Friday, May 21, 2010

U.S.A., est. 1774

In American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People, T.H. Breen offers a new order for the American Revolution

The following review was published last week on the Books page of the History News Network website.

Ask anyone when the United States became an independent nation, and many will answer with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Others will cite the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. Perhaps some will say not until victory at Yorktown in 1781, or even the Treaty of Paris in 1783. But in this compellingly structured and argued book, T.H. Breen asserts that a de facto nation came into existence between the spring and fall of 1774. It was in these crucial months that the people of the thirteen colonies -- not the Founding Fathers, not the Continental Army, not the maladroit British government -- executed a series of steps that collectively solved problems of governance and demonstrated how a republic could be successfully constituted.

What's even more surprising is that Breen makes this somewhat counter-intuitive argument, one rooted in a social history sensibility, in the form of a chronological narrative. He achieves this cohesion despite lacking a discrete sense of leading characters or a dramatic set of circumstances (the most consequential event of his story is actually a rumor).  The result is a book that's highly readable as well as provocative.

Breen's story begins in the aftermath of the notorious Boston Tea Party of December 1773, when a group of colonists dressed as Indians dumped a shipment premium tea from the East India Company into Boston harbor. What matters about the Tea Party, Breen says, is not that a group of radicals -- he calls them, as they called themselves, "insurgents" -- destroyed imperial property by throwing it overboard. Nor is it that the government of Lord North responded with a series of laws that came to be known as the Coercive or Intolerable Acts (depending on which side you were on), which included the closing of the port of Boston and a series of new rules that denied local colonial governments long-cherished autonomy. What did matter is how the colonists reacted to the Intolerable Acts once they learned of them the following spring. They got mad -- and they got organized.

The sequence of steps that would culminate in independence began with a spontaneous, Atlantic seaboard-wide, effort to organize relief for the besieged residents of Boston, crippled by the strangulation of commerce and thus facing the prospect of humanitarian disaster. Breen places special emphasis on the breadth of this effort, and the fact that so much of it in New England in particular came from the countryside, which he sees as central in fueling the rebellion. He also notes an intensification of boycott efforts (something he wrote about in his highly influential 2004 book The Marketplace of Revolution), a key facet of which was growing social pressure on colonists whose actions were deemed counter-revolutionary. This pressure, he explains, could get very threatening, and at times cross the line into violence. But its most salient quality was how controlled it was, relying mostly on the crushing prospect of economic and social isolation rather than physical force.

This pressure also pushed upward on the nation's representatives at the Continental Congress. When a false report of an attack on Boston resulted in a multi-colony mobilization of local militia, representatives in Philadelphia, many of them still reconciliationist, felt forced to endorse such efforts or risk irrelevance. The need to stay on top, if not ahead, of this popular insurgency also led Congress to endorse a collective agreement known as "The Association" to foster the organization and enforcement of boycotts. In what might be called (though Breen does not) a kind of proto-federalism, local communities explicitly used this institutional sanction to choose leaders for such a purpose -- and as time went on, for other purposes as well. The size, scope, and membership of such bodies varied widely, reflecting local conditions, but proved remarkably flexible and powerful in meeting the coming challenge of waging a continental struggle for power.

Breen emphasizes that these truly amazing logistical feats were possible because of a very high level of revolutionary zeal on the part of the people who came to be known as patriots (and a general lack of zeal on the part of Tories). That zeal was grounded in high emotion, a feeling on the part of the colonists that Great Britain had betrayed them in literally treating them as second-class citizens in the Empire, and in violating an unwritten constitutional tradition that stretched from the Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution. This sense of righteous anger, in turn, fueled the articulation of a justification for resistance derived from what might be termed pop-Lockean ideology that reached its apogee in a now largely forgotten set of 1775 documents known as The Crisis, which Breen argues was crucial in crystallizing patriotic morale (and inspiring Thomas Paine's much-better known subsequent tract The American Crisis, titled in self-conscious homage to its predecessor). The Battles of Lexington and Concord, which end the book, are thus less the beginning of the Revolution than the culmination of a process that Breen believes got underway a full year earlier.

Historiographically speaking, American Insurgents, American Patriots, continues a move -- including a move on Breen's part -- away from the ideological emphasis of historians like Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood toward an end of the spectrum long occupied by Gary Nash and more recently joined by Woody Holton. This body of opinion believes ideas are important, but pays less attention to the elite Founding Fathers we all know than to the Founding Fathers -- and mothers -- whose names are less well known but no less deserving of such honorifics. These people did not produce densely reasoned treatises, or soaring manifestos, but spoke, in word as well as action, in a distinctive dialect of their own, one comfortable with images of Liberty Trees and the language of evangelical Protestantism. Looking at the Revolution through this lens helps make the long fuse between the passage of the Stamp Act of 1765 and the outbreak of armed conflict a decade later a bit less difficult to follow, because it makes clear that there really was fire amid all the smoke of Parliamentary maneuvering and colonial discourse.

But while he has worked to recover what he regards as a bona fide populist insurgency -- one he connects with later populist insurgencies, including those against the United States -- Breen is also anxious to channel it. Like a judge who doesn't want the logic of a ruling applied in a way he does not sanction, Breen makes clear his disapproval of other insurgencies, like the one that explicitly invokes the legacy of the Tea Party. "Those who today torture the revolutionary record by trying to transform these people into partisans for narrow and selfish causes -- as if the sole purpose of the Revolution was the avoidance of taxation -- insult the memory of those who once imagined a just and more equitable society," Breen writes in his introduction. Later, he notes, the Founders "provide no comfort for those in our time who claim that a single cause or narrow agenda justified armed violence against the state. Those who resisted the British Empire spoke for the common good." It is unlikely, however, that the people at whom Breen points such a finger will recognize themselves as such (they, too, have definitions of justice, equity, and the common good). As Breen of all people must know, revolutions are elusive, and dangerous, things. They have a life of their own that can somehow never be contained within covers.