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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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Rebels Rising: The Five-City Tour

The National Book Critics Circle just released a survey that found 68.5% of its respondents feel that “anyone mentioned in the acknowledgments of a book” should be barred from reviewing it. Since my name appears in the Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution, this is not a review. It’s just a discussion of the book.

Then again, Dave Hoffman at Concurring Opinions invited Benjamin L. Carp to write a “review” of Rebels Rising, and Ben’s name is on the cover, as the author. So we bloggers are still working out our own standards.

In Rebels Rising, Ben Carp explores the approach of the American Revolution in the five largest settlements in British North America. For each seaport, the book looks at a different aspect of life and thus analyzes different historical sources, political pressures, and slices of the population.

The chapter on Boston focuses on its waterfront: economy, culture, politics. As Ben points out, the ocean was part of everyone’s life on the Shawmut peninsula, even they didn’t directly work in the maritime trades. “From the tip of the North End to the Boston Neck was about two miles, and no point in Boston was more than half a mile from the water.”

The chapter on New York looks at that city’s changes through what happened in taverns. Again Ben makes a mighty strong case for that approach:

The province [of New York] consumed about 1,119,000 gallons of rum in 1770. This was 6.7 gallons of rum per New Yorker annually—a slightly skewed figure since some of the rum went to New Jersey. Still, New Yorkers probably drank rum at a higher rate than other Americans, who each drank 4.2 gallons of rum on average that year or more than seven one-ounce shots every day. . . .

With 365 liquor licenses issued in the twelve months following March 1771, a ratio of one tavern or retailer for approximately every sixty city residents (or one for every thirteen adult white men), New York had around double the number of drinking establishments per capita than other large colonial American cities.
The book studies Newport, Rhode Island, through its religious frictions, drawing especially on the rich diaries and letters of the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles. The papers of Henry Laurens open a window into the drawings rooms of Charleston, South Carolina, and an analysis of household management there. The last major chapter considers how Philadelphians tussled over their public spaces—their legislative chamber and the open yard outside—and thus over sources of political authority.

The result is a detailed, grounded look at one aspect of life in each seaport before the Revolutionary War—but only one aspect. As an example of how this works, Rebels Rising discusses Paul Revere as a small businessman who lived near the waterfront. It doesn’t discuss his career as a luxury craftsman, serving gentlemen but not (at first) considered one of them. It leaves aside his experiences as a war veteran and militia officer, a member of the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons, and an occasional engraver and thus political journalist. The book introduces Samuel Adams early in his career protesting naval impressment, a grievance of Boston’s waterfront community, but it doesn’t discuss other activities that helped politicize him, such as the Land Bank controversy and his work as a tax collector.

It would have been possible to apply any of the four other themes to Boston:
  • Taverns: The coffee-house fight between James Otis and John Robinson, meetings in the Green Dragon, &c. (Of course, David Conroy’s In Public Houses already traces about how Massachusetts taverns became political centers in the 1700s.)
  • Religion: Boston’s Congregationalist clergy was complaining loudly about a possible Anglican bishop while Crown supporters complained that those ministers comprised a “black regiment” preaching resistance.
  • Households: The nonimportation struggle made consumption into a political issue, then a conflict which eventually led to loss of life.
  • Space: Alongside the official Town House and Faneuil Hall government buildings, Boston politicians used Old South Meeting-House for extra-large meetings, plus the open space of the streets and under Liberty Tree.
We could probably apply each of the five approaches to each of the five cities. Of course, Rebels Rising never claims that there’s only one way to approach each location. It just shows that how each approach works in its designated city to yield insights into the overall movement. This one book thus encapsulates five different ways of looking at the approach of the Revolution, and offers a quick introduction to five distinct American places.

And I sense that Rebels Rising was designed to display that range. Though it certainly doesn’t read like a monograph, this book grew out of Ben Carp’s doctoral dissertation, which was supposed to show what he could do after however many years of training. And it showed he could do multiple forms of historical analysis in multiple geographic areas—mighty impressive.

In a way this book reminds me of John Singleton Copley’s famous portrait of his half-brother, Henry Pelham, and a squirrel, which is now at the Museum of Fine Arts. Copley painted that not for a patron but to exhibit in London and thereby establish his talents. It was his “masterpiece,” proving his range of skills. And the painting reflects that purpose. Copley is telling viewers, Look! I can paint a fine portrait! I can also paint a flying squirrel—bet you haven’t seen that! I can paint a fine metal chain! I can paint a glass of water! I can paint satin cloth! I can paint the reflections of all that stuff in a polished wood table! You want a portrait? I can paint it!

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