The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America. By Barbara Clark Smith. (New York: The New Press, 2010. Pp. xvi, 272. $25.95 cloth)

Among numerous, recently published monographs dedicated to the people out of doors during the Revolutionary Era, Barbara Clark Smith's The Freedoms We Lost will assume a distinguished place for its inventive interpretation and lucid prose. Long anticipated by readers familiar with her well-researched article, "Food Rioters and the American Revolution" (William and Mary Quarterly [1994]), Smith's revisionist book radically proposes that the War of Independence foreclosed many of the civil liberties enjoyed by poor and middling inhabitants of the former British colonies. The disintegration of the Patriot moral economy in the early 1780s—and the establishment in its place of a new constitutional order committed to both popular sovereignty and monied interest—blunted modes of political expression that many Americans once held dear.

Smith, curator of political history at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, identifies a handful of freedoms ultimately lost by inhabitants of the United States. The most vital of these by far was the freedom—exercised by broad segments of the Anglo-American population, including those who could not vote—to withhold consent to the law "after the fact" of its enunciation (p. 208). By disregarding statutes and judicial decisions, by obstructing the execution of laws (often by means of street protest and violence), and by refusing, as jurors, to punish persons whose alleged crimes did not greatly offend community sensibilities, the people out of doors articulated their political will and carved a niche within the British constitution. [End Page 473]

Motivating the colonial American populi, and resounding in their vox, were communitarian values that Smith collectively terms "neighborliness." According to Smith, neighborliness arose in part from "[l]ocal knowledge" obtained from "residency in a community" (p. 15). Neighborliness demanded fair and consensual dealings, as manifest in mid-eighteenth-century debates over market regulation in Boston and landlord-tenant relations in New Jersey. In opposition to avarice, neighborliness prescribed competence—one's ability to provide for a modest household—and thereby mitigated tensions between individual ambition and the common good.

Alone, the American Revolution neither created this spirit of neighborliness nor destroyed the freedoms it inspired. But the revolution provides Smith a vibrant panorama by which to exhibit both. In defying parliamentary taxation, aggrieved colonists "put aside self-interest and self-regard to join with their neighbors in common cause" (p. xiii). Patriot crowds exercised the freedom of consent more often and aggressively during the war, as for example in their acceptance of continental currency and their ostracism of suspected loyalists. Meanwhile, colonial elites, who perceived the necessity of building a consensus resistance among all ranks of society, acquiesced to crowd behaviors more readily than before. The disintegration of royal authority and the establishment of revolutionary committees to assume local governance democratized American politics and lent patriotic heft to neighborly sacrifice.

As the "We" in her title suggests, Smith exhibits a great deal of sympathy for her working-rank crowds. Though her book presents much evidence of popular violence and intimidation, she rarely condemns the excesses of the people out of doors. "If there was a single word that encompassed the Patriot identity established in the boycotts of trade," Smith asserts, "that word would be 'neighbor'" (p. 106). Yet what a dark and unforgiving notion of neighborliness it must have been that enabled Delaware Patriots to persecute a local farmer—by refusing to grind his grain, by declining to educate his children, and by carting him, shamefully, through the streets of Dover—not because he harbored "aspirations to oppress," but rather because his Quaker [End Page 474] faith obliged him to refuse the continental currency (pp. xiii, 144). By accentuating inclusionary rather than exclusionary dimensions of Patriot neighborliness, Smith obscures the moral complexities of this calamitous internecine conflict.

Few if any of the freedoms Smith identifies collapsed entirely during the revolution or in its constitutional aftermath. Several circumstances undermined these ancient freedoms: the failure of neighborliness to sustain the American people through the economic hardships of the war, the restoration...


pdf