T. H. Breen, The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019.
That revolutions generally end very badly is a truth generally (if not universally) acknowledged, and the proposition that the American Revolution did not (though it may be too early to tell) underpins T. H. Breen’s excellent and highly readable book. The question is: why wasn’t bloodshed and disaster the fate of the American Revolution? The excellent research, the engaging stories of communal and popular resilience, and the brilliance and innovation of Breen’s bottom-up approach to American history (see also his magnificent 2004 work The Marketplace of Revolution) tell a compelling story, and yet, that key question is not, and perhaps cannot be, simplistically answered. The possibility that racial identity ultimately overrode the political and class divisions created by the revolutionary moment, however, is touched upon throughout.
Breen’s study unfolds over seven pithily titled and effectively delineated chapters: “Rejection,” “Assurance,” “Fear,” “Justice,” “Betrayal,” “Revenge,” and “Reflections.” The first six chapters reflect the span of the revolution between the Stamp Act of 1765 to the peace treaty of 1783. The chapters aim, in Breen’s words, to “recover the shifting emotional environments that were characterized in turn by a sense of rejection, a search for assurance, a climate of fear, a demand for revolutionary justice, a discovery of betrayal, a desire for revenge, and finally, an acceptance of reconciliation” (15). Throughout, Breen demonstrates with narrative brio how it was primarily ordinary people, and not the fabled and fetishized founders, who forged and sustained a revolution against the British government. In his introduction, he voices an important qualification, one which, in a sense, haunts the book; alongside the positive and unique achievement of the revolution, “we must acknowledge that many revolutionaries held disturbingly negative beliefs about African Americans and Native Americans.” The Revolutionaries were largely pro-slavery; and “they condoned the wanton killing of Indians along the frontier, justifying massacre of Native Americans as the just revenge for their allegiance to Great Britain” (9). White loyalists, on the other hand, were treated more forgivingly when the revolutionary moment passed, allowing for the consolidation of the young republic.
Breen asserts that “Americans did not follow the divisive script that has compromised so many revolutions throughout the world” (159). The French revolution collapsed into an orgy of violence because class resentments had been stewing for a long time. In America, such inequalities were not yet fully realised in the white settler mainstream; luxury was held in abeyance in a new society which modelled itself on classical republican virtues. Greed, however, threatened to sunder communities and subvert patriotism. A discussion of currency depreciation reveals how socially irresponsible financial speculation created the potential for division between richer and poorer colonists, with some families experiencing extreme poverty and starvation. The currency was itself a symbol of growing sovereignty, and it was destabilising in several ways to have it devalued. The richer, mercantile interest could plead patriotism, but many more were suspicious. Wealth, emphasised before country, threatened the young nation and the public-spiritedness of its people. There was thus a general resolve to save the currency and reduce sharp dealing; but times of economic crisis, then as now, created fractures within society and had the potential to divide the revolution against itself. The move to restore the balance which had been threatened by speculators was a measure of the resolve and republican character of the emerging nation. In the resistance to luxury and speculation, ordinary communities became the sites for the exchange of ideas. Efforts to curtail venality and extortion took place at the level of community and committee, meticulously researched and engagingly recorded by Breen. He concedes that, whatever the general faith in the revolutionary programme, human nature was a perennial danger to the realisation of republican ideals. Efforts to stamp out venality were in the end “as unrealistic as were earlier Puritan attempts to eliminate sin” (190).
Chapter 6 deals with the potential for, and surprising lack of, vengeful violence against loyalists after the revolution. The story of the revenge visited upon the bloody-minded Irish-American Tory Matthew Love is compellingly told. Love was legally forgiven for his transgressions but hung by members of the community: a grisly example of the concept of ‘moral economy’ at work in an unstable post-revolutionary moment. Such a story, however, provides an exception which proves the rule, which was that, although the revolution could have had a very violent aftermath, many grievances were resolved with a reasonable equanimity. And while many loyalists moved to Canada or England, many more stayed. Communities came to sense the “emotional limits of revenge and to imagine a new society in which they could simply get on with their lives without violence” (207). Hamilton would defend the rights of loyalist refugees to vote. Their previous misguidedness or bad behaviour could not in his view, and in the view of many administrators, justify ongoing discrimination against them. The nation would, moreover, be deprived of the benefit of their economic activity if they were despised or too definitively exiled. Loyalists would ultimately reinvent and reintegrate themselves in the new republic. To Breen, that outcome remains “something of a mystery” (219).
But the mystery can be resolved somewhat by comparing, as Breen does, the treatment of loyalist refugees with that of African and Native Americans who had sided with the British and of those Native Americans who continued to trouble Westward expansion. Political differences were not so great as to outweigh cultural and ethnic continuities between revolutionaries and loyalists. Americanness was not, ultimately, culturally alien to Britishness. Whatever their stance during the revolution, white Americans subscribed to common law and spoke English; they were mostly protestants. Such continuities could ultimately be said to explain the happy failure of the American revolution to degenerate into internecine conflagration. American revolutionaries, however, asserted their freedom because, as Breen acknowledges, they saw in slavery the consequences of its lack.
Samuel Johnson considered the cause of the Americans in pretty withering terms in 1775; a Tory, and to some a recovering Jacobite, he was wary of the discourses which underpinned the American cause: “how is it,” he wearily asked, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” There was a rich Johnsonian irony in white Americans fearing “enslavement” to Britain; but to address that irony fully might answer the book’s central question. The revolution may have resolved itself peacefully, but that was perhaps because key questions about human liberty in America were left deferred and would be addressed again with much violence just under a century later. They have not been resolved fully, as 2020 has shown. Breen closes this book with a warning about the threats to the ongoing American experiment from intolerance and venal interests. We know precisely of what he speaks, this year above all others.
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