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Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 541-548

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The Repressive American Revolution

Gregory T. Knouff

Francis S. Fox. Sweet Land of Liberty: The Ordeal of the American Revolution in Northampton County, Pennsylvania. University Park, Penn.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. xix + 212 pp. Notes and index. $29.95 (cloth); $14.95 (paper).

Francis Fox's purposefully ironically titled book, Sweet Land of Liberty, is an account of the day-to-day human reality of the American Revolution. It focuses on one rural county of Pennsylvania, a revolutionary state that historians have generally portrayed as radically democratic. The study posits a land that was neither "sweet" nor much characterized by "liberty." Fox, who is not trained as a professional historian, was drawn to the project while uncovering his family's genealogy. Researching his roots in Northampton County, he encountered evidence of local Mennonites' mistreatment during the Revolution that moved him to begin a general history of the county. What he found did not coincide with his "perception of that epic period in our nation's history" (p. x). The resulting book is the author's attempt to reconcile this dissonance. Eschewing conventional monographic format, Fox does not articulate a clear thesis nor systematically marshal evidence for a broad argument. Rather, he states that he decided to allow the "men and women caught up in the Revolution [to] speak for themselves," suggesting that he will act as amanuensis for his subjects as opposed to interpreter of their documents (p. x). The book is a prosopography that, despite its author's stated intention, conveys an implicit analytical theme. Fox asserts that all-too-human motives of "hate and revenge" drove a repressive revolution under the rubric of a purportedly democratic state constitution (p. xvi).

The author begins by offering a general account of the colonial period and Revolution in Northampton County in his introduction. His brief overview of political and military events explains the rise of a powerful local revolutionary committee as well as the 1777 Militia and Test Acts that provided the legal framework for radical patriots to oppress dissenters. The former law required all white men aged eighteen to fifty three to serve in the militia or pay fines. The latter stipulated that all white men had to swear allegiance to the radical 1776 state constitution. Fox also describes how, in the postwar era, "a [End Page 541] revitalized citizenry" in the county helped to topple these laws and the "extremists" who supported the constitution (p. xviii).

The rest of the book is structured in biographical chapters, each one discussing one or two historical actors who played a role in revolutionary Northampton. The first is an essay on Robert Levers, the county prothonotary and militia lieutenant (the civilian overseer of the Northampton's militia force). Levers, who as a magistrate or militia official reappears throughout the work, was one of the most influential patriot leaders in the county. This chapter is the most extensive in the book. Fox, drawing on voluminous primary source documents, reconstructs Levers's life as a young English immigrant, clerk to the Pennsylvania colonial official Richard Peters, an abettor of land speculation, and eventual development as a fiery revolutionary. Levers was ambitious and used the Revolution to advance his status and material standing. Fox also portrays a man who cultivated, as did other Pennsylvania radicals, a Manichean view of the struggle against Britain. He saw only friends and enemies of the state and often conflated them with his personal allies and foes. Additionally, through Levers the militia official, readers are introduced to the revolutionary Northampton militia, which Fox characterizes as a "paramilitary political organization" (p. 17). In a recurring theme, the militia is portrayed as internal police force used by officials to suppress internal dissent. Levers typically employed its soldiers to arrest suspected traitors. Finally, similar to many other vitriolic patriots in the region, Levers's political fortunes declined after the war.

The following chapter examines Lewis Gordon, Levers's political rival. The two had parallel careers, but divergent fortunes. Gordon also clerked for Richard Peters, had training...


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