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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 381-387

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Means and Ends in the History of Rural Rioting in Colonial New Jersey

Graham Russell Hodges

Brendan McConville. These Daring Disturbers of the Public Peace: The Struggle for Property and Power in Early New Jersey. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. xiv + 318 pp. Figures, maps, notes, bibliographic essay, and index. $45.00.

Sixty years ago, Dixon Ryan Fox in his book, Yankees and Yorkers, identified rural rioting between Dutch and New England farmers in the Hudson River Valley as a key component of an emerging revolutionary crisis in New York colony. The same year Irving Mark blamed prerevolutionary, rural rioting on a host of factors. Mark contended that illegitimate or questionable claims by colonial families, including the Phillipses and Livingstons, abetted by corrupt governors, angered small and tenant farmers. Huge land holdings translated into immense political and legal power until the great rural riots of 1766. Then, levelers in the countryside alarmed even the Sons of Liberty. Among the most radical were colonists in the northern New York colonies who broke away and formed what became the state of Vermont. 1 The principal criticism of Mark's interpretation came from Sung Bok Kim who contended that Mark had not recognized the anarchic state of real estate law in the colonial period and had ignored the positive nature of landlord/tenant relations because of his anachronistic bias against landowners. Kim argued that Mark lionized the yeomen and endorsed the rioters. A few years later, Edward Countryman expanded upon Mark's argument by indicating the effect of an emerging capitalist ethos among younger, more entrepreneurial landowners on the northern frontiers manifested in the choices tenants made in the revolutionary crisis. Still, Countryman, Paul Gilje, and other students of the progressive interpretation have delineated the transformation of urban rioters into revolutionary cadres by concentrating largely on New York City. As a result of their careful work, New York's rioters, urban and rural, are now fully a part of the narrative of colonial and revolutionary studies. 2

Far less is known about rural riots across the Hudson River in New Jersey during the 1740s and 1760s. A suggestive query by Lord Bellomont, governor of the two colonies in 1708, indicated a key difference between the two [End Page 381] colonies: "What man will be such a fool to become a base tenant to Mr. Delius, Colonel Schuyler, Mr. Livingston . . . when, for crossing Hudson's River may for a song purchase a good freehold in the Jerseys." 3 Governors Robert Hunter and William Smith later echoed this observation. Gradually, as the amount of undeveloped and unclaimed land adjacent to New York and Philadelphia dissipated, New Jersey suffered from rural disorders during the eighteenth century. The eastern division of New Jersey, where most of the riots occurred, became an extension of New York and New England. New Jersey magnified its neighbor's ethnic and religious diversity, depended greatly on enslaved labor (a topic almost entirely omitted in the book under review), and, like New York, divided along ethnic lines at the outset of the American Revolution. Personal choices for independence or loyalty can be found in the fault lines of society in the earlier eighteenth century.

In his ambitious book, Brendan McConville presents the fullest discussion available of the New Jersey rioters. His intellectual debts are not ostensibly to the progressive tradition established in New York historiography (which he barely mentions), but to a group of scholars whom he says seek to understand the past by "situating agrarian unrest within broader changes in the society" (pp. 257-58 n4). McConville cites Thomas Slaughter, John Brooke, Alan Taylor, and Michael A. Bellesiles as his chief intellectual influences. He cites their work as enlarging discussion by developing more fully such factors as demography, economic and religious change. In his book, McConville pushes their analysis further by greater attention to change over time and striving to explain the riots other than as precursors to the American Revolution. McConville thereby hopes to bring New...


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