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Columbia Rising: Civil Life on the Upper Hudson from the Revolution to the Age of Jackson

John Brooke has produced a comprehensive study of the tumultuous struggle to define the meaning of the Revolution and discern the boundaries of civil life in the early republic. Columbia Rising not only places Columbia County within a broader national context but also puts the Upper Hudson on the national stage. For Brooke, the roots of the democratic Jacksonian—or Van Burenite—revolution of the antebellum period are to be found not in western frontier regions or in urban working-class neighborhoods but in Columbia. According to Brooke, the first county to be organized in post-Revolutionary New York provides an extraordinary perspective into the “critical fault lines” in post-Revolutionary society—ethnicity, race, gender, and class. The deeply rooted political conflicts among conservative landed elites, fiercely independent freeholders, frustrated tenants, and dependent laborers in the Upper Hudson provide unique insights into the contested meanings of citizenship and democracy during and after the Revolution.

Although the residents of the Upper Hudson were originally slow to embrace the Whig cause during the imperial crisis, the War for Independence and the subsequent popularization of politics challenged the oligarchic rule of the region’s landed elite. Through militia service and participation in popular committees, aspiring men from the middling sort usurped political power traditionally wielded by the landed gentry. Although notably weakened during the Revolutionary crisis, however, the region’s traditional oligarchy remained powerful. Divided and equivocal allegiances, ethnic pluralism, the political influence of conservative Whig leaders, and the persistence of tenancy undermined the popular tide of radical committee politics in the Upper Hudson. While a radical “leveling spirit” predominated in eastern hill towns along the Massachusetts border, the Van Rensselaers and Livingstons continued to wield political control elsewhere in the county.  

In the years after the Revolution, a new political culture and civic life of bourgeois sensibility served to mediate the unresolved conflict between popular Revolutionary politics (“Demo”) and traditional politics of deference and condescension (“Aristo”). New institutions such as benevolent organizations, schools, libraries, improvement societies, churches—and especially Masonic lodges and newspapers—shaped a new civil landscape defined by respectability and improvement. Nonetheless, there were clear limits to the politics of sentiment in Columbia; the fires of religious revival and reform burned less brightly in the Upper Hudson than in New England and in the “Burned-Over-District” along the Erie Canal. Moreover, the post-Revolutionary political settlement in Columbia County remained tenuous. The unresolved conflict between popular politics and oligarchic rule intensified in the decades after the ratification of the Constitution. Indeed, Martin Van Buren’s early political battles against Columbia’s Federalist Junto and the landed oligarchy in the Upper Hudson directly informed his later campaigns against the nation’s “money power—as Andrew Jackson’s vice president and then president. Forever a “plain man of plain purposes,” Van Buren personified the “new middling culture” of the post-Revolutionary era. Having experienced the corrosive factionalism, vindictive partisanship, and corruption of politics in Columbia and New York, Van Buren came to champion a negative liberal state of limited government and an organized party system as safeguards of the common good from selfish private interest.  

Nevertheless, there were clear limits to the democratic Van-Burenite insurgency in Columbia. The defense of the people against a landed oligarchy and the capitalist “money power” never questioned the fundamental right to private property. Moreover, the boundaries of post-Revolutionary public life in the Upper Hudson were increasingly circumscribed by sex, class, and race.  

Constrained by law, women remained largely silent. Literate women gained access to a burgeoning print culture, but post-Revolutionary literature cast female characters as passive victims and confirmed women’s powerlessness. Moreover, newspapers, almanacs, magazines, and novels excluded illiterate and non-English speakers and further isolated rural women of Dutch and German descent from the emerging public realm. A few “insurgent” women who nurtured an individual consciousness (such as Catherine Livingston) did so privately, while two notable women who did express a public voice—Shaker Lucy Wright and Quaker Hannah Barnard—by definition occupied the social fringe.  

Tenants remained poor and dependent. Access to land contributed to the principal source of political conflict in Columbia for decades after the Revolution. Although Clintonians abolished primogeniture and entail in the wake of the Revolution, landlords retained life-leases that restricted tenure to the last surviving name on a lease. Landlords’ control of local politics stunted civic and associational life in manor towns, where the leasehold system discouraged economic improvement. Denied access to post-Revolutionary civil society, tenants resorted to violence on multiple occasions in the decades following the war.  

Only black Columbians occupied a more inferior social and political space. Opposition to emancipation was strong in the Upper Hudson, where slaves provided valuable labor on farms, in workshops, and in the homes of the region’s slaveholding elite. African Americans in the Upper Hudson remained a degraded and dependent caste during the long transitional period from slavery to freedom prescribed by the state’s gradual abolition statute. Them  1821 State Constitution codified the increasing racialization of democracy in New York; while providing for virtual white male suffrage, it imposed a hefty property requirement on African American voters that effectively disqualified the overwhelming majority of black New Yorkers. The triumph of Van Buren’s democratic Regency over old Clintonians, Federalists, entrepreneurial Republicans, and Whigs came at the expense of former slaves.  

Characterizing his study as ethnography, Brooke skillfully weaves theory and political, economic, social, and cultural, religious history into a rich narrative. Columbia Rising is not for the faint of heart; more casual readers might find Brooke’s book dense, unwieldy, and repetitive. However, his sophisticated interpretive scope provides the historian with an extraordinary perspective into the contested struggle to define citizenship and chart a new “civil geography” for a new nation. Columbia Rising is essential reading not only for students of Hudson Valley and New York State history but also for any serious scholar of the early republic.

 

-- Michael E. Groth, Wells College

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