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A Historian of Forgotten Resistance

From pirates to abolitionist dwarves, Marcus Rediker's research tends to unearth radical oppositional communities too often ignored amid stories of Founding Fathers and other great men.
Benjamin Lay painted by William Williams (1790).

Benjamin Lay painted by William Williams (1790).

For 18th-century Quaker dwarf abolitionist Benjamin Lay, resistance was a way of life. As a glove-maker, a common sailor, and a world traveler who lived in England and Barbados before finally settling in Pennsylvania, Lay was exposed to the injustices of slavery and decided to make a career of condemning its horrors, often in memorable and shocking ways.

Surrounded by rich co-religionists who had grown wealthy from their involvement in the slave trade, or who owned slaves themselves, Lay wrote a 1737 manifesto attacking the practice. This book, published by Benjamin Franklin without the prior approval of Philadelphia's Quaker overseers of the press—two-thirds of whom owned black slaves—ranks among the most vehement denunciations of slavery ever written. But Lay wasn't content to let literature speak for itself. He also employed guerilla theater, using the style of the Quaker worship meetings he attended to assail the pretended piety of men he considered false believers. Once, Lay stood outside the meeting in bare legs and feet during freezing weather, suffering while others warmed themselves; on another occasion, he entered the meeting house wearing a military uniform and a sword, which he plunged through a Bible into which he had secreted an animal bladder filled with berry blood. "Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures!" he chastised the congregation, before waiting in silence to have his small frame carried out of the building.

Exposing historical injustices has also been the life's work of Lay's first biographer in nearly two centuries, the historian Marcus Rediker. A professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Rediker has spent a career involved in progressive causes while writing books that bring fresh light to their subjects: those millions of overlooked or forgotten human lives, like Lay's, that must be rescued from what the British historian E.P. Thompson called the "enormous condescension of posterity," and restored to their proper place in the historical record.

In other words, Rediker does history from below, looking beyond the tales of "Great Men" and epic battles in order to explore the stories of mass movements and historical outsiders: the oppressed, the poor, the subalterns, and the otherwise forgotten people. The phrase "history from below" had first been used by French social historians in 1930s ("histoire vue d'en bas et non d'en haut") but came into common English usage after serving as the title of an E.P. Thompson essay that appeared in The Times Literary Supplement in 1966. Many Americans readers have become familiar with this type of work thanks to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (1980), itself a long summary of research in these subject areas as they relate to American history. And the field has expanded considerably over the past five decades since Thompson's article, with other historians from below producing new research that has enlightened readers while influencing the efforts of activists involved in the Occupy and Democratic Socialists of America movements.

Thompson's sprawling The Making of the English Working Class (1963), which gave voice to those early 19th-century laborers whose collective efforts created a working-class culture of corresponding societies and trade unions bent on political reform, exerted a tremendous influence on Rediker. So, too, did Christopher Hill's The English Revolution 1640 (1940) and The World Turned Upside Down (1984), which foregrounded the work of social radicals during a topsy-turvy period of 17th-century intellectual ferment and military conflict in England often oversimplified by more conservative historians under the rubric of the English "Civil War." In Hill's view, the defeat and overthrow of King Charles I was actually part of a "class war," in which the Crown and other conservative forces were opposed by "the trading and industrial classes," "yeomen and progressive gentry," and "wider masses of the population," who, via free discussion, were able to "understand what the struggle was really about." This period, Hill argued, was a critical stage in the transition from feudalism to capitalism—a stage that Rediker would also research and evaluate throughout his career.

"I intended to apply the bottom-up approach to doing history that had been pioneered by Thompson and Hill to other contexts," Rediker says. "And along with Peter Linebaugh, my colleague and writing partner since [graduate] school, I wanted to update our understanding of radical activity past where Christopher Hill had left the subject in The World Turned Upside Down—both in chronological terms, past the English Restoration, and, in geographical terms, encompassing the entire Atlantic."

Well before he became a historian, Rediker was just a six-foot-five country kid from rural Kentucky who went to Vanderbilt University to play college basketball. Although he had experienced poverty as a child, he hadn't yet thought critically about the historical conditions that caused his family, as well as many others, to miss out on the material benefits of capitalism.

Marcus Rediker.

Marcus Rediker.

"At the time, I wasn't a motivated student, and I eventually left school before finishing my degree in order to work in a factory in Richmond," Rediker says. "I spent three years there and got to witness firsthand how relations among the workers were influenced by issues of class as well as race. I started to make connections; ideas came into sharper focus, and I could see how history was directly applicable to understanding present-day problems."

Rediker had begun taking night classes at Virginia Commonwealth University, becoming a dedicated student with an abiding interest in social justice. After graduating from VCU, he chose to pursue his doctoral degree at the University of Pennsylvania. While there, fruitful encounters at academic conferences with the likes of Hill and Linebaugh, who had been a student of E.P. Thompson's at the University of Warwick, inspired Rediker to begin studying slavery and the development of capitalism in a transatlantic context.

"I had initially hoped to study slavery in the United States," Rediker says, "but I soon realized that the greatest historians of Atlantic history—people like C.L.R. James, W.E.B. DuBois, and Eric Williams—were already arguing back in the 1930s that race, class, and capitalist wealth creation were intertwined, and their analyses weren't confined by arbitrary national borders," Rediker explains. "Slavery and capitalism had developed in tandem in the Atlantic world, which meant you needed to study historical interactions across that entire region."

Rediker's first book, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World (1989), used a variety of historical sources to reconstruct the social world of common sailors, examining the pleasures and liberties they enjoyed as well as the terror and violence that captains and other authority figures used to ensure that their employers profited handsomely from their labor. "I took an interest in pirates and sailors because they were poor," he says. "Their stories were the right place to start."

In the course of researching that book, Rediker had begun closing the chronological gap between the bottom-up 17th-century radicalism that Christopher Hill analyzed during the English Revolution and the early 19th-century worker unrest described by E.P. Thompson. The Many-Headed Hydra (2000), which he co-authored with Linebaugh and which found its way into many Occupy discussions during the late 2000s, would hammer that point home. In the book, Linebaugh and Rediker evaluate many examples of transatlantic class struggle across a span of nearly 150 years.

From riotous dock workers to Romantic poets, this "Hydra of misrule" stood in the way of a national "Hercules" clearing a path for capitalist wealth accumulation. In Rediker and Linebaugh's account, the Hydra and its many heads were the hero; Hercules, a ham-handed brute bent on destroying vibrant proletarian diversity to benefit his bottom line. By this account, when a Hercules-like Daniel Horsmanden, a judge and Supreme Court justice in New York, labored in 1741 to convict the poor whites and blacks who allegedly set a series of fires in New York City, he was doing the bidding of the English state, steamrolling the weak to demonstrate the awesome power of the strong.

Rediker's other books have gradually become smaller in scale of subject, if not in thematic importance. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (2004) focused on pirates, using the historical record to indicate how a class of people traditionally portrayed as bad guys were actually violent resisters against a dehumanizing capitalist world order (the book was optioned by Lionsgate TV in 2011). The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007) treated the tall sailing ship that carried captive Africans to the New World as a jumping-off point for examining the communities forged in opposition to the torture and surveillance undergirding a slave system that made a handful of merchants and plantation grandees incredibly rich while creating a surplus of national wealth that would power the United States, the United Kingdom, and France for centuries to come. The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (2012) went narrower still, focusing on a successful slave mutiny and tracing its origins to the West African warrior cultures from which the mutineers hailed (a subsequent documentary film, Ghosts of Amistad, follows Rediker as he travels to Sierra Leone and visits the home villages of some of the people who participated in the mutiny). And Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail (2014) collected a series of interlinked essays about the individual troublemakers and interracial mobs whose actions presaged uprisings such as the American and Haitian Revolutions.

But now Rediker, to borrow the title of a Steve Martin comedy album, has truly gotten small: His latest book is a full-length biography of Benjamin Lay, the Quaker dwarf who became one of the most notable anti-slavery activists of the mid-18th century. Lay, a truculent and bull-headed defender of his own principles, had admirers in his day, including Benjamin Franklin and the physician Benjamin Rush, who authored "An Account of Benjamin Lay" for The Universal Asylum, and Columbian Magazine in 1790. In his discussion of Lay in the 1805 book Medical Inquiries and Observations, Rush speculated that the abolitionist's frequent mood swings might be related to his dwarfism, remarking that "debility induced by disease is often removed by a change in the temper"; Rush chalked up Lay's longevity, in spite of his condition, to an "irascible temper." But Lay eventually slipped out of the historical record. His name was occasionally invoked among the later abolitionists of the 1850s and beyond, but these discussions usually focused on his temperament and his diminutive stature, less so on his intellectual accomplishments and courageous public protests.

Lay's historical diminution is regrettable, but Rediker's The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist offers a remedy. The book explores the legacy of a person who combined unyielding resistance to the status quo with a colorful, unpredictable personality that infuriated many of his staid Quaker contemporaries. Lay—whose exploits and outsized personality inspired one of Rediker's students to call him "kick-ass"—had led a sailing and laboring life that took him from Essex to London to Barbados and back again, then to Pennsylvania. Along the way, he studied the manners and misery of the enslaved Africans he encountered, becoming convinced that bondage dehumanized the victims and condemned the masters to eternal torment.

The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist.

The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist.

Lay's response to these experiences was twofold. First, he began compiling the notes for All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates, a work that combined keen observations of English society with biblical exegesis and practical knowledge gleaned from his seafaring voyages around the world. He even ventures a comparative analysis of slavery in other cultures, remarking, "I do not believe in my soul [that] the Turks are so cruel to their Slaves, as many Christians, so called, are to theirs, by what I have seen and heard of, in Barbadoes, and elsewhere." Second, Lay became increasingly outspoken in his opposition to the practice, engaging in public provocations and protests to draw attention to the iniquity of the slave system. Having traveled and worked throughout the Atlantic world, Lay understood that all merchants were benefiting from forced labor, not just traders and plantation masters who owned and trafficked in slaves. Although he was born over a century before Marx, Lay's work offered sharp, proto-Marxist observations about how the world market was developing, and how slavery played a critical role in capitalist accumulation.

In his own time, Lay was a polarizing figure. He was a ready debater who would respond to all slights, even a brief unfavorable mention of his short stature in the newspaper, and he lived an increasingly unconventional life after the death of his wife, taking up residence in a cave on the outskirts of Abington Township, making his own clothes, and subsisting on a meatless diet: honey from his apiary and vegetables from his garden. Like Diogenes the Cynic, whom he idolized, Lay offered no systematic philosophy, merely a manner of existence in the world that constantly brought him into conflict with members of society who he saw as confused and corrupt.

In 1759, Lay died of natural causes at the age of 82, and was regarded as a towering if divisive figure at the time of his passing. A year before his death, an acquaintance came to his caveside hermitage to tell him the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting had ruled that Quakers trading in slaves would face censure and possibly even ostracism from the community—a reform spurred in no small part thanks to his activism. "I can now die in peace," Lay remarked, and by all accounts he did.

Lay was a man whose greatness manifested in his style of living—numerous accounts discussing his anti-slavery protests, vegetarian diet, and distinctive appearance were written shortly after his passing. Still, the transience of accomplishments that depended heavily on collective memory of his remarkable personality, combined with a prickly temperament that had put him at odds with many colonial nabobs, likely precipitated a decline in his reputation. Lay was downgraded significantly in the histories of abolition that were written a century later. For example, in an 1870 biographical profile of Lay that appeared in the Philadelphia-based journal Friends' Intelligencer, the abolitionist's physical features are emphasized over his intellectual and moral accomplishments: He is said to have been a man who recalled Shakespeare's hunchbacked Richard III, boasting a "disproportionately large" head, an "exceedingly homely face," and a beard that "hung profusely" from his cheeks and chin.

Having stumbled across mentions of Lay while researching previous books, Rediker studied the abolitionist's work and decided that he would try to renew public interest in a worthy historical figure.

"I hadn't written a biography before, but Benjamin Lay proved to be the ideal subject," Rediker says. "He was difficult to deal with during his lifetime, but he had the benefit of being absolutely right about the evils of slavery—and he arrived at that conclusion far earlier than most so-called 'intellectuals.' Now contrast that with Thomas Jefferson, who has been the source of dozens upon dozens of biographies. Sure, Jefferson was a brilliant man, but his racist opinions are at odds with the values of a society dedicated to diversity and equality. Lay, meanwhile, embodied a set of higher ideals. He's a fitting hero for a time when many old national heroes are wobbling on their pedestals, literally so in the case of those Confederate monuments that have been removed."

In the margins of one of the hundreds of dog-eared books he kept in his cave, Lay offered an epitaph that also reads like an exhortation: "Dear souls, be tender-hearted." Rediker, the historian of resistance from below, hopes that he has managed to produce "tender-hearted" treatments of all these resisters, but knows that this work, like Lay's own resistance to slavery, must continue well past him.

"In the course of imagining a better and kinder world, Lay transcended the moral conventions of the 18th century," Rediker says. "His story reminds us what we might accomplish today."