- Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution
Benjamin Carp's Rebels Rising is an intriguing study of political mobilization in the spaces of the colonial city on the eve of the American Revolution. It seeks to revitalize the study of cities as centers of revolutionary activity, following up the work of Carl Bridenbaugh a half-century ago and Gary Nash a generation later. Carp emphasizes the distinct roles that Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston played in the functioning of colonial British America as links between the metropole and the hinterland and as nodes for economic, political, social, and cultural networks. His focus on specific urban spaces as sites of mobilization adds a new facet to our understanding of revolutionary mobilization. Here he takes his cue from—while making his own contribution to—the work of historians as diverse as Elaine Forman Crane, Clare Lyons, and Alfred Young, who have argued for the distinctive experience of early American urban life. In colonial cities, the compact concentration of a pluralistic mix of people fostered a sense of communal interdependence that revolutionaries sought to tap. Interdependence could lead to independence if revolutionaries could only figure out how to enlist the cooperation of the city's diverse population while limiting the distraction of overly radical voices or the countermobilization efforts of Loyalists. Understanding and exploiting the geography of the city was crucial to this task.
On the Boston waterfront and in New York taverns, mobilization occurred amidst political and social conflict. As traditional bonds of patronage, personal influence, and respect for social authority broke asunder and economic depression settled over Boston after the Seven Years' War, revolutionaries diverted the anger of the waterfront community from the actions of local elites to restrictive imperial policies to unite with them as a community of interest. Ritual (and extralegal) forms of waterfront justice—the banishment of royal officials, tarring and feathering, rioting, the destruction of property—were performed in and took their meaning from the spaces of the waterfront. In New York, by contrast, the enclosed space of the tavern offered more fertile ground for [End Page 342] mobilization than the open spaces of the waterfront. A ubiquitous feature of the city's landscape, taverns served simultaneously as sites of cross-class inclusion and political exclusion. Taverns encouraged discussion and debate, reinforcing New Yorkers' reliance on legislative action and the printing press over the mob. The line between polite sociability and drunken anarchy was a fine one, and when moderates and Loyalists disavowed the disorder that occasionally spilled into the streets, radical revolutionaries gladly embraced it.
Mobilization faced different challenges in Newport and Charleston. Despite the vaunted catholicism of Newport's diverse religious landscape, age-old acrimonies stymied the formation of significant political alliances among or within the city's churches. Some, notably Congregationalists and Anglicans, embraced active, and opposing, political stances, but in general churches failed to mobilize their members. Significant mobilization of another sort, however, did occur in the parlor of Sarah Osborn, a humble widow. Evangelicalism, not imperial tensions, inspired Osborn to host religious revivals that attracted other white women and African Americans. Osborn's revivalism is an important reminder of the mobilizing power of religious faith in a chapter that tends to place the value of religion in its networks. The parlor of wealthy planter Henry Laurens in Charleston became the locus of mobilization of a more coercive hue. Caught between the "Kingly tyranny" of oppressive British policies that threatened their wealth and "popular" tyranny that threatened their status as patriarchs, Laurens and other planters supported the revolution from fear of the mobilization of those they sought to control: their slaves, wives, and nonelite neighbors. In a society where the domestic household stood as a metaphor for the state, Carp argues that planters exchanged a monarchial household for a republican one and made sure to tighten their authority in the bargain.
Carp's final chapter brings the city back together and discusses how spatial notions undergirded conceptions of the political...