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Response to Review of Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic

I am grateful to Lindsay Chervinsky for her thorough summary of my book. Her catalogue of topics and events covered will, I hope, help open up the book to readers with specific interests whose appetites may not have been piqued by the title or publicity material. Among the book’s aims is to show that the 1780s were an interesting time in their own right in the United States, and for all sorts of reasons. As Chervinsky says, it offers ‘a more complex and active view’ of the decade, during which ‘elite gentlemen pursued an active agenda’ of class struggle.

By emphasising the national scope of genteel networks, Chervinsky accurately captures one of my key lines of argument. This was an era when a national elite began to form, and take control of the republic. She also emphasises the regional character of some developments, especially the crisis in New England which historians so often misleadingly reduce to ‘Shays’ Rebellion’. In fact, the simultaneous and opposite dynamic in Rhode Island – by which rebellious merchants deployed non-violent resistance against the elected, egalitarian, state government – was just as important, and tells us just as much about the politics behind the constitution.

While the book does not deal with ratification or the aftermath of the Philadelphia Convention, except in conclusion, I am glad Chervinsky finds material there ripe for further study and debate. Saul Cornell has already elucidated key divisions within the broad ‘Antifederalist’ movement. My intention was primarily to show that the American genteel class was united in defence of property, and in its hatred of ‘licentious’ democratic power. That included the gentlemen who stood up against Madison’s constitutional gambit, and helps to account for the swift disappearance of anti-constitutional opposition after ratification.

This book is indeed, as Chervinsky kindly notes, a contribution to a ‘literature on social culture’ in the new republic. That is, it is not merely a political or economic history, but makes an attempt to grasp the processes of class struggle and class-formation in their wholeness. Subjectivity, identity, and emotion (not only anxiety, but also ambition, vanity, disgust, and all sorts besides) are as much part of this history as account ledgers and voting blocs. I hope to address the combination of these factors more in future work. For now, I must simply thank Chervinsky one more time for her attentive and generous review.