The Revolution of the People
T. H. Breen
I wasn't sure when I first picked this book up whether it was going to be a book of American history or a Tea Party movement manifesto. It turns out to be the story of ordinary Americans in the years 1774-1775, when what came to be called the coercive acts were imposed on the colony of Massachusetts following the Boston Tea Party. An obvious connection could be drawn to today's Tea Party, one which Breen never mentions. The question sits behind his narrative, If then why not now?
Breen's contention is that people, through local committees of correspondence, committees of safety or committees of inspection, whichever title they chose, drove the process which led the Continental Congress to declare independence from Great Britain in 1776. He sets up July 4th 1776 as a straw man, stating many times in the book in different ways that the revolution didn't start on the fourth of July - well duh!
The book starts with Captain Isaac Davis, one of my favorite people, who marched from Acton to Concord on April 19th 1775 and was killed by British fire at the old north bridge. Davis was an example of the "minute man," as I learned in school, (in Acton Massachusetts as a matter of fact) who was prepared to march with only a minute's notice to defend his country. The minute part is not really true, but he was an officer of the local militia, organized and drilled in order to resist an expected invasion of the countryside by British troops, who were stationed in Boston and who were there to enforce a complete embargo of trade with that city.
April 19th is a holiday in Massachusetts, Patriots Day, and each year on Patriot's Day I would walk the Isaac Davis trail from Acton to Concord and watch the parade and reenactment of the battle, with lots of colorful uniforms, muskets and cannon fire. Breen is correct that this happened 15 months before the Declaration of Independence. This is not news. Nor is the Boston Tea Party on December 16th 1773 or the Boston Massacre on March 5th 1770. In fact historians have documented that there were increasing tensions for years between tho colonies, particularly in New England, and the authorities in and from London, with incidents of violence, threats and acts of coercion, which led to a popular revolt.
Breen's other contention is that there was a strong Evangelical influence on the American Revolution, through the popular movement he details in his book. He states that and mentions the Great Awakening but then lets the subject drop without giving any evidence. In fact the population of New England was predominantly Congregationalist, while the southern colonies were mostly Church of England. In the mid Atlantic region freedom of religion was practiced, as there was no state sponsored church. Almost all were Christians of some kind, few were followers of George Whitefield, who held some amazing revival meetings in the 1730s throughout the colonies as well as in England.Those Methodists or Baptists who did exist were despised minorities until the Constitution enshrined their freedom to worship as they pleased.
There were those Deists among the founding fathers, still. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin. John Adams actually became a Unitarian, along with many of his fellow New England Congregationalists. Their story is not Breen's, however.
Breen tells the stories of several local committees of safety and how they enforced the "association" an agreement to cease trade with Britain in response to Britians embargo of Boston. This is the valuable and interesting part of his book. He shows, through the stories of several people who suffered the discipline of these committees, how close they came to mob violence, occasionally slipping over the line, and how the committees, for the most part, kept themselves and their neighbors within reasonable bounds, while punishing loyalists, through shunning, forced confessions and other tactics, which mostly stopped sort of those used in China during the Cultural Revolution.
Breen believes that the ideas of John Locke had penetrated to consciousness of ordinary Americans, even the many who may never have heard the name, John Locke. That the government gains its right to govern through the consent of the governed. This seems obvious to us, but it was revolutionary in the 18th century. I think that he overlooks the influence of Congregationalism on this attitude.
Congregationalists believed, still do, that each congregation should govern itself. They broke with the Church of England over this issue, and over the theological differences that their self regulation allowed to creep in, Calvinism and all that. The people of New England were used to organizing themselves by congregations, and indeed by town meetings, and making decisions for themselves. This enabled them to break with Parliament and the King politically, as they had done generations before with their religious establishment.
American Insurgents American Patriots is an interesting book of history even if it misses it's mark on a couple of key points.
Keywords: American History, American Revolution