British North America, 1773-1776
T.H. Breen has written a fascinating account of the American Revolution. The story he tells in his new book, American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People, has been expunged from the historical record. This is not the Revolution you learned about in high school.
The American Revolution has been portrayed as a relatively bloodless affair. It was a revolt against Great Britain that was based on the abstract liberal ideas of the Enlightenment. It was centered around the lives of great men like John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington who later became known as the Founding Fathers.
In fact, this is not what happened. It was the American people themselves, not the Colonial elite, that rose up against Britain and led the Revolution.
Before there was a Continental Congress, there was an insurgency in the American backcountry from New Hampshire to Georgia. It was the insurgents who fired the first shots of the Revolution at Lexington and Concord.
Two years before the Declaration of Independence, ordinary Americans launched an insurgency that unintentionally drove events toward secession from the British Empire. As late as 1774, few Americans advocated independence from Great Britain.
The insurgents purged royal officials from the countryside on their own authority. They used terror and intimidation in small rural communities to silence or expel loyalists. This reduced the authority of the Crown to port cities like Boston.
The Revolution was a saltier affair than it is now remembered. A hint of this can be seen in the Boston Tea Party in which a violent mob destroyed a small fortune in East India Company tea. It was this flagrant lawlessness and disregard for property rights that inspired the Coercive Acts.
Ayn Rand would have been proud.
The insurgents demonstrated their liberal pieties in countless other ways: tarring and feathering loyalists, mobs beating and torturing loyalists into submission, setting up committees to judge potential loyalists as “enemies of the American cause” and “traitors to their country,” burning loyalist publications in huge bonfires, disarming loyalists, seizing their property.
Nationalism fueled the American Revolution.
This can be seen at the grassroots level in the rhetoric of the insurgents themselves. Dry abstract ideas do not move ordinary men to take up arms and risk their lives to overthrow tyranny. It was appeals to patriotism, emotion, and religion – interpreted through the lens of a popular conspiracy theory – that sparked the initial resistance among the masses.
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was published on January 10, 1776. Although it was certainly the most popular political pamphlet of the Revolution, Common Sense cannot explain why ordinary Americans took up arms against King George III.
Common Sense was published after the Boston Tea Party, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, and the invasion of Canada. George Washington was already on the field in Massachusetts at the head of the Continental Army when Americans were reading Thomas Paine.
Few Americans had ever read John Locke either. His work had been ignored in the American colonies in the eighteenth century. It wasn’t until 1773 – the year of the Boston Tea Party – that his writings came to the attention of the colonists.
Americans seized upon Locke’s Second Treatise because it provided a handy justification for their decision to resist imperial authority. This is a decision which had already been made for quite different reasons.
It is also worth noting exactly what in Locke’s work appealed most to the American colonists: it was his interpretation of the biblical story of Jephthah in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Judges. When the Israelites begged Jephthah to take up their cause against the Ammonites, he in turn asked God to decide the controversy. Jephthah made an “Appeal to Heaven.”
Locke argued in the Second Treatise that in extreme cases when a ruler betrayed his people and the judges with the authority to hear their cause sided with the tyrant, the people could make an “Appeal to Heaven” when all other avenues had been exhausted.
It was this “An Appeal To Heaven” flag with the green pine tree that was adopted as the symbol of the insurgency in New England in the heady days after Bunker Hill. The insurgents in New England were highly religious Yankee Puritans who came of age in the aftermath of the Great Awakening.
While it is true that Americans revolted in defense of their rights and liberties, these rights were the traditional safeguards of life, liberty, and property that were guaranteed under the British Constitution, which King George III was accused of subverting in a sinister Papist conspiracy. The American Revolution was fought in the name of the British Constitution which the American colonists had lived under for generations.
Thomas Paine and John Locke provided justifications for a revolt in defense of those rights – which fell on receptive ears precisely because the revolt was already in progress. When Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he put his own Enlightenment spin on a Revolution that had begun two years earlier among ordinary people.
Ordinary colonists were the horse in the American Revolution. Congress was the cart. A good example of this is the reaction to the false rumor that the British had destroyed Boston. A spontaneous army of over ten thousand insurgents from four colonies rose and marched to the scene to avenge the crime.
The dithering Continental Congress in Philadelphia was forced to catch up with the people and maintain its legitimacy over the swelling insurgency. Congress passed a boycott on British goods which was enforced by the thousands of grassroots “committees of safety” that the insurgents had established from Maine to Georgia.
These “committees of safety” acted autonomously and with wide latitude. They became “schools of revolution” in which local insurgents enforced revolutionary discipline on their communities. In this manner, these extra-legal institutions that the colonists had created – from Congress to the Continental Army to the Association to state conventions to local committees of safety – became the skeleton of the American government.
These new institutions acted in symbiosis to build their legitimacy. Congress gave its stamp of legitimacy to the committees of safety. The insurgents behind the committees of safety extended their authority to Congress. Without the grassroots infrastructure and military power created by the insurgents, Congress would have amounted to nothing more than an irrelevant debating society.
Breen explores the nuts and bolts of the Revolution. This book was such a delight to read. He notes how the colonists bypassed the mainstream media of their time by creating their own newspapers. Without the ability to transmit information across vast differences, the American colonists would not have been able to create and unite behind their new political identity.
Another fascinating topic was how acts of charity were the cement of the Revolution. Americans initially came to the relief of Boston. These small acts of charity though financially binded Americans in other colonies to the Patriot cause in New England. As events moved forward, this financial network was tapped to drive the American colonies toward independence.
Perhaps the most amazing observation to me is that there wasn’t a Leninist-style “revolutionary vanguard” acting in concert to incite the American Revolution. Instead, it was ordinary people in the countryside – the Joe Six Packs of Colonial America, who were then the yeomanry – who rose up against the British and stumbled into the Revolution.
The Sons of Liberty didn’t expel the British from Boston. Congress was led to the Declaration of Independence by the hot war the insurgents launched in rural New England. When the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1774, events were already spiraling out of control on the ground.
From the Stamp Act to Lexington and Concord, ordinary Americans were polarized by a series of events which they perceived as assaults on their traditional rights and liberties. King George III was raising their taxes. He was a secret Catholic trying to destroy American Protestantism with the Quebec Act. They were enduring taxation without representation.
The American colonists had always thought of themselves as proud and loyal subjects of the British Empire. In the 1760s and early 1770s, it became clear that King George III and Parliament thought of Colonial Americans, not as their equals under the British Constitution, but as their inferiors.
This perception of Americans that the British elite thought of them as their inferiors played the decisive role in their creation of a new political identity. What started as a mere tax revolt over tea and stamps morphed into American nationalism. When American blood was shed on American soil, the insurgency became the American Revolution.
The lessons for Red America to draw from the Revolution are ample and clear:
1.) Resistance of any form (such as a tax revolt) can take on its own momentum and spiral out of control in the proper conditions.
2.) The contempt of the British elite for Colonial America, not unlike the contempt of the Blue elite for Red America today, eventually activated an implicit colonial identity and transformed it into explicit nationalism.
3.) Polarization shattered the legitimacy of British rule in the American colonies. After the Boston Tea Party, the British responded by punishing everyone in Massachusetts with the Coercive Acts, which radicalized moderates and rallied the Southern and Middle Colonies to the American Cause.
4.) Acts of charity and the creation of insurgent information networks cemented the American resistance.
5.) In the American Revolution, the popular revolt among the people forced the colonial elite to choose sides. A faction of the existing elite, which became the Continental Congress, cast its lot with the insurgency, and legitimized the resistance, which dramatically expanded its ranks.
Benjamin Franklin, for example, became a delegate from Pennsylvania to Congress, whereas his son, William Franklin, remained a loyalist and was driven out as the Royal Governor of New Jersey by the insurgents.
John Adams defended the Redcoats after the Boston Massacre, but later became a delegate from Massachusetts to Congress, and eventually went on to become the President of the United States.
Elite legitimacy played a critical role in sustaining the insurgency.
6.) The insurgents were not fringe characters. They were the respectable family farmers and property owners of the countryside and small towns. They were people who were in a position to lead their communities into the Revolution, the colonial mainstream, not rabble rousers looking through the window.
I hope our readers will take the time to purchase and read this wonderful book. I’ve certainly learned a lot from it. Those who yearn to see a Second American Revolution can profit from studying the original one.