17 May 2021

Nancy Isenberg—Liberty and Freedom Meant Different Things

Nancy Isenberg
White Trash: The 400-Year Old Untold History
of Class in America

p. 75 -- "Franklin certainly never endorsed social mobility as we think of it today, despite his own experience."

pp. 81-82 -- "Paine was careful to downplay the distinction between the rich and the poor. He wanted his American readers to focus on distant kings, not local grandees."

p. 85 -- "[Jefferson] called the new western domain an "empire for liberty," by which he meant something other than a free-market economy or a guarantee of social mobility."

Ostensibly, then, the broader objective throughout this part of the book is to restore to various figures, documents, and events the historical context which ensuing centuries of reductionism and ideology have gradually eroded. I must confess, though, that even (or especially) after a second pass, I really need her to say more about each of these interpretations. (Start with the fact that that's what they are.) And if it is as simple as three colonial-era ivory tower dwellers "reveling in rhetorical obfuscation" (p. 86 re: Jefferson specifically, though frankly I wonder if this isn't an apt criticism in all three cases), then this needs to be made more clear.

I would say as well that the laying bare of, variously, Franklin's hypocrisy, Paine's charlatanism, and Jefferson's rhetorical obfuscation is an exercise which, notwithstanding any visceral satisfaction it might provide for cynics (among which I proudly count myself here), is inherently more biographical than historical. Did these conceptions have legs? What countervailing position(s) emerged? And how and to what extent were these various positions, as Erich Fromm might have asked, "socially patterned?" This is a tall order of course, but without its fulfillment I'm left with a vague aftertaste of Great Man Theory. As "elites," perhaps these were, in the long run, influential thinkers; but given the topic of the book, one must wonder as well how representative they truly were.

The story of Oglethorpe and Georgia was new to me, and perhaps only because it was new did I come away from that chapter with fewer concerns about the overall narrative being spun. But by the end of Chapter 4 it certainly has become clear that this is a series of case studies more than a comprehensive account. I'm not oblivious to the many factors which tend to push an author in that direction; I've just evolved into an all-or-nothing reader, hence I would have been game for an exhaustive study.

[from a Goodreads post, 2017]

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