“Troubled times demanded commitment” (73).
One of T.H. Breen's objectives in this book was to show how the commoners of English colonies who rebelled or asserted their independence, depending on how you look at it, made and carried out the decisions that were so unprecedented and led to the formation of the United States of America. Instead of focusing on military battles or the stand-out leaders with whom we are familiar (the Founding Fathers and others), Breen has chosen to look primarily at the Committees of Safety1 that ordinary Americans (he looks primarily at New England but other places, too) formed to police themselves, as it were. So far, so good—that's what I wanted the book for. Breen also notes that people have a habit of glossing over the complexities of the American Revolution—as it says on the cover of my Eyewitness American Revolution book, “Discover how a few brave patriots battled a mighty empire.” If you've read Redcoats and Rebels2 or The Spy, you know it's more complicated than that. John Adams famously said that 1/3 of Americans at the time were active revolutionaries, the others being roughly 1/3 Loyalists and one 1/3 neutral. While Breen gives good reasons for being skeptical about Adams' figures, it is a very tempting assertion—one-third stuck in the middle, waiting to see which way the wind was going to blow.
Breen has no time for either neutrals or Loyalists (in fact, I think he is a bit too critical of the actions of the latter). He also has no time for the Founding Fathers. American Insurgents, American Patriots is probably the closest we'll ever come to a Marxist reading of the American Revolution3. So it's a shame that it only seems to cover until about 1776, as I was interested to follow what this same body of people that Breen highlighted did once fighting actually began in earnest. Despite using the word “insurgents,” Breen mocks the Loyalists who wrote at the time they feared rule by the mob; I find his explanations for why the American Revolution didn't spiral out of control like it did in France some 15 years later, or the more recent examples Breen gives (as he seems to be something of a specialist on insurgency and counter-insurgency), to be not completely satisfactory. He seems to argue against a theory of exceptionalism but then does not explain why, not to my satisfaction anyway4. He feels that “taxation without representation” has been overemphasized as motivation.
He has mined a strong and interesting selection of primary sources and got me closer to the mindset of the average participant in the conflict than I was before, which is what I wanted in the first place. One question he has set out to answer—and which he does answer—is why an ordinary farmer like Matthew Patten-- “like other farmers, he did not welcome disruptions that took him and his sons away from normal chores”--would participate in “extralegal militant activities” (6,7). Breen feels that, instead of a favored view that Revolutionary/Enlightenment principles appealed to the cogitating intellectual class (I feel a dig at Jefferson here), the Revolution hit ordinary people's gut emotions. “Grief served to reaffirm a commitment to the American cause; anger fueled a sense of political self-righteousness . . . fear, fury, and resentment” (9-11). So who were these people? They were generally from white farm families. “Half of the total number of colonists” at this stage “were under the age of sixteen” (26). A population boom + new widespread availability of high-quality manufactured goods from Great Britain + high standards of literacy5 + social equality within communities + pride in agrarian life + evangelical Christianity + newspapers + effective communication networks = the kind of people Breen is profiling. These people had been, until the Stamp Acts, proud of being British citizens; “they served a vital economic role within the empire” (38). However, part of the problem was that this feeling was shared by the rulers over in Europe. As Breen has it, “The British learned a little late in the day that punishing insurgency—especially by attacking innocent people—is usually counterproductive, turning moderates into radicals and enhancing the reputation of the local resistance forces”6 (50). Unlike the sympathetic portrait we get of George III in David McCullough's 1776, Breen has contempt for the British and their lackeys in the colonies. “The defense of order and property in far-off colonies apparently justified authoritarian schemes” (63). Breen sees that Lord North's punishment after the Boston Tea Party “fell disproportionately on the poor,” but the cause-and-effect was such that colonists reacted in solidarity with the people of Massachusetts.
“Colonists reading about events in Boston persuaded themselves that ordinary people who lived there were suffering for all Americans” (101). The Boston Committee of Donations is an extraordinary body, something that should not have been written out of the history books: they organized the distribution of gifts of food, money, livestock, and random stuff out to the suffering poor of Boston. “The committee translated many contributions into cash, which in turn underwrote ambitious public works projects” (114). Why does no one teach us this in school? “And perhaps the most surprising gift came from 'the Aboriginal Natives of Christian-Town on Martha's Vineyard.' The Indians collected more than two pounds sterling for people who might not have been so generous had the situation been reversed” (118). Furthermore, being generous could sometimes save your life. Breen shows at least one case of an American being put on trial in suspicion of being against the Cause and being redeemed because the records showed that he sent an offering to the suffering Bostonians.
I was interested to learn about the Association, a sort of honor-system code against buying British products and therefore displaying modesty in dress and not doing fun stuff like going to the theatre and/or gaming. Long before the Declaration of Independence, “Some colonists stopped drinking tea; others joined vigilante groups roaming the New England countryside” (81). The vigilante groups differed in their approach, but they often made a show of intimidation against those they perceived as tools of an oppressive regime. One question I had to ask myself was what made a veteran of the French and Indian War a rebel/patriot or a Loyalist. Joshua Loring, for example, had served on campaigns on Lakes Champlain and Ontario, and his family was harassed in August 1774 by “a mob.” Meanwhile, Israel Putnam, who was also a hero of the French and Indian War, became a Revolutionary firebrand. Few of these intimidations (at least the ones cited by Breen) ended in something so violent as tarring and feathering (though anyone who has seen HBO's John Adams will not be able to think of that punishment as anything but brutal)--but true to The Spy, recent arrivals and small-time merchants (any outsiders in the community) were targeted for reprisals. Furthermore, a false report of Boston being destroyed by the British in September 1774-- “it is noteworthy that no one seems to have expressed the slightest skepticism about the intelligence” (138).
One of the chapters is called “Appeal to Heaven,” and I very much enjoyed learning about the origin of this phrase, which has filtered in and out of my learning about the Revolution since as long as I can remember. But I never knew quite what it meant before (it's from Locke). Breen uses this as the basis for the chapter explaining how Christianity helped fuel the Revolution—it's one of the best parts of the book. I also learned about The Crisis, an incendiary piece of writing from a crusty British misanthrope that had influence way out of proportion once it got to the colonies. Reprinted in the New-Hampshire Gazette, the headline was “BLOOD calls for BLOOD” (270).
Breen's book had me questioning how I (and James Fenimore Cooper, for that matter!) had lightly passed judgement on the Skinners in The Spy. Despised by all the other characters, they are considered the lowest of the low and are meted out with harsh punishment, which seemed to me deserved. The extralegal committees of 1774 “when pressed to justify their proceedings, they claimed to be acting in the name of the people, or the public” (162). However, the differene is that those who put their neighbors on trial, by and large, were lenient and patient—and did not advocate violence, unlike the Skinners who of course rob people and burn down houses. “Thousands of Americans who had never before held office—indeed, who never even imagined that it was their right to do so—flooded into positions of leadership” in the years after 1774, which I guess is what the Skinners would have done if, in the novel's voice, they were morally worthwhile (12). Besides, “no one else had a right to seize the property of another person,” thus the Skinners are reprehensible (250).
However, what I will most take away from Breen's book is his agonizing description of what could and did happen to people who upset the Revolutionary status quo. Two men in Camden, New Hampshire in 1774 attacked a man named John Taylor,“ ‘beat & kicked [him] with Fists & Feet. The ride lasted fifteen minutes, leaving Taylor, according to later court testimony, ‘very much bruised.’ Before his neighbors grew tired, the ordeal took a particularly ugly turn—whether by accident or design, we shall never know—for a sharp edge of the fence rail cut deeply into Taylor’s groin, leaving ‘a mortal wound on the private parts of his body of the length of six inches [and] of the breadth of four inches.’ The precision of the measurement seems in itself curiously gruesome. With a short time, Taylor bled to death. . . . John Steele, Moses Jewell, Robert Blood Jr, and Jane Steele appeared before a New Hampshire court for killing a man who apparently had not supported the American resistance to parliamentary taxation with sufficient enthusiasm” (Breen 15). Taylor's tormentors escaped punishment.
At exactly 300 pages, American Insurgents, American Patriots is succinct and easy to read.
1Despite the fact I now know that the American versions came first, I always think of the French Revolution when I read “Committees for Safety.”
2Which I read last year but didn't have time to review.
3Feel free to suggest alternate titles if you can think of any.
4“They [the Americans] surely would have burned houses and murdered neighbors if the situation had invited a continuous purging of ideological dissenters. . . . Wealthy Americans—great planters in the South or leading merchants in northern ports, for example—certainly harbored doubts about resistance to British rule, but when push came to shove, they depended more upon the goodwill of their neighbors than upon representatives of an imperial establishment” (163).
5I have read in various places that literacy among white male New Englanders was as high as 90%, with certain definitions of literacy for white women not all that much lower.
6Isn't that the whole thrust of the Mel Gibson Patriot?