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Marcus Cunliffe, whom the Washington Post and Times Herald calls "a
master historian capable of seeing his subject whole," has written
a cogent and revealing study of America's first half-century under
the federal Constitution. Bounded by the first Washington
Administration and the last Jackson Administration, this is the
period in which democracy grew and shaped the nation. It witnessed
the launching of the federal government; the expansion of the
frontier; the establishment of a party system; the enunciation of a
foreign policy; the manufacture of the symbols of nationalism; and
the forging of the arguments of sectionalism. Most important, Mr.
Cunliffe writes, "the American character seems to have been formed
in essence within a generation of George Washington's accession to
This book begins with a provocative paradox: George Fitzhugh of Virginia, one of the most eloquent defenders of Southern chattel slavery, appealed to a New York abolitionist for support. How can this be? The abolitionist in question, Charles Edwards Lester, had confessed that "he would sooner subject his child to Southern slavery, than have him to be a free laborer of England." Lester was in fact referring to the "white" or "wage" slavery of the mother country.
In a three part study, Cunliffe explores the context of chattel and wage slavery in Britain and the United States. He first outlines the evolution of the concept of wage slavery in Europe and the United States, demonstrating how this concept bore upon opinions about chattel slavery in America.
In his second section, Cunliffe discusses the precariousness of Anglo-American relationships during the period of 1830 to 1860. In their resentment of British rebukes aimed at the persistence of slavery in a democracy, Americans retaliated by claiming that British wage slavery was worse than American plantation slavery.
Cunliffe concludes by charting the career of Lester, the seemingly atypical New York abolitionist. Lester displayed a conviction that Britain was a corrupt and brutal society, most of whose leading citizens detested America. Cunliffe maintains that Lester's opinions were shared by many of his countrymen during the antebellum decades; in this sense he may have been more truly representative of American attitudes than either Southerners like Fitzhugh or Northerner abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison.
The effect of this "single, immortal, and dubious anecdote," and others like it, has made this book one of the most influential in the history of American folklore. Originally published as an eighty-page pamphlet entitled "The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington," it quickly attained immense popularity. In 1806 a so-called fifth edition was published which contained for the first time the tale of George Washington and the cherry tree; the book has survived to this day, although largely on the basis of that episode. This volume follows the text of the ninth (1809) printing, which included all the famous anecdotes. The first republication of the book since 1927, it is unique in its detailed commentary on Weems and other biographers of Washington.
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