Sunday, September 19, 2010

Book Review: "American Insurgents, American Patriots"

T.H. Breen's American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (Hill and Wang, 2010) is a timely look at the period between late 1773 and mid-1775: the period, he argues, in which the American Revolution was effectively begun (in this he agrees with John Adams, who wrote in 1818 that the Revolution had occurred in the "minds and hearts of the people" before the first shots were fired).

By defining a revolution as the "willingness of a sufficient number of people to take up arms against an unelected imperial government that no longer served the common good," (p. 10), Breen maintains that this threshold was met in America "sometime in mid-1774" (which may be true for some areas, but considering all the evidence Breen presents, seems fairly early for other sections of the colonies).

In general Breen's book makes for an absorbing read, and he's chosen some very apt examples to illustrate his points. His examination of colonial society and demographics at the time of the imperial crisis is well done, and I found his focus on what he terms "ordinary Americans" mostly useful (although I think his frequent reiteration of terms like "insurgency" and reminders of his thesis that the people were "ahead" of those we think of as their "leaders" got in the way of his argument at times). His use of case studies like the Boston Committee of Donations records (which document supplies received by the city after the Port Bill closed the harbor and supplies were shipped in from throughout the colonies), William Goddard's attempt to form a new postal system, Janet Schaw's account of loyalists being hassled in North Carolina, &c.) worked well, and provided an appropriate level of "personal focus" without relying on the usual "Founding Father" suspects.

That said, I think Breen at times keeps his focus too much on his idea that the "insurgency" started in the aftermath of the Intolerable/Coercive Acts, and does not give enough credit to the resistance methods developed during the latter half of the 1760s during the pushback against the Stamp Act and other parliamentary enactments (not to mention the Tea Party itself). His relation of public pressure against Massachusetts men who accepted royal commissions under the Massachusetts Government Act sounds awfully similar to the methods used against the Stamp Act commissioners a decade before, but Breen almost seems to go out of his way not to connect the two periods.

The most interesting section of the book for me was the seventh and eighth chapters, comprising Breen's discussion of the local committees of inspection or safety that were formed following the passage of the First Continental Congress' "Association." Just how that document ended up serving as something of a "working Constitution" with details (including the composition, size, and powers of the committees themselves) worked out at the local level - and how the committees managed to maintain almost universally a commitment to the rule of law and did not descend into arbitrary rule or violent chaos, is a remarkable story, and I think the one that Breen's book tells most effectively.

A few small errors marred the reading for me: Breen sometimes tries to have it both ways, as on p. 242 where he writes "In general terms, the Americans were all children of the great seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke. But one should not exaggerate his influence. Many Americans had never read Locke's work; quite a few would not have even recognized his name." But on p. 245, Breen begins a two-page discussion of Locke's impact, noting that the famous "Appeal to Heaven" inscription on an early Revolutionary flag originates with Locke: "Ordinary Americans had encountered the phrase in the pages of Locke's Second Treatise, where 'Appeal to Heaven' appears numerous times." Again, on the following page: "The Continental soldiers who justified their own political resistance through an 'Appeal to Heaven' did not have to rummage through musty libraries to read Locke's words. Nor did they have to rely on ministers ... or educated lawyers to tell them what [he] had written. A popular edition of the Second Treatise had just been issued by a Boston publisher ...". To be fair, Breen tries to thread the needle here by saying that Locke's works had been ignored prior to 1773, but this is hardly a universally-accepted notion.

Breen seemed to have particular trouble with Delaware representative Caesar Rodney, who on p. 133 is mistakenly transferred to Maryland and then twenty pages later misdescribed as "the oldest looking man in the world." John Adams, the author of that quote, had written to Abigail that Rodney was the "oddest looking man in the world." Not sure which is more flattering for the poor fellow, to be fair.

Minor missteps aside, Breen's book is an important reminder that the Continental Congress' debates and deliberations were only a small part of what was happening "on the ground" during the heady days of the early 1770s, and that there were other actors on the stage besides the men whose names we already know.