Though I’m only about 200 pages into Robert Middlekauff’s massive 1982 history of the American founding, The Glorious Cause, I’m willing to take a chance and label it not just a “good book” but a “great book.” Middlekauff not only possesses sheer mastery over the era—as though he lived in it—but he’s never afraid to offer his own interpretations and present his scholarship in the manner of the liberally educated. This is no rough, objective view of history, dry and boring, exact and without meaning. No, The Glorious Cause offers meaning and seriousness in abundance.
As intriguing as his writing and scholarship is though, Middlekauff offers little sympathy for the American cause. More often than not, in his view, the Americans react too quickly and with too much violence. And yet, what Middlekauff writes is not inaccurate, it’s just skewed. That is, unlike other scholars of the period, he does not make up material or exclude vital aspects of the time to augment his point of view. He lets the Americans speak for themselves. After, though, he rather wittily challenges them.
No one would mistake The Glorious Cause for a “Patriot’s Guide to…” It is, however, vigorously honest. And, for this alone, it deserves praise. The founding is so essential to an understanding of who we are that it’s almost impossible to find a book about the area that doesn’t already carry with it some immense preconceptions. But, combine the honesty of Middlekauff with his rather understated wit, and you have a great book.
When I got to page 155, though, I breathed a sigh of mingled anger and confusion. Introducing John Dickinson for the first time, Middlekauff embraces the kind of standard Jacksonian dismissal of him as an effete aristocrat, more interested in placating and accommodating the British to protect his interests than he was in promoting republican liberty. I came across the exact same kind of language used by historians to undermine the importance of the only Catholic signer of the Declaration, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, even wealthier and more educated than Dickinson.
Granted, Middlekauff does not put it in quite these words, but the words he uses are close enough. After 155 pages, Middlekauff is much clearer, and it’s rather clear he doesn’t think much of Dickinson.
In actual language, Middlekauff calls his Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer “mild, even meek in places.” Further, “his appeals for childlike submissiveness, his quiet calls for petitioning and home manufacturing, seem to have comforted many precisely because they asked for so little.’ [both quotes from page 156 of The Glorious Cause].
I’m not sure what version of the Letters Middlekauff read, but he claims to have read those edited by Forrest McDonald in 1962. My version, the second edition, published in 1999, offers the following. Obviously, my selections are my selections, but I see little here that can justify claims of effeminacy and accommodation.
Letter I discusses his liberal education and his love of ideas. “From my infancy I was taught to love humanity and liberty. Enquiry and experience have since confirmed my reverence for the lessons then give me, by convincing me more fully of their truth and excellence. Benevolence toward mankind, excites wishes for their welfare, and such wishes endear the means of fulfilling them. These can be found in liberty only, and therefore her sacred cause ought to be espoused by every man on every occasion, to the utmost of his power.”
Letter II: “If you ONCE admit, that Great Britain may lay duties upon her exportations to us, for the purpose of levying money on us only, she then will have nothing to do, but to lay those duties on the articles which she prohibits us to manufacture—and the tragedy of American liberty is finished… If they can, our boasted liberty is but… A sound and nothing else.”
Letter III: “But while Divine Providence, that gave me existence in a land of freedom, permits my head to think, my lips to speak, and my hand to move, I shall so highly and gratefully value the blessing received as to take care that my silence and inactivity shall not give my implied assent to any act, degrading my brethren and myself from the birthright, wherewith heaven itself “hath made us free.”
In Letter VIII, Dickinson offers the common argument that the colonies waged war against the French and Indians not for our benefit, but for the benefit of the British commonwealth.
“These are the consequences to the colonies, of the hearty assistance they gave to Great Britain in the late war—a war undertaken solely for her own benefit. The objects of it were, the securing to herself of the rich tracts of land on the back of these colonies, with the Indian trade; and Nova-Scotia, with the fishery. These, and much more, has that kingdom gained; but the inferior animals, that hunted with the lion, have been amply rewarded for all the sweat and blood their loyalty cost them, by the honor of having sweated and bled in such company.” [Dickinson, Letters, 48]
And, best of all, Letter XII, perhaps one of the single finest defenses of liberty in this world or any other.
Letter XII: “Some states have lost their liberty by particular accidents: But this calamity is generally owing to the decay of virtue. A people is travelling fast to destruction, when individuals consider their interests as distinct from those of the public. Such notions are fatal to their country, and to themselves. Yet how many are there, so weak and sordid as to think they perform all the offices of life, if they earnestly endeavor to increase their own wealth, power, and credit, without the least regard for the society, under the protection of which they live; who, if they can make an immediate profit to themselves, by lending their assistance to those, whose projects plainly tend to the injury of their country, rejoice in their dexterity, and believe themselves entitled to the character of able politicians. Miserable men! Of whom it is hard to say, whether they ought to be most the objects of pity or contempt: But whose opinions are certainly as detestable, as their practices are destructive.”
Wait, Imaginative Conservative reader, it gets better.
Our negligence and our division are distress and death. They are worse—They are shame and slavery. Let us equally shun the benumbing stillness of overweening sloth, and the feverish activity of that ill informed zeal, which busies itself in maintaining little, mean and narrow opinions. Let us, with a truly wise generosity and charity, banish and discourage all illiberal distinctions, which may arise from differences in situation, forms of government, or modes of religion. Let us consider ourselves as MEN—FREEMEN—CHRISTIAN FREEMEN—separated from the rest of the world, and firmly bound together by the same rights, interests and dangers. Let these keep our attention inflexibly fixed on the GREAT OBJECTS, which we must CONTINUALLY REGARD, in order to preserve those rights, to promote those interests, and to avert those dangers. Let these truths be indelibly impressed on our minds—that we cannot be HAPPY, without being FREE—that we cannot be free, without being secure in our property—that we cannot be secure in our property, if, without our consent, others may, as by right, take it away—that taxes imposed on us by parliament, do thus take it away—that duties laid for the sole purpose of raising money, are taxes—that attempts to lay such duties should be instantly and firmly opposed—that this opposition can never be effectual, unless it is the united effort of these provinces—that therefore BENEVOLENCE of temper towards each other, and UNANIMITY of counsels, are essential to the welfare of the whole—and lastly, that for this reason, every man among us, who in any manner would encourage either dissension, dissidence, or indifference, between these colonies, is an enemy to himself, and to his country.”
And, the final warning, again from Letter XII: “Let us take care of our rights, and we therein take care of our prosperity. ‘SLAVERY IS EVER PRECEDED BY SLEEP.’”
These are not the words of an accommodationist. These are profoundly humane, liberal, and republican. Should it surprise us that the very same man who feared the colonies not quite ready for independence chose not to sign the Declaration, but picked up his arms to fight the moment British soldiers invaded his community. A more famous founder, one who wrote and signed the Declaration, it should be remembered, fled his community when the British appeared in the area. Who is the greater patriot we could justly ask.
In his own introduction to the edited version, McDonald makes their importance utterly clear.
Their impact and their circulation were unapproached by any publication of the revolutionary period except Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (Indeed, because they were a crucial step toward transforming the mass circulation pamphlet into the soberest forum for debating public issues, they helped make Common Sense possible). They were quickly reprinted in newspapers all over the colonies, and published in pamphlet form in Philadelphia (three editions), Boston (two editions), New York, Williamsburg, London, Paris, and Dublin. Immediately, everyone took Dickinson’s argument into account: Americans in assemblies town meetings, and mass meetings adopted revolutions of thanks; British ministers wrung their hands; all the British press commented, and a portion of it applauded; Irish malcontents read avidly; even the dilettantes of the Paris salons discussed the Pennsylvania Farmer.
It must be noted, that though the letters made it all the way to Parliament, where they were introduced to the members, not a single person decided to challenge them. In fact, not a single Englishman offered a rebuttal. They stood.
Sorry, Professor Middlekauff. I will gladly commend you for brilliance and skill. But, when it comes to Mr. Dickinson, you, sir, have been bested.
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