- Prudent Rebels: New York City and the American Revolution
Few events in New York City’s history rival the spectacle of the Stamp Act riots of November 1, 1765. Crowds hung the royal lieutenant governor in effigy, paraded his stolen carriage through the streets, taunted British regulars to fire their muskets, and sacked a royal army officer’s house. Despite this extraordinary incident, however, New York was the last colony to declare its independence from Great Britain, in 1776. This is the paradox that Joseph S. Tiedemann addresses.
Tiedemann reverses the standard interpretation of Revolutionary New York. The two leading studies are Gary B. Nash’s The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution (1979) and Edward Countryman’s A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760–1790 (1981). Nash and Countryman are postconsensus historians who write in the progressive tradition of Carl Becker. 1 They emphasize domestic over imperial events, seeing class conflict and economic problems as pivotal for understanding the Revolution. They think that politics are important only as a vehicle for social and economic forces. Nash depicts the Revolution as a social movement that embodied laborers’ resentment of wealth and power and their rejection of elitist conceptions of politics. He contends that poorer residents acquired a popular ideology that gave them a new political and social awareness and a readiness to contest elite rule. The result was self-conscious lower class agitation that facilitated the struggle for national independence. The laborers’ own gains were modest, however. Although they won some political power, Nash concludes that the American Revolution did not produce a social revolution and that the existing social system withstood lower class challenges. Countryman argues that the Revolution occurred because the colony’s established political order was destabilized by rapid economic development and by popular militancy. Inflexible and decayed, this old order could not adapt [End Page 537] power relations to the new realities, especially a growing gap between the few and the many. It finally collapsed during the revolutionary crisis and was replaced by a new, more equitable order. According to Countryman, this democratic revolution prepared the way for a liberal bourgeois society.
Rather than seeing the Revolution as an upheaval from below, Tiedemann follows rival colonial elites as they contend with escalating domestic and imperial pressures. Unlike Nash and Countryman, Tiedemann sees continuity, not change, in Revolutionary New York. If Tiedemann retains the focus of earlier consensus scholars on elites, however, he attempts to incorporate social history, though he does not go far enough. The author also examines the ideas of political actors. Tiedemann concentrates on New York City between 1763 and 1776. By considering the fundamentally political question of why New Yorkers were reluctant to rebel, he shifts the debate from the social and economic issues that enlivened postconsensus scholarship. Instead, he views New York as a political arena where different factions tried to achieve their ideological and policy goals, maneuver for tactical advantage, and conduct social relations. For the author, pressures from the city’s interest groups, governmental bodies, and diverse population interacted with pressures from the imperial crisis to turn urban politics into a “multidimensional chess game” (p. 26).
Tiedemann criticizes postconsensus historians, particularly Countryman, for assuming that the existence of economic and social issues almost automatically produced an awareness of grievance and, in turn, generated efforts to create new power arrangements. He contends that such materialist thinking posits a linear relationship between problem and action that overlooks the political dimension. Instead, Tiedemann employs Theda Skocpol’s scholarship and Louis Kriesberg’s social conflict theory to explore the relationship between socioeconomic conditions and political action. 2 He identifies three conditions that are required for grievances to become political conflict: (1) groups must be conscious of themselves as distinct entities; (2) one group must resent its position viz-à-viz another; and (3) the dissatisfied group must believe it can remedy its situation. These three conditions rarely...