Republic of the Dispossessed

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Rowland Berthoff has been arguing different parts of the same idea for decades: that the peculiar American model of e pluribus unum—of freedom and equality within the republic—can be traced back to the first dispossessed peasants who carried to these shores a desire for independence within community. That republican model, Berthoff argues, has only been strengthened in waves of immigration ever since.

Berthoff’s original thesis, first argued in an essay on “The American Social Order” in 1959, and now commonly known as “the Berthoff thesis,” has a number of ramifications for American social history. REPUBLIC OF THE DISPOSSESSED: THE EXCEPTIONAL OLD-EUROPEAN CONSENSUS IN AMERICA collects ten essays in which Berthoff has argued facets of the thesis over the last four decades. The best pieces here are not the theoretical essays (like “Personal Liberty and Communal Equality in American History,” from 1982), but the practical applications of the thesis, where Berthoff looks at the actual social history he is trying to understand (e.g., “To Make Both Ends Meet and Knot Them Too,” a history of the Welsh in America; “Free Blacks, Women, and Business Corporations as Unequal Persons,” an examination of the records of political conventions; or “Small Business in the American Dream”). Berthoff, the William Eliot Smith Professor Emeritus of History at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, is a skilled writer who, like most historians, is best at describing the human narratives out of which his social history is ultimately constructed.