Professor Jack Pole's reassessment of American 'exceptionalism'

Historians in the News




Professor Jack Pole, the historian who died on January 30 aged 87, was a pioneering figure in the study of American political culture whose challenge to the notion of American "exceptionalism" ignited a debate that has yet to burn out.

Pole, who was Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford from 1979 to 1989, published some of his most important work in the 1960s, when he was Reader in American History at Cambridge University. Most notable was Political Representation in England and the Origins of the American Republic (1966), a revisionist work which examined the development of representative politics in the key American colonies of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia. He built on this foundation in his equally ground-breaking The Pursuit of Equality in American History (1978), in which he traced ideas of equality through the experience of different groups in American society, from slaves to feminists.

Pole, who stressed the value of a distinctively British voice in American historical studies, saw 18th-century Americans and their British contemporaries as fellow citizens in a great republic of Whig ideas. The difference was in the receptiveness of American political thinkers to the ideas of the Radical Whigs who, in the late 18th century, promoted the view that Britain's growing public debt augured impending national bankruptcy.

This view provided the backdrop for understanding how America came to see Britain's decision to tax the colonies after the Seven Years War as an unfolding conspiracy against their liberty by an imperial power seeking to relieve the tax burden of the British populace by bleeding its colonies dry.

But as Pole pointed out, Radical Whig ideals were being disseminated in what was essentially a highly deferential political culture. In a seminal article, Historians and the Problem of Early American Democracy (1962), Pole identified a paradox at the centre of American politics. While adult white male participation in 18th-century elections was widespread, only a favoured few – sifted from the ranks of the gentry – could stand for office. In a society of deference it was possible for the broad mass of people to consent to a scheme of government in which their own share was limited; but at the same time, by consistently voting for their social superiors, they lent a legitimacy to an unequal social and economic order....
Read entire article at Telegraph (UK)

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