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Not Your Usual “Founders”

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 40, Number 4, December 2012
pp. 557-565 | 10.1353/rah.2012.0107

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Revolutionary Founders is, to my mind, one of the best recent books on the American Revolution, and one that, unlike so many others, could actually be of use in the college classroom. It includes an introduction by the editors, an afterword by Eric Foner, and twenty-two essays, each by a different scholar, focused on an individual or group of individuals who played a role in the Revolution and whose story highlights some aspect of the event. The essays are divided into three sections—Revolutions, Wars, and The Promise of the Revolution. That gives the book range: it goes from the organization of resistance to Britain through the war to the impact of the Revolution, particularly of its promise of equality. The essays are, as a whole, historically sophisticated and readable. Most essays are well researched, activate the imagination and, even for this seasoned scholar, deepen knowledge of the time. Moreover, although the book has no overt political agenda, only a peculiarly insensitive reader will miss the similarity between the issues that concerned some of the essays’ protagonists—the maldistribution of wealth, for example—and those of today.

But is the book really about “Founders,” as the title suggests? That term generally refers to the delegates at the Federal Convention and a few other contributors to revolutionary constitutionalism such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, whose public service took them out of the country in 1787. It can arguably include the champions of independence, the creators of the first state constitutions, and participants in the ratification debates. In any case, “Founders” had some role in the creation of the American republic and government under written constitutions. Perhaps that connection with institutional transformations is why references to the “Founders” and, even more, the “founding period” at first suggested a leaning toward the right among those who used those terms: they traveled comfortably with a defense of “traditional American history”— history, that is, before women’s or black or social or cultural history made their appearance; history with politics and government as its core.

The characters in this book were not “Founders” in that sense or, if they were, their institutional contributions are not what the book explores. George Wythe, for example, was a delegate to the federal Convention and a leading figure in the Virginia ratifying convention; here he appears because of his views on race and slavery. Samuel Thompson was a passionate, outspoken critic of the Constitution at the Massachusetts ratifying convention (and a man whom some considered a bit unhinged later in 1788). Here he appears in an essay by T. H. Breen as the leader of a group of Maine insurgents who provoked a British naval bombardment that destroyed the town of Falmouth in 1775.

Some of the “revolutionaries” in Revolutionary Founders opposed the American Revolution. Colin G. Calloway’s useful essay, “Declaring Independence and Rebuilding a Nation: Dragging Canoe and the Chicamauga Revolution,” tells the story of an Indian who, in May of 1776, denounced the ruling Cherokee elders and launched a revolution to “rebuild an independent Cherokee nation based on militant defense of their land and sovereignty rather than accommodation to colonial pressures” (p. 191). That secessionist movement split the Cherokees, and so weakened their military strength, but Dragging Canoe went on to form a multitribal confederation to fight the Americans. His “Chicamauga Revolution” continued after the Treaty of Paris (1783) and even survived Dragging Canoe’s death in 1792, but it ended disastrously with the Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794).

Similarly, the essay by Cassandra Pybus focuses upon black Loyalists and Methodists who ended up in Sierre Leone, where the ruling company rejected their demand for political participation and, in 1800, “ruthlessly suppressed” a rebellion challenging the company’s right to rule (p. 167). Pybus’ story, like Maya Jasanoff’s recent Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in A Revolutionary World (2011), reveals how even Loyalist exiles had absorbed the political message of the American Revolution and carried it to distant parts of the earth. Her protagonists might have been rebels, but their suppression, like that of the Chicamugas, kept them from being, as the book’s introduction claims, “founders of a new nation” (p. 7...



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