Hanging Together, Hanging Separately?


Review of 1774: The Long Year of Revolution, by Mary Beth Norton, and The Will of the People: The Revolution Birth of America, by T. H. Breen

New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020 

Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019


Americans like to think of their revolution as a blessed moment of unity—a time when the country joined together to rescue freedom from tyranny. By comparison, today’s politics seem hopelessly divided and depressingly corrupt. The President deployed armed federal agents to confront protestors and refuses to accept the results of the election while his opponents contend that his rule is both illegitimate and illegal. The American idea has never seemed more precarious and the revolutionary ideal more desirable. Yet American politics did not begin as a transcendent moment of unity but as a violent, fretful clash among Americans. That struggle offers a valuable lesson for our present crisis. For as divisive as independence was, it offered new opportunities for widening political participation and for promoting economic fairness.

The story of American independence usually begins in the Ohio River Valley, highlighting the debts Britain incurred during the French & Indian War. We then turn to Boston and Virginia, with the Stamp Act, the Boston Tea Party, and Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation offering freedom to slaves who defied their rebel masters to join the British ranks. Yet events in London and Bengal were equally important in kindling the Revolution. By the early 1770s, the British East India Company faced both insolvency at home and famine in India. Parliament responded by overhauling its government, loaning it more than a million pounds, and passing legislation that allowed it to export its tea from Britain duty free. 

These efforts to rescue the East India Company were anathema to many colonists. Free of the duty on exported tea, the Company moved to sell its tea directly to American consumers through consignees, bypassing most American tea merchants. The widespread availability of cheap tea raised the prospect that American consumers would abandon smuggled Dutch tea for English tea subject to the Townshend excise. Such taxes were the thin edge of a well-worn and unconstitutional wedge. Moreover, many colonists harbored deep suspicions of the Company as a monopolist that was taxing Bengal to death. Parliament’s efforts to pry open the American market for the Company’s tea seemed like little more than a subterfuge for taxing and exploiting the colonial economy.

As much as patriotic colonists despised both Parliamentary taxation and the East India Company—Harvard professor John Winthrop feared that British ministers’ enforcement of the tax on tea would “turn America into a Field of Blood”—it was far from obvious that a modest tax on a popular commodity would lead to resistance and revolution. In her excellent 1774: The Long Year of Revolution, Mary Beth Norton shows that resistance grew gradually in response to British violence and faced constant challenges from conservative colonists. Even after Boston’s Sons of Liberty destroyed 342 chests of tea and Parliament responded by blockading the Port of Boston and overhauling the colony’s government, colonists remained deeply divided over how to respond to the growing imperial crisis. 

Norton shows that even when colonists were united in opposition to British taxation, the debate over how to respond to increasingly coercive imperial policies divided fathers and sons, friends and neighbors. In Charleston, merchants split over whether colonists should only boycott duty-paying tea while others sought to stop drinking tea altogether. Virginia’s congressional delegates were adamant that parliamentary taxation was illegitimate but had a “great variety of different opinions with respect to the means of redress” (150). Even in New England, town meetings were at pains to emphasize that colonists would use “due and legal means” and expressed concerns that their resistance might unleash “anarchy and mob rule” (48).

Political divisions complicated colonists’ response to both the Tea Act and Boston’s subsequent destruction of the tea. Philadelphia’s committee of correspondence, for example, was prepared to support compensating the East India Company for the damaged tea, but only if Parliament would grant the colonies “the indefeasible right of giving and granting our own money.” Conservatives like Virginia’s John Randolph, on the other hand, defended the Boston Port Act as necessary to confront the growth of “licentiousness” in New England (140). Confronted by what they saw as “anarchy and confusion,” colonial conservatives and the imperial officials who supported them did not shy from confrontation (55). In Virginia, the colony’s governor, the Earl of Dunmore, dissolved the House of Burgesses after the legislature declared a day of fasting and prayer to “devoutly to implore the divine Interposition for averting the heavy Calamity, which threatens Destruction to our civil Rights” (96).

Even apart from genuine conservatives such as Dunmore, “many colonists showed considerable reluctance to abandon regular political procedures” (128). They remained at pains to establish the legitimacy of the committees and congresses they had established to resist the authority of Parliament and imperial officials, repeatedly asserted the “respectability” of their proceedings and the participants. Norton reminds us that Patriot leaders proposed the First Continental Congress as “a moderate alternative to Boston’s call for quick action,” and it included genuine conservatives like Joseph Galloway within its ranks (130). More cautious colonists repeatedly sought a way out of the political impasse. One anonymous New Jersey author suggested that congress accept that Parliament had the power to tax trade goods, including tea, yet reject other British levies. 

Within this tense and contentious political environment, colonial patriots were largely united in their opposition to Parliamentary taxation, seeing it as an unjust seizure of colonial property. Patriot colonists stressed that such policies were—like the Port Act and the Coercive Acts—redolent of violence. Indeed, it is hard to overstate how threatening British imperial policy seemed. Not only did those reforms undermine the institutions that defined economic, civic, and political life within the colonies, they were imposed, quite literally, at bayonet point.

Like the Stamp Act before it, the Massachusetts Government Act disrupted the functioning of the colonial economy. Colonists responded to Parliament’s efforts to overhaul the colony’s justice system by refusing to participate in court sessions and preventing “unconstitutional” courts from meeting. Like so much of the authoritarian reform effort, measures that had been designed to bring order and authority to colonial government brought only dissent and lawlessness. Combined with the blockade of Boston’s harbor, they struck a crippling blow to Massachusetts’s economy, which depended on the courts to enforce contracts and debts. The disruption to the legal system and the economy was almost as severe in Virginia, where Lord Dunmore ended the legislature’s session before the Burgesses voted on a bill establishing court fees.

Such threats to life and livelihood repeatedly led to patriotic violence, often targeted against imperial officials as well as real and suspected Tories. Norton takes Boston Customs Commissioner Henry Hulton to task for implying “that no one in Massachusetts attempted to maintain order after the powder alarm,” arguing that “the seemingly frenzied, disorderly crowds usually had specific aims and did not lack internal direction or what might be termed a moral compass” (184). 

Sympathetic American historians have long taken the position that colonial radicals had an order and method to their resistance. And, indeed, radical colonists repeatedly expressed concern about maintaining order and protecting property. Yet ultimately, the issue is less whether patriotic violence abided by some underlying moral logic—it did—but whether such violence was legitimate. For more conservative colonists and their supporters in Britain, denials of Parliamentary authority, boycotts, and extra-legal political organization were all unconscionable acts to destroy constitutional government through mob violence. Colonial patriots, by contrast, justified popular resistance and even violence by pointing to an even more violent set of imperial policies—blockading and burning cities, fomenting Native and African American violence—that sought not just to tax the colonies but to bury them. 

As much as colonial patriots insisted that they opposed riot and licentiousness, colonial resistance was by necessity both extra-legal and imbued with violence. In September 1774, Suffolk County’s committee of correspondence issued resolves that Lord Dartmouth compared to a declaration of war. Fervently debated but quickly endorsed by the Continental Congress, those resolutions declared loyalty to the king while asserting “an indispensable Duty” to defend “those civil and religious Rights and Liberties” their ancestors had fought to establish (187). Not only did the Resolves refuse any obedience to the Massachusetts Government Act or the Boston Port Act, but they also sought to damage Britain’s empire and economy. Colonists promised to withhold commercial intercourse with the British Empire, including the consumption of British manufactures and tea. They also advised tax collectors to halt payments to the Massachusetts treasury, took steps to begin promoting domestic manufacturing, and overhauled the colonial militia.

As colonists formed extra-constitutional committees and congresses, they forced American conservatives to articulate the colonies’ place within the British Empire. For the Reverend Jonathan Boucher, the colonies’ charters rendered them “subordinate to Parliament as well as to the king” (174). Rather than opposing the “trifling” tea duty, colonists ought to accept their subordinate position within the empire (174). Despite his seat on the Continental Congress, Joseph Galloway accused the colonial committees of republicanism and of setting popular resolves above both the imperial constitution and law. In response, he proposed a colonial government that would be “an inferior and distinct Branch of the British Legislature,” a proposal that secured the support of James Duane, Edward Rutledge, and John Jay (197). 

Yet despite the support of some conservatives in Congress, American patriots had little interest in a subordinate role within a British Empire. Congress’s insistence on “absolute independence” led Galloway (and many other colonial conservatives) to complain that patriot leaders were leading Americans into “clear, palpable treason” that would cost them their lives and property while allowing “undisciplined” and “unprincipled” mobs to wreak “havoc and devastation” (298).

For all of the opprobrium heaped upon colonial patriots by conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, it would be a mistake to conclude that British leaders held colonists in universal contempt. Patriots in Britain shared radical colonists’ criticisms of imperial policy. As Benjamin Franklin observed in February 1775, Congress was held “in high Esteem” in Britain “among all the Friends of Liberty, and their Papers much admir’d.” Widely read and published, Americans and their Congress were praised by the Lord High Chancellor Lord Camden while the former Prime Minister, William Pitt, Lord Chatham described the members of the Continental Congress as the “unbiased choice of a great, free and enlightened People” whose unanimity, moderation, and wisdom, made them the “most honourable Assembly of Men that had ever been known.” Although the British debate over colonial policy figures little in Norton’s analysis, it sheds considerable light on why colonial conservatives were convinced that colonial reform was both necessary and possible. It also helps explain why colonial patriots convinced themselves that reconciliation and a more democratic British Empire were real possibilities. 

As compromise proved futile, colonists increasingly took charge of local institutions. In his powerful and important The Will of the People, T. H. Breen shows that the revolution offered opportunities for self-government and popular decision making that led to a dramatic change in political consciousness. The revolution took place amidst raw emotions of fear, revenge, and betrayal that are crucial for understanding how and why revolutionaries erected a new political order on the ruins of monarchy and aristocracy. Political passions and the experience of “ordinary people” help explain why America’s revolution ended differently—and more successfully—than other modern revolutions. Ultimately, Breen argues, “the participation of so many new men in public life transformed theoretical arguments for a government based on the will of the people into revolutionary reality” (226).

Breen focuses on how white people in rural settlements experienced the Revolution—their anxieties, fears, and passions. He seeks to reconstruct how “people swept up by political passion made choices that changed their lives: decisions about political allegiance, about policing domestic enemies, about supplying scarce funds and resources to advance what became known as the country’s common cause[.]” He notes that, “The challenge of sustaining a revolution within these intimate personal networks over eight years was more difficult than most of us fully comprehend” (4). 

Yet in meeting that challenge, “ordinary Americans” created a new political culture based on the will of the people rather than monarchy. This political culture sought to avoid anarchy and licentiousness by “balancing order and freedom”: “As the members of the various committees repeatedly discovered—in their control of domestic enemies, in establishing revolutionary justice, in discouraging profiteering, and in dealing with refugees—constraint was as important as passion in sustaining the fight for independence” (224).

Ministers, Breen tells us, provided colonists “with a coherent, persuasive explanation of the crisis that had engulfed them” (83-84). Confronted by British tyranny, clergymen appealed to heaven. In so doing, they legitimized armed resistance while placing the “the burden of political judgment” on the people (72). Divine sanction gave colonists in small communities across North America the confidence they needed to declare independence from Britain and monarchy while attenuating the more ferocious impulses of rebellion. Ministers brought the Revolution’s logic to thousands of small communities across North America, delivering the divine command to sacrifice self-interest for the common good.

Breen is at pains to draw a line between the views of “ordinary Americans,” whose “broadly shared religious assumptions about political responsibility” set them apart from elite leaders such as Jefferson and Adams (55). He revives an older argument about the role of the Great Awakening and evangelical religion’s empowerment of individuals and its erosion of religious and social hierarchies. Yet he draws perhaps too firm a line between the outlook of elites and the wider population. Virginia legislators and the learned authors of the Suffolk Resolves were just as capable as ministers and mechanics of invoking the language of divine judgment. And as Breen himself observes, Locke’s Second Treatise experienced “a sudden new burst of popularity” (70). Moreover, ministers, pamphleteers, and elite politicians alike agreed that liberty demanded that the people have a voice in legislation lest they become “the slaves of tyrannical masters” (224). Both in the pulpit and the pamphlet, the touchstones of the political argument against British rule were the same. They emphasized that political legitimacy depended on the consent of the governed, that taxation without consent was slavery, and that the legitimate exercise of power was circumscribed by fundamental rights to life, liberty, and property.

Breen argues that local committees’ sense of justice limited their vengeance against domestic enemies. State-sanctioned executions were rare. In Frederick County, Maryland, for example, jurors were reluctant to execute Loyalists for conspiring to recruit soldiers to fight for the British. And although the new revolutionary governments convicted many people of political crimes and sent them to jail, the more typical pattern was of confession and a promise to behave better in the future. In Massachusetts, where the legislature passed a law requiring local committees to identify suspicious individuals, the town of Worcester drew up lists of British sympathizers but ultimately dropped most of the names, allowing neighbors who had shown even passing support for independence to take a new oath of allegiance and avoid punishment. Such moderation reflected both fears “that the Revolution might descend into anarchy,” but also a strong attachment to the rule of law (155).

In this telling, the Revolution was a tame affair marked by a local commitment to the rule of law and a fear of political disorder, which sets it apart from other major revolutions in world history. While the American Revolution largely avoided devouring its young, states did seize large amounts of loyalist property both during and after the war, impoverishing many loyalists. Independence created an unprecedented refugee crisis, as approximately 60,000 loyalists (a huge number in a country of fewer than 4 million people) scattered across the British Empire.

Breen argues that colonists’ moderation stemmed from an attachment to the rule of law and to an unwillingness to exact vengeance on their friends and neighbors. Yet French and Russian revolutionaries had friends and neighbors as well. As Breen himself recognizes, “white revolutionaries visited terrible violence far more frequently on African Americans and Native Americans than on loyalists, with whom they often shared a common cultural and ethnic heritage” (87). 

Unfortunately, he has little to say about how this ought to inform our understanding of the Revolution itself. That white patriots restrained their vengeance against white loyalists while exacting vengeance on racial outsiders raises the question of whether these two phenomena may be more closely linked than Breen is willing to admit. Indeed, historians from Edmund Morgan to Robert Parkinson have observed that racism was an essential element in the alchemy of revolution. Racism not only papered over social distinctions and offered both a common sense of white identity, but it also furnished a fearsome enemy that Patriots could exploit to mobilize colonial resistance.

At the same time that racism and fear directed white violence toward Native and African Americans, the political realities of the Atlantic world restrained white Patriots’ violence against other whites. Revolutionaries were at pains to convince skeptical Americans and elites throughout the British Empire that their cause was legitimate. And they faced a relentless publicity campaign by loyalists and their British supporters that painted them as a lawless rabble. Patriots were determined to demonstrate their commitment to reason, humanity, and just government to both their fellow white Americans as well as to a European audience. Such concerns likely limited revolutionaries’ reprisals against white Loyalists, but it gave far freer rein to racism and racialized violence.

By 1778, both the continental currency and the American economy teetered on the verge of collapse. Merchants refused to accept continental money and its value fell precipitously. As Breen rightly observes, acceptance of continental dollars was in effect a pledge of allegiance. With food and other necessities increasingly out of reach, American patriots blamed the greedy and unpatriotic for engrossing and monopolizing. Local committees articulated a “populist vision of economic justice” that subordinated economic rights to the “common good” (180). As Americans experienced the twin crises of war and depression, they embraced economic ideas of a just price that were extremely radical: “Instead of waiting for the market to right itself, the American people turned to local committees to save their revolution” (181). As ever greater numbers of Americans decried special privileges and served on committees that regulated the economy, the revolutionary movement gained both confidence and popular legitimacy. Their vision of fairness—one which placed public interests ahead of private interests—was the essence of revolutionary patriotism.

This point is crucial. Breen identifies a strong egalitarian impulse in the committees that was anything but libertarian. State legislatures shared that sensibility and regulated their wartime economies with abandon. Indeed, American opposition to British rule and the ideals of the founding were grounded in notions of fairness and equality rather than hostility to government. When American colonists revolted, they not only widened the ambit of participation, they made it the business of government to serve the newly sovereign people through regulations that promoted fairness and common well-being.

Breen ends his account by decrying extremes and celebrating the moderation of the American Revolution. Yet the Revolution was, as both these authors show us, remarkably radical by the standards of the eighteenth century. By rejecting the inequities of empire and insisting on popular government, American colonists offered a new kind of politics that rejected the authoritarianism and empire that were the hallmarks of European states, opening new political opportunities for many who had previously been excluded. And although that vision of politics was not unique to British North America, it did succeed there. One reason that it did, as Norton and Breen so vividly show, was because people in communities throughout the colonies engaged vigorously in argument and politics. Yet their political struggle was divisive, bloody, and tainted by racism. Its legitimacy rested on the promise to widen opportunities for political and economic participation. As America grapples with intense polarization, the Revolution offers both warning and comfort. Irreconcilable political divisions often lead to terrible violence even as they offer opportunities to create a more equal, just, and inclusive society.



Posted on 16 December 2020

JUSTIN du RIVAGE is the author of Revolution Against Empire: Taxes, Politics, and the Origins of the American Revolution (Yale University Press, 2017) and previously taught early American history at Stanford University. He is currently a J.D. Candidate at Harvard Law School.