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Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution

Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution

Michal Jan Rozbicki
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 304
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wrhw7
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    Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution
    Book Description:

    In his new book, Michal Jan Rozbicki undertakes to bridge the gap between the political and the cultural histories of the American Revolution. Through a careful examination of liberty as both the ideological axis and the central metaphor of the age, he is able to offer a fresh model for interpreting the Revolution. By establishing systemic linkages between the histories of the free and the unfree, and between the factual and the symbolic, this framework points to a fundamental reassessment of the ways we think about the American Founding.

    Rozbicki moves beyond the two dominant interpretations of Revolutionary liberty-one assuming the Founders invested it with a modern meaning that has in essence continued to the present day, the other highlighting its apparent betrayal by their commitment to inequality. Through a consistent focus on the interplay between culture and power, Rozbicki demonstrates that liberty existed as an intricate fusion of political practices and symbolic forms. His deeply historicized reconstruction of its contemporary meanings makes it clear that liberty was still understood as a set of privileges distributed according to social rank rather than a universal right. In fact, it was because the Founders considered this assumption self-evident that they felt confident in publicizing a highly liberal, symbolic narrative of equal liberty to represent the Revolutionary endeavor. The uncontainable success of this narrative went far beyond the circumstances that gave birth to it because it put new cultural capital-a conceptual arsenal of rights and freedoms-at the disposal of ordinary people as well as political factions competing for their support, providing priceless legitimacy to all those who would insist that its nominal inclusiveness include them in fact.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3154-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    This book is not a history of liberty in the age of the American Revolution. It is a bookaboutthe history of liberty in the age of the American Revolution. It is less concerned with constitutional issues, jurisprudence, and philosophical theories (which already have a very large literature), and more with extending our knowledge about the various modes of liberty’s existence in the minds and experiences of eighteenth-century actors. It looks not only at what we know, but at how we know what we know. The intention is to recover the contemporary meaning of liberty—the core concept of...

  5. 1 A Critique of Self-Evident Liberty
    (pp. 17-33)

    If liberty was the conceptual axis of the ideology of the American Founding, it was also its dominant metaphor. The overlapping of the two has diverted our attention from the fact that both were political and cultural instruments rather than objective descriptions of the essence of the Revolution. Patriot speeches, constitutional debates, and sermons on liberty were more often depictions of ideal models than measured representations of the Revolutionary process, but modern commentators often make no clear distinction between the two.

    A necessary point of departure in reconstructing the eighteenth-century American sense of liberty must be a realization that freedom...

  6. 2 British Legacies
    (pp. 34-55)

    The historical genesis of early modern British liberty was inseparably tied to privilege, and American liberty as formulated and understood by the Founders was part of this blueprint. Acknowledging this more fully would bring about profound historiographical consequences. First of all, it would make clear that the widespread acceptance of various forms of unfreedom (including even slavery) by eighteenth-century advocates of liberty in the British world was neither an aberration nor an exception.¹ What these advocates were saying was not antithetical to all inequality and exclusion. In fact, claiming allegiance to the liberty of the people effectively enabled the claimers...

  7. 3 The Transmission of Restricted Liberty to Colonial America
    (pp. 56-77)

    It has long been a commonplace that late colonial American society was less structured than the mother country. This undisputed fact is often flanked by a belief that an order of ranks had never meant much to the provincials, and that “Americans, conscious that they lacked the extremes of wealth characteristic of older European countries, generally accepted equality as a characteristic of their society and of the governments they were founding.”¹ There is much evidence, however, that points in the opposite direction, revealing a persistent quest to reproduce at least some of the major distinctions present in the mother country....

  8. 4 The Revolution
    (pp. 78-131)

    The classical argument in American historiography has long been that the old signification of liberty was renounced during the Revolution and replaced by a much more universal and socially progressive understanding, reflected in the language of the Declaration of Independence. The inference is that such a modern meaning should be used as a criterion of interpretation. Hence, a Thomas Paine would appear not so much as an individual ahead of his time but as someone who simply complied with the essence of the Founders’ new sense of liberty, while a John Adams with his Federalist views of social hierarchy would...

  9. 5 The Sway of Symbolic Power
    (pp. 132-162)

    Before asking why the Founders did not implement the system of universalist liberty they so enthusiastically embraced in their rhetoric, we should inquire into what caused their enthusiasm in the first place. What did the challenge of devising a new, republican state as an empire of liberty mean to them? When viewed from a cultural rather than political or constitutional angle, what comes through most clearly is that they found the whole project exciting not because of its egalitarian implications, but because it bestowed new authority on them, an authority beyond anything they had experienced earlier. They had always expected...

  10. 6 Usurpers and Dupes: The Backlash
    (pp. 163-222)

    The two decades following Independence were a laboratory where the Revolutionary conceptual package was tested. The environment had changed; justifying the war and the Patriot cause gave way to the practice of governing. At the same time, various groups began to voice their grievances in terms of the new language of rights popularized by the Revolution. This caused a good deal of friction with the new leaders, who were beginning to have second thoughts about the growing involvement of ordinary people. The tensions soon turned into a struggle over the meaning of new, republican liberty. The upper ranks increasingly worried...

  11. Conclusion: Liberty and the Web of Culture
    (pp. 223-238)

    There is a distinct strain of wishful thinking that haunts the historiography on Revolutionary liberty. Its presence is noticeable in studies of all methodological and ideological orientations. We, as the investigating culture, largely select the questions we ask of the past from our own lists of what is “natural,” “just,” and “up to standard.” For many, it is already intellectually discomforting to realize that the eighteenth-century men and women involved in the struggle for liberty had lists of priorities dramatically different from ours. But it is almost painful to discover that inequality was often desirable and carried a positive value,...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 239-262)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 263-280)
  14. Index
    (pp. 281-288)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 289-290)