Dedicated to Wyatt.

I’ve just finished Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History (highly recommended), and I decided to take a look at the Acknowledgments section following the text; I’m glad I did, or I would have missed this delightful passage, which I hereby share with you all:

I have primarily dedicated the book to Wyatt, who is the very best of dogs although woefully underappreciated by his masters, the Kelmans, who considered roasting him when snowed in and unable to get to a supermarket during the infamous winter of 2014–2015. But it would not look good to exclude them from the dedication after they have been the very best and most generous of friends to me. Despite Ari Kelman’s phobias against adverbs and the word “the,” he greatly improved this book by his close and careful reading of every chapter. Unfortunately, very few of his keen and funny comments can be repeated in public. Any persisting flaws in the book must therefore be his fault, so please send all complaints and corrections to him.

In the book’s introduction, I wanted to invoke a clever observation by the historian Sarah M. S. Pearsall. When apprised of this sequel to American Colonies, she suggested that the title should pay homage to Bruce Willis’s Die Hard and Die Harder films to become American Revolutions: Colonize Harder. Pearsall’s wit is fitting, for American Revolutions interprets the revolutionary era as accelerating colonial processes of change. But Ari made me take that out, for as everyone knows, he has no sense of humor.

I should add that my wife and I have more than once threatened to turn our cat Pushkin into slippers, so I have no standing to criticize the Kelmans on those grounds.

Comments

  1. To pile on the sequel humor, Revolutions is the name of the (terrible) culmination of the Matrix trilogy.

  2. “Die harder,” was only the tagline for Die Hard 2, not the title. They didn’t start playing around with the actual titles until later in the series. (Actually, all of the subsequent Die Hard film, except maybe the last, were originally separately projects that got stuck into the Die Hard series during development.)

  3. SFReader says:

    Reminds me:

    Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis. Papers from the Copenhagen Polis Centre 2, Stuttgart: Steiner 1995

    More Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis. Papers from the Copenhagen Polis Centre 3, Stuttgart: Steiner 1996

    Yet More Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis. Papers from the Copenhagen Polis Centre 4, Stuttgart: Steiner 1997

    Further Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis. Papers from the Copenhagen Polis Centre 5, Stuttgart: Steiner 2000

    Even More Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis. Papers from the Copenhagen Polis Centre 6, Stuttgart: Steiner 2002

    Once Again: Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis. Papers from the Copenhagen Polis Centre 7, Stuttgart: Steiner 2004

  4. SFReader says:

    Their imagination was apparently exhausted at this point and the CPCPapers 8 was titled simply “Return of the Polis”.

  5. AJP Crown says:

    The American attitude to slavery, the rights of the country’s indigenous peoples and the mass of problems caused by their subsequent behaviour on both those issues does make me wonder how & why they justify calling their war of independence a revolution. Rather than trying to compete with the French and Russians, and even without their war, they could instead be standing with Indians, Africans, Ireland, former Soviet states, Scotland (a bit) and other independently minded countries.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’ve always supposed (though the Americans can speak for themselves) that it’s because they conceptualise it not so much as a breaking away from a colonial imperial power but as overthrowing a tyrannical monarchy in order to set up a republic, i.e. the change is thought of as beginning from a Canada-like starting point, not an Ireland-like one. Hence all the no-taxation-without-representation stuff than bulks so large in the traditional story.

    There’s no guarantee that a (pukka) revolution to set up a republic will do anything at all for minorities: if anything, as the modern idea of a republic is closely linked with the idea of a linguistically and culturally homogenised State, it’s pretty likely to have the opposite effect. Kings and emperors stand to gain from being the only real unifying factor in their disparate realms; modern republics need to justify themselves with myths of nationhood, which may be more or less toxic as the case may be: in the optimal case, they can even inspire people to behave better than they might otherwise have done, as Americans have done on numerous occasions when they have reminded themselves that their national myth entails thinking it self-evident that all men are created equal.

  7. And in fact, the soi-disant American Revolution was explicitly directed at keeping the freedom to oppress Indians and slaves that the wicked Brits were trying to deny them. The taxation stuff was irritating but not decisive (as shown by the fact that the colonists rejected an offer to rescind it); what was intolerable was not being able to steal land and use slave labor to their hearts’ content. (That is a major focus of the book.) The more I read about it, the more I think the whole revolt was a bad idea.

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    “The Polis Strikes Back”?

  9. I guess it’s too late for “Polis 2: Electric Boogaloo”? Unless it’s part of a series of prequels.

  10. SFReader says:

    The more I read about it, the more I think the whole revolt was a bad idea.

    “Slaveholders’ treasonous mutiny” (1775,1835,1861)

  11. SFReader says:

    “The Polis Strikes Back”?

    Polis harder!

  12. Rodger C says:

    IMO if the revolution hadn’t happened, the frontier would eventually have seceded from the coast and continued its expansion westward.

  13. Probably, but at least it wouldn’t have been so powerful.

  14. I told my black cat that he would eventually become a muff. Turns out I was a bluffer.

  15. Tell Me Why, More Tell Me Why, Still More Tell Me Why, Lots More Tell Me Why, Another Tell Me Why

  16. John Cowan says:

    And in fact, the soi-disant American Revolution was explicitly directed at keeping the freedom to oppress Indians and slaves that the wicked Brits were trying to deny them.

    Not so simple, quite apart from the fact that the Revolution had many, many motives: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” To begin with, the Proclamation of 1763 forbidding settlement beyond the line was by no means an acknowledgement of Indian sovereignty, though it has been treated as such in Canada in modern times. It was simply establishing a royal monopoly over the purchase of Indian lands, which had always been in the hands of the settlers. In that way, eventual British takeover of the whole continent (which was always contemplated) could be conducted in an orderly manner (as indeed happened in Canada) rather than helter-skelter. Without the Revolution, there would have been no Wild West, but Indians would still have wound up in reserves on the poorest land on the continent, and if the U.S. is powerful, British North America would have been, if anything, more so.

    As for slavery, both sides were willing to free slaves that fought for them, and if the British mostly kept that promise, they also evacuated hundreds of planters with all their slaves to offshore colonies.

  17. Not so simple

    I didn’t say it was simple, but I prefer to emphasize the side that is generally overlooked by American worshipers of the Founding Fathers. I also didn’t say the Proclamation of 1763 was an acknowledgement of Indian sovereignty, I said the Brits were restricting the colonists’ ability to steal Indian lands (and murder Indians as seemed useful), which is true.

  18. John Cowan says:

    But misleading on at least two counts, I think.

    Since I haven’t mentioned him before here, I’ll mention the Town Burner now, a man who, “great and good as he was, must not be supposed to be entirely perfect” (Boswell on Johnson).

  19. I’m not sure what your point is, since Washington’s brutal policy towards the Indians is part and parcel of what I’m talking about. He and his Federalist cronies also did their best to suppress smallholders and other poor folks (debtors) and weight the government in favor of the rich (creditors).

  20. J.W. Brewer says:

    So if our forefathers had not imprudently overthrown the authority of the Crown with force and arms, the inland indigenes of North America would have ended up in the not-generally-thought-enviable position of the inland indigenes of Australia? Surely post-1776 British policy in other parts of their empire is more predictive of the what-if than assuming that pre-1776 policy would be continued indefinitely under changed circumstances.

  21. Nobody knows what the situation would have been; history is not predictable. By and large the inland indigenes opposed the Revolution, and I presume they knew their best interests as well as anyone.

  22. J.W. Brewer says:

    Sure. The status quo British policy was probably better for the indigenes than the immediately-foreseeable US policy, and I’m not saying that they should have taken no position just because the status quo British policy was highly likely to be unsustainable in the long run. But the massive demographic imbalance was already there. By 1790 there were over 3 million white settlers (leaving out the slaves and free blacks) east of the Appalachians and probably (this is where estimates vary, of course, since it wasn’t like the Census Bureau was deployed) not much more than 500,000 indigenes in the present “Lower 48” anywhere in between the western side of the Appalachians all the way to the Pacific Coast. That was not a stable equilibrium, given that the economy of the east-of-the-Appalachians population was still agriculture oriented so its growth plans necessarily involved getting more fertile acreage for an expanding population to farm rather than just fast-forwarding 200 years, moving into high-rise condos, and becoming software developers. (Similarly, Europe’s economy had not shifted to a point where shipping excess population off to some other continent to find new farmland was no longer an important way to avoid Malthusian disaster.) Even if someone in London had wanted to manage the situation while being fair to all interests rather than reflexively siding with the American whites, it was likely to become unmanageable regardless. Perhaps “nature abhors a vacuum” is a less high-falutin’ way to put it than “manifest destiny.”

  23. John Cowan says:

    I’m not sure what your point is

    I wouldn’t want you to mistake me for a Founding-Father-worshipper, despite this encomium.

    status quo British policy

    Precisely what the Proclamation was not: the status quo policy was in fact the American settler policy. The Proclamation, like the Declaratory Act of the same year, was the truly revolutionary position: google for [“Declaratory Act” site:languagehat.com] to see what I’ve had to say about it.

  24. Our previous cat was scheduled to be turned into a sporran, but when the time came we were not up to it.

  25. I don’t think it’s possible to speak of an “American attitude to slavery” that is pro-slavery.

    Vermont abolished slavery in 1777, right at the start of this supposedly conservative and anti-black “revolution that wasn’t a revolution.” Pennsylvania’s more gradual abolition occurred in 1780. Instant liberty came to blacks in Massachusetts in 1783. The elites of these places then fought a running battle against the institution for three generations and, to coin a phrase, roughly 4 score and 7 years. They insisted the importation be ended, and it was, at the earliest possible date under the compromise constitution.

    The British only abolished the slave trade at that point because their largest customer was gone.

    Britain didn’t end slavery in any of its colonies for decades after the American Revolution.

    Far beyond that, it’s hard for me to understand why anyone would think that any of the subsequent more liberal developments in France or the British Empire, and gradually in much of the rest of Europe, would have happened without the American Revolution and its principles. France and Britain were not liberal republics in ovo in the mid 1700s. To quote from Wiki, The Reform Act of 1832 extended the vote to landed middle class men, at a point when universal male suffrage, black and white, had been practiced for a couple generations in parts of the northern US.

    Yes, the American Revolution was a different revolution in different colonies. But its manifestation and consequences in the non-slave states were among the most earth-shaking developments of the entire last millennium.

  26. As to the Crown’s attitude towards its Native allies, here are the words of Lord Shelburne, who led the British government at the time:

    >”In the present treaty with America, the Indian nations were not abandoned to their enemies; they were remitted to the care of neighbours.”

    Does anyone believe a man that cynical would have done any more to support natives if the colonists were within his realm than he did when they were his enemies? Hard to see how or why. He had every interest in supporting the natives in 1783, as indeed in a very cynical way other British governments would do through 1814.

    Had the colonists continued in the Empire, they would have been a prime constituency. There’s no reason to think British governments would have spent any capital on protecting natives under that counterfactual.

    In fact, the cynicism of British policy was a major factor in triggering the brutal American approach for decades. Without Tecumseh’s uprising and the Creek War of 1812, instigated by the British, it’s possible to imagine a different outcome in which the so-called “Middle Ground” held.

    None of this justifies American brutality. But it certainly explains it in historical terms. It was a predictable outcome of the British manipulating their “allies” into fighting British battles.

  27. None of this justifies American brutality. But it certainly explains it in historical terms. It was a predictable outcome of the British manipulating their “allies” into fighting British battles.

    It doesn’t need explaining in historical terms; it was a predictable outcome of human nature. They have land we want, we’re stronger than they are, we’ll take it and kill them if they object. There was no path to a beautiful future for the Indians, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t better and worse paths, and the one the Revolution stuck them with was about as bad as it could be.

  28. Of course it needs a historical explanation. Human nature is amenable to a billion outcomes There are situations everywhere at all times in which the strong do not take the land of the weak and kill them when they complain.

    This is rarely so when the weak attack the strong militarily.

    The Indian wars of 1812 were morally indefensible for the British instigators and colossally bad judgment from the Red Sticks and Tecumseh. The immediate outcome was the opening of land in Indiana, Illinois, Alabama and Mississippi, and the longer term outcome was the catastrophe of the 1830s.

    Congressional opposition to Jackson’s policy of removal was strong. It’s easy to see another route, without the iron will of Jackson, forged in those very Creek Wars. There are still very few Supreme Court decisions that have met with outright defiance. Nothing is attributable simply to human nature. These are contingent historical outcomes.

  29. John Cowan says:

    Our previous cat was scheduled to be turned into a sporran, but when the time came we were not up to it.

    “Touch not the cat but [without] a glove.”

    They have land we want, we’re stronger than they are, we’ll take it and kill them if they object.

    Which is why New York and Pennsylvania divided New Jersey between them. Consider also the Spanish-Canadian War of 1995 (over fishing rights) and the massive territorial aggrandizement in progress throughout Europe since 1989.

  30. SFReader says:

    Don’t forget “making an offer they can’t refuse”.

    Louisiana, Florida and Alaska were acquired by this method.

  31. Which is why New York and Pennsylvania divided New Jersey between them. Consider also the Spanish-Canadian War of 1995 (over fishing rights) and the massive territorial aggrandizement in progress throughout Europe since 1989.

    I thought it was clear that my “they” referred to “lesser breeds without the Law,” with “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Since it apparently wasn’t, I’ll make it explicit. Gentlemen can, of course, always settle matters like gentlemen.

  32. So explain why the Supreme Court ruled against removal, why so many congressman were up in arms about it? It’s not a simple matter of “of course they’re lesser breeds.”

    At least you seem to have ceded the point about slavery, where it’s clear the American republic did much better than the British empire, to the point of slaughtering hundreds of thousands of “gentlemen” on behalf of “lesser breeds.”

  33. I haven’t ceded any points. I personally don’t believe those hundreds of thousands would have been as likely to be slaughtered if the US hadn’t broken away. It is, of course, impossible to prove either way, and you’re welcome to your contrary convictions. To my mind, the best summary of American history is by Brother D and Collective Effort:

    America was built, understand
    By stolen labor on stolen land.

  34. John Cowan says:

    Louisiana, Florida and Alaska were acquired by this method.

    Not at all. All three were obtained at ridiculously low prices from the respective European powers, for whom they were worth little or nothing. All figures below are in current dollars or nearly so.

    The Americans were worried that New Orleans in French hands might become a chokepoint for American river commerce. They were prepared to pay $400bn for just New Orleans and the immediately surrounding area, to make sure it wouldn’t. Napoleon’s representatives counter-offered the whole territory of 2 million square kilometers (including much of East Florida) for $600bn, about two-thirds of it in debt cancellation. Napoleon had concluded that without Haiti (which he had failed to recapture from the revolutionary government), Lousiana was basically worthless. The Americans took the deal.

    The rest of East Florida was taken by slow invasion, like Texas, but West Florida was almost a gift: the U.S. merely had to pay the Spanish Crown’s debts to settlers.

    Alaska was sold with the fear that the Americans might seize it, but both Russians and Americans were far more worried about a British seizure, so transferring it to a country that could better defend it served the interests of both nations. The cost was again desultory: 1.5 million square kilometers for $105 million, complete with the (then completely unknown) gold reserves.

    “lesser breeds without the Law”

    That happens to refer, in its original context, to Russia and Germany, not to the “new-caught sullen peoples” (who were specifically the Filipinos) and other imperial subject races.

    slaughtering hundreds of thousands of “gentlemen”

    The Confederate Army, not the Indians. I think, however, that if slavery had been abolished in the British Empire, the Confederacy would have seceded nevertheless.

  35. SFReader says:

    Not at all. All three were obtained at ridiculously low prices

    Yep, standard M.O. for mafia business. Make them an offer they can’t refuse and buy the asset at ridiculously low prices.

    But even Don Corleone wouldn’t go blaming the sellers themselves for the low prices (‘they were so stupid they didn’t realize how much it was actually worth’).

  36. John Cowan says:

    Yep, standard M.O. for mafia business. Make them an offer they can’t refuse and buy the asset at ridiculously low prices.

    Absurd. What the hell did the just-barely-created U.S.-east-of-the-Mississippi have to threaten Napoleonic France with in 1803? We were no military powerhouse, far from it. This was even before the Monroe Doctrine (“hands off the New World”) of 1823, and even that didn’t extend to existing European colonies. The main point of the Doctrine was to avoid replays of the Seven Years’ War, when a European war for European motives involved an American front. Macaulay on Frederick the Great: “The evils produced by his wickedness were felt in lands where the name of Prussia was unknown; and, in order that he might rob a neighbour [Maria Theresa of Austria] whom he had promised to defend, black men fought on the coast of Coromandel [southeastern India], and red men scalped each other by the Great Lakes of North America.” Indeed, though wars have been fought in the New World since 1823, they have been internal wars: there have been no such American fronts.

    But even Don Corleone wouldn’t go blaming the sellers themselves for the low prices (‘they were so stupid they didn’t realize how much it was actually worth’).

    The whole essence of honest trade is that your trash is my treasure. To the European powers, North American land was indeed trash: an economic and military bog they were better off out of. As I pointed out, you have the strongest case in Alaska, but it still isn’t that strong.

  37. Yvy tyvy says:

    “Slaveholders’ treasonous mutiny” (1775,1835,1861)

    “This country was founded by slave owners who wanted to be free.”—George Carlin

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