- Between Sovereignty and Anarchy: The Politics of Violence in the American Revolutionary Eraed. by Patrick Griffin et al.
The turbulence, violence, and trauma of Revolutionary America is forcefully made manifest in this outstanding collection of essays, which considers how Americans made sense of sovereignty in the eighteenth century. Focusing on the complex interplay of violence, politics, and authority during the American Revolution, the chapters present a picture of societies navigating between anarchy and sovereignty as they sought to conduct a new experiment in republican government.
Essays by Andrew Cayton, Patrick Griffin, Chris Beneke, and Peter Thompson set violence in American and European contexts. Cayton draws on contemporary literature—including Aphra Behn's Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave(1688), Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe(1719), and American gothic novelist Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker(1799)—to explore how Americans understood violence and how they developed ways to justify violence for political ends. Cayton argues that theirs was the same defensive and self-preservationist violence that had spearheaded the expansion of the British empire, which they rebelled against. Painting a similarly broad geographic canvas, Griffin sets the violence of the American frontier alongside the violence that scarred those on the margins of the British Isles—specifically in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands—through policies that officially sanctioned atrocity and extirpation to force civilization on the supposedly barbarous peoples on the edge of the state. Thus, "The forms of violence that English soldiers and settlers meted out to the native people in these outlying regions of the British imperial state appear eerily similar to the violence animating the American frontier" (p. 41).
For Beneke, the harrowing violence of Europe's sixteenth- and seventeenth-century wars of religion made a powerful case for religious toleration to colonial Americans. Religiously motivated violence, as opposed to politically motivated violence, was conspicuously rare: "Given that the free white population was well armed and committed to a wide range of (mainly Protestant) faiths, and given the growing intensity of evangelical proselytizing, this was far from an inconsequential achievement" (p. 62). Thompson looks to the inherent violence of American slavery to explain how Revolutionaries legitimated coercive violence against their Tory neighbors. Even in parts of America where residents rarely encountered slaves and the practice of slavery did not define society, the knowledge and consciousness of slavery gave Revolutionaries a model "other"—the chattel slave—that informed how they excluded, degraded, and committed psychological and physical violence against their Tory opponents.
Essays by Peter C. Messer, Jessica Choppin Roney, and Kenneth Owen explore political violence and sovereignty in specific places. Messer shows how the Stamp Act riots in Boston represented an attack on authority itself. Bostonians invoked anti-Catholic rituals to express their unhappiness with political and economic [End Page 139]change, issues that went beyond stamped paper and imperial taxation. Roney explains how Pennsylvanians mobilized into a militia with speed and vigor in 1775 by demonstrating how a series of voluntary militias developed over previous decades within a colony dominated politically by Quaker sensibilities of non-violence. Her chapter guides us through popular mobilizations in 1747 in defense of Philadelphia and its trade against French and Spanish privateering during King George's War and again in 1756 to defend the western Pennsylvania frontier during the Seven Years' War. These precedents laid the foundation for the emergence of the popular Military Association in 1775. In turn, this militia experience legitimated Pennsylvania's radical constitutional convention. Owen turns to violence in post-independence America—aprospect "far more frightening, for now the people themselves were in charge of government" (p. 170). How could violence and mob action be legitimate political tactics in a system based on popular sovereignty? When (some) people had the ability to choose their representatives and rely on mechanisms such as a free press and the freedom to petition...