Jesse Lemisch’s Jack Tar vs. John Bull

Kit Adam Wainer

Lemisch, Jesse. Jack Tar vs. John Bull: The Role of New York’s Seamen in Precipitating the Revolution. 1997. New York: Garland Publishing. 180 pps.

In American political history almost everyone has found some use for the American Revolution. Conservatives, liberals, and radicals have all identified their heroes. Each has interpreted those stormy events so shrouded in sanctity to subtly justify modern agendas.

At the beginning of this century historians of the “imperial school” identified the contradiction between British imperial power and colonial liberties as the driving force of the American Revolution. In their schema London’s insistence upon colonial taxation to force the colonies to pay the costs of empire drove colonial American leaders to seek independence and establish a government which would not infringe upon their rights. The imperial school won prominence as U.S. navy ships began to dominate the Pacific Ocean and the State Department entertained plans to open the door to the China market. As the U.S. government assembled an empire among the islands of the Caribbean and South Pacific, historians of the American Revolution meditated on the challenges such an empire posed.

Implicit among imperial school writers is a critique of traditional European colonialism. Whereas the great continental powers had constructed colonial regimes throughout Africa and Asia, the United States emphasized the opening of markets to free trade so that U.S. corporations could more easily compete with their European rivals. Thus historians of the time identified the United States as an eternal opponent of colonial tyranny. In their eyes the American Revolution stood as a warning to all imperial powers who depended upon restrictive formal empires. And 20th century U.S. demands that European imperialists relax their trade barriers and open their colonies to free trade, were merely a new stage in a centuries-long American struggle for freedom. Indeed, President Woodrow Wilson identified his quest to extend the reach of U.S. capital with the struggles for self-determination, national sovereignty, and respect for international law.

Some modern historians continue to link the American Revolution to the agenda of U.S. capitalism. Gordon Wood, in his widely-praised The Radicalism of the American Revolution, sees in the American Revolution less a struggle against colonialism than the maturation of the ideals of freedom. Republican liberties, Wood argues, captured the imagination of colonial minds in the latter decades of the eighteenth century. Wood, however, envisions freedom in narrow terms. He sees through the eyes of the merchant who wants to trade without government interference, and of the employer who wishes to contract laborers for short periods of time, with no expectation of any obligations once the work cycle is completed. Independence from Great Britain was a natural outcome of such republicanism. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Wood fixes his attention on “radical” ideas rather than historical events. In fact, the reader will have to search diligently through his book for evidence of the mass movements of the 1760s or of the global conflagration of the 1770s.

For Wood republicanism means deregulation. The 1991 publication of his work brought forth reviews filled with accolades and a pulitzer prize as well. His equation of republicanism with unfettered markets was widely popular in the age of downsizing, globalization, the Single Europe Act, and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Unfortunately, the left also has its abusers of history. Jerry Fresia’s minimally-researched Toward an American Revolution (1988) posits the Constitution as the progenitor of modern-day secret government. Fresia foreshadowed Oliver Stone’s reading of the national security state but rooted it in the Constitution, rather than the Kennedy assassination. The weakness of Fresia’s work is its unconvincing connection between a conspiracy of merchants and planters to draft an undemocratic constitution and the policies of the modern state. Whereas Stone could operate under the cover of fiction, Fresia’s failure to demonstrate a link between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries renders his expose of the Constitution of little use.

Similarly, Herbert Aptheker’s The American Revolution (1960) squeezes the Revolution through the prism of contemporary Communist Party policies. Viewing the upsurges of the 1760s and 1770s as a revolt against the monopolistic policies of the British empire, Aptheker places George Washington at the head of the first successful people’s anti-monopoly coalition.

Jesse Lemisch’s study of New York’s seamen on the eve of the American Revolution is, therefore, refreshing both for its meticulous research and the contribution it makes to our understanding of the complex relationship between class conflicts within the British colonies and the colonial struggle for independence from Great Britain.

Lemisch traces the story of Jack Tar, the prototypical colonial seamen, so named for the tar used to waterproof his clothing. Jack Tar was the victim of the rapid economic changes and instability which were becoming the hallmarks of colonial urban life as the eighteenth century progressed. Typically teenagers and immigrants, New York’s seamen would ship out when shipping was in high demand, but would have to scrounge for wage labor in towns when ship work was harder to find. The victim of an emerging market economy that stripped away expectations of economic security, Jack Tar depended upon pubs and inn keepers for information about jobs and credit, or for a sympathetic ear.

Jack Tar was also subject to conscription into the British navy. With few political connections and minimal legal protection merchant seamen lived in constant fear impressment gangs who seized°°them from towns when they were idle, or even from ships while they were working.

Not surprisingly, the Stamp Act crisis of 1765 stirred Jack Tar to militant action. Had it been obeyed, the Act would have imposed duties on all items traded within colonial ports. While New York’s merchants vowed to resist the Stamp Act, their tactics were moderate and they rejected mob action. Jack Tar, on the other hand, like so many urban laborers and craftsmen, demanded immediate and audacious resistance. On October 31, while New York merchants met to discuss a boycott of stamps, crowds of seamen ran through the city to break the windows of stamp importers. The following day a crowd of 2000 surrounded the garrison at the foot of Manhattan to prevent the unloading of the hated stamps.

Throughout colonial towns and cities Stamp Act riots erupted, sweeping into action thousands of laborers and craftsmen, and forcing Parliament to repeal the Act in May 1766. While revocation of the Stamp Act benefitted merchants who would have had to pay for the stamps, the riots filled them with anxiety. Radical crowds had rejected their cautious leadership and precipitated violent confrontations. Furthermore, these radicals any of whom congregated in local chapters of the Sons of Liberty targeted not only colonial authorities but merchants who refused to oppose the Stamp Act. Most importantly, Jack Tar and his cohorts demonstrated a willingness to attack private property. Thus their actions were anathema to New York’s merchant aristocrats.

Jesse Lemisch’s work takes its place within a larger tradition of radical historiography dating back to the beginning of the century. In 1909, Carl Lotus Becker summarized an interpretation of the American Revolution which has formed the basis of most progressive and radical analyses ever since. Becker argued that in the final decade before independence radical colonists challenged both the heavy handedness of British imperialism and the authority of the colonial aristocracy. The first aspect Becker described as the struggle for “home rule; the second was the question, if we may so put it, of who shall rule at home.”

If there is a weakness in Lemisch’s work it is rooted in the thirty-five year gap between its original appearance as a doctoral dissertation in 1962 and as a book in 1997. In the intervening years several important radical works have appeared which cover similar material, and leave Lemisch’s study somewhat less fresh. Most importantly, Gary Nash’s The Urban Crucible (1979), is a breathtaking example of radical historiography. Nash traces the development of New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charleston as centers of primitive capitalist development and emerging class conflicts. Whereas Gordon Wood celebrates the transition from master-apprentice relations within handicraft production to a more modern wage system as symptomatic of the triumph of republican liberty, Nash spots in that transition the roots of economic insecurity and chronic poverty. Lemisch’s study of Jack Tar is, nonetheless, a welcome addition which falls squarely within Nash’s framework. Mining extensively the primary documents available from New York’s colonial history, Lemisch brings Jack Tar to life and allows us to view the riotous tumults which ended New York’s colonial relationship to Great Britain from the vantage point of one of its many participants. In a critique of historians Lemisch notes,

“If maritime history, amateur and professional, has largely ignored the seaman, this is only part of a larger pattern in the writing of American history: neglect of the lower classes. We live, it is said, in an affluent, mobile society, we are all middle class, and it has always been so, more or less: thus the biases with which we view the contemporary scene have been reflected in our view of the past, and the existence of a lower class has been denied, or, when its actions forced some recognition, it has been contended that it acted as the tool of more prominent citizens.” (159)

Lemisch avoids that pitfall and makes a valuable contribution to a revolutionary understanding of the American Revolution.

ATC 75, July-August 1998