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Republic of the Dispossessed: The Exceptional Old-European Consensus in America.

By Rowland Berthoff (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1997. ix plus 249pp. $39.95).

How do you summarize forty years of wide-ranging scholarship in two pithy phrases of title and subtitle? You don't.

This book consists of eight journal articles and book chapters published between 1960 and 1989, plus a new introduction, conclusion, and two additional brief chapters. Rowland Berthoff tries hard to corral these disparate writings inside a thesis, but they have too much life of their own to be so contained.

Berthoff's thesis consists of five main points: 1) that there has been a consensus among Americans throughout their history; 2) that this consensus consists of placing the highest political value on both personal liberty and "communal equality"; 3) that these values were originally brought to America by English colonists and then continually reinforced by later immigrants from Europe; 4) that in Europe the immigrants had been "dispossessed," or at least had feared being dispossessed, of personal liberty and communal equality; and 5) that this consensus makes United States history exceptional.

These are large ideas, and they may be true; but no historian could prove them convincingly, or even argue them consistently, in a short collection of diverse essays that sometimes have only the most tangential relationship to one another.

Berthoff identifies the distinguishing American character trait as a balance between personal liberty and communal equality. He finds this balance in all sorts of people from "Old Europe": English peasants in the Middle Ages, Puritans who founded New England, European intellectuals propagating classical "republican" ideology, German and Welsh and Italian immigrants (but, for some reason, not Irish or Russian Jewish). This raises several questions.

1) If so many Europeans desired personal liberty and communal equality, is that desire distinctively, exceptionally American? Berthoff's answer is that the migrants were not a cross-section of the European population but only those people who were most intent on regaining, preserving, or obtaining liberty and equality: socialists, insufficiently attentive to personal liberty, were left behind. If that is true, however, then the source of the American character was not Europe but the migration from Europe, the process of selection. And if this is so, then it may not have mattered where the migrants came from: later ones from Asia or Latin America might have passed through the same filtration process and turned out to have the same effect on the national character. For that matter, the migrants need not have come from abroad at all, but might have moved from one part of the United States to another. European values might not have made much difference; perhaps what was crucial was the inducement to immigration offered by America, perhaps even the frontier. Try as it might, this book on the "Old-European" origins of American culture cannot finally pound a stake through the heart of Frederick Jackson Turner.

2) Even if every American agrees on the importance of balance, does it not make a great deal of difference where the balance point is; that is, how much liberty is needed to counterbalance equality, how much of the personal to offset the communal? What seems balanced to a Puritan might seem quite lopsided to a republican or an Italian. Saying that practically all Americans have striven for a balance merely begs the question of what constitutes a balance. More often than not, Berthoff argues that immigrants originated or revived an American insistence on self-reliance, independence, individualism, as when he says that recent immigrants clung to small businesses after native-born Americans had gone to work in factories. However, Berthoff also maintains that some immigrants, like the Puritans and Quakers, insisted on communal responsibility, resisting the drift toward mere liberalism. Thus the immigrants serve as a kind of wild card, useful for explaining whatever condition happens to exist - individualism, collectivism, or a balance between the two. But if "peasant-Puritan-republican values, communal equality and personal liberty" are so elastic as to explain everything, they do not really explain anything.

3) The concept of personal liberty may be clear enough, but what exactly is communal equality? Community and equality are different from personal liberty, but they are also different from each other. Some people may be rich and powerful, others poor and in subjection - decidedly unequal - but all knit together in the bonds of community. It may be, then, that whatever "balance" exists in the American character may be threefold - among liberty, equality, and community. But this sounds like a gender-neutral version of "liberty, equality, fraternity" - a French slogan, not something distinctively American.

Berthoff might well refute each of these objections and prove each point of his thesis, but it would take quite a few large books to do so. After stipulating exactly what constitutes personal liberty, communal equality, and the balance between them, he would need to produce a massive comparative history, showing that the immigrants from Europe to America, unlike everybody else in the world, admired and desired these conditions. And he would need several more lifetimes to do it.

Or he could tell everybody to forget about the thesis and just enjoy the book.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate this volume is to read it not as Berthoff assembled it but as he wrote it, that is, in chronological order - seeking the development of his thought, not his thesis. Chapter 1, "The American Social Order" (1960), is a daringly vast assertion that "the central and continuous factor throughout the history of American society is its characteristic mobility" (not, one might note, a set of ideals held by immigrants from Old Europe). Chapter 4, "The Social Order of the Anthracite Region, 1825-1902" (1965) richly describes mining communities in Pennsylvania.

Chapter 6, "From Republican Citizen to Free Enterpriser, 1787-1837" (1979), shows Americans' transition from antique republicanism to modern liberalism and thereby indicates the beginning of Berthoff's fascination with the liberty/equality question. Chapter 8, "Small Business in the American Dream" (1980) continues to reflect that fascination; but Chapter 5, on the Welsh in America (also 1980), changes the subject and devotes affectionate and discerning attention to a little-known people.

Chapter 2, "Personal Liberty and Communal Equality in American History" (1982), lays out an interpretation as audacious as, but quite different from, that in Chapter 1. Chapter 3 (1988) analyzes the Northwest Ordinance of 1787; while Chapter 7, "Free Blacks, Women, and Business Corporations as Unequal Persons" (1989), examines the ideas of delegates to state constitutional conventions between 1820 and 1870. Chapters 9 and 10 (both hitherto unpublished) muse on being "Homeless in America" and on "Children as Persistent American Traditionalists."

Read in this sequence, Republic of the Dispossessed reveals no single, all-encompassing interpretation, no Holy Grail of American history, but the continuing discoveries of a curious, studious mind. That is sufficient justification for this book.

James A. Hijiya University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
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Author:Hijiya, James A.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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