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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Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Breen on “Revolutionary Communities” in Worcester, 3 Oct.

On Thursday, 3 October, T. H. Breen will speak about “Revolutionary Communities: Where Americans Won Independence” at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. This talk is based on his new book, The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America.

The event announcement says that the book “argues that without the participation of ordinary people during the colonial rebellion, there would have been no victory over Great Britain,” which is hardly surprising. The publisher’s page for the book is clearer about its focus:
Far from the actions of the Continental Congress and the Continental Army, [ordinary people] took responsibility for the course of the revolution. They policed their neighbors, sent troops and weapons to distant strangers committed to the same cause, and identified friends and traitors. By taking up the reins of power but also setting its limits, they ensured America’s success.
So it seems to be a study of the local committees and authorities who maintained order during the war.

LitHub has an extract, which says in part:
The new men took charge of community affairs before they became revolutionaries, before most of them even openly advocated national independence. They were caught up by the sudden collapse of British authority outside a few major port cities. They learned on the job, gaining a measure of self­-confidence through the daily challenge of policing politically suspicious neighbors, recruiting Continental soldiers, overseeing the local militia, collecting taxes, and supplying soldiers with food and blankets.

It was this common experience that allows us to generalize about revolutionary voices. To be sure, we recognize profound regional differences, some greater than others. South Carolina was not Massachusetts. Moreover, records in the South are not as full as those surviving in the Middle States and New England. We might note religious and economic variations or contrasting racial statistics. But such distinctions and uneven records should not dis­courage us from looking at the Revolution as a whole. After all, one can examine resistance in local communities, while at the same time making broad generalizations about a revolutionary people at war.
T. H. Breen is the John Kluge Professor of American Law and Governance at the Library of Congress, the James Marsh Professor-at-Large at the University of Vermont, and the Founding Director of the Chabraja Center for Historical Studies at Northwestern University. He has taught at many leading universities and written many books about early America.

(You can watch me introduce Tim speaking about President George Washington’s fraught 1789 visit to Gov. John Hancock at the Cambridge Forum here.)

This talk is scheduled to start at 7:00 P.M., and there will be a book-signing afterwards. The A.A.S. is at 185 Salisbury Street in Worcester. There is parking on Regent Street and in the lot at 90 Park Avenue. This event is free and open to the public.


Matt Luckett said...

That's an interesting thesis, and it makes a lot of sense, though I wonder to what degree people were already managing their own affairs without British assistance on a local level. After all, England had a Civil War the previous century, and apart from a few local administrators the British government did not seem to have a very heavy hand outside of the port cities.

Anyway, I love your blog - I am adding it to my list of teaching resources for my Early American history course.


J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for your kind words! I hope the blog is truly a resource.

Indeed, in a world without communication faster than a horse could gallop or a ship could sail, local communities were used to governing themselves. They did so according to people’s understanding of proper laws and customs, and in the British Empire a lot of those actions were taken in the name of the king. Even after Parliament became the highest authority, it was said to act on behalf of the king.

But what happens when the community and its neighbors decide to reject that traditional authority? Does acting in the name of the people, or the state, or the United States, carry the same weight? Is that a chance for society to recognize new rights and relationships? Or, given that there was a war on, does society have to be more strict and controlling than usual? I think those were the questions that local committees and magistrates had to deal with during the Revolutionary War.

By and large, historians have noted, America's Revolution didn't upend or reshape society the way some other revolutions have, or tried to. Individual officeholders deemed too deferential to the Crown were removed from power or driven out, but the offices and the structure they formed remained largely intact. There were some significant changes, such as the end of legal slavery in some states and single women having the vote in New Jersey for a few years. But most law codes, property lines, and class structure stayed the same.

That probably made the local committees' and officials' work easier. Since those committees tended to draw white men from the top social and economic tier, the lack of fundamental change made their lives easier as well.