Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution

Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution

Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution

Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution

Synopsis

Through careful research and colorful accounts, historian Paul A. Gilje discovers what liberty meant to an important group of common men in American society, those who lived and worked on the waterfront and aboard ships. In the process he reveals that the idealized vision of liberty associated with the Founding Fathers had a much more immediate and complex meaning than previously thought.

In Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution, life aboard warships, merchantmen, and whalers, as well as the interactions of mariners and others on shore, is recreated in absorbing detail. Describing the important contributions of sailors to the resistance movement against Great Britain and their experiences during the Revolutionary War, Gilje demonstrates that, while sailors recognized the ideals of the Revolution, their idea of liberty was far more individual in nature--often expressed through hard drinking and womanizing or joining a ship of their choice.

Gilje continues the story into the post-Revolutionary world highlighted by the Quasi War with France, the confrontation with the Barbary Pirates, and the War of 1812.

Excerpt

Few words are more central to understanding the American past than “liberty.” But few words have been more contested and ambiguous. Nonetheless, the Founding Fathers believed that the purpose of government was to ensure each man his liberty through protection of the individual and his property. in exchange, each individual had to concede a certain amount of his own liberty to government. Liberty could be endangered in two ways. First, if government amassed too much power, the people could lose their liberty. in 1776 revolutionary leaders argued that King George iii and Parliament were guilty of this type of usurpation and that their rule threatened to lead to tyranny. But liberty could also be challenged from below through excess and licentiousness. Granting too much liberty could lead to a world where everyone pursued their own interests regardless of the rights of others, a situation which was akin to savagery. the leaders of the Revolution therefore sought a middle ground between tyranny and anarchy.

“Liberty” also came to epitomize the American cause. Slogans like “Sons of Liberty,” “the Liberty Tree” or “give me liberty or give me death” have come down to us as the very essence of the American Revolution. During the years of the early republic the concept of liberty became deeply embedded in American culture, associated with the concepts of equality, civil rights, and the protection of property. Americans turned to their sacred documents of nationhood—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States—and, conflating the two, proclaimed that they guaranteed American liberty.

We know a great deal about the ideology of the leaders of the American Revolution and how they sought to protect liberty. We also know that Americans have become transfixed by the word “liberty.” But what did those further down in society—such as sailors—think about liberty? How did they apply this word to their everyday lives? And, how did they react to the reifi-

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