Alan Taylor’s revolution

From its very beginning in the United States, the Progressive movement has disparaged the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the American Revolution. Take Alan Taylor, for example, who represents the state of the art. Taylor is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Despite the chair he holds, Taylor is not much of a fan of the American Revolution. The New York Times heading over Gordon Wood’s review of Taylor’s new history puts it this way: “How the American Revolution worked against blacks, Indians, and women.” Well, okay, but other than that how was it?

Professor Wood is himself an eminent historian of the founding era. His most recent book is the final volume of the Library of America’s three-volume edition of John Adams’s writings. Professor Wood quietly inserts a note on the occasionally ahistorical quality of Taylor’s critique:

Sometimes Taylor’s emphasis on irony and contradiction slips into anachronism. Because the colonial legislatures denied women, free blacks and propertyless white males the vote, he concludes that “colonial America was a poor place to look for democracy.” But where in the 18th century was there a better place to look for democracy? Despite restrictions on the suffrage, the colonies still possessed the most democratic governments in the world at that time.

See generally Tom West’s Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class and Justice in the Origins of America.

Professor Wood concludes his review on a somewhat unusual note reflecting his decency and patriotism:

A major legacy of the Revolution, [Taylor] concludes, was the emergence of a society dominated by ordinary middle-class white men, the very people he has most criticized as patriarchal, racist and genocidal. In Taylor’s mind their victory seems to have come at the expense of others. By focusing on common white men, he maintains, the Revolution worked against blacks, Indians and women. The question raised by Taylor’s book is this: Can a revolution conceived mainly as sordid, racist and divisive be the inspiration for a nation?

Taylor, I’m sure, would plead the Freddie Prinze defense: “It’s not my job.” On the contrary, Taylor’s revolution seeks to demoralize a nation.

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