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Gary B. Nash’s Race and Revolution offers an insightful interpretation of the American Revolution which led to the abolishment of slavery in the United States. The book is formed as a group of essays that had sprung from a series of lectures. The text focuses on the failure of the American Revolution to accomplish its initial goals and to do justice to the oppressed race. Nash’s thesis in this book is thus that this failure should be blamed actually on the northern leaders rather than the southern ones.
The book peers therefore into the general atmosphere of the Revolution and into the main causes of the failure to fully recognize the African Americans as an equal race. In Nash’s view, the hypothesis according to which this failure should be blamed on the inflexibility of the Southerners is not a correct interpretation of the events. Instead, the decline of the initial enthusiasm that inspired the abolitionist movement should be blamed on the growing sense of superiority that prevailed among the Northern leaders.
Thus, Nash’s main purpose is to show that the evolution of events during the American Revolution best evinces the relationship between the two diverging races. As the author stresses, the failure to give the blacks true independence and equal rights at that time is not due to the triumph of economic interest over humaneness, but rather to the growing supremacist tendencies of the whites. To demonstrate this hypothesis, Nash organizes his work in three chapters which correspond to the three different stages of abolitionism.
Moreover, the book is supplemented and supported with a series of documents which are also separated according to each of these stages. As Nash proposes, the first stage of the abolitionist movement was one of spreading enthusiasm with regard to the abolition of slavery. During the early 1770’s, there was a growing awareness among the colonies of New England with regard to the incompatibility of slavery as an institution with the main precepts and fundaments of the American nation and of democracy.
Around this time, the leaders as well as the public at large began to regard the problem of slavery from a new angle, realizing that this practice was in stark contradiction with the basic human rights. There was therefore a sense of duplicity of falsity underlying the main principles of the democratic nation. As Nash emphasizes, the idea of abolition was first embraced with great enthusiasm by a majority of the colonists.
As the title of the chapter reads, this generation can be called “the revolutionary generation”, precisely because it formed and sustained a new idea with regard to slavery. The first wave of the revolution seemed to grasp the problem of slavery in its entirety. The leaders as well as the common people began to gain insight into the atrocities perpetuated by slavery. The just observation was made that the existence of slavery in America was a real opprobrium for the country and its status among the other countries of the world.
The Americans began to perceive the necessity of reform and abolition of slavery. The institution of slavery began to be considered as a sign of the lack of civilization and advancement on the part of the country. As Nash points out, at this time, awareness grew towards the series of moral, religious and social justifications for the abolition of slavery. In the first place, slavery was considered a debasing institution that functioned at the center of a democratic nation.
Thus, many people began to see slavery as a plight on modern society that reminds of the admitted abuse on people that should have had equal rights. Nash documents his research into the atmosphere of the time, emphasizing that the problem of slavery was increasingly debated in all circles, at the beginning of the 1770’s: “In 1773 […] Benjamin Rush informed Granville Sharp, the English abolitionist, that ‘the spirit of liberty and religion with regard to the poor Negroes spreads rapidly throughout this country.
”(Nash, 2001, p. 9) The people felt that the abolition will be almost a salvation of the nation and it will offer a new beginning for America. Generally, slavery began to be perceived as a sin and a plight on the modern world. As Nash observes, the revolution was prompted by the spread of this idea among the communities:“As Winthrop Jordan has argued, by the eve of the Revolution, there was in New England a ‘generalized sense of slavery as a communal sin. ’”(Nash, 2001, p.
10) Thus, in the first part of his essay, Nash lingers on the incipient enthusiasm for abolitionism at the beginning of the Revolution. There were voices that called for the immediate prohibition of slave trade and that proposed laws and declarations against slavery. The principles of democracy were being thus restated, as the most pertinent argument for the abolition of slavery: “all men are born equally free and independent, and that they have certain natural, inherited and inalienable rights. ”(Nash, 2001, p.
13) Slavery was also seen as a breach in the country’s international role. America was not completing its role as a model democracy that the rest of the world should look upon, but on the contrary it was drawing attention towards the cruel and extremely unjust practices of slavery: “Calling slavery ‘the opprobrium of America’ they proposed a gradual emancipation that would regain Americans ‘the respect of all Europe, who are astonished to see a people eager for Liberty holding Negroes in Bondage.
”(Nash, 2001, p. 13) Therefore, Nash carefully analyzes in his first essay the various reasons that prompted and accelerated the movement. There were political, religious and moral issues that condemned slavery at the same time and imposed a movement against it. There were also leaders that observed that slavery was a flawed institution from the start, since it actually permitted a crime and an infringement on the rights of other man.
According to Nash, this was seen as a political fallacy, as it encouraged the existence of a system that was yet worse than the aristocratic model in England for instance, that America wanted to avoid the most: “And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half of the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the moral of one part and the amor patriae of the other.
”(Nash, 17) The data that Nash collects together for the first part of his essay prepare the terrain for the rest of the research. The author thus achieves an almost dramatic effect by pointing not only to the actual facts and events but to the atmosphere of the time and to the general opinion on slavery and the revolution. According to Nash, after having shown the early anxiousness and the enthusiasm of the people for the revolution, it seems even more difficult to explain the eventual failure of the revolution.
His second essay in the book treats therefore of the second or middle stage of abolitionism. Nash emphasizes the fact that, contrary to customary belief, it was the northern states that had the greatest contribution to this failure: “In particular, I wish to stress the role of the northern states in the failure to abolish slavery and to show how economic and cultural factors intertwined in what was not a judicious decision by the leaders of the new American nation but their most tragic failure.
”(Nash, 2001, p. 6) Nash points out that this was perhaps the most tragic failure in the American system, and one that has left a permanent blemish on the nation. The second chapter therefore begins with the main questions that become immediate after analyzing the initial enthusiasm and the eventual failure. Nash explains that he diverges from the common view according to which the newly formed union of states was too young to be able to act correctly from a political or social point of view.
Moreover, he also insists that the Southerner’s self-interested opposition was not the halt of the abolitionists: “In explaining the failure of the new nation to come to grips with slavery, historians have repeatedly pointed to the precariousness of the newly forged union of the states and the intransigence of the lower South, particularly Georgia and South Carolina, in thwarting the widespread desire of those in the North and upper South to see the traffic of slaves ended for ever and the institution of slavery on the road to extinction.
”(Nash, 2001, p. 25) Nash comes here close to the center of his demonstration throughout the book. His main idea is that the failure should not be blamed on the contention between the North and the South. The southerners were indeed guided by their economical interests in preserving slavery as an institution. The slave owners and the slave traders were equally unwilling to part with the profitable system of slavery. In Nash’s view however, neither of these motivations were actually the reason for the failure.
He proposes and demonstrates therefore that the failure came from a national ideological handicap rather than from a regional one. In his view, the failure should actually be attributed to the Northerners that failed to carry the democratic principles to their ends. Thus, Nash provides an explanation for the gap between the initial elation with respect to abolitionism and the subsequent hostility of the white people against the black.
Nash perceives this hostility that emerged powerfully after the revolution, as an inherent supremacist attitude and racism. While slavery was in itself a cruel and even barbaric practice that deprived the other race of freedom and dignity, the hostility that followed the liberation of the blacks was in itself a proof of the inherent ideological racism that permeated the white communities.
In the fourth letter attached for documentary purpose at the end of the book, the reaction of the black community against this growing hostility becomes clear: “I proceed again to the consideration of the bill of unalienable rights belonging to black men, the passage of which will only tend to show that the advocates to emancipation can enact laws more degrading to free man and more injurious to his feeling than all the tyranny of slavery or the shackles of infatuated despotism. ”(Nash, 2001, p. 196) Slavery was an open attack on the other race.
However, the racism implied in the acts and bills issued after the revolution had waned are indicative of the extent to which this ideology pervaded the white communities of the time. The point of the demonstration seems therefore to hold: the failure to treat the black people as equal after their liberation was due to the inherent racism of the whites. Although freedom and human rights were advocated as grounds for the revolution, the bills issued afterwards point to the inability of the whites to conceive racial equality with the blacks.
The events that followed during the nineteenth and the twentieth century enhance this idea. The white and black communities have found it very difficult to accommodate each other. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, the black men could live as free people but still did not have equal rights to the white community. In his book, Nash achieves a succinct and powerful demonstration of the pervasive racism that motivated many of the events of the revolution at the end of the eighteenth century.
Nash thus alleges that the only explanation for the compromises proposed as a replacement for abolitionism is actually the fact that the whites from both North and South equally failed to regard the blacks as their equals in any respect. The paradox comes from the early enthusiasm of the revolution, that seemed to be the mark of a novel and wise understanding of the harmonious relationship that should exist between all the human races at all times.
Nash argues therefore that this enthusiasm was perhaps not grounded on a real understanding of the circumstances and that it was more of a theoretical conclusion rather than an actual analysis of the situation. The northerners did not agree with slavery in principle as being a savage and base practice, but were not ready to regard the African Americans as their equals. This fully explains why the revolution actually completed in a series of compromises rather than in the triumph of democracy and humanism, as it should have been expected. Gary B.
Nash offers in his book a historical account with a timeline of the objective facts and events during and briefly after the revolution, but also a pertinent theory with respect to the inherent concept of race within the American civilization. He lies out and analyzes a block of data as well as authentic testimonies and documents of the time. It is obvious that he insists more on opinions and declarations from the time of the revolution, rather than on mere facts. Thus, he bases his analysis on the concepts and ideologies which circulated at the time.
The supportive material offered for investigation at the end of the book is also very useful for the reader, as it backs up the demonstration that Nash makes. Race and Revolution is, as the title emphasizes, more than a simple historical account. It is an analysis of the concept of ‘race’ and its importance in American history. Nash chooses the time of the revolution to investigate the concept of race precisely because this seems to have been a turning point in the relationship between the white and the black communities.
Moreover, at this point, the evolution of the racial conflict seems to have been clearly predicted. The book casts a new light on the revolution itself, which had been preserved as the remembrance of a glorious cause, disputed among the two regions of the United States, the North and the South. Nash draws attention to the actual picture of the revolution as a civil war in which the cause itself was not very clear. The text is therefore structure according to this main point of the demonstration: the reason why slavery became even more powerful at the very moment of the foundation of the United States as a nation.
The allusion to the implicit racism at the core of the national experience of America is inescapable. Nash interlocks therefore the two events: the failure to abolish slavery and recognize the African Americans as a people with equal rights and the foundation and unification of the nation itself. He contends therefore that these two events are symbolically related, as the concept of race is deeply rooted in the American experience and culture. Nash’s work is therefore an important analysis that provides new insight on the history of America, of race and on that of the African Americans.
The book is all the more fundamental since there has been only very little historical investigation of the African Americans as a separate race at this particular moment in time. In fact, most of the accounts of African American history skip the period of the revolution all together, thus failing to shed light on a very important moment. The role of the blacks in the Revolution itself is also usually ignored by historians. Race and Revolution thus draws attention to essential and yet un-investigated aspects of the American Revolution.
The revolution, as Nash observes, is usually discussed as a great movement of emancipation and unification of the colonies on the territory of America. Given its importance as a historical event, the underlying racial debate on the question of slavery at the time is skipped or ignored. Nash demonstrates that this is an important moment for the evolution of the interracial relationships in America precisely because it actually functioned as a crossroads in the history of the United States. If a different course of events had taken place at the time, the conflict between the two races might have had a very different outcome.
Thus, the American Revolution was a decisive moment for the interracial contention precisely because is an early form of abolitionism. While endeavoring to obtain their own independence and rights from England, the colonies debated the fundamental question of slavery and whether it should be abolished. The moment is a turning point in history precisely because the choices made at the point where the nation was founded influence the subsequent ideological growth of the nation. Thus, Nash implies in his book that the idealism of the revolution was dashed by the failure of the colonies to abolish slavery at that time.
As the author observes, the matter of slavery and race was simply left by the revolutionaries to another generation to solve. This demonstrates that the idealism was sacrificed in favor of economical interest and that the abhorrence for the other race could not be eradicated even at a fundamental time as the American Revolution. Nash therefore achieves a very important statement in historical and cultural studies, pointing out that good causes can often be prevailed upon by petty interests.
He also draws attention to the fact that some of the early abolitionists advocated the freedom of the black slaves for the same purpose of convenience, because they believed that white workers would be a better or more profitable option. The struggle caused by racial contention was therefore a complex and long process, in which idealism played a very small part. The actual battle took place between various political and economical interests. Nash also highlights that slavery actually increased its rate in the middle of emancipation again due to economical interests.
The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 for instance brought a tremendous enhance to the plantation of cotton and implicitly to the need for slaves as working force. The causes that the revolutionaries fought for were thus not as simple and luminous as they are usually thought to be. The slavery debate at the time of the early republic best demonstrates that the social and political scenes were already very complex theatres. Gary B. Nash’s Race and Revolution is therefore a complex investigation of many aspects of the American Revolution and the slavery debate that took place at the time.
The structure and the coherence of the ideas make the book an insightful and useful glance at the events that took place during the American Revolution. The importance of the book can be therefore estimated as quite high, since it sheds lights on new aspects of the revolution and of the early republic. It also demolishes the myth of the revolution as one of the most glorious moments in American history. While there was indeed a stream of idealism permeating the nation at that time, there were also many economical and political interests at play.
What becomes clear after reading Nash’s book is that the revolution did not have enough ideological force to suppress racism and implicitly slavery. The abolishment was in fact a slow, gradual process that can be said to have spanned the entire nineteenth century and more than that. Despite the fact that among the revolutionaries there were people who had an enlightened idea about democracy and human rights in general, their force was not sufficient to alter the course of history and prevent further racial conflicts.
The fact that the racial war was not won at the time even though independence was gained, proves that race is an inherent concept that will probably always generate conflict and debate. Nash’ book demonstrates that even at a time of idealism like the revolution, racism was still at its height and impossible to suppress. It also proves an important and general remark on the course of history itself, as it pinpoints the complexity of the events during the revolution. The structure of the historical events is never simple and unanimity is very hard to be achieved on a certain point.
Therefore, the work emphasizes many aspects of the American Revolution, stressing its importance as a event in the history of the African Americans and in the history of race itself, as a concept. It provides a useful reading precisely because it makes a clear and concise demonstration of the way in which racial debates are fundamental to the American nation itself. The paradox at the center of the American civilization is thus unveiled and discussed: along the tumultuous history of the United States, a very high idealism and democratic principle has mingled with the desire for progress and economical advancement.
The history of the United States seems to be permeated by example of opposite aspects entering into an irreconcilable conflict. The highly democratic and enlightened principles of the American Revolution are shadowed thus by the racial debate underlying the main events. As such, the book is an interesting reading for anyone desiring to perfect his or her knowledge of the history of the United States and its cultural paradoxes. References: Nash, Gary B (2001). Race and Revolution. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield
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