The One and the

October 07, 2003


The One and the Many

Today was the One and the Many. Because we are running late we also fought the American Revolution. I linked the two through Continental Congress, even though I cut back on what I usually say about Congress and its actions to hold the colonies together.

We opened with a brief discussion of the midterm next week and with an apology from me for not getting the papers back. I have had them for two weeks - and that is too long. I just have trouble making myself grade more than a couple at a sitting. Even now, I am writing up class rather than grading papers.

We went on to the war. I laid out war aims for Congress and for Britain, focusing on Britain and military conquest v Congress and political goals. I argue that Congress wanted to 1, hold the colonies together, 2, maintain a viable field army, and 3, get European recognition.

I then talked about the army itself. I gave them the John Keegan take on 18th century armies, emphasizing the need for drill and practice and discipline. I argued that militia were not all that useful in the field, invaluable as political police - the Ed Countryman interpretation. I argued that the only reason that the colonists won was French intervention. Thus, the turning points of the war are Saratoga, which convinced France to come on in, and Valley Forge, where the Continental Army learned how to hold the field as a proper 18th-century Army. Once Congress had proved that it could fulfill the two basic functions of an 18th-century state (Raise taxes and field an army), France helped and French soldiers and the French navy won the war.

I had to leave things out, and what I cut out entirely was Ben Franklin goes to Paris. It is a wonderful story, but something had to go. So, no Franklin changing his modish fashionable clothing that he had worn in Philadelphia for homespun and a coonskin cap once he hit Paris, no mention that the coonskin cap was the badge of the Paxton Boys - Franklin's longstanding political enemies in Pennsylvania, and no mention of Franklin swimming in the Seine, romancing the ladies, or making use of his Philosophical connections. Perhaps some of those will sneak back into the French Revolution, but I doubt it. I always take too long on the French Revolution.

Instead, we went to State Constitutions. I ran them quickly through the constitution-writing frenzy of 1776, I summarized the early state constitutions, pointed out that they would be re-written in the 1780s, 1830s, 1850s, and then intermittently until the present, and gave them the 1776 PA constitution to read. I pointed out the difference between written and traditional constitutions, linked written constitutions to colonial charters and the form of the constitutions to the colonial tensions between governor and legislature, and then moved on to the contagion of liberty.

I organize my discussion of the contagion of liberty around the Quoak Walker case in Massachusetts. I read them article 1 of the 1776 VA Declaration of Right:

All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
I read that twice, then asked them if anything seemed odd. They missed it, so I read them Article 1 of the 1780 MA Constitution:
All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.
I read that twice and then asked what was different between the two statements.

The second time, they got it. Both sections jumped on the bit about "entering into a state of society" and both sections figured out that that language meant that Virginians could declare independence in the name of inherent rights while still denying the exercise of those rights to their slaves who, by definition, are legally dead and outside any organized society.

I then told them about Quoak Walker in MA suing his master for assault and battery, it going to the superior Court, and the justice relying on Article 1 of the Constitution to declare slavery inconsistent with the laws of MA. This was an obiter dicta, his decision was effective only on Walker himself because this was before organized judicial review, but his words were taken as the formulation of what most people thought, and slavery in MA faded away. The Massachusetts legislature had no idea that they were abolishing slavery when they adopted that language in 1780, but it turns out that Revolutionary ideals had radical consequences that the revolutionaries themselves had not expected. Liberty was contagious.

In both sections I then lectured briefly on contagious liberty and the change from Winthrop's City on a Hill spreading the religious commonwealth to all the land to the Revolutionary generation's Republic on a Hill spreading the republican commonwealth to all the lands. I included a brief rundown of other events: South American independence, US in world affairs, and brought it to the present by arguing that the underlying goal behind the US presence in Iraq is to settle the Middle East by bringing contagious liberty to the region. I pointed out that this was a noble endeavor, and a high-risk strategy, and that I hoped it worked. The very smart lady in the second section was grinning and looking skeptical. I think I would have fun talking politics with her.

That pretty much ran us out of time. Both sections had a brief discussion on whether the conflict of 1775-1783 was a Revolution or a Civil War, both sections leaned towards Revolution, and because Boyer et al do not use this question to frame their discussion of the Am Rev the way that Norton et al do, none of them worked out the connection. The smart single mom in the afternoon section was right on the verge of getting it, but I jumped the gun and explained it for them rather than working them through the connections. I probably should have taken the time and made them figure out that it was an trans-Atlantic civil war that had Revolutionary consequences and that was fought as a Civil War among colonists and among British Citizens from both sides of the Atlantic.

The last couple of minutes I used to run over the Northwest Ordinance. I hit Onuf's point that the key here was that new states would enter the Confederation as equals - Ohio with a couple of thousand score voters would be the equal of Virginia with hundreds of thousands of voters.

We are back on track, in large part because I cut Shays's rebellion and Franklin in Paris. Now I have to finish grading papers, write an exam, and grade all the stacked up homework. I am also a week or two behind on editing my dissertation AND I have job applications that need to go out on Friday. Yoicks!

I am glad I wrote this up - it is good for me to write up the class I just taught. It lets me see exactly what I covered and where I may have gone for too much coverage at the expense of understanding. I lecture too much sometimes.

Posted by Red Ted at October 7, 2003 04:18 AM | TrackBack