The New Old Revolutionaries

It’s often said that we tell old stories to get new ones, a truth self-evident in my favorite of Pauline Maier’s many works, The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (1980). And everything I admire about her as a scholar rolls in with the first lines of that barefaced preface: “Let me confess at the outset that this book, though it answers some questions of the sort historians are trained to ask, has also been—and was meant from the outset to be—a personal adventure. I wanted to know better what it was to be an American of the late eighteenth century and to live through the American Revolution” (xiii). Maier’s prosopography of five men and their “worlds,” accentuated by a thoughtful “interlude” on the rigors of political life in the colonies, marked a change in how historians used individual biographies to retell the Revolution to post-bicentennial Americans. First given as a series of lectures at New York University in 1976, the essays gather a fairly random matrix of people for a group shot of colonial life: Samuel Adams, Isaac Sears, Dr. Thomas Young, Richard Henry Lee, and Charles Carroll. Few had appeared in solo biographies, and if they did, it was often in fairly dim light. In fewer than 300 pages, Maier promised to deliver the story of “not just why Americans made the Revolution, but what the Revolution did to them.” How to get at it?

Maier reengineered her methodology to suit. Selecting biographical subjects, she believed, meant pushing beyond the founders and broadening regional representation. “And then I adopted a method of proceeding by opposites,” Maier wrote. “That is, once I felt I had ‘explained’ a person, I sought out someone different and even contradictory in character to explore the outer limits of my subject” (xviii). Yankee Adams begat Manhattan entrepreneur Sears, then  a doctor, a Southern aristocrat, and a Catholic Federalist filled out the odd cohort. If not always supplying a true counterweight, this approach of leveraging opposites gave Maier plenty of comparative grist by  which to consolidate political theory among sharply contrasting actors. Not all of Maier’s reviewers bought in to the approach. Proving once again how revolutionary scholarship mirrors changing forces at work in American culture, some academic critics lamented the book’s lack of a unifying theme, while the popular press mustered praise. Newsday’s blurb aimed Reagan-era readers at the book that “offers valuable insights into what divergent forces work to make a revolutionary.” The New Yorker took a more measured view: “Mrs. Maier makes her subjects live, and also makes the American Revolution seem inevitable.” In The New York Times, John Leonard sighed: “It would be nice, especially in Presidential election years, if we obliged ourselves to reinvent our own Revolution, to imagine it all over again and recover some sense of its daring and ingenuity.”

From her preface, Maier certainly seemed ready to dare all.  Then the subtitle’s bold claim—an age renamed for a surprisingly undersung Adams—confidently set the tone. To lead off her group, she (temporarily) de-centered one Adams (John) and restored another (Samuel). But just as the first three subjects seem to have established a clear, driving vision of the republic for us to cheer on, we are plunged into the confusion of the times. At the book’s heart lies a remarkable set of letters exchanged between N.H. delegate Josiah and Mary Bartlett of Kingston, N.H., from 1775 to 1778. Splayed in uneven columns of blank verse across the page, the Bartletts’ letters jolt the reader, both visually and intellectually. The unvarnished presentation of a (partial) primary source, with complementary analysis wrapped around it, has a certain, well, homespun charm. Wisely, Maier seized this opportunity to remind the reader that revolutionary thought did not happen outside of the colonists’ mundane or personal experience, but during and because of it. To wit: Josiah whinges about Philadelphia’s cold, suffers through smallpox inoculation, and hopes for “a new form of government;” Mary frets over the children and farm. “I belive there will not be much Cyder made this year / however I hope and trust we Shall Be Provided for / as we have Been in times Past,” Mary writes to her husband. “Caried through many trials and Difficulties / Beyond Expectation” (155). Here, I think, a sentimentalist may have faltered. But rather than nudge you in the ribs with a “revolutionaries, they’re just like us” moment, Maier swiftly segued into another “opposite,” Virginia’s aristocratic Lee.

With Old Revolutionaries, then, Maier managed to convey more than a standard-issue struggle for Whig-generated notions of liberty. Plenty of this momentum seems rooted in daring to push herself off-balance a bit, as she moves from chapter to chapter. The payoff was noticeable. She brought (then) lesser-known figures like Carroll to light, and deftly illustrated the political and cultural webs of colonial life, in all their peculiar glory (for which see also Maier’s excellent 1985 article, “The Pope at Harvard: The Dudleian Lectures, Anti-Catholicism, and the Politics of Protestantism,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Third Series 97 (1985): 16-41. In her final chapter synthesizing the revolutionary politics that soldered these men together, Maier resisted over-sympathizing with her Old Revolutionaries. Josiah recovers his home (and cider), yes, but he remains largely lost to history. “The Revolution threatened them with a different fate—of being stranded in time, marked by their colonial origins and seeming hopelessly old-fashioned in the new-formed world that they had introduced, until they lost credit even for founding the republic to younger men who built upon their achievement,” she observed (279). This, Maier reminds us, is how revolutions work, using (and using up) revolutionaries. What, I wonder, did her 1980’s readers, looking back on postwar revolutions in political and civil rights, make of this historical view?

In this roundtable’s tradition, I want to share a personal reminiscence of Pauline Maier, who tirelessly supported the Massachusetts Historical Society and championed the Adams Papers editorial project. I remember when Ratification came out, standing with the rapt crowd that pressed the walls of our Boylston Street reading room. Given the magnitude of subject and scholar, we didn’t know what to expect. Maier stood up, looped her arms over the walnut lectern, tipped her gaze forward, and simply began to tell a story—one where the clerks were every bit as vital as the constitution they produced.  She was a real storyteller. No notes, no Powerpoint, no assists. Instead, she expertly led us on a winding expedition through the narrative’s main roads and byways, with an occasional pause to introduce a delegate she thought we’d like to “know better,” or to chuckle over the eighteenth-century-ness of it all. To our delight, we learned that Pauline Maier in person was a great deal like Pauline Maier on the page: warm, witty, knowledgeable, and so curious for another “personal adventure” to share.


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