Sunday, December 4, 2016

Eric Foner reviews ‘American Revolutions’ by Alan Taylor · LRB 6 October 2016

Eric Foner reviews ‘American Revolutions’ by Alan Taylor · LRB 6 October 2016

  • American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804by Alan Taylor
    Norton, 704 pp, £30.00, November, ISBN 978 0 393 08281 4
The racism, xenophobia and violence of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is widely seen as an aberration, as if reasoned debate had been the default mode of American politics. But precursors to Trump do exist, candidates who struck electoral gold by appealing to exaggerated fears, real grievances and visceral prejudices. Among Trump’s predecessors are the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings of the 1850s, white supremacist politicians of the Jim Crow era, and more recent hucksters and demagogues including Joe McCarthy and George Wallace. Not to mention more respectable types such as Richard Nixon, whose ‘Southern strategy’ offered a blueprint for mobilising white resentment over the gains of the Civil Rights movement. (That ‘respectable’ and ‘Nixon’ can be included in the same sentence illustrates how far our political standards have evolved since the 1970s.) Violence isn’t unknown in American political history. The 19th century saw fistfights in Congress and riots at election time in major American cities. Until well into the 20th century, Southern blacks who wanted to exercise the right to vote faced violent retribution from the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups.
Where does all this originate? In American Revolutions, Alan Taylor offers a surprising answer: the struggle for independence itself. Racism, violence, scurrilous attacks on opponents: all, he argues, were part of American political culture from the outset. Taylor breaks decisively with a trope of Cold War propaganda which has worked its way into historical scholarship: the idea that unlike the ‘bad’ French and Russian Revolutions, which degenerated into violent class conflict, a united American people rebelled against British overlords with restraint and decorum. In fact, as he makes clear, the American Revolution was a bitter, multi-sided conflict that pitted Loyalists against Patriots and white Americans against blacks and Indians. Hence the plural in his title.

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