Equality, Individual rights, Revolutionary war era
Public buildings in France celebrate the Revolutionary values “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” yet these values do not always translate well in the United States. Americans can yelp for liberty until they’re red, white, and blue in the face; equality has proven to be more contentious. And in the civic sphere, ideas of moral obligation and fellowship resonate least of all. Early American historians spend little time discussing this third value, except in the contexts of Christianity, deference, and republican virtue.
Barbara Clark Smith offers this book as a corrective, in a bold argument that should force historians to reconsider the conventional wisdom about the Revolutionary era. Although Smith is fond of her book’s title, it is probably a bit of a misnomer. Smith is not analyzing lost “freedoms” so much as norms, rights, values, and obligations. During the American Revolution, she argues, Patriot elites established a centralized legal regime that protected individual rights (particularly those of the wealthy) at the expense of a more locally wrought system of social obligations. Until this point, most ordinary Americans had cherished ideals of localism and fraternité, which she most often calls “neighbouring.”
Smith hopes us to draw away from the idea that individual rights (like voting rights) were the only essential ingredients in the American struggle for independence, and the subsequent “contagion of liberty,” as Bernard Bailyn put it in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA, 1992). In Smith’s formulation, it is exclusive power that is contagious. Much of American history, she implies, points to centralizing tendencies in government and a duty-free libertarianism that came to favor distended agglomerations of wealth. Smith argues that late colonial Americans had stockpiled an arsenal of values that pointed the other way.
As a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Smith is well suited to analyze the material expressions of American values. She outlines a conceptual space for ordinary Americans “out of doors,” where the “body of the people” could exercise oversight and influence the execution of a law after its passage. She sketches the economic, [End Page 130] legal, and cultural dimensions of Americans’ prevailing notions of power. Beginning with British and colonial antecedents, Smith’s narrative ends in the late 1780s, a refreshing change from books that end in 1776 or begin after the war.
Ordinary, free men in colonial America had developed a particular way of understanding their relationship to government and to one another. She explores their respect for “local knowledge” (15), their sense of neighborly obligation and horizontal ties, and their fears of oppression (by state actors as well as powerful individuals). These eighteenth-century Americans valued competency over covetousness, fair dealing over profit seeking, and paper money over hard money. She argues that colonial Americans bore witness to displays of power, and they occasionally insisted upon the right to give consent to laws and court decisions even after they had been handed down, sometimes nullifying them through jury verdicts (on matters of law as well as fact), crowd action (such as rescuing a prisoner), or simply ignoring unpopular laws. “When they celebrated British freedom, they meant . . . not just limits on monarchs but limits on would-be lords” (85).
She then observes how the Sons of Liberty mobilized these understandings and values during the imperial crisis to declare Americans’ interdependence, or a commitment to the public good. During the war, ordinary people continued to mobilize in committees and crowds to agitate for mutual obligations and shared burdens, often by demanding regulations of prices and the supplies of essential goods. (Smith has already addressed this subject in her oft-cited article on food rioters.) Support for Continental paper currency was understood as an act of patriotism. Smith locates a crucial transition in 1780 (rather than 1776), when many Continental leaders abandoned their concern for ordinary Americans in favor of wealthy financiers and the protection of individual rights. She explores two issues through the lens...