- North Carolina’s Revolutionary Founders ed. by Jeff Broadwater and Troy L. Kickler
North Carolina, U.S. Founders, U.S. Revolutionary War, Native Americans
The study of the American founders, like political history in general, has undergone significant change in recent years by shifting some of the focus beyond elite, white males and beyond their work as legislators and convention delegates. This newer body of work includes a more diverse group of subjects—women, racial minorities, and the poor among them— who in a variety of ways helped establish and define the new nation. In this sense, North Carolina’s Revolutionary Founders is a blend of the new and the traditional. Several of its essays address groups long neglected by scholars. One, by Maggie Hartley Mitchell, offers a discussion of several dozen North Carolina women who, motivated by the Revolution’s ideals, met at what eventually became known as the Edenton Tea Party. There, they added their names to a proclamation, declared their opposition to British policies, and supported a general boycott of British goods. These women, Mitchell claims, challenged existing gender norms and influenced “later feminism.” In another essay, James MacDonald traces the Catawba Indians’ support for and the Cherokee Indians’ fight against the patriot population and their war for independence, a struggle that ironically resulted in the loss of land and independence for both nations. Michael Toomey’s chapter focuses on John Sevier, who, like many of his fellow settlers in the western-most region of North Carolina, took up the fight against the British and their loyalist and Indigenous allies. Sevier was driven less by a Revolutionary spirit than a practical desire to secure freedom and opportunity through western land claims. That objective also led him later to support a secession movement to break away from North Carolina, to consider a Spanish plot to secede from the United States itself, and finally to assume a leadership role in the founding of Tennessee. John Chavis, as Benjamin R. Justesen explains, had similar dreams for [End Page 747] greater freedom and opportunity. As a free black man and skilled teacher, who even taught the children of slaveholders, Chavis hoped that in post-Revolutionary North Carolina he could create a school for white and black children, including those in slavery, but he failed to do so and ultimately found himself descending into poverty, physical infirmity, and dependency. While these essays shed light on groups typically given short shrift by past historians, most of the book focuses on the state’s “ordinary founders,” people who, if not the equals of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, were nevertheless white men from the upper echelons of Revolutionary North Carolina society.
So, what then is the purpose and scope of this volume? According to editors Jeff Broadwater and Troy L. Kickler, the book focuses on North Carolina residents “who either actively supported the Revolution or who participated publicly in the debates over the U.S. Constitution” (17). They argue that, considering the dearth of published accounts about these individuals, the pervasive influence of localism in Revolutionary America, and the state’s “unique history and distinctive political culture,” an examination of North Carolina’s Revolutionary founders is both warranted and needed (1–2). The book’s format is primarily prosopo-graphical, with most chapters focusing on a key figure. One theme that emerges is the founders’ diversity of opinion, “with immediate and practical needs, if not self-interest, as salient as republican principles” (17). Broadwater’s piece on North Carolina’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence contends that, although the three men came to conclude independence was necessary, they did not agree about the ideals expressed in the Declaration or the type of society that should emerge from it. Similarly, in MacDonald’s essay referenced earlier, Native Americans of North Carolina chose sides in the Revolutionary War based on a shrewd calculation of which would most likely secure their lands and well-being, with the Catawba deciding to fight...