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“Jesse Lemisch and History from the Bottom Up”

By Marcus Rediker [I]

Moscow’s Hotel Rossiya, off Red Square, March. 1991: Again and again Jesse Lemisch and I explained our mission to the sometimes suspicious, sometimes uncomprehending clerks: we were searching for a group of Siberian miners who had come to Russia’s capital city to wage a hunger strike. Each one shook his or her head and answered, “they are not in this section of the hotel.” We realized, of course, that we might have been getting the run-around. Not one of these clerks would have wanted these hunger strikers in his or her section. But in a hotel of 5,000 rooms, and in a country with a history of bureaucratic incompetence, we could not be certain. There we were, searching for “history from the bottom up” in the making, in a country where early in the century those on the bottom had made some earth-shaking history.

We would not find the miners that day, but we had managed to make other connections and to learn a great deal about the popular ferment that gripped Russia after the fall of Communism and the dismantling of the Soviet Union. We had already visited Boris Kagarlitsky, the dissident left-wing intellectual and organizer who had been imprisoned during the Brezhnev years for publishing a Eurocommunist journal called Left Turn, so that we might strengthen ties within the international peace movement. And we had attended a small demonstration – a “speak out” – at Manezh Square, where we had originally heard about the Siberian miners and their initiative. When I returned to the hotel the following day and continued to ask about the miners (Jesse had to depart for New York), I was at last saved by a hotel maid, who overheard me, pulled me aside, and furtively led me through a maze of corridors to a room in which sat six somewhat haggard hut determined men. In the afternoon-long conversations that followed, I understood that a powerful history was at work: Russian miners had been among the first to form independent trade unions during the late l980s, and were now taking the lead in defining the politics of a new era in Russian history. Their final words to me – “we shall overcome”– suggested an international consciousness of struggle and perhaps an American origin of their tactic, the hunger strike.

I felt then, and I feel now, that there was a certain poetry in these adventures. My companion, Jesse Lemisch, was the historian who more than twenty years earlier had popularized the term “history from the bottom up.” I had known Jesse for several years and was not surprised to witness his consistency in approaching past and present. He had long insisted, with Brecht, that kings had not built the Seven Gates of Thebes, had not hauled the craggy blocks of stone. Therefore when we went to Moscow to attend a conference on American history, he sought out, not the likes of Gorbachev, Yeltsin, or other, lesser bosses, but rather a former political prisoner, demonstrators, and hunger strikers in order to discover the truths of a turbulent history rapidly unfolding before us.[ii]

Lemisch is, of course, widely and rightly known for his work in pioneering “history from the bottom up,” which appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a new kind of social history. He and others who helped to create this new form of “peoples’ history” (Herbert G. Gutman, Staughton Lynd, Alfred F. Young) were part of a New Left, responding to and expressing the demands for a new history then being voiced by African-Americans, students, women, and workers, as they combined in various movements for peace, justice, and power. “History from the bottom up” thus arose as an explicit challenge to the elitist though insular traditions of historical writing within the American academy, and more specifically to the deadening “consensus” approach to the American past that had grown out of the repressive atmosphere of the Cold War. Lemisch helped to define and to write the new, more generous, more inclusive history, and he fought (and fought hard) for its place within the discipline and profession of history and the larger society, over and against the conservative assumptions and practices that were then dominant. This he did at considerable personal cost, as he was fired by the University of Chicago in 1966.

Lemisch nonetheless continued to wage the battle for the new history in speech and in print. His paper, “Present-Mindedness Revisited: Anti-Radicalism as a Goal of American Historical Writing Since World War II,” was the centerpiece of one of the best attended and most contentious sessions in the recent history of the American Historical Association (Washington, D.C., December 1969); it was later published as On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession (Toronto: New Hogtown Press. 1975). Its fate was to be despised by the right, ignored by the middle, and cherished by the left. Lemisch also carried on the struggle, with wicked wit, in his own specific field of study, when in 1976 he attacked the conservative “dean” of early American historians, Bernard Bailyn, who was, Lemisch announced in the Radical History Review, “Besieged in his Bunker.”[iii]

Lemisch also helped to internationalize American history and to make its study more sophisticated. One means was by adapting and popularizing the work of the British Marxist historians – Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, George Rudé, and especially E.P. Thompson, all of whom eschewed dogmatism, reductionism, determinism, and excessive abstraction in favor of a flexible, concrete humanism in the writing of politically-engaged history. But Lemisch also went beyond these distinguished scholars in several respects. If the British Marxist historians, along with the French historians Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul, had pioneered “history from below,” which made historical actors of religious radicals, rioters, peasants, and artisans, Lemisch pushed the phrase and the history further and harder with “history from the bottom up,” a more inclusive and comprehensive formulation that brought all subjects, especially slaves and women, more fully into the historian’s field of vision. By insisting, in his research on sailors in the era of the American Revolution, upon the autonomous political hopes and demands of working people, he also went beyond the prevailing assumption among left historians that all popular movements before the great French Revolution were somehow “pre-political” or “sub-political.” By insisting that sailors and other workers had ideas of their own, he made a point that many historians have yet to grasp – the history of the working class must be an intellectual as well as a social history.

A second way in which Lemisch has broadened and deepened the discussion of American history has been through international debate, particularly with Russian specialists in the history of the United States. Lemisch has since the 1970s kept up a steady dialogue with Soviet/Russian scholars such as N.N. Bolkhovitinov, Vladimir Sogrin, Valeri Tischkov, Gennadi Duhovitskii, and Sergei Zhuk. Since Lemisch’s work is well known among Russian Americanists (who for many years followed trends in left historiography closely), it came as no surprise when he was scheduled to deliver a plenary address at a major conference in Moscow in 1991. He obliged with “American History Viewed Through a (No Longer) Red Lens: Will it be the Triumph of Capitalism, or Scholarship that Divorces Truth from Power?” Lemisch applauded Russian historians for their “startling new beginnings” in trying to write a new, less doctrinaire history of the United States, but he also posed cautionary questions: “having bent with the Communist wind, will you now bend with the anti-Communist wind?” Or will you instead, he wondered hopefully, “write a proud new chapter in the history of the war between truth and power”?

Lemisch’s final question to the conference was but another way of saying what he has long maintained – “history from the bottom up” represents a democratization of the past and therefore the realization of one of America’s most fundamental professed values. As he wrote in an SDS pamphlet in 1966, “History, the democrat believes, can happen from the bottom up, and the democrat as historian will write it from the bottom up.”[iv] Lemisch amplified this insight in what was in many respects his manifesto for a new history, “The American Revolution as Seen from the Bottom Up,” which appeared in 1967: “The American Revolution can best be re-examined from a point of view which assumes that all men [and women] are created equal, and rational, and that since they can think and reason they can make their own history. These assumptions are nothing more nor less than the democratic credo. All of our history needs re-examination from this perspective. The history of the powerless, the inarticulate, the poor has not yet begun to be written because they have been treated no more fairly by historians than they have been treated by their contemporaries.”[v] The class perspective “from the bottom up,” the insistence on the history-making powers of those long excluded from the history books, the explicit link between past and present, these are the fundamental ideas for which Lemisch has stood and battled, with good humor and great determination, over many years.[vi]

Jack Tar vs. John Bull: The Role of New York’s Seamen in Precipitating the Revolution was for many years something of an underground classic. I say “underground” not only because its author has associated himself with many an underground cause, but because the work (completed at Yale University in 1962, never published, and never easy to access) has nonetheless had a vibrant, influential, fugitive existence since its appearance thirty-five years ago. The original dissertation and the articles that grew out of it affected many, including Staughton Lynd, Alfred F. Young, and many others,[vii] as acknowledged in Jon Wiener’s account of the rise of “radical history” in the Journal of American History and Peter Novick’s history of both historical “objectivity” and the historical profession as a whole, That Noble Dream.[viii] Lemisch’s influence has continued to be felt more recently, as, for example, at a conference on “Jack Tar in History” held in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1990, where Lemisch was (to his egalitarian discomfort) an intellectual and spiritual leader.[ix]

Jack Tar vs. John Bull reads well after all these years. Much of its lasting value arises from its extensive research and documentation; it boasts 583 endnotes in a text of modest length. Such painstaking scholarship was necessary to Lemisch’s effort to establish new truths under the difficult circumstances of the Cold War, though of course he has always had great respect for historical evidence in its own right. Jack Tar vs. John Bull is also judicious, often quite cautious, in its arguments, all of which are carried along in a graceful, well-written narrative. It seems to me that its thesis about conservatives, liberals, and radicals in the unfolding of the revolutionary era remains valid and valuable to this day.

Other strengths lie in the excellent all-around account of the political and material dimensions of the sailor’s life (e.g., impressment and unemployment) which, crucially and characteristically, includes the sailor’s creative response to such conditions, his self-activity. Lemisch’s study also contains formulations that historians are just now beginning to take up as challenges. I have in mind here the brief but tantalizing observations about African-American sailors and the cooperation of sailors and slaves in American seaport mobs in the 1760s and 1770s, which has helped to move other scholars to address this important theme. And there on page 55 is an arresting idea, “the folk memory of tyranny,” which should be of interest to the increasing number of historians who are working on the problem of historical memory.[x] Jack Tar versus John Bull, in short, continues to be relevant.

Jack Tar versus John Bull is, in the end, not only an influential piece of history: it is an historical document in its own right. It represents one of the important origins of “history from the bottom up,” which was a profoundly new approach to both past and present. Perhaps it will continue to be influential, especially to the younger historians who will form the next New Left. It is an unusual pleasure to introduce a work and an author from which and from whom I and many others have learned so much. Long live the classic that has now, after so many years, emerged from the underground into the light of published day!


[i]. Originally published as the Preface to Jesse Lemisch, Jack Tar vs. John Bull: The Role of New York’s Seamen in Precipitating the Revolution (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997), ix-xii. Back

[ii]. Marcus Rediker, “Recent Conversations in the USSR,” New People (June, 1991). For an account of the conference that took us to Moscow, see Marcus Rediker, “The Old Guard, the New Guard, and the People at the Gates: New Approaches to the Study of American History in the U.S.S.R.,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd. ser. 48 (1991), 580-597. Back

[iii]. See Jesse Lemisch, “Bailyn Besieged in his Bunker,” Radical History Review 3(1976), 72-83, and his review of Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge. Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968), “What Made Our Revolution?” The New Republic (May 25. 1968). 25-28. Back

[iv]. Jesse Lemisch, “Towards a Democratic History,” A Radical Education Project Occasional Paper (1967). See also the subsequent debate sparked by this pamphlet: Joan W. and Donald M. Scott, “Toward History’: A Reply to Jesse Lemisch.” and Lemisch’s response, “New Left Elitism: A Rejoinder,” both in Radical America 1(1967), 37-53.Back

[v]. Jesse Lemisch, “The American Revolution Seen from the Bottom Up,” in Barton J. Bernstein, ed., Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History (New York: Vintage, 1967), 29.Back

[vi]. These were the ideas I found most compelling about Lemisch’s work when I first encountered it in 1974, when, while working in a factory in Richmond, Virginia, I took a night class on the American Revolution at Virginia Commonwealth University and read the debate he and John Alexander waged with James H. Hutson on writing the history of the “inarticulate.” See James H. Hutson, “An Investigation of the Inarticulate: Philadelphia’s White Oaks,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 28(1971). 3-26; Jesse Lemisch and John K. Alexander, “The White Oaks, Jack Tar, and the Concept of the ‘Inarticulate,” Ibid., 29(1972), 109-134; and “James H. Hutson’s Rebuttal,” in Ibid.. 29(1972), 136-142.Back

[vii]. See Young’s comments on Lemisch and his place in early American history in “American Historians Confront ‘The Transforming Hand of Revolution,’” in Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert, eds., The Transforming Hand of Revolution: Reconsidering the American Revolution as a Social Movement (Charlottesville. Va.: University of Virginia Press, l996), 433-438.Back

[viii]. Jonathan Wiener, “Radical Historians and the Crisis in American History, 1959-1980,” Journal of American History 76(1989), 399-434; Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), ch. 13. Lemisch’s most influential articles are “Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in The Politics of Revolutionary America,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 25(1968), 371-407 (recently selected as one of the best articles ever to be published in this distinguished journal); “Listening to the ‘Inarticulate’: William Widger’s Dream and the Loyalties of American Revolutionary Seamen in British Prisons,” Journal of Social History 3(1969-1970), 1-29: and “The American Resolution Seen from the Bottom Up.” See also the reviews of Towards a New Past by Aileen S. Kraditor and David Donald and the exchange between Lemisch and Kraditor in the American Historical Review, 74(1968), 529-33 and 74(1969), 1766-9.Back

[ix]. The essays from the conference appeared in Colin Howell and Richard Twomey, eds., Jack Tar in History: Essays on Maritime Life and Labour (Fredericton, New Brunswick: Acadiensis Press, 1991). “Jack Tar versus John Bull” (even though I had serious difficulty getting my hands on it) helped to make possible my study of sailors and pirates in the eighteenth century: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700—1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).Back

[x]. Julius Scott, “The Common Wind: Currents of Afro-American Communication in the Era of the Haitian Revolution,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Duke University. 1986; W. Jeffrey Bolster, “To Feel Like a Man’: Black Seamen in the Northern States, 1800—1860,” Journal of American History 76(1990), 1173-99; Marcus Rediker. “A Motley Crew of Rebels: Sailors, Slaves, and the Coming of the American Revolution,” in Hoffman and Albert, eds., The Transforming Hand of Revolution, 155-198. Other historians who have drawn significantly on Lemisch’s work in one way or another include Edward Countryman. Margaret Creighton, William Lamont, Peter Linebaugh, Gary B. Nash, Simon Newman, Richard Sheldon, Billy G. Smith, and Daniel Vickers. See also Margaret S. Creighton and Lisa Norling, eds., Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700-1920 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), xi.Back