Review of Our Savage Neighbors

6 February 2008 | Share: FacebookTwitterTumblrDiggE-mailGoogle BookmarksYahoo! BookmarksStumbleUpon

Our port was busy in the 1720s. Already known as an asylum for Europe’s religiously oppressed, now they came in a fury from southern Germany and northern Ireland. The Irish, from Ulster, were largely Presbyterians, self-reliant country people looking for economic opportunity. The Germans, unlike the German Quakers who had founded Germantown, were Moravians, Mennonites, Schwenkfelders, and Dunkards. They were escaping war and persecution.

Many of them set out from Philadelphia upon arrival, heading west to settle Pennsylvania. But,

It was very bad luck that all of these newcomers started to press ashore at Philadelphia by the tens of thousands in the 1720s — an entire decade during which, as it happened, no one had clear legal authority to purchase, survey, or sell land in Pennsylvania at all. The death of William Penn in 1718 had set off a bitter fourteen-year battle for control of the colony between his second wife and various children, leaving title to the province up in the air.

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to Penn’s ideas of “Toleration,” look no further than this family squabble. The resulting vacuum of leadership meant immigrants were now semi-official settlers, allowed to establish towns wherever they liked, often putting them in direct conflict with Delaware, Iroquois, Shawnee, and Conestoga Indians. What resulted was undulating sectarian strife and war, and what emerged, as Peter Silver says in the introduction to this beguiling work of history, shaped the architecture of American politics. “This book,” he writes with characteristic clarity, “is about how fear and horror, with suitable repackaging, can remake whole societies and their political landscapes.” Silver uses this thesis to make a sizable historical claim, that the American Revolution, for a long time a kind of plodding, inconclusive affair, was pushed along because of the anti-Indian fear that had developed since the 1750s. Many of the Indian groups had allied with the British. The result of that — British troops employing Indians to attack Americans — according to Silver, was to break the protective bond between sovereign and people, a public relations disaster finally turning colonists against the crown.

But Silver’s careful epistemology of fear and politics in early Pennsylvania — he evokes the “anti-Indian sublime” with great precision — could have easily been written about America post-9/11, a claim he artfully restrains himself from making. His is the story of the way fear is invented, declared, assigned, and broadcast — and then used to justify war. Silver spends the middle chapters of the book explaining how diverse groups of Pennsylvania Europeans overcame hatred of each other in order to project fear onto Quakers and then Indians; how they responded to terror; and finally how they struck back, eventually pushing the Indians into Ohio.

The elements of the telling analogy to our time are all here: Indian attack was terror, and like suicide bombing, an “[im]proper violence;” the irrational and rabid pamphleteering — “a kind of paper blizzard, a silent explosion of print”—could just as easily be the chest-pounding of Fox News or the ranting of the blogosphere; Penn’s first provost William Smith, who orchestrated the anti-Quaker white majority, emerges here as Karl Rove and Governor Robert Hunter Morris as Dick Cheney; here too is the clever psychology of preemptive warfare, the vilification of the French, the “anti-Americanism” of pacifists, and the mistrust of urban elites. On this last point, the author invites us to imagine our city as the center of the world. Here Philadelphia is the city we daydream of, the cool, cosmopolitan, and rational capital, and wildly diverse, if not always at ease. It stands in glimmering contrast to the scream-filled democracy of its hick provinces. And as such it is worth reminding ourselves that Philadelphia is justified in staking claim to American pluralism. (And is the reason we ought to build a museum to immigration — complete, certainly, with a full-size model of William Penn’s ship, the Welcome.)

Silver uses an enormous range of material — letters, speeches, newspaper articles, pamphlets, plays, songs, poems — to reveal hypocrisy, changing alliances, and the way religious ideas can justify almost anything. It is a book of new history, concerned more with meaning and conflict than with chronology, geography (despite the lovely map at the beginning), or narrative. He skips back and forth through time and place, using an event from the 1780s to illustrate political movements of the 1750s and vice versa, making it difficult to get a firm grasp of sequence. And there are no characters or cohesive stories. Yes, Franklin emerges throughout (as nimble and occasionally brilliant), and a few other European and Indian figures too, but the book relies entirely on Silver’s own capacity for clarity and ease and also brute honesty. Here, the author exposes the Penn provost Smith calling Quakers violent and intolerant. It’s a maneuver that would make Karl Rove blush.

From a writer who lit endlessly into “Foreigners,” and everyone who pandered to them, in his second pamphlet Smith reemerged a champion of the oppressed German and Irish country people against “our haughty Masters,” the Quakers. What was the Quakers worst flaw? Unflinchingly Smith named it: their intolerance of other Europeans . . . “[T]he bloodiest People in our Land” — it was an incredible transference. And these Quaker men of blood could behave so cruelly because they did not care about other Europeans at all. In fact, they scorned the Irish and German people pouring into the countryside as garbage to be swept aside, taking a “secret Satisfaction in seeing their increasing Multitude thinned and beggared.” To establish this, Smith adduced an apocryphal Quaker living in Lancaster, who when told of a new series of Indian attacks had “replied with great Indifference, that there were only some Scotch-Irish killed,who could well enough be spared“ . . . Smith’s arrogant Quakers might, in fact, be too bigoted to live in an open society like Pennsylvania at all. For “where lies the Difference,” Smith asked bravely, between the Quakers and a more obviously subversive group like the Catholics? “Both . . . are staunch, bigoted, and pharisaical alike . . .

Silver has ample control over this way of telling history. The prose is entertaining and the anecdotes full of irony. Funny, isn’t it, that the man who gave the University of Pennsylvania its name was such a hater of Quakers.

Not so funny is the way that politics can turn everything around. Thus, real Native Americans are turned into foreigners and new immigrants into Natives. It is the conceit born of irrational fear, much like that which still leaves — six and a half years after 9/11 — our great symbol of liberty behind barricades and armed guards. But history that intentionally reveals conflict and complexity resists easy explanations. It’s therefore so much more interesting to read than the political discourse of red state-blue state, of evil-doers, of the (endless) war on terror.

Our Savage Neighbors, by Peter Silver
Norton, 2007, 386 pages (hardcover)

Filed under: Philadelphia, William Penn, urban history, Native Americans