From Brooke Allen's "READER'S DIARY" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
The historian T. H. Breen has written American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People to fill what he perceives as an imbalance in current representations of the American Revolution. "The vast majority of Americans," he begins, "have never heard the people's story. Instead, we have concentrated on the lives of a small group of celebrated leaders. Without the people, however, there would have been no Revolution, no independent nation…. [A] handful of elite gentlemen arguing about political theory make for a debating society, not a revolution."
It's true that in recent years we have seen a steady stream of popular books about the Founding Fathers, and this perhaps has been at the expense of our appreciation of the vital role ordinary people played in the Revolution. But it's doubtful whether Americans have ever really lost sight of these people: their story is in the very air we all imbibe as we make our way through the school system. (I notice that Johnny Tremain, for instance, already an old chestnut many years ago during my own childhood, is still on the required reading list at many middle schools.) Valiant farmers, artisans, and apprentices taking to arms: it is part of the very fabric of our national mythology.
We may not really need convincing that ordinary Americans did much to organize and propel the Revolution. But Breen's book still contains plenty of fascinating material that will be unfamiliar to countless readers. What has always been so stunning about our Revolution was the speed at which it was all pulled together. Between the Boston Tea Party in December of 1773 and the shots fired in Lexington and Concord in April of 1775 -- a mere sixteen months -- a remarkably well-orchestrated insurgency spread out from New England all the way to Georgia. This surge of popular militancy sowed not chaos but a new order in which a unified, countrywide network of so-called "committees of public safety" -- effectively revolutionary cells -- ousted British political appointees and officers, enforced ideological orthodoxy, mobilized militias, and in general set the agenda for the fight that was to come.
How on earth was this achieved? From the hindsight of 2010 it appears impossible. Communications are infinitely swifter and more sophisticated today, yet no one on any side of our political spectrum, from MoveOn.org to the Tea Party Movement, has succeeded in mobilizing enough critical mass to effect significant change -- revolutionary or otherwise. Whether modern America possesses a political will at all seems increasingly dubious. It's tempting to think the country was less divided at the time of the Boston Tea Party, but Breen demonstrates that this was not really the case: in his estimation, perhaps one-third of the country were insurgents/patriots, one-third were loyal to the British crown, and the remaining third were still on the fence. It was the insurgents' achievement to focus popular rage into unified resistance.
With the Port Act of March 1774, the British closed Boston harbor to all shipping in retaliation for the Tea Party. The Bostonians' plight moved people from all over colonial America; thousands sent provisions to the blockaded city, often sacrificing their own comforts and savings. This was a formative experience for what was becoming a tentative "national" solidarity: the colonists were becoming Americans now, rather than provincial Britons. "The relief of Boston," Breen points out, "required a level of managerial complexity unprecedented in colonial society. The effort involved not only the collection of money and goods on a massive scale, but also the creation of a series of public works projects."
In September 1774, just as the delegates to the First Continental Congress were gathering in Philadelphia, the rumor flew throughout the colonies that the British had bombarded and destroyed the city of Boston. The result was a spontaneous and massive mobilization without parallel in colonial society, the swift creation of a unified insurgent force. In the end the rumor turned out to be unfounded and British officialdom tried to sneer at the colonists' intelligence blunder. But the ordinary people regarded the "blunder" with pride rather than embarrassment, for it was now evident that the colonies were capable of mustering manpower enough to defeat the forces of empire. And the timing of the false alarm could hardly have been more fortuitous. Suddenly the delegates to the Continental Congress realized that the unexpected creation of a large army of irregulars had transformed the political environment and possibilities in Philadelphia. As Breen shows us, "creative tensions between local militants and continental leaders produced a brilliant structure that at once legitimated Congress's leadership and authorized the people to sustain, define, and channel the insurgency within their own communities."
The Articles of Association produced by the Congress provided a sort of rough draft of what would eventually become the U.S. Constitution. A key element of it was Article Eleven, which authorized local communities to create committees of public safety for the purpose of directing events on the ground: these were "extralegal bodies fully prepared to intimidate, even terrorize those who dared to criticize the American cause." These bodies occasionally indulged in "malice, revenge, oppression, manipulation, violence, and cruelty," Breen allows, but they entirely refrained from the sort of bloody excesses that the French and Russian revolutionaries would later indulge in. Why such moderation, despite widespread popular rage? For one thing, the enemy wasn't quite as visible: many of the American loyalists fled to Britain or Canada as soon as the trouble began, and there was no entrenched aristocracy on whom to wreak revenge, as in Europe. This was not a class war. It should also be pointed out that colonial America possessed an unusual commitment to a rule of law. The revolutionary committees punished through a form of "civil excommunication" rather than physical violence, and their primary aim was not to destroy their enemies but to elicit apologies from them and eventually reincorporate them into the body politic.
And as was not the case with the revolutions in France and Russia, American society more or less concurred on the purposes and limits of their revolution. "It is important to remember," Breen stresses, "that there was a fundamental agreement between the insurgents and the Congress on revolutionary goals. Americans were not attacking the need for central government, nor, for that matter, the need for taxes. They rejected corrupt government that denied them a voice in legislation and failed to protect their God-given rights and property."
Breen is aware that his use of the word "insurgents" might seem provocative in today's climate. The American revolutionaries were insurgents, he insists, and occasionally terrorists and torturers as well. He does not apologize for this fact, for he very clearly admires these insurgents and the efficiency and restraint with which they went about their nation-building task. Breen doesn't belabor comparisons with today's insurgencies and rebellions, but of course they are impossible to ignore, and he gently reminds us of the parallels. These days, Breen concludes, "as so many other people throughout the world demand their rights and justice, they challenge modern Americans to remember their own revolutionary origins."
“Breen elegantly demonstrates how much we miss when our histories are focused principally on the Founding Fathers.” Nicholas Guyatt, The Times Literary Supplement
“Generation after generation, students are taught that the Founders inspired a hesitant, though hardy, American populace to reclaim its rights . . . The truth is a good deal messier and more interesting. Historians in our own time--Mr. Breen, Gary B. Nash and Gordon S. Wood, among others--have shifted the emphasis to the common people.” Alan Pell Crawford, The Wall Street Journal
“Founding Father John Adams, looking back at the heady and trying days of the American Revolution, famously wrote ‘the Revolution was effected before the war commenced.' T. H. Breen's new history sets out to fill in the detail -- showing that by the time embattled farmers ‘fired the shot heard round the world' in Concord in 1775, the battle had already been joined by tens of thousands of colonials . . . Breen's book shows an energetic and necessarily untidy process of invention on the part of a people, and captures well its improvisatory nature.” Art Winslow, Chicago Tribune
“a scholarly, unnerving account of the American Revolution's darker side--the violence, death threats, false rumors, and extremist rhetoric that introduced a new political order” Caleb Crain, The New Yorker
“In this compellingly structured and argued book, T.H. Breen asserts that a de facto nation came into existence between the spring and fall of 1774. It was in these crucial months that the people of the thirteen colonies -- not the Founding Fathers, not the Continental Army, not the maladroit British government -- executed a series of steps that collectively solved problems of governance and demonstrated how a republic could be successfully constituted. What's even more surprising is that Breen makes this somewhat counterintuitive argument, one rooted in a social history sensibility, in the form of a chronological narrative. He achieves this cohesion despite lacking a discrete sense of leading characters or a dramatic set of circumstances (the most consequential event of his story is actually a rumor). The result is a book that's highly readable as well as provocative.” Jim Cullen, History News Network
“American Insurgents, American Patriots is one of the most compelling accounts I've read of how ‘the people' forged the Revolution.” Thomas S. Kidd, Books and Culture
“American Insurgents, American Patriots is a much-needed corrective to the notion that the Revolution was the product solely of intellectuals and pamphleteers . . . Breen is especially good on reminding us of the passion that the mass of people -- whom he calls ‘insurgents' -- brought to the cause. He traces the role played by newspapers in firing up these rural folks and shows how their readiness to react, sometimes violently, fueled the cause of independence.” Tony Lewis, Providence Journal
“Casting a wide net in his research to reconstruct the patchwork of grassroots rebellions and self-organized protests across the colonies. Breen is among the growing ranks of historians convincingly uncovering how the Founding Fathers followed and controlled, rather than precipitated, the move toward independence and democracy.” American History
“T. H. Breen's American Insurgents, American Patriots is a pioneering and riveting new analysis of how America was born. Skirting the whole Founding Fathers phenomena, Breen champions instead the everyman of the pre-revolution as a brave citizens' brigade of change. A landmark achievement!” Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History at Rice University and official CBS News Historian
“The Founding Fathers have all the honor they need. Now it's time to honor the ordinary men and women who T. H. Breen brilliantly assays in this riveting book on the crucial run-up to the Declaration of Independence. He shows how people from small farming communities, risking all, purged the countryside of royal officials, dismantled royal authority, shuttered court houses, and defied the King's troops. In this tautly constructed book, Breen shows how much the bewigged Founding Fathers owed to those beneath them, and how much we owe to the plain-spoken, inconspicuous, and roughened colonial insurgents who are the unsung heroes of the American Revolution.” Gary B. Nash, author of The Unknown American Revolution
“Who made the American Revolution? Not the men who typically get the most credit for it, says T.H. Breen in American Insurgents, American Patriots. This bracing and impassioned recounting of the origins of America's break with Great Britain puts ‘the people'--ordinary men and women--back into their rightful place in the story. Sure to provoke discussion, Breen's work is a much-needed and welcome addition to the literature on the founding of the American nation.” Annette Gordon-Reed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
“T. H. Breen's revisionist page-turner recaptures the ungentlemanly labors of Colonial America's dangerous classes, those vigilantes, night riders, and terrorists who made the Revolution possible even before Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Paine proclaimed its necessity. There is sobering contemporary relevance here for Americans about great empires and the violent resistance they spawn in the name of freedom.” David Levering Lewis, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
“In this engaging book, Breen tells the vivid stories of thousands of ordinary Americans who made an extraordinary revolution. American Insurgents, American Patriots reminds us that we have many more Founding Mothers and Fathers than we usually recognize. Breen deftly explores the American Revolution in its full social depth, revealing how it affected everyone: the rich and poor, free and slave, and Patriot and Loyalist.” Alan Taylor, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
“Breen has uncovered the grass roots of the American Revolution in the unheralded acts of ordinary people. Meeting in towns and villages throughout the colonies, they gave public notice that they no longer consented to British rule. Without the prompting of the leaders who have figured so largely in standard histories, they established their own independence well before Thomas Jefferson and company declared it in their famous document.” Edmund Morgan, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
“American Insurgents, American Patriots reveals startling details of the alienation and anger that pervaded the minds of thousands of Americans long before shots were fired on Lexington Green. This is a book that deepens our understanding of the American Revolution--and it's a great read in the bargain!” Thomas Fleming, author of Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge
“This compelling narrative examines the lives of ordinary Americans who in the years 1774 and 1775 led the way to American independence. The book's great merit is to describe the foundation that an insurgency of common people constructed for the building of a new nation.” Mark A. Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History, University of Notre Dame
“T. H. Breen restores the people to their proper place in our understanding of the coming of the American Revolution. Showing how popular anger at misguided British policies was channeled into political and military action, Breen gives us fresh perspectives on the ways ordinary Americans mobilized themselves for war and helped create a new nation. Beautifully written and powerfully argued, American Insurgents, American Patriots should attract a wide and grateful readership.” Peter S. Onuf, author of Jefferson's Empire: The Language of American Nationhood
“Breen's account restores a vivid sense of what the American Revolution felt like to the brave men and women who lived through its enormous ups and downs, and its everyday violence as well. With a scholar's command and a writer's sympathy, he infuses a world of meaning into the word ‘insurgent'-- an apt description for the Americans who were turning the known world upside down.” Ted Widmer, Director and Librarian, John Carter Brown Library
“If earlier authors convinced you that Americans owe their independence to a handful of ‘founding brothers,' you will be fascinated by T. H. Breen's persuasive demonstration that the Founders of the republic could not have succeeded--and might not have tried--without support and pressure from tens of thousands of ordinary Patriots who recognized that sometimes leaders need to be led.” Woody Holton, author of Abigail Adams
“Casting a new light on the origins of the struggle for independence, Breen mines letters, sermons and diaries to create a lively, nuanced account of ordinary farmers' growing resistance to the British government in the two years before the Declaration of Independence. Angry at oppressive parliamentary acts that abrogated their God-given rights, tens of thousands of rebellious insurgents laid the groundwork for a successful revolution. Their anger was every bit as important to the revolutionary story as the learned debates of the Founding Fathers . . . An important new view of a revolution in the making.” Kirkus Reviews
“Breen presents a provocative reinterpretation of the American Revolution as more of a grassroots movement of ordinary persons . . . This is a valuable book by a distinguished scholar.” Publishers Weekly