Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Susan Myra Kingsbury and The Records of the Virginia Company of London


For more than a century, Susan Myra Kingsbury has been a major figure in the historiography of early colonial Virginia. Her edition of The Records of the Virginia Company of London published between 1906 and 1935 offers an essential foundation for all subsequent studies of the early years of the first permanent English settlement in North America. The works published last year (2019) to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Virginia Assembly and the almost simultaneous arrival of the first African slaves inevitably drew on her volumes.

Susan Kingsbury was born in San Pablo, California in 1870 and was educated in that State before becoming a teacher at Lowell high School in San Francisco from 1892 to 1900. Subsequently, she went to Columbia University in New York to study colonial economic history.

Whilst a student there, she travelled to England to collect documentary material for her Ph.D. thesis entitled An Introduction to the Records of the Virginia Company of London for which she was awarded her doctorate in 1905. Thereafter, her career took her into posts in industrial and technical education, economics and social work. She retired as Professor of Social Economy at Bryn Mawr College in 1936 and died at the age of 79 in November, 1949.

Unfortunately, no copy of her thesis appears to be available on-line at present. However, given its length at just over two hundred pages, it is likely that it was identical to the work published by the Government Printing Office in 1905 entitled, An Introduction to Records of the Virginia Company of London with a Bibliographical List of the Extant Documents.

It was produced with a foreword by Herbert Putnam, the Librarian of Congress, praising her work and the counsel of her adviser, Professor Herbert L. Osgood of Columbia University. A year later, when the first two volumes of The Records of the Virginia Company of London edited by S.M.Kingsbury (and containing the Court Book of the company from 1619 to 1624) were published, Herbert Putnam and Herbert L. Osgood again provided prefatory remarks. The text of Dr Kingsbury’s introduction was identical to that of 1905 (and probably to that of her thesis as well). 

The extensive list of documents she provided for the company and colony from just before 1609 also appears to be identical to that published in Volumes 3 and 4 of The Records of the Virginia Company of London which appeared in 1933 and 1935 respectively. A handful of emendations were made to include material from the proceedings of the Privy Council relating to Virginia and to note that one or two documents could no longer be traced. Some material, which had come to light since 1905-1906 and which had been published elsewhere, e.g. in the Sackville Papers before 1623, was omitted. But, to a very large extent, all four volumes edited by Susan Kingsbury reflected work she had done by 1905.

This coverage of the extant archives was not, however, complete. She had reproduced only seventy eight of the documents relating to Virginia from the Ferrar Papers held in Magdalene College, Cambridge. As David Ransome’s more recent work has shown, there were five hundred and fifteen such documents in that collection. Similarly but on a much smaller scale, her assumption that the colonial papers of the Duke of Manchester then held in the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, London constituted the entire archive of Sir Nathaniel Rich and the 2nd Earl of Warwick was also mistaken. 

There were and are scattered pieces of evidence related to Virginia’s colonisation still to be found elsewhere in English archives. When Wesley Frank Craven composed his study of The Dissolution of the Virginia Company (published in 1932), he paid a thoroughly well-deserved tribute to Susan Kingsbury’s invaluable edition of the company’s records. He was right to do so as later historians would wholeheartedly agree but the hunt for supplementary sources still.

Christopher Thompson    29th June, 2020

Friday, 26 June 2020

Michael Mendle, ed. The Putney Debates of 1647: The Army, the Levellers, and the English State. Cambridge University Press, 2001. xii + 297 pp. + 1 illus. $64.95. Review by Keith Livesey


"I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first, by his own consent, to put himself under that government".

Colonel Rainborowe

"We were not a mere mercenary army, hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth and conjured, by the several Declarations of Parliament, to the defence of our own and the people's just rights, and liberties".

Towards the end of 1647 with King Charles, I heavily defeated in a bitter civil war, a group of New Model Army officers and soldiers met at St. Mary's parish church, near the Thames, at Putney Bridge, southwest London.

The extraordinary discussion that took place at that church has been examined and then fought over by historians for decades if not centuries. At the time little was known of this debate. Very few of the news broadsheets mentioned the historic debate. 

Although the debate was recorded by William Clarke using shorthand, his documents lay dormant for over 243 years. They were found by a librarian at Worcester College Oxford who told the historian Charles Firth and the rest is history.

The discovery of these documents has been called a "serendipitous find" and has led to a significant amount of historiography surrounding the events at Putney. It is strange given the extraordinary radical nature of the debates that most of this historiography has been dominated by a set of conservative/revisionist historians. The collection of essays that came out of a conference held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1997, the 350th anniversary of the debates continues this conservative historiographical stranglehold.

One such contributor Blair Worden said it was "fitting that the 350th anniversary was celebrated in two places: in Putney Church, with speeches by Christopher Hill and Tony Benn, representatives of the tradition that has looked east to Moscow; and, in the conference from which this book has emerged, in Washington, the capital of the free world".[1]

It is clear that the editor, Michael Mendle was mindful of the extremely conservative and unified nature of the collection of essay writers, so much so that he issued a strange declaration that I have not seen anywhere else: "Those that write here have no party line to follow are adherents of no single interpretive school, and perhaps most notably, span several scholarly generations".[2]

It is, of course palpably not true. Two themes run through the book. Theme one is to play down the influence of the Levellers, and theme two is to oppose a Marxist analysis of the English bourgeois revolution. The Putney debates started on October 28th 1647. A Meeting of the army's General Council of the Parliament's New Model Army met to discuss the state of the revolution and more specifically the Levellers document The Agreement of the People and the more conservative document The Heads of Proposals.

According to Wikipedia the Agreement was produced by "civilian Levellers or agitators and called for regular, two-yearly Parliaments and equal distribution of MPs' seats by several inhabitants. It guaranteed freedom of conscience, indemnity for Parliamentarian soldiers and equality before the law".

A Counter document the Heads of Proposals was issued by the Grandees. A much more moderate document. "Heads of Proposals" was the document to be adopted later on by the Cromwell's government. It recommended a written constitution and led to Cromwell being given powers that bordered on a dictatorship. Oliver Cromwell came to the Putney debates in 1647 from a position of considerable political and military strength. Although the fact that he still needed to invite radical elements within the army to the Putney Debates meant that he and his general's position of power had been far from consolidated.

Cromwell was well aware that the invitation of civilian Levellers meant that the discussion held at Putney would have a resonance far beyond the walls of Putney church. How much Cromwell was aware of the growing radicalisation of his army is open to conjecture. To what extent Cromwell read the volumes of letters sent to him from the various radical groups is again hard to fathom. But even this conservative of men would have least noted with alarm the growing influence of radical groups such as the Levellers and Fifth Monarchists. After all one of his top general's Thomas Harrison was a Fifth Monarchist supporter and shared similar religious and political positions with other radicals. Cromwell also up until Putney had a reasonably close social and political relationship with one of the Leaders of the Leveller's John Lilburne.

In the months leading up to Putney Cromwell and his generals faced a growing threat to their leadership. They faced a two-pronged attack from the Presbyterians and the radical groups. One of the most important radical tracts printed by October 29th was called A Call to All Soldiers of the Army by the Free People of England which was a defence of the radical regiments and demanded a purge of the parliament amidst a call for the agitators to meet as an 'exact council' and to act with the 'truest lovers of the people you could find'. One of the main aims of the document was to expose the "hypocrisy" and "deceit" of Cromwell and Ireton. It must have been with extreme reluctance that Cromwell invited the agitators to Putney. In doing so his aim was to defeat these forces politically at Putney and then militarily later on.

Politically Cromwell was to the right of the English bourgeois revolution. In many ways his actions at Putney were largely opportunistic, he promised the Levellers to look into their demands but in reality, he had no intention of adopting the Agreement. He read very little outside of the bible and had only a superficial understanding of the radical tracts produced during the early period of the revolution. An interesting PhD dissertation topic would be to examine what was in his library at the time of his death.

It is clear that Cromwell at Putney completely underestimated his political opponents in the army. The documents presented by Leveller supporters in the army clearly shocked and dismayed this conservative of gentleman. The debates brought to the surface deep seated ideas regarding property, democracy and the future course of the revolution. Political divisions were becoming sharper in the run up to the Putney Debates. Even deeper divisions among historians have meant that there is no agreement as to how radical the army was or when its radicalisation started. This radicalisation did not fall from the sky. The ideas that came to fore at Putney were not only exacerbated by war they were provoked by grievances over pay and condition, the fact of the matter is that these developed into broader political demands is because they were the products of longer gestation.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this collection of essays is the absence of any examination of what was said at Putney as Rachel Foxley points out "it is sad that an entire volume on the Putney debates should have so little room for analysis of the vocabulary and dynamics of the debates in terms of political thought. There is much more work to be done here. The debates are more than a script written for the actors by simple circumstance, and all we now know about their context should enable us to read their content in genuinely illuminating new ways".[3]

If any proof was needed about the overarching conservative nature of these essays, it is that most of them were influenced by leading revisionist historian Mark Kishlansky who attended the conference but did not write an essay for this collection. Kishlansky classified the period as being marked by its "vaunted peace and harmony,"However, this was not a period that was marked by its its "vaunted peace and harmony". The radicalisation brought about by heated attacks on the army by the Presbterains provoked one writer to say "it is objected to us, that we would have toleration of all sectaries, schismatiques, heretiques, blasphemies, errours, licentiousnesse, and wickednesses".[4]

The hostility to the radicalisation of the soldiers was given further political expression by the Presbyterian faction in parliament when it published its 'Declaration of Dislike' in the House of Commons. The document provocatively called the soldiers "enemies to the State and disturbers of the public peace". The document represented a declaration of war against both independent and radicals alike. It was an expression growing class differences contained within and outside of parliament. As Austin Woolrych commented, "seldom can ten words have done more mischief than Holles's 'enemies of the state and disturbers of the public peace".[5]

There existed a growing nerviness inside the Presbyterian party within parliament that was caused by the growing calls inside the army for more democracy, protests against social inequality and an end to property. In answer to the The Declaration of Dislike the army said "We were not a mere mercenary army, hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth and conjured by the several declarations of parliament to the defence of our own and the People's just Rights and Liberties".[6] This would have sent shockwaves through the Presbyterian Party.

Austin Woolrych in his essay takes a very cautious approach to the Putney Debates. Woolrych somewhat controversially states that the army had "refrained from political activity despite the tendency of the Presbyterians both religious and political, to portray it as a hotbed of sectaries and radicals." If this is true then did Putney drop from the skies? Is there no connection between the activity of the army before Putney and during? Surely history is not just a series of unconnected episodes.

Woolrych continues  "Anyone who strains to hear the voice of the soldiery in the Putney debates should be aware that, apart from one brief interjection by an unnamed agent, the only troopers who spoke that day were Sex by and Everard, and on the other two days recorded by Clarke the only others who opened their mouths were Lockyer and Allen. No agitator of a foot regiment is known to have spoken. Out of just fifty officer-agitators listed in October, twelve spoke in the course of the three-recorded days five of them only once, and very briefly. We should be very cautious about treating the Putney debates, wonderful as they are as the typical voice of the army'?[7]

This theme of downplaying the influence of the radicals at Putney is continued by other essayists. While it is true that the ordinary soldiers were thin on the ground, the politics that were debated at Putney had a deep resonance inside the army. Even Woolrych is forced to describe such incidents where 'open incitements to mutiny and were already bearing poisoned fruit. Fairfax had lately ordered Colonel Robert Lilburn's foot regiment to Newcastle, for sound military reasons but a party of new agents bearing copies of the Case of the Armie overtook it and urged it not to let the army be divided.Thereupon its soldiers turned back, held an unauthorised rendezvous and refused to obey their officers. Other regiments were in a state of incipient mutiny before the debates at Putney were would up".

One thing not mentioned by Woolrych is that Presbyterians alongside the Independents had a lot to lose if Lilburne and his revolutionaries had their way. A large number of MP's had grown rich out of the civil war and intended to keep their newfound wealth come what may. Many in parliament had grown rich from the change of relations of land ownership, although the enclosure and the sequestration church holdings had begun before the civil war it was continued with during the first revolution with fresh impetus. The Long Parliament had got rid of the Episcopate and to administer its interests, it organised a committee for the sale of church lands.

Often the officers and soldiers of the New Model Army were permitted to buy land cheap. Sometimes exchange for their unpaid salary and at half price. Fifth Monarchist's like Lieutenant colonel Thomas Harrison became very rich out this process.

According to Evgeny Pashukanis "The Civil War between Parliament and the Crown thus had, as a result, the mass transfer of property (which was partly annulled upon the Restoration). Not less than half of all the movable property and half of the lands, rents and incomes of the noblemen who fought on the side of the Crown fell under sequestration. In order to raise the sequestration, it was necessary to pay a composition in the amount of approximately one-fifth of the total value. Such an operation was conducted in 1644 on not less than 3,000 "gentlemen". The direct profit from this measure was received by the Presbyterian party which then held sway in parliament, a party whose members became rich buying land cheaply, squeezing out the Royalists who had fallen under sequestration, with money at usurious interest, and finally, releasing sequestration for a bribe. The corruption which developed gave one of the major trump cards to the Independents and their struggle against the parliamentary majority. In the interest of justice it should be noted that after this when Cromwell's army triumphed over parliament, the Independent majority of the "Rump" began to engage in the same dirty business".[8]

Cromwell may have led the debate at Putney, but thanks to Barbara Taft's excellent essay we get to know better the real theoretical leader of the Grandees at Putney which was Henry Ireton. Ireton and other members of the General Council of the new Model army resided in Putney church essentially to discuss the Levellers Agreement of the People from October 28th to November 11th 1647. According to H N Brailsford' When one compares these debates with those of its sittings at Reading in July, it is clear that in three months the temper and outlook of the army were changed. At Putney, the mood was sultry and tense'. While it true that the grandees and the agitators were moving roughly in the same direction in July by October a huge chasm was to open up between them ".[9]

It is clear from the Clarke transcripts that Cromwell was no great theoretician but it worth quoting one of his better contributions: While it took Cromwell a little while to understand what was going on at Putney when he saw the Levellers Pamphlet The Agreement of the People he reacted in this way on October 28th "These things that you have now offered, they are new to us: they are things that we have not at all (at least in this method and thus circumstantially) had any opportunity to consider of, because they came to us but thus, as you see; this is the first time we had a view of them. Truly this paper does contain in it very great alterations of the very government of the kingdom, alterations from that government that it hath been under, I believe I may almost say, since it was a nation –I say, I think I may almost say so. And what the consequences of such an alteration as this would be, if there were nothing else to be considered, wise men and godly men ought to consider. I say, if there were nothing else to be considered but the very weight and nature of the things contained in this paper. Therefore, although the pretensions in it, and the expressions in it, are very plausible, and if we could leap out of one condition into another that had so specious things in it as this hath, I suppose there would not be much dispute – though perhaps some of these things may be very well disputed. How do we know if, whilst we are disputing these things, another company of men shall not gather together, and put out papers plausible perhaps as this? I do not know why it might not be done by that time you have agreed upon this, or got hands to it if that be the way. And not only another, and another, but many of this kind. And if so, what do you think the consequence of that would be? Would it not be confusion? Would it not be utter confusion? Would it not make England like the Switzerland country, one canton of the Swiss against another and one county against another to go on along with it, and whether those great difficulties that lie in our way are in a likelihood to be either overcome or removed".?

While Cromwell was no great thinker Ireton was. Ireton was ambitious, and with a class understanding to match. He had a valuable ability to process complicated theoretical arguments and respond to them on the spur of the moment. Ireton's goal at Putney was to diffuse the more radical elements of the Leveller programme and if possible, co-opt them into the Grandes strategy if this failed Cromwell and Ireton were not adverse to use force to achieve their aims. Ireton would use the Levellers up to a point as a bulwark against the Presbyterians in Parliament they were after all according to  E. Bernstein" were the first among the people and the simple soldier agitators in the army to understand the necessity of energetic opposition for the counter-revolutionary elements of Parliament".[10]

It was a dangerous game played by Cromwell and Ireton according to Pashukanis "One can have doubts about the degree to which Cromwell and the other leaders of the Independents truly wished to remain loyal to the Presbyterian majority in parliament. But there is no doubt that the soldiers' organisations never entered into their calculations for the purpose of their struggle with parliament. It is one thing to put pressure on parliament by relying upon a disciplined armed force subordinate to oneself, but entirely another thing to create an illegal organisation embracing the mass of soldiers and awakening their independent activity, an organisation which immediately and inevitably had to bring forth socio-political demands extending far beyond the ideas of the moderate Independents".[11]

As was said earlier, the historiography of the Putney Debates has been dominated by right-leaning historians. It is beginning to change as left historians begin to even up the score. It is worth quoting one of them John Rees who recently wrote "The main axis of debate on both sides assumes that what is under discussion is a universal male franchise. Cromwell and Ireton object to this proposal on the basis that if the poor are given the vote, they will use it to take property away from the rich. Rainsborough responds that unless the poor are given the vote ', I say the one parte shall make hewers of wood and drawers of water' of the rest and 'the greatest parte of the Nation bee enslav'd'. Sexby argued that though the soldiers had little property in the kingdom that they must be included in its political settlement.

Only on one occasion during the Putney debates does Leveller Maximillian Petty retreat from the idea of universal male suffrage. Petty suggested that servants or those dependent on others might be excluded from the franchise. This reads as a rather off-the-cuff response to debate with Henry Ireton, who has himself admitted that the franchise might be 'better than it is'. John Rede also adds an interesting cautionary note. He says that those who have given themselves over to 'voluntary servitude' should also be excluded from the vote".[12]

As was already mentioned by Rachel Foxley, the essays collected in this book could have done with more of the actual debate. Perhaps the famous exchange of these debates was between Colonel Rainborowe, leader of the Levellers in parliament and H. Ireton, Cromwell's son in law. Rainborowe stated that 'The poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he and therefore every man that is to live under a government ought, first, by his own consent. To put himself under the government'.

He continues 'Sir, I see that it is impossible to have liberty but all property must be taken away. If you say it, it must be so. But I would fain know what the soldier hath fought for all this while? He hath fought to enslave himself, to give power to men of riches, men of estates, to make him perpetual slave. We do find in all presses that go forth none must be pressed that are freehold men. When these gentlemen fall out among themselves, they shall press the poor scrubs to come and kill one another for them'. Do these comments represent an individual or did his words echo a much wider yet unconscious expression that Putney represented not just the people that took part but had a broader significance in the army and within the country itself".

To the participants at Putney his words would have seemed revolutionary but as Christopher Hill argued 'The Leveller conception of free Englishmen, was thus restricted, even if much wider, than that embodied in the existing franchise. Their proposals would perhaps have doubled the number of men entitled to vote. But manhood suffrage would have quadrupled it".[13]

Ireton recognised that if the franchise were widened, it would threaten the Independents interest. As Hill again explains 'Defending the existing franchise, Henry Ireton rejected the doctrine "that by a man being born here, he shall have a share in that power that shall dispose of the lands here and of all things here". The vote was rightly restricted to those who "had a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom". Namely, the persons in whom all lands lies and those incorporation's in whom all trading lies".[14]

Ireton claimed the present House of Commons represented them and went on to ask by what right the vote was demanded all free Englishmen. If by natural right, taking up the Levellers point that they should be free. Who could freely dispose of their labour? Then Ireton could see no reason why men had as much natural right to property as to the vote. He went on to point out that if you give them the vote, then they will be the majority in parliament and they will give equal property rights to everybody. 

The centrepiece of this collection of essays is the one by John Morrill and Phillip Baker. This type essay is what Jim Holstun called a "revisionist manifesto".Their refusal to call the Levellers and their supporters agitators preferring the less radical sounding adjutators sets the tone for the rest of their essay. Morrill's and Baker's argument is that main voice at the Putney debates of 1647 was that of New Model Army soldiers not of the Levellers. They argue that these soldiers were not as radical as some left-leaning historians have made out.

What is also is clear is the influence of Mark Kishlansky on this essay. Even amongst conservative historians, this essay was controversial. So much so that it provoked a heated debate at the conference with other historians providing in writing their differences. It is a shame that a modern-day William Clarke did not record the debate.

The Levellers undoubtedly were a petit-bourgeois party. While some historians including Morrill protest that capitalist relations were not that developed to describe them as such. There were sufficient bourgeois-capitalist relationships, at the 1640s to warrant such a claim. Indeed, capitalist relations had not developed to a large extent into the English countryside, to such an extent demands could not enter into their programme for a general division of land.

The Levellers appeared and were organised as a political party in the years 1645-46. They were responsible for many of modern-day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs. Their strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had quite considerable support in the army. The movement was an extremely disparate group-containing a group called the Diggers or as they have been called the True Levellers, another group the Ranters were on the extreme left wing of the revolution.

The Levellers called for a democratic republic in which the House of Commons would be more important than the House of Lords. A Leveller would have wanted redistribution and extension of the franchise, legal and economic reform on behalf of men of small property, artisans, yeoman, small merchants, and the very layer which made up the Levellers themselves.

Levellers also wished to democratise the gilds and the City of London, a decentralisation of justice and the election of local governors and stability of tenure for copyholders. While the Levellers were sympathetic to the poor, which stemmed from their religion which essentially was not different from that of Cromwell, they had no concrete programme to bring about social change; they never advocated a violent overturning of society. Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Levellers constitute a mass movement.

This contradiction caused some tension between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners. They had no opposition to private property, and therefore they accepted that inequality would always exist, they merely argued for the lot of the poor to be made more equitable. One of their members John Cooke explained 'I am no advocate for the poore further than to provide bread and necessaries for them, without which, life cannot be maintained, let rich men feast, and the poore make hard meale, but let them have bread sufficient'. 

Knowing that they could not come to power through the presently constituted electorate, the Levellers attempted to find constitutional ways of getting around it. As was said before it seems the overriding influence on these essays such as Morrill's and Bakers is the arch revisionist historian Mark Kishlansky who agrees with much in this chapter of the book. Kishlansky, like Morrill is hostile to a Marxist interpretation of the English bourgeois revolution.

He writes 'Much has been written about the ideology of the army, but most of it misconceived. A principal reason for this has been historians have assumed that the lowly social origins of many of the officers created a commitment to radical ideology. This is false on both factual and logical grounds. There were men of low birth among the new Model's officers, and much has been made of Pride the drayman and Hewson the cobbler more still might be made of obscure officers like Sponger and Creamer whose surnames suggest backgrounds in trades and service. The army also contained a Cecil, a Sheffield, and three colonels who were knights. Yet a careful study of the armies social origin, which lends support to the view that they were more traditional in nature (of solid status in rural and urban structures) still does not meet the real objection to existing interpretation- the fallacy of social determinism'.

This revisionist domination of Putney debates historiography is beginning to change. Several left-leaning historians such as John Rees have started to challenge the largely right-wing conceptions typical of the essays in this collection.

In his recently published essay,[15] Rees makes the following observations. “Perhaps the most famous discussion of the relationship between the Levellers and the labouring classes of the mid-17th century comes in the Putney debates of 1647. These critical discussions between the most senior officers of the New Model Army, elected representatives from the army rank and file, and civilian Levellers have rightly fascinated historians.

One issue to which historical debate has frequently returned concerns whether or not the Leveller spokespeople at Putney advocated the expansion of the franchise implied in the Agreement of the People, first presented at Putney. Should it include the poorest males in society, or should servants and wage labourers be excluded from the vote?
It might be said that this issue has been over-analysed by historians. Jason Peacey, for instance, has suggested that historians have tended to divorce the study of a Levellers from the broader spectrum of radical Parliamentary opinion of which they were a part and also that they have concentrated too narrowly on the franchise debate at Putney. Both issues are of relevance here. The Levellers certainly were part of, indeed emerged from, a wider current of radical parliamentarianism. And the debate over the constitutional settlement of the nation after the First Civil War was one in which Levellers were engaged in debate with a much wider constituency of parliamentarians, some of whom contributed directly to the content of the Agreement of the People. Others held opinions with which the Levellers had to contend, even if they disagreed with them or distrusted those advancing them. We will see this dynamic at work throughout this discussion. But for all the differentiation among them, it is still the case that the Levellers were a distinct political movement. They recognised themselves as such, and their opponents did likewise".

To conclude Michale Mendle's book despite it' revisionist historiography is an important contribution to the debates about the Putney debates. One worrying aspect has been the lack of challengers to the right-wing nature of the historiography. Despite the huge passage of time, the debates still provoke much heat is testimony to their importance. It is now high time that left-leaning historians begin to step up to the plate and challenge this right-leaning historiography.

   
Notes

John Rees's paper The Levellers, the labouring classes, and the poor-John Rees- https://www.counterfire.org/articles/history/21256-the-levellers-the-labouring-classes-and-the-poor was first given at Honest Labour: exploring the interface between work and nonconformity, a regional day conference of the International John Bunyan Society, organised in association with the University of Bedfordshire, Keele University, Loughborough University and Northumbria University in April 2019. It will appear in the forthcoming issue of Bunyan Studies.




[1] The Putney Debates of 1647: The Army, the Levellers and the English State
edited by Michael Mendle
[2] Introduction-The Putney Debates of 1647: The Army, the Levellers and the English State edited by Michael Mendle
[3] Review by: Rachel Foxley Source: The Historical Journal, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Dec., 2003), pp. 1010-1011
[4] Vox Militaris: Or an Apologetical Declaration Concerning the Officers and Souldiers of the Armie, under the Command of his Excellency Sr. Thomas Fairfax, (London: 11 August [Thomason]),
[5] Taken from Austin Woolrych, Soldiers and Statesmen), page 36-37.
[6] From the Representation of the Army 1647
[7] http://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-levellers-radical-political-thought.html
[8] Evgeny Pashukanis Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law
[9] The Levellers and the English revolution (1961)
[10] E. Bernstein, Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution (1919), 3rd German edition, p.78. – See also E. Bernstein, Cromwell and Communism: Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution (1930), Allen and Unwin, London [eds.]
[11] Evgeny Pashukanis Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law
[12] The Levellers, the labouring classes, and the poor-John Rees- https://www.counterfire.org/articles/history/21256-the-levellers-the-labouring-classes-and-the-poor
[13] The Century of Revolution: 1603–1714-By Christopher Hill-p129
[14] Taken from http://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2015/04/
[15] The Levellers, the labouring classes, and the poor-John Rees- https://www.counterfire.org/articles/history/21256-the-levellers-the-labouring-classes-and-the-poor

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Review: Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln-Edward Achorn- Hardcover – March 19. 2020


"The long and short of the business seems to me to be that a war of this kind must be conducted on revolutionary lines, while the Yankees have so far been trying to conduct it constitutionally."

letter from Marx to Frederick Engels August 7, 1862,

"This huge mess of traitors, loafers, hospitals, axe-grinders, & incompetencies & officials that goes by the name of Washington."

Walt Whitman


"Up to now, we have witnessed only the first act of the civil war – the constitutional waging of war. The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand."

Karl Marx

"If you don't want to use the army, I should like to borrow it for a while.

Abraham Lincoln.

Edward Achorn's new book is a superb narrative-driven account of the Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. Achorn's descriptive powers separate his book from a very crowded market. 

As Gordon S Wood[1] correctly states "It is hard to imagine anyone saying anything new about Abraham Lincoln, the most written-about figure in American history. But Edward Achorn has done it. No one has ever placed Lincoln's Second Inaugural in such a full and rich context as he has. Achorn recreates the sights, sounds, smells, and the feel of everything, and his Lincoln was never more real. This is the work of a superb imaginative historian."

Achorn introduces the reader to a growing number of prostitutes, Confederate spies, newspaper reporters, women with low moral esteem and power-crazed politicians who swirled around Washington at the time of Lincoln's speech. Unknown and famous people came to Washington- to hear Lincoln's second inauguration. The poet and journalist Walt Whitman is given a significant amount of space in the book as is African American leader Frederick Douglass. Douglass called the speech "sacred effort".

Achorn gives Walt Whitman significant space in his book. Whitman, who was a journalist, poet and nurse based in Washington. Whitman's most famous work is his poetry collection Leaves of Grass. The book caused such a scandal that one  critic demanded Whitman "be kicked from decent society as below the level of a brute." Achord writes that Lincoln enjoyed Leaves of Grass and read it to cure is often bouts of depression.

Perhaps the most villainous of all the complex characters swirling around Lincoln at the time was the actor John Wilkes Booth who would later assassinate Lincoln. Booth is second only to Lincoln in the amount of space allotted in the book. Given Booth's historical importance, this is entirely natural. Achorn's portrayal of Booth at times takes the form of a novel, a difficult art to maintain which Achorn does while not dropping academic standards.

As James Macpherson so eloquently writes "This richly detailed account of the events surrounding Lincoln's second inaugural address focuses on the many notable and obscure personalities present in Washington as the Civil War neared its end, including such opposites as Frederick Douglass and John Wilkes Booth, whose lives intersected with Lincoln's in dramatically contrasting ways."

The inauguration was set amidst a raging civil war that by March 1865, had killed 700,000 Americans and left an indelible mark on American society."The rebels…could not at the same time throw off the Constitution and invoke its aid…. Decisive and extensive measures must be adopted…. We wanted the army to strike more vigorous blows. The Administration must set an example and strike at the heart of the rebellion."[2]

It has been claimed by most civil war historians as the most important inaugural address in American history. In just 701 words Lincoln issues a stunning attack on slavery: "If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said f[our] three thousand years ago, so still it must be said: "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether".[3]

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the book was Achorn's almost God-given gift for explaining the psychological impact of the war and the struggle against slavery and how it impacted on participants psychological well being particularly that of Lincoln. As the French minister in Washington wrote "[h]is face denotes an immense force of resistance and extreme melancholy. It is plain that this man has suffered deeply." The president's secretary, John Hay, noted that "the boisterous laughter became less frequent year by year; the eye grew veiled by constant meditation on momentous subjects".[4]

Achorn also notes that "Lincoln's hard life had left him with thick scar tissue over his psychic wounds" from his upbringing, yet the war "had reawakened his thoughts about God's role in this world of suffering".

Achord rejects the strong theme in current historiography portraying Lincoln as a cynic motivated by purely economic or political gains. This theme was promulgated by the recent New York Times 1619 project.[5] Achorn's principle view of Lincoln flies in the face of recent attempts by the New York Times and its 1619 Project to present a racialised view of US history. The journalist from the Times present Lincoln as just another white racist indifferent to the fate of the slaves. It denies the extraordinary revolutionary significance of the American Civil War.

While noting that slavery was an economic and political issue, Lincoln believed its abolition was the right thing to do. As his Second Inaugural address expresses ", One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localised in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it". With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations".
One of the most commendable aspects of Achorn's book is that he allows Lincoln to speak for himself. It is not said enough that Lincoln was a superb writer. One look at the Gettysburg Address confirms the eloquence and power of his prose "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."[6]

As Achorn points out in the book, Lincoln's inaugural address went deeper in that it started to reflect on the causes of the war. As Achorn writes, Lincoln "would not bask in the glory of recent, hard-fought military victories, or present a detailed plan for reconstruction. He would speak about human depravity, about the hideous sin committed by both sides, and about the justice of God's infallible, implacable.

The black abolitionist Frederick Douglass who attended the inauguration had in the past been heavily critical Lincoln's ambiguous attitude towards slavery, but on this occasion, he applauded Lincoln's condemnation slavery. As Achorn writes "He came to understand that Lincoln was a statesman who had to time his actions to what the public would accept, and I think that is a very poignant thing to see". Douglas believed it was "a sacred effort."

While Lincoln's speech was indeed stateman like he was conscious of the need to tie his political fortunes with that of military ones.  Achord correctly gives credit to Major General William Tecumseh Sherman whose victories on the battlefield enabled Lincoln to win a second term as president. Of particular importance was the taking of Atlanta by Sherman. This victory changed the popular mood, and Lincoln won re-election by a significant margin.

Although Achorn does not dwell too much on the international aspect of the American Civil war and Lincoln's role in that war, it is worth examining what the most important observer from the standpoint of the working class had to say on the war.

When Karl Marx heard of Lincoln's re-election on behalf of the First International Workingmen's Association he sent congratulations to Lincoln. "They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world."[7]

Marx's analysis of the causes of the civil war still holds up today He writes "when an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders dared to inscribe, for the first time in the annals of the world, "slavery" on the banner of Armed Revolt, when on the very spots where hardly a century ago the idea of one great Democratic Republic had first sprung up, whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century; when on those very spots counterrevolution, with systematic thoroughness, gloried in rescinding "the ideas entertained at the time of the formation of the old constitution", and maintained slavery to be "a beneficent institution", indeed, the old solution of the great problem of "the relation of capital to labor", and cynically proclaimed property in man "the cornerstone of the new edifice" — then the working classes of Europe understood at once, even before the fanatic partisanship of the upper classes for the Confederate gentry had given its dismal warning, that the slaveholders' rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy crusade of property against labor, and that for the men of labor, with their hopes for the future, even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic. Everywhere they bore therefore patiently the hardships imposed upon them by the cotton crisis, opposed enthusiastically the proslavery intervention of their betters — and, from most parts of Europe, contributed their quota of blood to the good cause".[8]

While it was not possible for Achorn to look at every possible aspect of the Lincoln presidency, some older historians have drawn parallels between Lincoln and other leaders of civil wars. One such comparison was the leader of the English revolution, Oliver Cromwell.

The historian, Isaac Foot, in a lecture given in 1944 amid the Second World war, drew far-reaching parallels between Lincoln and Cromwell. Foot writes "That is the mark of each man. He was there at the particular time when his special gift seemed to be adapted to the critical occasion that called for the contribution which, as far as we can see could not have been made by any other man of his day. The epitaph of each man might very well have been-"after he had served his generation, by the will of God, he fell on sleep".[9]

The working-class could learn a lot from each man. As the great Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky said "Cromwell was a great revolutionary of his time, who knew how to uphold the interests of the new, bourgeois social system against the old aristocratic one without holding back at anything. This must be learnt from him, and the dead lion of the seventeenth century is in this sense immeasurably greater than many living dogs."[10]The same could be said about Lincoln.

To conclude, Achorn does offer a new and fresh approach to this complex period of American history. The national crisis he writes about bears striking resemblance today. The significant book sales mean Achorn's work has resonated with modern-day readers.

As the American working-class comes into direct struggle with its bourgeoisie, it will need to armed with an understanding of America's revolutionary past. It will need to form its own "Ironsides".

Its first step must be to put an end to the removal of statues of Washington, Lincoln and Grant. As Joe Kishore writes "The removal of monuments to the leaders of America's revolutionary and civil wars has no justification. These men led great social struggles against the very forces of reaction that justified racial oppression as an incarnation of the fundamental inequality of human beings".[11]







[1] Gordon S. Wood, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire of Liberty
[2] Battle Cry of Freedom : James M. McPherson
[3] Transcript of President Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address (1865)- www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=38&page=transcript
[4] Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln-Edward Achorn- Hardcover – March 19. 2020
[5] See The New York Times 1619 project: A racialist falsification of US and world history-wsws.org
[6] Lincoln delivered the 272 word Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 on the battlefield near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
[7] Address of the International Working Men's Association to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America-Presented to U.S. Ambassador Charles Francis Adams
January 28, 1865
[8] Address of the International Working Men's Association to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America-Presented to U.S. Ambassador Charles Francis Adams
January 28, 1865
[9] Oliver Cromwell and Abraham Lincoln: A comparison : a lecture delivered before the Royal Society of Literature on April 19th, 1944-Isaac Foot
[10] Where Is Britain Going?
[11] Hands off the monuments to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Grant!- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/06/22/pers-j22.html

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Old Hat, Nouvelle Vague and the Historiographical Surprises of the mid-1970s


(I have made an appeal on Twitter for readers of this blog to be more proactive with comments or preferably an article no matter what length. The first response comes from Christopher Thompson. Hopefully, it is the beginning of many such posts. The posts will not be edited and do not have to agree with my historiography or political viewpoint).

Changes in historiographical perspectives are a recurrent feature in the work of academic historians. Established explanations and current orthodoxies come to be challenged and repudiated. One generation of historians wedded to these older interpretations gives way to another. Conflicts and disputes between the two are by no means unknown. But, with the passage of time, new explanations and orthodoxies come to be established and the quarrels of the past remain of interest to the surviving participants and to later students of the discipline.

This is particularly true in seventeenth-century history when the long-term economic and social explanations for the events of the 1640s in England in particular came to be challenged and superseded. Figures like Christopher Hill and Lawrence Stone apparently thought that their interpretations were sound and generally accepted as their contributions to the Folger Institute’s conference on ‘Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688 and 1776’ suggested. Both men had been educated at the University of Oxford where Hill remained as Master of Balliol while Stone had decamped to Princeton in 1963. Two of the other major participants in the ‘Storm over the Gentry’, Hugh Trevor-Roper and J.P.Cooper, were also Oxford dons while J.H.Hexter, the remaining figure of significance in that spectacular historiographical episode was in the U.S.A. where he had reached a rapprochement with Stone after 1964.

This focus on Oxford was also apparent amongst the figures who came to challenge the determinism underlying the works of Hill, Stone, Manning and others. Conrad Russell, Nicholas Tyacke, John Morrill and Kevin Sharpe had all been undergraduates and postgraduates at Oxford before securing posts at other universities. There had been a feeling amongst Oxford historians in my recollection that it was the most important centre for work on the English Revolution and that what was going on elsewhere was interesting but not of critical significance.

In my own case, I was aware that, in Cambridge, for example, there was new work being done by the Cambridge Group on Population Studies and by historians of political thought like John Dunn and Quentin Skinner. Quite how far-reaching the impact of this work proved to be only became clear to me rather later. As far as Princeton was concerned, I was reasonably well-informed since I saw Theodore Rabb in the Institute of Historical Research or the British Museum during his annual visits in the summers. What was going on in the rest of the U.K. or in the U.S.A. was something I learnt about in both institutions.

What is surprising about the revolt against the Whig-Marxist or quasi-Marxist synthesis of the early-1970s is that it came as a more or less complete surprise to Hill, Stone and other historians of their persuasion. One of Stone’s pupils at that time recently told me that he had had no idea what was going on amongst younger historians in Oxford or in the U.K. More surprisingly still in theory, neither had Christopher Hill. But Christopher Hill had never been a denizen of archive repositories or of seminars addressed by postgraduates other than his own.  (It can also be detected in the comments of figures like Brian Manning and even of David Underdown, although his pupil, Mark Kishlansky, probably knew better than most about the new forms of interpretation.) 

Their sense of surprise was more than evident in the reactions to ‘revisionism’ in the editions of the Journal of Modern History and in Past and Present devoted to refuting the antiquarian empiricism of the new generation of early modern historians.

Why did the ‘old guard’ fail to hold their ground? The answer to that question lies partly in their assumptions – for example, in believing that the political history of early-Stuart England had been satisfactorily explained by S.R.Gardiner and Wallace Notestein; partly, one suspects, because the researches in local or county history inspired by Thomas Barnes and Alan Everitt were irreconcilable with theories about ‘class conflict’: but, mainly, because, they had been overtaken by the passage of time and the increasingly severe problems faced by their own interpretations. The historiographical past belonged to them: the future, at least until c.1990, to their critics.