A new film and books about organizer and strategist Bayard Rustin bring attention to the crucial, hidden tradition of practical radicalism.
A decade into a staggeringly unequal 21st century United States, historians have rediscovered a long-forgotten Revolutionary War hero who stirred men’s souls with a remarkably far-sighted egalitarian vision.
George Washington. John Adams. Thomas Jefferson. Robert Coram. Who? You’ve no doubt never heard of Robert Coram, but Hollywood could make one mighty fine flag-waving epic about this real-life Revolutionary War hero. His adventures simply shout out for a multiplex.
Imagine Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead: In 1778, just 17 years old and brimming with revolutionary ardor, the young Robert Coram signs up with a patriot mission to go buy warships in France. Once in Paris, Coram tracks down Benjamin Franklin and finagles a letter of recommendation to the great Revolutionary War naval commander John Paul Jones.
More adventures follow, then, late in 1782, the British seize Coram off the New Jersey coast and throw him in a foul prison ship that few patriots ever escape alive. But Coram does survive and finally gets his freedom in the 1783 armistice that recognizes his nation’s independence.
That’s the Robert Coram, Revolutionary War hero, who ought to have Hollywood drooling. But the rest of us, suggests historian Seth Cotlar in this year’s best new book on the American Revolution, might want to take a broader view.
Robert Coram, Cotlar goes on to explain, actually made his greatest patriotic contribution after the Revolution. Coram, in a sense, never stopped fighting — for the equality he saw as absolutely essential to democracy.
And Americans needed to keep fighting, Seth Cotlar and his historian colleagues contend in their new Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation, because the men of property who led their new nation did not, “with few exceptions,” believe that “all men” truly rated as equal.
Robert Coram, like so many of his fellow war veterans, did believe in equality, in every dimension, political, social, and economic. Coram, historian Cotlar relates, “wanted to live in a prosperous society, but he considered prosperity useless, even immoral, if it was not widely shared.”
Coram knew, better than most, just how unequally shared the world’s bounty could be. He had seen the palaces and poorhouses of the Old World. He had witnessed slaves in the New World “beaten and hand hanged” while masters “poured their ill-gotten fortunes into lavish new theaters.”
A world where “a few were becoming splendidly wealthy and comfortable while the majority lived perpetually on the edge of economic ruin” seemed to Coram, notes Revolutionary Founders, a direct “repudiation of the Revolution.”
In 1791, Coram would lift up, against this inequality, his most potent weapon: his pen. Still only 30 years old and working as a schoolteacher in Delaware, Coram published an amazing 107-page pamphlet “to plead the cause of humanity,” a humanity he saw everywhere starving “in the midst of universal plenty.”
In the new America, Coram related, “wealthy and dignified mortals roll along the streets in all the parade and trappings of royalty, while the lower class are not half so well fed as the horses of the former.”
The comfortable, Coram would note, consider this inequality perfectly “natural.” But how could inequality be “natural,” the war hero turned teacher asked, when some societies in the United States — Native American societies — had long operated successfully on a much more egalitarian basis?
Coram’s pamphlet would cite as evidence the reportage from his era’s most thoughtful observers of Native American life. The Indians, noted one, live as “strangers to all distinction of property.” Their “equality of condition, manners, and privileges” animates a “patriotic spirit” that encourages the “general good.”
These Indians traced the “mischiefs” they saw among European settlers, the treachery and plunder, to wealth and its skewed distribution: “They esteem it irrational that one man should be possessed of a greater quantity than another and are amazed that any honor should be annexed to the possession of it.”
“In the comparative view of the civilized man and the savage,” as Coram put it, “the most striking contrast is the division of property. To the one, it is the source of all his happiness; to the other, the fountain of all his misery.”
America’s unequal “division of property,” Coram argued, had nothing “natural” about it, and he drew upon nature to drive that point home.
“There may be a difference between the child of a nobleman and that of a peasant,” Coram noted, “but will there not also be an inequality between the produce of seeds collected from the same plant and sown in different soils?”
Coram considered free, universal public education — financed through a tax on property wealth — the first step toward providing one “soil” for all Americans, and he did battle for public schools as an elected delegate to Delaware’s constitutional convention and later as an editor whose work would be reprinted up and down the Eastern seaboard.
Coram did other noble battle, too. He became one of America’s earliest abolitionists in the struggle against slavery. But his struggles for justice would end tragically early. He took sick and died in 1796, just halfway through his 30s.
The complete text of Coram’s masterwork, his 1791 Political Inquiries, now appears online. His words still have the capacity to inspire, and even delight, in part because the apologists for inequality he so vigorously challenged haven’t changed their tune all that much over the past two centuries plus.
Ever get frustrated, for instance, when you hear someone argue that rich people make the best elected leaders because rich people can’t be bought? Robert Coram, in 1791, had the perfect egalitarian, share-the-wealth retort.
“It is said that men of property are the fittest persons to represent their country because they have least reason to betray it,” observed Coram. “If the observation is just, every man should have property, that none be left to betray their country.”