- Protest, Dissent, Empire, and Nation in Revolutionary America
Over the past ten years, protest has reemerged as both a form of political action and as a subject for historical analysis. The growth of movements such as the Tea Party, Black Lives Matter, and the Women's March on Washington has prompted a renewed interest in the historical parameters that have led to protest, the views of those who have taken to the streets, and the responses of governments to such challenges. As part of this movement, scholars have begun to use the apparent parallels between the politics of the 2010s and the revolutionary era as an entry point into the study of eighteenth-century movements.1 Zachary McLeod Hutchins introduces Community without Consent, a collection of eight essays about the Stamp Act Crisis, by linking ideas about "taxation without representation" (xi) to debates about the Affordable Care Act in the Supreme Court in 2012, and in the afterword he ties the Stamp Act crisis more explicitly to contemporary street protests. In a similar vein, political scientist Robert W. T. Martin opens Government by Dissent, his study of dissent during the early republic, by comparing the 1999 "Battle of Seattle" (1) protests against the World Trade Organization with the Boston Tea Party, and he concludes with his view of a workable model for modern dissenters. [End Page 765]
In framing their studies of the revolutionary era around early twenty-first-century politics, the authors of these works contribute to an ongoing reevaluation of the American Revolution and its place in American memory.2 Though they draw on distinct traditions in scholarship—Hutchins and the book's contributors largely from literary studies and cultural history and Martin from political theory and intellectual history—considered together these works offer a view of the revolution in which contestation was not only about the substance of the disagreements between parties but also about the very grounds on which such contestation would be permissible.
The Stamp Act crisis, as nearly every author in Community without Consent notes, is among the most important chapters of the imperial crisis with Britain, and as several scholars have recently suggested, a renewed focus on the Stamp Act and its cultural politics is a welcome historiographical development.3 It seems striking, therefore, that the dominant narrative of the crisis remains the account of Edmund S. Morgan and Helen M. Morgan, first published almost sixty-five years ago.4 For the most part, however, these contributors offer a view of the protests that is more expansive in its chronology, more diverse in its actors, and more varied in its outcomes than that presented in the Morgans' The Stamp Act Crisis. Hutchins notes that the volume seeks to expand beyond the "persistently seductive sway of nationalist paradigms in the academy" (xiii) in order to bring new voices, participants, and perspectives into our view. For the most part, therefore, these essays elide questions of high politics, supplanting debates in the halls of Parliament—and even colonial assemblies—with crowd action in the streets and debates in Philadelphia parlors.
Though Hutchins's introduction announces that the volume seeks to transcend "the nation" as a construct for understanding the Stamp Act, most of the essays do examine how nation and nationalism operated in Britain and its colonies during the 1760s. To be sure, none return to the classic account of the Stamp Act as a moment of newborn national consciousness for Americans. Yet throughout the volume authors portray the protests and debates over the Stamp Act as a cultural process and therefore more a battle for one's place in society than a contest over a specific policy. In other words, they reframe these tax protests as a spur to identity formation that resonated through debates about...