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  • A Tumultuous People:The Rage for Liberty and the Ambiance of Violence in the Middle Colonies in the Years Preceding the American Revolution1
  • Joseph S. Tiedemann (bio)

It is a daunting task to make sense of the Middle Colonies-Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware-in the period before the American Revolution.2 More than elsewhere in British North America, these four colonies were a discordant medley of peoples of different ethnicities, religions, values, and economic interests, who often viewed government, whether local or imperial, as an intrusive force.3 They were a region with two competing, contrasting focal points: New York City and Philadelphia. They were a land where Quaker pacifists crossed paths with the combative Scots Irish; where large, wealthy landowners, who craved tenants, fought against poorer people, who yearned to own their own small farms; and where colonial governors and provincial assemblies repeatedly vied for power.4

Although it sometimes appeared as if all that united the region's peoples was that they inhabited a territory that bisected New England and the South, the reality was much more complicated. If scholars heed Wayne Bodle and view the Middle Colonies as [End Page 387] "locuses of interactive behavior," they become more intelligible.5 The four colonies were a gaggle of tumultuous individuals, groups, and communities, who cherished liberty, but who had with remarkable frequency employed force to settle disputes and to advance their own self-interest. It was, in fact, their rage for liberty and the ambiance of violence that provide a true picture of who they were and why they responded as they did to the Revolution.6 Violence and the rage for liberty were obviously present in the other nine colonies, but the way these two forces interacted with the polyglot population of the Middle Colonies demands closer scrutiny. A brief comparison with the more culturally and ethnically homogenous New England will underscore that reality.

This essay will consequently examine the rage for liberty and the ambiance of violence. It will argue that what unified the four colonies was, paradoxically, their diversity. The four were not a cohesive community shaped by a common identity; they were instead a cluster of turbulent, diverse peoples united by a common interest: asserting, protecting, and experiencing liberty, or rather their own varied interpretations of what they thought liberty meant. Part of the period's excitement was that Middle Colonists were battling to define that term. Despite the wrangling, the absence of a single overarching theology and an abundance of economic opportunity had created an environment where they could realistically yearn for liberty. A Middle Colonist aptly explained in a local newspaper how many ordinary people in the region understood the concept: "Every man has a right to do what he pleased, provided he did not injure others who had the same Rights as himself."7 Although American writers in this period invariably argued that right and duty went hand and hand, the second half of that sentence was often ignored in practice, for violence was a potent tool for securing and enhancing their own or their own group's notion of liberty at the expense of others. Were these people ever moved by idealism? Yes, but it was typically colored by their own needs and interests.8

1. The Rage for Liberty

It was not merely that Middle Colonists honored liberty, but rather that so many revered it, were energized by it, and contoured it to satisfy their own needs, values, and interests.9 It was a passion as much as a rational construct. The talking and writing about it could be as overwhelming as a tidal wave. In October 1765 "Publicus" declined to discuss the subject, for so much had already been published about it.10 "B.A." avowed that a true patriot [End Page 388] would sacrifice "his life in the cause of Liberty."11 A Philadelphia essayist asserted that "A day, an hour of virtuous liberty/Is worth a whole eternity of bondage."12 "Sentinel" insisted that "no rational creature would choose to have his life and property absolutely subject to the arbitrary will of another, one of his own kind, frail and fallible like...


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