J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Looking Back for The Freedoms We Lost

Last year brought a couple of history books that looked at the American Revolution from iconoclastic perspectives. I haven’t had time to read and digest these as carefully as I’d like, so I’m going to let them speak for themselves because they raise interesting questions.

First up is Barbara Clark Smith’s The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America. Smith, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian, writes in her introduction.
It is far from my intention to dispute the idea that people gained freedoms during the Revolutionary era. . . . This book proposes something far more modest and (so I hope) far more reasonable. I want to suggest that there existed in colonial America elements of liberty, forms of participation in public affairs, that later generations would not experience. Put differently, I want to raise the possibility that some (not all) colonial Americans were not so much less free than succeeding generations, as differently free.
Smith focuses on the class she calls “ordinary” or “common” men: “free, white men, many of whom owned sufficient property to vote for a delegate to their provincial legislature, but who did not aspire to serve as a representative or provincial figures themselves.”
In popular crowd actions and boycotts of trade, ordinary colonists expressed the understanding that Patriots—significantly called “friends to their country”—were those who put aside self-interest and self-regard to join with the neighbors in common sense. . . . In forming that coalition, colonists of the ordinary sort to worked to establish a broad public jurisdiction over political, economic, and social actions, requiring that all those who aspired to be recognized as “Patriots” renounce aspirations to oppress, that they establish themselves thereby as neighbors and brethren to one another. . . .

Chapter 4 traces both the persistence and the unraveling of the coalition between elite and ordinary Patriots during the years 1776 to 1780. During these years, the common cause continued to depend profoundly on the participation of ordinary men and on their standards of Patriotism. We see this most particularly in popular agitation for sharing the burdens of the war, for equitable pricing and supply of goods, and against the influence of Loyalists within American societies. In these contests, many continued to support Patriotism by the standards and values of neighboring. Yet public debates about popular political activity and the related issue of social and financial policy began to divide the movement.

Like other historians before me, I see a change in the nature of the Revolution around the year 1780. By then, a good many leading Patriots sought to discredit and discourage popular participation, whether by voters or by participants in crowds and committees. Many of the Patriot elite became less hospitable to ordinary men’s participation, as they became more concerned with winning the support of moneyed men.
I certainly agree that the Revolutionary movement was built on a perceived need to protect common or community rights rather than individual rights. Even before the war, Patriots were quick to abridge the rights of their political opponents to speak out, publish, break boycotts, worship as they chose, &c. if they felt those activities damaged the interest of the community.

As for the change during the course of the Revolution that Smith highlights, was that a shift in the movement’s nature, or the resurfacing of long-time class divisions under economic pressure?

Here’s a podcast interview with Barbara Clark Smith by Lewis Lapham at Bloomberg News.


Matt Phillips said...

How did the push for community rather than individual rights shift in the years during and after the Revolution to the extent that the push for a Bill of Rights was successful soon after ratification of the Constitution?

J. L. Bell said...

The Bill of Rights was a response to the U.S. Constitution, which had produced a bigger and stronger national government than many Americans had envisioned during the war.

We tend to emphasize the individual rights in the Bill of Rights, but it also contains a fair amount of community-rights language. For instance, the First Amendment protected the established religions in New England even as it said Congress itself can’t abridge freedom of religion for individuals.

The Second Amendment was based on the perceived need for a militia—collective, local self-defense rather than individual self-defense. (Of course, that form of collective self-defense rested on many individuals owning firearms and training together in how to use them.)