Pauline Maier and the Republican Revolution

FRTROne of the things that set Pauline Maier apart was the exuberance she brought to the work of history. That joyful zeal is charmingly expressed in the metaphor she used to evoke the intellectual atmosphere in which she wrote her dissertation and first book, From Resistance to Revolution (1972).[1] “In the heady days of the 1960s,” she recalled in 1991, a group of Bernard Bailyn’s graduate students shared the exciting “conviction” that “a great historical paradigm, an interpretation of the Revolution that had stood for most of the century, was collapsing like some great empire, and that another, equally powerful, was already coming into view” (v-vi). It was, indeed, a “‘revolution’ in historical understanding” (ix).

That “revolution” would come to be known as the “republican synthesis,” a body of scholarship that defined itself against the Progressive’s largely economic interpretations and that reinvigorated the study of the American Revolution by taking the revolutionaries’ ideas seriously. Taking their cue from the work of Caroline Robbins, Edmund Morgan, and Bailyn himself, a young cohort—including Maier, Gordon Wood, Jack Rakove, the late Michael Kammen, and others—excavated the mental world of revolutionary America. These scholars emphasized the significance of an eighteenth-century constellation of radical political ideas, which derived from English republican theorists of the seventeenth century. Above all, this Whig political philosophy hailed the virtue of a constitution that balanced the power of the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the people. The calibration was a fragile one, though, and any encroachment by one part upon the rights and liberties of another merited strenuous resistance.

When Bailyn and his students realized that this intellectual framework shaped how early Americans interpreted events and the political world around them, they dubbed it an “ideology.” Suddenly, colonial conspiracy theories and nervous eighteenth-century chatter about American enslavement at the hands of British tyrants seemed less like propaganda, as the Progressives had characterized them, and more like honest-to-god political stances. Maier called this set of ideas “Real Whig” ideology; others called it more simply “republicanism.” All agreed that this constellation somehow held the keys to understanding why early Americans declared independence and wrote a Constitution. But the precise details of that story became the subject of a debate that consumed much of field’s energy for decades, and that, in some corners, rages still.

Maier’s contribution in From Resistance to Revolution was to bring this ideological interpretation back down to the level of events—to show the ideas in action. The Whig tradition, Maier argued, legitimated resistance to imperial policies that many Americans considered oppressive. But it also dictated that those protests had to be orderly, restrained, and targeted against only those officials who had forfeited their authority through “unlawful” acts. Real Whigs considered themselves heirs to the ostensibly peaceful, consensual revolution of 1688; they “were obliged to be the most careful of revolutionaries” (42).

Therefore, beginning with the Stamp Act riots, leaders of colonial mobs sought to minimize violence and channel popular energies into protests that, in their scope and their aims, could be called legitimate. By the late 1760s, they were pursuing this goal through organized groups like the Sons of Liberty, nonimportation associations, local committees, conventions, and congresses. Sure, these groups were extralegal. But in their attempt to embody Whig “revolution principles,” they were also legalistic, claiming authority based upon the contractual consent of voluntary members, who in turn were held accountable for their actions. As Real Whig ideas led American radicals to implicate more and more of the British government—first the ministries, then Parliament, and finally the king himself—in the perceived conspiracy against their liberties, Maier argued, these groups “increasingly assumed the functions of civil government” (114). Nonimportation associations, for example, implemented due process—inspecting, judging, and punishing—and claimed to represent public opinion.

The revolutionaries would carry those experiences with them after 1775, when they became disillusioned with the British people as a whole, and into 1776, when Tom Paine convinced them that the British constitution wasn’t worth salvaging. After independence, to be sure, the old Sons of Liberty began to quarrel over vital questions of how to create a working republic. But much of the “revolution in constitutional forms,” Maier argued, had already occurred (272). The structures and habits of republican self-government in America emerged from both the ideology and the practice of colonial resistance.[2]

Forty-one years after its publication, From Resistance to Revolution remains, in many ways, the classic and still-current account of how American colonists moved, step by step, towards their decisive break with Britain. The book’s rigor and accessibility have clenched its position as the go-to guide for classroom lecturers and the general public alike. It would be difficult to overstate its significance to the august body of work on the origins of the American Revolution. So I won’t try. (Though I’d be glad if we did, together, in the comments section.) Rather, I’ll attempt something a bit weird: to highlight several aspects of the book’s enduring legacy by pointing to three of the ways in which people have critiqued it.

First, the matter of rhetoric and reality. Reviewing Maier’s book in the New York Times Book Review, Gordon Wood wondered, “Was it in fact a revolution by the rules, or did the Whig participants merely think it was?” By “describing events almost always as [the Whigs] perceived them,” Wood continued, Maier “continually runs the risk of confusing her views with those of the participants.”[3] Samuel Adams himself might as well have written this book!

There’s certainly something to this critique. And yet more than anything else, Wood’s complaint highlights the fact that Maier was more concerned with on-the-ground political processes than almost any other contributor to the ideological interpretation of the Revolution. At least she was describing experience and events. Many of Maier’s compatriots in the Bailyn shop, not least Wood himself, oftentimes wandered from political history into a frustratingly disembedded history of political philosophy. At the same time, however, Maier was far more attentive to political discourse than were those historians, such as Gary Nash and Jesse Lemisch, who interpreted the Revolution from the bottom-up.

The legacy I see here is twofold. First, Maier demonstrated just how much a scholar can do by writing a history of both ideas and events, in ways that seem to me to have inspired many of the questions and methods that drove the subsequent generation of New New Political Historians. That ever-elusive sweet spot—where ideas and action, process and perception, meet—was the source of Maier’s powerful argument about why the revolutionaries opted for republican self-government after independence, and about how they learned its ins and outs through the work of colonial resistance. There’s the second legacy on this front: Maier’s narrative stuck mainly to the decade before 1776, but her thesis connected the Revolution’s origins to its outcome. That’s an impressive argumentative span, and one that too few scholars attempt nowadays.[4] It stands as a model and a challenge to the next generation of historians of the American Revolution.

Critique number two is that British politics seem rather distant from Maier’s analysis. American Whigs react again and again to provocations from the metropole, but Maier never really pauses to analyze and explain that thrust of imperial policy. We get a British North American perspective and response, but little sense of what it all was a perspective on and a response to. To the extent that Maier’s driving question was Why was there an American Revolution?, she provides only half an answer, and so a full causal argument never quite comes together.[5]

That said, Maier’s scope of vision didn’t entirely stop at the water’s edge. She was attentive to transatlantic imperial resistance and radical reform movements—the “International Sons of Liberty,” as her sixth chapter labeled them, including Italian radical Pascal Paoli, Irish reformers, and John Wilkes and his Whig supporters in England. Between 1768 and 1772, Maier argued, all of these reformers suffered major setbacks, which “led American radicals to reassess successively the British ministry, the Parliament, and finally the Crown itself, until they came to doubt the possibility of maintaining freedom under British rule. . . . Through the failure of radicals abroad the colonists themselves were pushed, clearly if reluctantly, on the path toward revolution” (163). And here, again, critique melts into legacy. Maier’s tantalizing sketch of a transatlantic resistance movement pointed the way towards what is now an emerging reassessment of the global politics of the British Empire in crisis.[6]

Finally, a critique from the left. From Resistance to Revolution, of course, was written in the heat of the twentieth century’s greatest swell of radical protest movements. So when I first read the book, I cocked an eyebrow at her curious caveat: “I have emphasized here the radicals’ concern for order not because it fits current uneasiness about protest,” she wrote, “but because it is historically significant” (xxi). What kind of politics, I wondered, undergirded an historical argument in which middling and elite leaders restrain the “mob”—in which resistance plays out largely by the rules?

But after reading more of her work and seeing her in action at the seminar table, I soon became convinced that the question was misguided. As Gordon Wood recently wrote, Pauline Maier was “a historian’s historian,” relentlessly focused upon historical context, and more devoted to recovering an accurate past than a usable one.[7] Her example, in this regard, stands in my mind as her greatest scholarly legacy. From Resistance to Revolution exemplifies our craft. Maier followed the evidence and sought to explain it—period—even if it led to conclusions that jar with the political sensibilities of much of the modern profession. She herself said it best: “The challenge of history,” she wrote, “is one of surmounting the self and time, of discovering the surprising differentness of the past . . . . Perhaps that can be done only imperfectly and impermanently. But the effort is worth making, if only for the joy of it” (xiii).


[1] Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991 [orig. 1972]).

[2] From Resistance to Revolution emphasizes how ideology conditioned political action. In that regard, it makes for a nifty pairing with Tim Breen’s Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), which elaborates the ways in which political experience during the imperial crisis made Americans more receptive to radical Whig ideology.

[3] Gordon S. Wood, review of From Resistance to Revolution, New York Times Book Review, 21 May 1972.

[4] Maier actually made this last point herself in a recent assessment of the state of the field; the gap between colonial and revolutionary/early republic history was one of three “Disjunctions in Early American History,” Historically Speaking 6:4 (March/April 2005): 19-22.

Ooh! One more thing, on the matter of disagreements within the Bailyn shop. Maier’s argument that 1787 didn’t repudiate but rather codified the ideas of 1776 stands in sharp contrast to Wood’s argument in Creation of the American Republic. I won’t get into all the nitty gritty details here, but they amount to a deep-rooted disagreement about what was actually at stake in the American Revolution—a debate that, it seems to me, goes too often unrecognized in renderings of the historiographical landscape like Alfred F. Young and Gregory H. Nobles, Whose American Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding (New York: New York University Press, 2011). Maier succinctly outlined her disagreements with Wood in “A Pearl in a Gnarled Shell: Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic Reconsidered,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 44 (1987) 582-590.

[5] Maier’s preface framed this question this way: “When and why did the colonists reshape their views of the Mother Country and her once revered constitution?” (xvii).

[6] Much recent scholarship could be cited here, but I’m thinking particularly of Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s work and of Justin duRivage’s exciting new dissertation, “Taxing Empire: Political Economy and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, 1747-1776” (Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 2013).

[7] Gordon Wood, “Pauline Maier: In Memoriam,” American Political Thought 2:2 (fall 2013), vi.

15 comments on “Pauline Maier and the Republican Revolution

  1. Cory Young says:

    Well, you made me want to read the book, Michael.

    I am familiar with Maier’s Ratification, which I read a few years ago in an undergraduate course on the Revolution. I thoroughly enjoyed the book because of its “mystery-driven” methodology– Maier’s insistence on telling the story in real time. Thank you for introducing me to what sounds like an impressive work of history.

  2. Alec Rogers says:

    Thanks for that fascinating synopsis. The O’Shaughnessy work would certainly make a nice complement. I’d be interested in reading the duRivage dissertation if its accessible anywhere.

  3. This group of historians (Bailyn, Morgan, Wood, Maier, and a few others) have dominated the field for decades. Yet that, in itself, is a problem. Their works repeatedly cited themselves, and each other, as sources, as if their small group of scholars were the Revolution’s fountain of wisdom. Perhaps others have noticed this as well. In the footnotes of American Scripture, Maier cited her own, previous work ten times, and cited Bailyn six times. Gordon Wood’s Radicalism cites himself as a source seventeen times, Bailyn eighteen times and Maier ten times. In The Glorious Cause, Robert Middlekauff cited Morgan forty two times and Bailyn seventeen times. In Crucible of War, Fred Anderson cited himself fourteen times, Bailyn eight times, Morgan twenty nine times and Lawrence Henry Gipson one hundred sixty four times. To a layman, this incestuous trend shows a laziness in their research method, and allowing Gordon Wood to review Maier’s work, when they knew each other so well and so long, borders on the unethical. How could he possibly be unbiased when they studied together and worked two miles apart? Yet these historians are hailed as the leaders in the field when they are, basically, patting each other on the back knowing the praise would be reciprocated.

    • Michael Blaakman says:

      Thank you for the comment, Will. I see your point, but I have to strongly disagree with your characterization of such frequent “in-citing” as a problem. I interpret all those citations not as evidence of an overly incestuous field of scholarship, but rather as an illustration of the fact that all these historians are in conversation with each other. That’s what a citation is; it’s like the written equivalent of making eye contact during a spoken conversation. Seen in that light, your numbers aren’t really surprising, especially in books with literally hundreds of footnotes–the vast majority of which are devoted to primary sources that evince years of painstaking research. (Fred Anderson’s 164 references to Gipson are another story. But his purpose in that massive book was to *overturn* Gipson’s interpretation, not to mime it.)

      On the matter of both footnotes and reviews, one more thing to keep in mind is that the world of early American scholarship is surprisingly small. Historians meet and get to know each other at conferences and in archives; we network and build friendships with the very same people we debate, and whose work we review. I’d estimate that the majority of academic reviewers have at least met the author they’re evaluating. (And if they haven’t met them, they probably want to.)

      But it doesn’t follow that everybody is biased. People are not shy about their disagreements. Attend any academic historical conference–most of them are open to the public–and you’ll see what I mean. Or, for that matter, simply read Wood’s NYTBR piece on *From Resistance to Revolution,* or the short article by Maier that I cited in footnote 6. Do both of those essays include a bit of backslapping? Sure, but that’s one part collegiality and one part earnest praise of what a fellow scholar has achieved. The core of both of those pieces, though, is an acute critique of the other’s main interpretations.

      Now–all that said–I certainly agree that the study of the American Revolution is sorely in need of new ideas and fresh blood. It just wasn’t my purpose in this post to say so. Thankfully, such projects are in the works by dozens of historians. Some are out already (take a look at the work of Woody Holton, for example, or Max Edling). Others will appear on shelves in the coming years. I, like you, await them eagerly!

    • Roy Rogers says:

      I want to second Michael’s response and slightly expand upon it.

      There is a lot disagreement within the “Harvard circle” – particular between Maier and Wood-Bailyn in the later stages of their careers. Wood largely panned (while being polite) Maier’s “American Scripture” and in that patrician way of his accused its arguments of being unAmerican. This is an issue that I get into a bit in my upcoming piece of the book.

      Now, Wood himself is notoriously for self-citation but I don’t think Maier or Bailyn or Rakove suffer from that problem. In “American Scripture” Maier refrains from citing her own work except where it is directly applicable to her argument. Is an accomplished historian supposed to ignore their previous work when future projects touch upon it?

      As for Middlekauff book – it is a work of synthesis. It is not supposed to frequently cite the then-standard works?

      I love kicking around the “Harvard circle” and republicanism as much as any other neo-Progressive (Woody Holton is huge influence upon my understanding of the Revolution) but I feel that you are being a bit unfair here.

  4. Roy Rogers says:

    Thank you for your comment, Will. You are right that the Harvard circle “have dominated the field for decades.” This influence is just beginning to wane, thank goodness! As Michael notes, there is some really fresh perspectives out there that are just now beginning to get a fair hearing.

    Again, thanks for the comment & for reading! :)

  5. I’ll add a bit here, stating in advance my B.A. is in political science, not history.
    When an author says that “x happened” and cites their own work, or some other text of dubious merit, are we then supposed to track down the earlier work to find another source? Maier wrote (Scripture, p. 135) that the ideas of Locke. Milton and Sidney were known to colonists in Jefferson’s day through sermons and newspapers, then listed herself and Bailyn as proof. She also cited one sermon from May, 1776, which Jefferson could not have heard. I can’t accept the claim based on her word alone, or one sermon from one person. When John Ferling (Almost a Miracle) said John Adams “thirsted for glory,” and cites himself twice, I’m not going to bother looking up his other books. I’m going to assume he is making it up. David Hackett Fischer wrote of an incident at Drake’s Farm in one paragraph (Washington’s Crossing, p. 377-78) and condemned the British plundering Americans “with great violence,” then cited an obscure source from 1967. I looked it up; the 1967 source gave no other source. I have to assume the event never happened at all. If it did, the source would be better. Yet the vast majority of readers will simply assume the incident occured. When Wood (Radicalism, pp. 3 – 14) called the French “cringing peasants,” the British monarchy “superficial and hollow” and “all Englishmen” insubordinate, with nary a bit of evidence, how do we take anything he says seriously?
    Many stories that we repeat about the Revolution are based on laughable claims – like Prudence Wright’s all girl regiment capturing a Tory after Lexington.(Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride, p. 397) The story comes from a source published by the DAR 1899. Even Betsy Ross would think that story is fake. Yet Fischer is respected, so we assume the event happened. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. But if the author – even those of the caliber of Fischer, Maier or Wood – can’t come up with a source from the time, it has to be challenged.

    • Roy Rogers says:

      Will, thank you so much with your continued engagement. You’ll get to no guff from me about having a BA in Political-Science – I have a BS in the subject, myself.

      You give a lot examples here so I am going to need to break this down a bit.

      The Maier and Ferling examples seem like acceptable self-citation. Neither of their books are direct about the reception of Locke, Milton, and Sidney in colonial America or John Adams’s personality. Maier’s books is about the Declaration and Ferling’s about the Revolutionary War more broadly. If you want to know more about the reception history of liberalism and republicanism in colonial America, you’re going to have to engage with Bailyn and Maier’s work. Same goes for Adams’s personal psychology and reading Ferling’s biography of the man. You will find A LOT of primary sources in all of their cited works to bolster their arguments.

      No historical work – no matter how amazing or high quality – can engage with every possible topic under its purview. Indeed in my experience as a reader of history (from tween years to my current status a graduate student for 6+ years) the more a book tries to accomplish the lower its quality. That is not a hard and fast rule, of course, and others will disagree with me.

      Now as for Fischer’s possible factual errors, I can’t really speak to them. I am not an expert on the primary sources of the Trenton campaign or Paul Revere’s ride. In my experience, however, I have found that some factual errors are so long-standing that is difficult for even historians deep in the primary sources to dislodge them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

      Now as for Wood’s generalizations about the English and French you are 100 percent right to not trust them. “Radicalism” is a book that received a lot of criticism and flak from fellow historians for its broad, simplified, and schematic approach and interpretations. It doesn’t bother me in the least of you don’t take anything Wood writes seriously – you wouldn’t be alone in the historical community.

      More generally speaking – detailed history cannot exist without citing secondary works. You simply CANNOT no matter how much you try (and as someone researching/writing a dissertation, I say from personal experience) master every possible primary source on your subject. Trying to do so is a black hole – your project and analysis with never get done. Better to cut off an achievable slice and work as hard and diligently as you can on it.

      Now sometimes the secondary works you have to rely on are misguided and slightly (or totally) wrong. The hope is that the standards and rigor of the historical profession will cut down on this happening but it can’t, sad to say, be totally avoided. The best you can do is practice due diligence.

      Thank you again for your comments, Will. I hope you’ve found the Michael’s post helpful. Keep reading!

      • Jorge says:

        “It doesn’t bother me in the least of you don’t take anything Wood writes seriously”

        Isn’t this a bit strong?

        • R. B. Bernstein says:

          I confess that I find it a bit strong to spurn anything Gordon Wood writes. I still find value in his work, though I disagree with an increasingly celebratory tone. In the Maier v. Wood dispute, I am solidly on Pauline’s side, and not just because I had the honor of being a friend.

    • R. B. Bernstein says:

      I have never seen this problem in Maier’s work, and I reviewed both AMERICAN SCRIPTURE and RATIFICATION for H-LAW. I find two troubling aspects of your argument.

      First, historians often cite to their own work to provide references to extensive research in the earlier work substantiating the point made in the later work. I’ve checked Maier’s self-citations that you criticize, and they do provide extensive evidence for the points she seeks to make.

      Second, misreading a citation can get one into serious trouble. In your example from AMERICAN SCRIPTURE, Maier carefully pointed out in note 81 to page 135 (note appearing at page 271) that the sermon she cited, quoted, and discussed by Rev. Samuel West “stated with remarkable fidelity the ideas in this part of the Declaration of Independence, and before that document was written.” Her point was not that Jefferson was in any way influenced by — or borrowed from or deliberately echoed — West’s sermon, but rather that Jefferson’s point paralleled West’s point, which shows that the point or argument was in the proverbial air in the spring and summer of 1776. What, pray tell, is wrong with that?

      Maybe historians and political scientists do work differently, and use sources differently, but in my experience at least Pauline Maier was meticulous, careful, and industrious in her mining of primary sources; you can take her arguments to the bank and get a loan on them.

  6. Taylor Spence says:

    I must say I enjoyed this exchange! It seems to me to be exactly what a blog should be doing and as it was a conversation which personally interested me, I am thankful for the JUNTO!

  7. When you state that, “Maier called this set of ideas “Real Whig” ideology; others called it more simply “republicanism, ” are you or Maier asserting that “republicanism” and “Real Whig” ideology are the same?

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