desdemona's father by conjuring up a series of lurid racist images.             Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.

        [Y]ou'll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you'll have your nephews neigh to you . . . .

        [Y]our daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.End of poll?  After a pause, I would then ask the students: What about Othello's soliloquy in Act IV, Scene 2, in my opinion the most beautiful love poem in the English language, spoken by a black man to a white woman.
   Had it pleas'd heaven
    To try me with affliction, had he rain'd
    All kinds of sores, and shames, on my bare head,
    Steep'd me in poverty to the very lips,
    Given to captivity me and my utmost hopes,
    I should have found in some part of my soul
    A drop of patience . . . .
    But there, where I have garner'd up my heart,
    Where either I must live or bear no life,
    The fountain from the which my current runs
    Or else dries up; to be discarded thence!
    Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads
    To knot and gender in! Turn thy complexion there,
    Patience, thou young and rose-lipp'd cherubin;
    Ay, there, look grim as hell! I conclude that racism was not so overwhelmingly pervasive in early 17th century British culture as to make African American slavery and racism inevitable in the New World.

    What then accounts for African American slavery and concomitant racism in the mainland British colonies?  Surely economic forces:  perhaps a fall in the price of tobacco, perhaps an increase in the price of white indentured laborers from England, perhaps some combination of these economic factors that made enslaved African laborers newly attractive.

    Edmund Morgan writes in American Slavery, American Freedom, that slaves became more advantageous than indentured servants by about 1660.  Soon after, Maryland and Virginia began to pass the fretwork of laws separating black and white, denying that a slave's conversion to Christianity would affect his legal status as property, providing for the dismemberment of runaway slaves, punishing inter-racial sex, and declaring that children of a white man and a black woman should be slave or free depending on the status of the mother.  

    Does that mean that after, say, 1660, we must give up any hope of inter-racial solidarity among the poor?  Not so fast.  In 1676 there came an event in Virginia known as Bacon's Rebellion. It should not be romanticized:  the driving force behind it appears to have been the desire of white farmers on the Virginia frontier to expropriate the lands of Native Americans.  But my neighbor's enemy may become a useful target for my own discontents.  White indentured servants and African American slaves joined Bacon's Rebellion.  If Governor Berkeley angered Bacon by protecting Indians, Bacon's insurrection gave servants and slaves the opportunity to confront other kinds of oppression by Berkeley and his plantation-owning friends.
    Edmund Morgan writes of "hints" that white indentured servants and African American slaves initially saw each other as sharing the same predicament.  
   It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together.  It was not uncommon for them to make love together. Bacon gave white servants and black slaves the opportunity to rebel together.  At Colonel John West's brick house on the south bank of the York River, Captain Thomas Grantham found four hundred English and Negroes in arms.  Grantham promised the rebels pardons and their freedom.  "His ruse succeeded" with most of the insurrectionists, and they were returned to servitude.  Eighty Negroes and twenty English refused to surrender their weapons.  But they believed Captain Grantham when he said that he would give them a ride down the river.  And:       When they were all safely under the mercy of his great guns, [Grantham] had them disarmed and the Negroes and the servants eventually delivered to their masters. Apparently historians have not as yet discovered words spoken or written by the blacks and whites who fought together in Bacon's Rebellion.  But, as with rioters who leave some stores unmolested while they loot and destroy others, the actions of the hundred men (four-fifths of them black) who refused to give up their arms speak to us across the centuries.  It seems that "Black And White Together" was experienced long before the 1960s.


     My own research concerned tenant farmers and city artisans during the period of the American Revolution.  The first puzzle I encountered began with the fact that on the east side of the Hudson River north of New York City, tenant farmers in southern Dutchess County were ardent revolutionaries.  I held in my hands their petitions demanding that Loyalist estates should be confiscated and distributed to those who tilled them.

    But in Columbia County, the area where Bard College is now located, the politics of tenant farmers were quite different.  The Continental Congress had strung nets across the Hudson River, weighted with lead, to prevent a juncture of British forces approaching from both South and North.  Tenants near Rhinebeck went out onto the river at night, stole the lead, made the lead into bullets, and then staged a rising in support of the King.

    What could possibly explain this ideological divergence of persons, otherwise similar, living only forty or fifty miles apart from one another?  The simple answer eventually dawned on me.  It all depended on the politics of your landlord.  In southern Dutchess County the landlords were Tories.  One of them was Beverly Robinson, who sheltered Benedict Arnold when the latter changed sides and fled across the Hudson.  So if you supported the Revolution near Peekskill or Poughkeepsie, it was in the hope that if the independence movement succeeded, your landlord might be dispossessed from his property and you might acquire your farm in fee simple.

    In Columbia County to the North the calculus was reversed.  The great landlord in those parts was Robert R. Livingston, a patriot.  Hence there a rational tenant farmer would understandably oppose the Revolution in the hope that if the independence movement failed, the farmer might come to own the land that he culitvated.

    There is nothing ignoble in wishing to own your own farm.  But I believe the Hudson Valley evidence does away with any notion that New York tenant farmers were motivated by the Stamp Act, or by anything else having to do with British oppression.  This was not a struggle for home rule but a struggle over who should rule at home.

    A similar problem presents itself with city artisans.  The artisans were manual workers whose livelihoods were a cut above Jack Tar's:  carters (the truck drivers of the day), laborers in ropewalks and other shops that supported the shipping industry, makers of iron implements, barrels, and clothing of all sorts.

    Before the Revolution, these folks were the rank and file of the Sons of Liberty, the largely anonymous faces in the crowds who administered tar and feathers, pelted British soldiers with frozen snowballs and oyster shells, or threw tea into Boston  Harbor.  They came into conflict with more cautious merchants and other businessmen throughout the pre-revolutionary years.

    In 1787-1788, however, the very same artisans enthusiastically supported the new Constitution which scholars like Charles Beard supposed to have been created precisely to serve the interests of persons of wealth.  Not only did the artisans take advantage of relaxed suffrage requirements to vote for ratification of the Constitution.  In every seaport city they staged colorful, enthusiastic parades in its support, complete with floats illustrative of every contemporary trade.

    How did the pre-Revolutionary radicals become post-Revolutionary conservatives?  Again, the answer requires pausing before we impose our own conceptions and listening to what is really there.  If to be ideological is to be motivated by political ideas, the artisans were not ideologically consistent. But if we recognize that their primary motivation before and after the Revolution was to protect their livelihoods from imported British goods, they were wholly consistent.  Before 1776 this meant engaging in non-importation agreements and throwing chests of tea into the sea.  After 1783 it meant supporting whoever was prepared to create an enforcible national tariff that could make it more difficult for British manufactured goods to compete with home-made products.

    The general lesson, I believe, is that if in our enthusiasm we romanticize the poor, we open the door to historians who demonize them.  Very few persons in any group, in any period of history, are capable of setting aside immediate self-interest to act on behalf of a larger whole or a more long-run vision.  If there is a single failing in history from the bottom up written about the American Revolution, it is that by over-ideologizing the poor of that period we have inadvertently made more plausible the work of historians who write about the racist attitudes of workers in the United States as an essential characteristic, part of their very making, and incapable of extinction.  

    I want to end on a note in which I speak, not for other historians from the bottom up, but only for myself.
    Popular struggles often can benefit from the services of an historian.  By "services" I have in mind, for example, tape recording the oral histories of steelworkers who relied on the company's promise to keep the mills open; similarly providing an ear, and then a voice, for soldiers and veterans who refuse to commit in Iraq actions that the Nuremburg Tribunal defined as "war crimes"; or reading the trial transcripts of five men condemned to death after a prison rebellion, and interviewing witnesses never called to testify in any of their trials.

    It might seem that history in the service of activism must inevitably be flawed because it chooses sides, but in my experience this need not be the case.  The historical events in which I have involved myself often have turned out to be more tragedy than melodrama.  I have not found all the good guys to be on one side and all the bad guys on the other.  Indeed, precisely because of its objectivity such history may be helpful to the lawyer caught up in trying to make the latest legal theory work for his client, or the union reluctant to admit that it ever makes mistakes.

    I should like to close by suggesting that just as the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 crossed the Jericho Road to offer one kind of assistance, so the historian from the bottom up, travelling at the side of the poor in another way, can offer help of another and perhaps equally important variety.

    The late Archbiship Oscar Romero used the word "accompaniment" to describe the desired relationship between the professional person and the poor.  Monsignor Romero's pastoral letters in the years before his assassination in 1980 remain the richest description of what he meant by accompaniment.

      The "kingdom of heaven," Romero wrote, "is not something that comes only after death. . . . t has already been inaugurated in history."  Poor people, especially, have begun to "live together in such a way that they feel themselves to be brothers and sisters."  It was therefore the poor to whom Jesus turned:  "he united himself with, defended, and encouraged all those who, in his day, were on the margin of society . . . sinners, publicans, prostitutes, Samaritans, lepers."
    Sin is everything that gets in the way of the coming of the kingdom and the church must denounce "structural sin" and "institutionalized violence," Romero wrote.  Many corporations base their ability to compete in international markets on starvation wages, and oppose trade unions.  The Church should condemn the capitalist system.  The Church should set up and encourage base communities of the poor.  The Church should favor "profound, urgent, but nonviolent changes."  

     One of the clearest and most exciting articulations of Romero's ideas occurs in his fourth (and last) Pastoral Letter, August 6, 1979.  There the soon-to-be martyred Romero writes that the Church must be a "voice for the voiceless."   It ought to be "in solidarity with them, running the risks they run, enduring the persecution that is their fate."   Thus there may come into being an "apostolate of following or companionship."

    The spiritual protagonist, the Christian, does not simply help the poor:  he accompanies them, even follows them.  The agency of the poor on their own behalf is expressly recognized.

    The words of Oscar Romero expressed the profound conversion through which he passed after his appointment as archbishop of the diocese of San Salvador.  María López Vigil has given us a history from the bottom up of these events, assembling the oral testimonies of those who knew Romero under the heading "Bishop Romero's Baptism by the People."  

     At the time of his appointment Romero was considered conservative, the candidate of the wealthy.  His initial behavior in the new office seemed to confirm that apprehension.  Then on March 12, 1977, came the assassination of Romero's friend Father Rutilio Grande.  The bodies of Father Tilio and of the old man and boy who were killed with him were laid out on tables in the parish church at Aguilares, drenched with blood.  Romero arrived at midnight.  He stood for a long time looking at the body of his friend.  At four in the morning he directed that a mass be held immediately.  There was only a single reading, from John:  "Greater love hath no man than to give his life . . . ."

    After prolonged consultation among the priests of the diocese and over the furious opposition of the papal nuncio, it was decided to remember Rutilio Grande in a single mass to be held in the plaza of San Salvador and transmitted by radio throughout the country.  

    The nuncio was pressuring him, ordering him, threatening to suspend the single mass.  Romero asked his friend Inocencio Alas: "What can I do, Chencho?"  His brother priest, who was painting signs for the outdoor mass, suggested that Romero speak directly to Jesus.  Inocencio recalls:       [Romero] went straightaway to the seminary chapel. . . .  After about an hour I saw him coming down that incredibly long passageway. . . .  It seemed as though he was never going to arrive. . . .  When he was finally there beside me, I remained kneeling, painting, dissembling my tension. . . .
        "Well did you two speak?"  I stopped with a can of green paint in my hand.
        "Yes, Chencho, we've spoken.  He is also in agreement."Father Inocencio along with a hundred thousand others attended the mass the next day.  
   At the beginning of the mass I noticed Monsignor Romero sweating, pallid, nervous.  And when the homily began he seemed to me to be slow, without the eloquence he normally had, as if he were wondering whether to enter through the door that history and God held open for him.  But after about five minutes I felt that the Spirit of God descended over him.
        ". . .  I want to express my gratitude here in public, standing before the face of the archdiocese, to all these beloved priests for the unity that today is gathered solidly around the single gospel.  Many of them run risks, up to the maximum immolation of Father Grande . . . ."
        Upon hearing Rutilio's name, thousands of people burst into applause.
        "That applause ratifies the profound joy that my heart feels upon taking possession of the archdiocese and feeling that my own weakness, my own inabilities, will find their complement, their strength, their courage, in a united presbytery.  Whoever touches one of my priests touches me as well!"
    Thousands of people gave him an ovation and he grew.
It was then that he crossed the threshold.  He entered.
Because there is baptism by water and baptism by blood.
And there is also baptism by the people.