- American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People
The title of this volume suggests a presentation more expansive in scope than the actual subject matter contained in the text. Rather than sweeping through the whole of the American Revolution, author T. H. Breen concentrates on people and events in just two years—1774 and 1775—as critical to launching not only a rebellion but also a new republican nation. His stated purpose is to narrate and evaluate the "massive insurgency" (17) of ordinary colonists who suddenly rose up in defiant reaction against Parliament's Intolerable Acts, enacted in response to the Boston Tea Party of December 1773. Urban centers such as Boston, so Breen argues, really were not the putative caldrons of this critical mass insurgency. Rather, what counted most in mid-1774 "was the willingness of a sufficient number of people" across the colonists' landscape "to take up arms against an unelected imperial government that no longer served the common good" (10).
How and why so many ordinary persons mobilized so spontaneously—few actually took up arms in mid-1774—against detested imperial actions represent the focal point of this study. Classical ideas were not as important motivators as were passions, feelings rooted in such sources as evangelical religion, vaguely described by Breen in terms of widely accepted God-given rights and liberties. As such, the ideological emphasis of common persons was not so much a reflection of the musings of such elite leaders as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who too often have served "as surrogates for the ordinary men and women who participated in the insurgency." Breen eschews "this top-down perspective," insisting that higher brow ideas lacked the emotional energy to galvanize the general population in its insurgency against perceived despotic imperial authority (241).
The penchant of many historians to dwell on prominent elite founders, including some of those who attended the first and second Continental Congresses, represents what Breen considers a distorting scholarly emphasis. In [End Page 270] attempting to redirect matters, he devotes much of his text to incidents, drawn mostly from New England, in which local insurgents, organizing themselves into watchdog committees, called out, condemned, humiliated, and in some cases even brutalized their neighbors who saw no reason to defy the will of King and Parliament. Generally speaking, according to Breen, "these groups silenced critics without sparking the kind of bloodbath that has characterized so many other insurgencies throughout the world" (186). In other words, in stifling dissent, at times ruthlessly, insurgents actually behaved in an orderly manner for the good of their communities, apparently because their love of liberty and longing for a republican order justified harassing if not brutalizing those who disagreed with them.
For Breen, the outburst that produced the popular insurgency came from rural dwellers, mainly independent farmers who acted with passion on their own without waiting for guidance from elite founders.1 Yet the author's evidence demonstrates that much of the local insurgent action took place not before but after the First Congress adopted the Continental Association in October 1774. This comprehensive trade boycott plan, emanating from elite founders in Congress, specified that committees of observation and inspection should be formed in every community to enforce the complete cutoff of trade with Britain until King and Parliament reneged on its intolerable legislation. In this critical matter, elite founders did provide organizing leadership, which goes to the point that an either/or analysis of ordinary persons in relation to elite leaders might be useful as an appealing academic proposition while also beside the point in actual historical reality. It should be self-evident that both played significant parts and interacted successfully in producing the kind of insurgency described in this book.
Breen does introduce some interesting historical nuggets along the way. For example, the rumored bombardment of Boston that swept across the landscape just as the First Congress began meeting in September 1774 makes for a fascinating story of how misinformation can affect the course of human events. On...