Carl Becker

Another writer of note who is labeled as a progressive historian is Carl Becker. He was a student of Frederick Jackson Turner and submitted as his doctoral dissertation—--it was called a thesis at that time—--a work entitled The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York. In it, Becker writes that the political parties in what became the state of New York were embroiled in a tremendous rivalry. The members of the "conservative" wing wanted only to go so far as to assert their rights as Englishmen, while the radical element desired independence. Becker argues for a compromise interpretation in his conclusion, stating that "although the conservatives were successful in securing a government measurably centralized and measurably aristocratic, we know that there was considerable pressure for a more democratic form" (Becker 1909, 276). In short, Becker describes the desire for a significantly different form of government than that which England had, and had existed in the colony prior to the insurrection. In the end, of course, the form was essentially the same; that is, a bicameral legislature was placed in the stead of Parliament, the President (who likely could have been King George I of America) was substituted for the King of England, and a judicial branch was established to play the role of the British courts. It is significant to mention that the second provincial congress of New York opposed independence from Great Britain at least as late as May 14, 1775 (Becker 1909, 252).

It is the extent of suffrage that gives a measure of truth to the progressive argument as symbolized by Becker''s work. The growth of political groups in New York presaged the formation of formal parties in the colonies as a whole, foreshadowed the further entrenchment of those same parties after the Constitution was ratified, and paralleled the same developmental path in Great Britain. The same congress mentioned above voted to extend the franchise to freeholders and freemen with holdings equivalent to forty pounds (Becker 1909, 252). The Committee of Fifty-One was essentially dissolved as the Mechanics and the Fifty-One merged in a new system that eliminated wards and substituted in its place a system of election by citizens at large (Becker 1909, 166). This presaged a similar reform in England after the war with Napoleon, the Reform Bill of 1832. One is tempted to wonder if that reform in England was delayed by the war; certainly one could argue that the reform in New York was prompted by the war, but one can also be left with a sense that the change was on the verge of taking place anyway, war or no war. Nonetheless, Becker is consistent with other progressive historians when he argues the case of extended suffrage as a result of the conflict with Great Britain.

Becker is also in step with his progressive counterparts when he argues his "road to revolution" thesis from the point of view of merchants. He spends an entire chapter discussing in detail the relative efficacy of the non-importation measures instituted by the colonies (the word "boycott" had of course not yet been coined in the 1770s, and historians of the early 1900s were apparently disinclined to use it). In short, he argues that the non-intercourse measures (a synonym for non-importation) were essentially ineffective. To be sure, there were fluctuations, but the image of the non-importation measures must be one of reducing the flow of goods, not one of shutting the flow off and turning it on when the colonists'' grievances had been redressed (Becker 1909, 63, 68-69).

A few years later, Becker wrote still more in his story of revolution. He argued in 1915 that merchants were, among other shortcomings, what would today be called "sunshine patriots." He suggested that merchants were all for non-importation as long as they could sell their wares at inflated prices, but after the supply was gone, they were back to trading and importing again (Becker 1915, 229). This example perhaps best summarizes Becker''s view of the "rebels." To be sure, he mentions the roles of radical ministers in New England, and of other "agitators," but the loudest note he sounds is, to me at least, the cynical observation regarding the merchants. (I should mention that I do not find fault with his view, but instead merely wish to note that it is cynical.)

Becker is perhaps best known for the line: "The war was not about home rule, but about who would rule at home." This theme springs up time and again in the writings of the progressive historians. Sometimes the words are a little different, but the theme remains constant.