Sunday, June 25, 2017

"The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson", Bernard Bailyn (1974)

This book, which depicts the fortunes of a conservative in a time of radical upheaval and deals with problems of public disorder and ideological commitment, was not written as a tract for the times, nor is its purpose to illustrate general ideas about law and order and the causes or consequences of civil disobedience and insurrection. But it would be foolish to deny that I have been influenced in writing it by the events of the late 1960’s, when the original drafts were written. I am quite certain, in fact, that my understanding of Thomas Hutchinson’s dilemma in using troops to quell public disorders...has undoubtedly been sharpened by the course of American politics in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Nevertheless the structure and substance of the book, and the issues it discusses, developed from considerations of Hutchinson’s time, not of our own. This is a book about the
eighteenth century...

For there is in fact a whole area of the Revolution that has been almost completely submerged in the historical literature and that hardly enters at all into our general understanding of what that formative event was all about. And it is not a secondary or incidental part of the story. It is fundamental, and the omission of so basic a part of the story did not come about and was not perpetuated accidentally.
...the earliest historical writings that follow a great and controversial event are still a significant
part of the event itself...attempts at explanations of what happened tend to be heroic in character. That is, they are highly moral: the struggle they present is between good and bad; and they are highly personified...

[Right? Are there any biographies of Abraham Lincoln, do you know?]
Then in the course of time the historian’s angle of vision shifts...For a second or third or fourth generation of writers...[t]he episode appears now... to be...rather a familiar link in a long chain of events that stretches from the distant past to the present...The historian is the inevitability with which the past flowed through the event and became the present, and by the natural way in which people and conditions that sought to impede this flow into the present were swept away. The historian at this stage is consequently attuned to early premonitions of what became mighty developments, he seeks the seeds of future events, dwells on cognates and analogues, and strives to show how the future was implicit in the past.

[Emphasis added. So, so true. "It was inevitable, the North was always going to win." This shows such insight by Bailyn into his, the historian's, craft. ]
And then at last there is a third...and, so it seems to me, an ultimate mode of interpretation. At this point the distance has become so great, the connections so finely attenuated, that all of the earlier assumptions of relevance, partisan in their nature, seem crude, and fall away, and in their place there comes a neutrality, a comprehensiveness, and a breadth of sympathy lacking in earlier interpretations. Not a new objectivity nor a new precision in the use of facts...but an inclusiveness of sympathy and a degree of comprehensiveness in data that distinguish this interpretation from its predecessors.

[Two uses of "comprehensiveness" and two of "sympathy," so those are important to him. Only one mention of "neutrality"... "Neutrality," that's what "ultimate" history is? Neutrality is not synonymous with sympathy, nor with comprehensiveness, nor does it necessarily flow from those others...I bet he regrets using "neutrality."]

Now the historian, in his analysis and description, is no longer a partisan. He has no stake in the outcome. He can now embrace the whole of the event, see it from all sides. What impresses him most are...— in a word, the tragedy of the event.
I do not mean the sadness of it; and I certainly do not mean the error or wrongness of it. I mean simply that we have knowledge enough of all the circumstances — material, cultural, political, even
psychological — to enable us to catch glimpses of the whole of that distant globe and to note the limits within which men struggled. All men — the famous and the obscure, the best and the worst, the winners and the losers. They were all equally real, equally bound by the circumstances of the time, and are equally necessary to understand if we are to make sense of the Revolution.

I know of no clearer way of explaining my approach to the subject of this book...

[I think he realizes he is struggling to explain his approach to this book. He clearly is struggling! And I think he knows it. He is defensive, he has written several times what the book is "not," including in the first sentence!]

It is this consideration that shapes the chapters that follow. For if recent historical writings have allowed us to see with some clarity the pattern of fears, beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions that became
the ideology of the Revolution — which alone, in my judgment, explains why certain actions of the British government touched off a transforming revolution in America — they have not yet made clear
why any sensible, well-informed, right-minded American with a modicum of imagination and common sense could possibly have opposed the Revolution.

[Okay, here it is. It's because the American revolutionaries were mentally ill. This book was published seven years after The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution which "neutrally" laid out the evidence. Origins worked a sea change in interpretations of the Revolution from "heroic" to "delusional paranoid schizophrenic." One can understand how one could become defensive over that.]

...until we look deliberately at the development from the other [SANE] side around, we have not understood what the issues really were, what the struggle was all about.
My purpose, then, is to convey something of the experience of the losers in the American Revolution. And I do this not ...

[Will you stop, please!]

because I agree with them or judge them to have been right or because I find them more appealing people than their opponents. Quite the contrary: most of [my best friends are mentally ill; doesn't bother me! Na-ah] the finest human qualities, to which one instinctively responds — the desire to eradicate the cruelties people inflict upon one another; the spirit of hope and enterprise; confidence in the future; above all, the passion to cast off restraints and in some enduring way to release pent-up aspirations — all of this seems to me to have been on the side of the victors. I turn to the losers sympathetically in order to explain the human reality against which the victors struggled and so to help make the story whole and comprehensible. 

[Ho-ho-ho. "The desire to eradicate cruelties"?! They wanted their tax bill lowered (and we'll keep slavery; not cruel, na-ha] "Most of the finest human qualities"?! The "passion to cast off restraints"? "Release pent-up aspirations"?! Would it not have been wiser for them to masturbate to ejaculation? "I turn to the losers sympathetically in order to explain the human reality since the victors were not in touch with same."]

It is, I think, a peculiarly difficult thing to do, and likely to be misinterpreted...

...the American nation is built on the outcome of the Revolution...

[Yeah, man. Born a bastard orphan...cuz we killed our mama.]

It is extremely difficult to put two hundred years of history aside and refuse, for purposes
of historical understanding, to choose among the contenders of that distant struggle and to see it just as it was — an event full of accident, uncertain in outcome, with good and bad, sense and nonsense, distributed on both sides. For in the end we do instinctively care and we do choose, since we inherit the victory;... And indeed...the effort I am making to do precisely that seems doomed to failure from the start.

The Ordeal of Bernard Bailyn, this book should have been subtitled. Remarkable, remarkable preface.