- Many Identities, One Nation: The Revolution and Its Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic
Liam Riordan has crafted a fine understanding of the legacy of the Revolution in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Using a vast array of evidence from documentary sources to statistical data to material culture, Riordan meticulously teases out the multi-layered and often competing identities that defined life in three towns in the Delaware River Valley from roughly 1770-1830. During this era when British citizens reworked themselves into U.S. citizens, Riordan argues that “ethnic, religious and racial identities shaped one another.” The result of this multifaceted negotiation of many identities was one national American identity that presented “respectable, white, Protestantism” as normal. While this expression of national identity may have claimed authority, that claim was not without its detractors. In fact, through the careful examination of individuals and groups within their local contexts, Riordan is able to assert that the normative nature of white Protestantism was much more contested by local identities than has previously been recognized (10). The strength of Riordan’s book lies in his close analysis of local diversity within the context of attempts to craft national unity. By examining the fluid boundaries of ethnicity, religion and race in three separate communities, Riordan demonstrates the importance of place for understanding how groups shaped identity as a politically-charged expression of where they fit into the overarching narration of the nation.
The Delaware Valley is apt for a study of this kind. Its diversity, Riordan suggests, sets it apart from the more homogeneous Puritan New England and plantation South. As a cultural historian, Riordan deftly dips into the methodological toolbox of social history and historical ethnography. He revives the local community studies of the 1970s but adds a comparative framework that provides ground for larger synthesis. This is political history from the bottom up, where the reader is shown the ways in which daily life took on “important political meanings beyond the confines of election and statecraft” (83).
The three towns in question—New Castle, Del., Burlington, N.J., and Easton, Pa.—have little in common save their location on the Delaware River. In each location the politics of identity was dominated by different concerns. New Castle, the busy port town, had a large population of sailors, workers, and freed slaves—folks positioned at the social and political margins. Following the Revolution, the town’s large black population (the majority of which had achieved free status by 1800) relied on revolutionary rhetoric to press for full inclusion. Their disenfranchisement by the 1830s made it clear that there was little room for blackness in the triumvirate of “respectable, white, Protestantism.”
Burlington’s location allowed its residents to take advantage of port traffic as [End Page 51] well as overland traffic between New York and Philadelphia. The town was the seat of the Quaker West Jersey proprietors and home to some of the region’s wealthiest and most powerful families. Yet Quaker pacifism during the Revolution was viewed suspiciously and, while Friends remained influential during the early national period, they found themselves pushed from the center of colonial privilege. Some Friends moved back to the center by allying themselves with conservative evangelicals in the nineteenth-century Bible society movement that envisioned a common American Christianity as the basis of national stability and prosperity. Nonetheless, the fractious disputes that led to the Hicksite-Orthodox schism were reflected in disagreements among Friends on the value of Bible societies as a force for national unification. Therefore, while some Quakers were able to negotiate a place for themselves within “respectable, white, Protestantism,” others were not.
Finally, in Easton, the most northerly and youngest of the three towns, German immigrants were the town’s most influential settlers. Given its frontier status at the time of the Revolution, the defining feature in the revolutionary experience here was the relationship of the townsfolk to Native...