The Sound of a Violin


Adrian Rutt

Life is like one of those sand art thingies that gets destroyed after it's completed.

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20 Responses

  1. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I very much enjoyed this walk through history. It’s important to realize that history was alive, that real people were doing real things in time and space, juggling the same sorts of pressures we juggle today: on the one hand, concern about their public and political affairs, sure, but also getting the laundry done and staying on good terms with the neighbors, paying the bills, and holy crap what’s the kid got into today.

    A place like Williamsburg makes that sort of “wait, this was real life” moment easy to understand, easy to feel and experience. Doing that makes the study and contemplation of historical events deeper, richer, and leaves one — at least it leaves me — with a greater appreciation for the momentous events and the people who acted in them.

    Perhaps uncomfortably, it suggests that some things were ambiguous: the Royal Governor’s speech is a great example of this: the colonists weren’t all political fanatics and were willing to listen to the King’s representative; power was not necessarily abused either in the movement of the gunpowder or the quelling of the civil agitation that followed; yes, there were disagreements about how best to advance the public welfare and in what direction that advance should go, but all of the players on the ground did want the public welfare advanced rather than just seeking an aggrandizement of power and wealth.

    Of such ambiguities and actualities is history best understood.Report

  2. Avatar Damon says:

    This post just goes to illustrate how much liberty & freedom the american people have given up in the last two hundred years.Report

  3. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    I lived in Williamsburg for six years. In that time, I came to realize that I would not have liked Patrick Henry at all. He was, to my mind, a grandstanding rage junkie. I would have had the greatest respect for Colonel Washington, though I’m not sure he was a person you “liked”. Peyton Randolph, on the other hand, was quite a likable fellow. I would have felt a great affinity for Jefferson – he was a proto-geek – but he also had a certain, I don’t know, lack of practicality?

    Jefferson attended William and Mary, but he never graduated. The joke at W&M these days is that he didn’t pay his library fines (and indeed, there’s documentation of that) and that’s why he didn’t get his degree. (Not so sure about that.) My addendum is that he loved the W&M experience so much that he went off and founded UVA. Ahem.

    Oh, and as a residence I can’t help but correct on detail. The name of the street is Duke of Gloucester Street. Or as we locals called it “DoG Street”.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      I don’t have any impression of Randolph, but I agree on the other guys. Washington in particular really stands out as someone who impressed nearly everybody. It is a defensible stance that the constitution was only ratified because everyone (correctly) assumed that Washington would be the president, and that made it OK. The assessment from a modern military history perspective is that he was a guy who learned from his mistakes. I mean that as high praise.Report

      • Avatar El Muneco in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        You have to be a pretty good pitcher to lose 20 games. For Washington to “lose” so many battles but keep his army together (both organizationally and moralewise), continue pressing the British, and have enough of a core still around to allow the French into the field – that was a massive accomplishment.Report

    • Avatar Adrian Rutt in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      Right! I actually knew that…damn. Thank you.

      You’re already reminding me of the great times drinking (expensive) beers sitting on the patio of DoG Street Pub…Report

    • Avatar Crprod in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      Your final paragraph saved me from having to point that out. Considering Colonial Williamsburg and W&M’s innate conservativism, I don’t think that they would change those things. When I lived in Gloucester County in the middle of the previous century, Williamsburg often seemed to be most famous for being the site of Easter State Hospital.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      A high school friend recently wrote a book on Madison, focusing on his early schooling and political career up to the ratification of the Constitution. The middle part of the book is all about the Henry vs Madison rivalry.

      The weirdest part about Henry is how he became a RINO (Revolutionary in Name Only). After the war, he tried to get Virginia to establish a state religion, then, later, after the Constitution was adopted despite Henry’s vigorous opposition, became more Federalist than thou, supporting all the worst parts of Adams Sr.’s administration, like the Alien & Sedition act.

      (it’s also interesting that William & Mary at the time was the school of The Man, by the Virginia Planter Anglican establishment, and for the Virginia Planter Anglican Establishment. But Madison went to the hippie school up in Princeton, New Jersey, where all the kids were listening to that Scottish Enlightenment sound).Report

      • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to Kolohe says:

        Honestly, William and Mary may still be the school of The Man. It is very buttoned down, probably the most buttoned down state-run school I’ve ever seen.Report

    • Patrick Henry would be a star on talk radio.Report

  4. While I disagree with your assessment of that dirty war as a righteous cause, I think this is a very well written post and you have a pretty firm grasp of how history works.

    When I get off my high horse from complaining about how the American Revolution was unjust and how we shouldn’t celebrate it (but I’d still like to have the 4th of July off, please), I can acknowledge, as you put it so well, that things happen for a reason and the Revolution itself wasn’t really a surprise, although historians may quibble about when it became something that was probably gonna happen.

    One thought, though. You allude to the possibility that Randolph cited fears of a slave rebellion. He may or may not have feared that and citing those fears may or may not have calmed the mob down. But in a slave society where slavery is race-based, members of the master class and of the “master” race are always going to have the possibility of a slave revolt in the back of their minds. What this fear means? I’m not sure entirely, but I will say that the fear was a trump card the British played against the colonists and probably played a big role in shaping how these members of the master class/race envisioned “liberty.”Report

    • Avatar Adrian Rutt in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      Appreciate the civil comment.. I was worried that it was going to devolve into vicious snarkery after the “while I disagree with your assessment…” It’s not you; it’s my general cynicism about the internet.

      Considering the Randolph comment, I was alluding more so to Governor Dunmore’s excuse for taking the gunpowder. As you say “the fear was a trump card the British played against the colonists,” and I think that’s why Randolph was convinced by this line of thought given to him when he and the governor met in private.

      I am a tad curious about the “unjust” war assessment though. Although I am perhaps with you that any war can be spun to look unjust, I am curious how, in this case, that it looks to be obviously true. Maybe the word “just” I don’t like because it’s so abstract and sticky from the beginning. Do you think that the revolution, or more precisely the war of independence, was not worth fighting? Unjustified?

      Again, I don’t think it was a black-and-white situation (as most history isn’t), but I am curious where you are coming from (genuinely). As for myself, I think Burke’s perspective across the pond is interesting to take into account when assessing the situation… as is, too, accounts from Zinn and other figures displaying the purported hypocrisy of it all.Report

      • Thanks for your response. Also, I think I confused Randolph and Dunsmore.

        I lay out some of my thoughts on the war here:

        But that doesn’t quite get at why I spend so much energy in talking about the revolution as an unjust war (and you’re right that history isn’t black and white whether you support the revolution or oppose it). I should be honest and say that one reason is opposing the war appeals to the contrarian in me. That’s not a good thing, but it’s there. At another level, though, I have a visceral reaction to the fact that I was told much of my pre-adult life that the Revolution of course was a good thing. I guess for me it’s partially what I see as the hypocrisy of it all. I also think the Loyalists were ill-treated, and I suspect (but don’t know) that probably a large number of people, maybe John Adams’s one-third, were indifferent to the cause itself and just trying to get by.

        I’ve come to a conclusion that it was not worth fighting. I can’t say that it was worth nothing, however, because I’m not prepared to say that things would be better in 2016 had had the US not revolted. And I do believe there are positive things we can attribute to the Revolution. I do think it set the beginning of the end of slavery and at least some of the ideals the Revolution popularized may have had causal force for good.Report

        • Avatar Adrian in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

          I find your view absolutely fascinating. I also read the article/essay you wrote awhile back and that too was a great read.

          I should be honest and say that one reason is opposing the war appeals to the contrarian in me. That’s not a good thing, but it’s there. At another level, though, I have a visceral reaction to the fact that I was told much of my pre-adult life that the Revolution of course was a good thing.

          Without being flippant about your whole world view, I am inclined to say “me too.” I’m with you on the contrarian thing, and, whether people like him or not, Hitch said being that contrarian is good as long as there’s substance behind it. With your view there undoubtedly is.

          On that note, I would love to strike up a side conversation about these topics. Or, at the very least, have you point me in the direction of some of the literature or resources that have shaped or guided your views on these matters (not, of course, to imply that your expression of these ideas isn’t original to you). To be fair though, I have engaged with the “contrarian” literature, but I haven’t drawn the same conclusions as you have in your comments and your previous essay. So I guess that’s where I’m coming from in wanting to possibly have a conversation elsewhere about this stuff.

          To end, this is fantastic, as I’ve written and thought about this idea elsewhere…

          I do think it set the beginning of the end of slavery and at least some of the ideals the Revolution popularized may have had causal force for good.

          Also, it reminds me of this (from a book I read a few months ago):

          The great moral principles enunciated in the U.S. Constitution could never have been implemented immediately; once they were introduced, however, the progression to universal applicability was irresistible.


          • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Adrian says:

            I don’t find you flippant at all. And thanks for engaging my ideas.

            You probably have read more of the literature than I have. I’ve read or skimmed many monographs on the American Revolution era, or the leadup or aftermath to them. This is a long comment, so my tl;dr is I’ve read a smattering about the Revolution, and they have undoubtedly influenced me, but it’s hard for me to pinpoint what did or how. And the list I’m going to give is my best guess.

            The most influential, to me, were Bailyn’s Origins of American Politics (a shorthand version of his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which I did not read), Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery/American Freedom, Michael Gross’s The Minutemen and Their World, Rhys Isaac’s Transformation of Virginia, and Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Most of those don’t touch explicitly on whether the Revolution was a good thing and the one that does (Wood’s book) is obviously pro-Revolution, although I’ll note that most of the good things about the war comes from its effects and not from the reasons compelling the colonists to revolt.

            Gross’s and Isaac’s books, which are mostly agnostic on whether the Revolution was a good thing, drove home for me a realization that these were just ordinary people trying to get along. As I read each book, they make the case that there were complex causes to the Revolution–and real changes came as a result of the Revolution–but one of my takeaways was that the notion the war was about “freedom” just doesn’t explain the story they relate.

            Morgan’s book is way too complicated to do it justice in the “was the revolution just or not” debate–and it’s more about the evolution of slavery in the Chesapeake from the 1600s until the Revolution and not about the Revolution itself–but among other things, it de-sentimentalizes for me the justness of the American Revolution.

            Bailyn’s account, which is more of an intellectual history of the Revolution, suggest to me a widespread presence of conspiratorial thinking. That may not have been what he wanted his audience’s takeaway to be, but that was mine.

            As for what really influenced my negative view, I’ll suggest three books I’ve read. The first was Johnny Tremain. I had to read that in 8th grade and in my opinion the portrayal of Tremain and his co-Revolutionaries was overwrought and I felt sorry for the British soldiers. (I realize that effect was not the author’s intention, but that was my own takeaway.) I didn’t become an anti-Revolution person upon reading that book, but it got me thinking about war in general and about that war in particular as something we shouldn’t be celebrating.

            Two other books, which I read after I became more or less convinced that I opposed the war, reinforced my opinion of it. The first was Peter Oliver’s Origins and Progress of the American Revolution, which is a Tory account of the war. The second was David Hackett Fischer’s biography of Paul Revere. Fischer (Fisher?) himself was not opposed to the war as far as I know, but the Massachusetts society he described seemed to me intolerant of dissent and I saw/see the Revolution as being an instance of that intolerance.

            Strangely enough, I haven’t read Zinn or some of the other works that call the Revolution into question, such as Beard’s tome on the Constitution or Gary Nash’s writings on the war.Report

            • Avatar Adrian in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

              First off, thanks for the list of works… some I’ve heard but haven’t had the chance to read but others are altogether unfamiliar, so in that way I’m excited. As a side note, I’ve been wanting to read The Men Who Lost America, which looks like such an interesting and fresh perspective on the revolution. Perhaps, you might like this too.

              In any case, I think you’re right when you say that “most of the good things about the war comes from its effects and not from the reasons compelling the colonists to revolt.” This, I can get on board with, and this alone should give us pause to make sure whether or not we are being anachronistic with our judgements about history. This, to me, seems like a huge problem today: using overtly politicized history or history that lacks any semblance of historical nuance to make a point or promote a worldview. Or, at the very least, we should acknowledge this is what we are doing and then still engage in a conversation or discussion about it.

              Gross’s and Isaac’s books, which are mostly agnostic on whether the Revolution was a good thing, drove home for me a realization that these were just ordinary people trying to get along. As I read each book, they make the case that there were complex causes to the Revolution.

              I’m with you here as well I think. Especially the “ordinary people” part. It reminds me an idea from one of my favorite thinkers Michael Oakeshott when he says that we constantly misunderstand our political “arrangements and institutions” when we regard them “as something more significant than the footprints of thinkers and statesmen who knew which way to turn their feet without knowing anything about a final destination.” Unless I am misunderstanding you slightly, this, I think, captures my – as well as yours seemingly – sentiment about most political movements.

              I agree with you as well when you say that Bailyn’s work (I’ve read the Ideological Origins and not the one you read) largely implies that, as I said in my original post, people were blowing things out of proportion i.e. they were being somewhat conspiratorial about the whole matter.

              It seems to me, though, that it’s not as if you “oppose” the war but that and retrospective judgments whatsoever about whether it was just or not miss the point. At least that’s how I view it. I think we are asking the wrong questions when we ask something like “was it, at the end of the day, just?” I think you put this well when you said that the resulting consequences are much different than the motives and drives within a movement. Such that we can say that all of the founders were self-interested, aristocratic bastards yet can also say that the resulting political framework was one that set in motion an interesting potentiality (to say the least). This goes back to my comment from John Ellis about the irresistible character of making the myth of “all men are created equal” in 1776 true in 2016.

              Anyway, good stuff. I appreciate all the reading suggestions. Sometimes I waver in and out of reading about this time period (my favorite time period), but conversations like these always renew my interest.Report