[Paleopsych] TLS: Ordinary founders
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Mon Apr 11 22:06:37 UTC 2005
The Times Literary Supplement, 4.5.28
T. H. Breen
Forgotten men and women of the American Revolution
The American Revolution has undergone a remarkably unrevolutionary
An event central to the history of the United States seems suddenly to
have become populated almost exclusively by Founding Fathers. To be
sure, Americans have a long tradition of filiopiety. No sooner had
George Washington died in 1799, for example, than the enterprising
"Parson" Mason Weems - a businessman who was in fact not a minister -
related how a young Washington had confessed to having chopped down
his father's beloved cherry tree and later, as general of the army,
thrown a silver dollar across the Delaware River. Weems's fabulous
inventions more than fulfilled his commercial dreams.
In recent years, the marketplace for Founding Fathers has become more
and more crowded. Bestseller lists compiled by the New York Times
attest to the extraordinary success of Revolutionary biographies.
David McCullough's readable life of John Adams enjoyed an impressive
run at the top. In an article detailing "America's infatuation" (April
12, 2004) with the Founding Fathers, the Wall Street Journal reported
that about 1.6 million copies of McCullough's book had sold in
Other leaders of the Revolutionary period have fared almost as well.
Benjamin Franklin remains a figure of almost irresistible charm. A
recent biographer, Walter Isaacson, assures modern readers that,
"Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us". Edmund S.
Morgan and H. W. Brands have also written full-length studies of
Franklin; other works devoted to Franklin's life are scheduled to
appear soon. Washington and Thomas Jefferson remain solid performers;
Alexander Hamilton's stock has done well. Not surprisingly, popular
curiosity has spread to other members of a growing patriot family,
which now includes "Founding Brothers" and "Founding Mothers".
The sudden resurgence of interest in these eighteenth-century figures
begs explanation. In their post-September 11 uncertainty, Americans
took solace in the belief that the nation's first leaders possessed
integrity, intelligence, and a willingness to sacrifice their own
personal interests for the common good. That the Founding Fathers had
feet of clay - sustaining, for example, African American slavery - did
not much matter. They appeared to possess the very strengths of
character that seemed so little in evidence during recent crises.
The Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, may have had Revolutionary
leaders like Washington in mind when he described the years after 1783
as a time of "looting, crime, mobs storming buildings, breakdown of
government structures and institutions that maintained civil order,
rampant inflation caused by the lack of a stable currency, (and when)
supporters of the former regime roamed the streets".
In a piece in the New York Times (July 19, 2003), the historian Mary
Beth Norton exposed Rumsfeld's tenuous grasp of the country's
Revolutionary past. But accuracy was not the point of the exercise.
The Secretary reminded anxious Americans that the Founding Fathers had
once saved the country by bold leadership, and had they not done so, a
young republic plagued by crime, looting and mobs might perhaps have
gone the way of Baghdad.
Missing from the tales of the Founding Fathers are the ordinary men
and women who made a revolution possible. They appear as little more
than bit players in narratives organized around the lives of the great
men. One result of this shift of focus is that the lexicon of
revolution has changed. We hear of courageous leadership, hard
decisions and bold vision, but little about popular mobilization,
widespread sacrifice for a shared political goal, or popular
resistance to the abuse of power.
The strange disappearance of ordinary people from the history of the
nation's founding reflects a profound disagreement over the definition
of the American Revolution. For some commentators, the drafting and
ratification of the Constitution represent the fulfilment of the
Revolutionary experience. From this perspective the run-up to
independence - a violent colonial rebellion against a powerful
military Empire - becomes merely an introductory chapter in a
preordained story concluding with the establishment of a strong
federal government. The story recounts the inexorable march of
abstract principles about the nature of political authority, many of
them borrowed from Renaissance Italy or the time of the English Civil
In various forums between 1763 and 1788, the Founding Fathers applied
this complex intellectual heritage to the practical challenge of
nation building. They educated the people about the fundamentals of
stable government. As they are currently portrayed, the Founding
Fathers were rational, inventive figures. They deserve modern
admiration, not as revolutionaries, but as Framers of the Constitution
of the United States. As Gordon S. Wood explained in a recent history
of the American Revolution, in the middle of the twentieth century, "a
new generation of historians rediscovered the constitutional and
conservative character of the Revolution and carried the intellectual
interpretation of the Revolution to new heights of sophistication".
Within this intellectual framework, the "people" seem uncomfortably
out of place. The narrative options open to them are certainly not
very appealing. In some accounts of the Revolution, they appear at key
moments as members of the mob. Certainly, such groups tore down the
houses of hated royal officials and terrorized neighbours who refused
to support independence. No one has quite decided whether the mob was
simply out for a good time or intended only to administer a kind of
street justice against corrupt imperial appointees. In either case,
within the current interpretative climate, their actions are seen
largely as helping the Founding Fathers to appreciate the dangers of
anarchy and the vulnerability of private property.
Historians have also depicted the people as the voice of lower-class
Although they seldom violently attacked their social betters, urban
workers demanded a fuller measure of equality and democracy than the
Founding Fathers were willing to concede. But however exploited these
protesters may have been, they did not reflect the views of the great
mass of ordinary men and women, most of whom lived in tiny agrarian
communities. It is precisely those people -the great majority of the
American population - who have been most patronized in the story of
revolution. In so far as they are allowed to speak at all, they do so
as followers, as hapless souls who often do not quite comprehend what
the Founding Fathers have in mind for the republic, but nevertheless
show proper deference for those charged with writing constitutions.
An oft-repeated anecdote recounted how in September 1774 a leading
Virginia planter addressed a group of "plain people" when he returned
from the Continental Congress. According to a French witness, they
waited on this man "and said, 'You assert there is a fixed intention
to invade our rights and privileges; we own that we do not see this
clearly, but since you assure it is so, we believe the fact.' They
expressed their confidence that he would do what was right, and
returned to their homes to abide the issue". If these individuals
really reflected the mind of the American people on the eve of
independence, then we can assume that the intellectual historians had
it right all along and that revolutionary ideas and principles must
have trickled down to an appreciative public.
But the ordinary people did not quietly return to their homes in 1774.
An accelerating crisis persuaded them that revolt against the Empire
required their full participation. For indeed, if they had not
volunteered for the newly formed Committees of Safety, for local
militia units, or for action at places such as Lexington, Concord and
Bunker Hill, the gentry leaders would be remembered today principally
as talented provincials who discussed among themselves the more
advanced political theories of the day. The people were able to make
sense of events on their own. As Charles Royster explained in A
Revolutionary People at War (1979), the proposition that ordinary
people did not thoughtfully reflect on the country's political future
leads to the conclusion that "the only people capable of serving
ideals or making sacrifices were those who had substantial property".
Edward Countryman put the point more forcefully in The American
Revolution (1985). "Leaders are nothing", he observed, " . . . without
followers. Neither the colonial elite nor the Sons of Liberty could
have done anything serious against British policy without enormous
The defining moment for many ordinary people arrived between 1774 and
1776, years in which they had to make major sacrifices for a common
cause. Revolution initially entered the lives of scattered farm
families as an unwelcome guest. It demanded that they do without much
needed imported consumer goods; it persuaded them to send their sons
into harm's way. It forced many of them for the first time to attend
public meetings. It asked them to shun Tory sympathizers. It invited
them to reimagine political identity - in other words, to question the
tightly woven fabric of traditional community relations.
Many Americans, of course, shirked the challenge. They found the
prospect of popular political mobilization frightening. But enough men
and boys showed up on the battlefields to make good on the claim of
No one knows for certain what persuaded ordinary Americans to break
their long- standing political allegiance to Great Britain. The
dynamics in each family were probably different. Matthew Patten
provides a clue to how the process must have worked on the local
level. A solidly middle-class farmer living in southern New Hampshire,
Patten distinguished himself from his neighbours primarily by keeping
a detailed diary. He recorded the slaughter of cattle, the gathering
of apples, and the ploughing of the fields in spring. Matthew's sons
helped. His wife and daughters ran the household. Revolution entered
their lives unobtrusively, almost unnoticed at first.
Matthew reported on July 14, 1774, that a fast "Was Generally observed
. . .
through this and the Bay province (Massachusetts) at the desire of the
Committees of Correspondence". The Pattens kept the fast, although
Matthew noted that a certain "Mr. Houston" refused to do so.
The days passed. One imagines that this family discussed the rising
tensions within the empire, but the diary was silent about such
matters. Then, suddenly, the world of the Pattens changed
dramatically. On April 20, 1775, Matthew wrote: "I Recd the Melancholy
news in the morning that General Gages troops had fired on our
Countrymen at Concord yesterday and had killed a large number of them.
Our town was notified last night.
We Generay (generally?) met at the meeting house about 9 of the Clock
and the Number of twenty or more went Directly off from the Meeting
house to assist them".
Among the New Hampshire men and boys who rushed to Massachusetts was
Matthew's son John and his friend John Dobbin. "Our Girls", the father
observed, "sit up all night bakeing bread and fitting things for him
(John) and John Dobbin."
The boys returned safely, but life did not return to normal. Matthew
was drawn into a Revolutionary network. On the 26th he scribbled, "I
went at the desire of the town to Col Goffes and Merrils and
MacGregores and Cautioned them to take Special care of Strangers and
persons Suspected of being Torys Crossing the River (and) to Examin
and Search if they judge it needful".
During the closing months of 1775 agricultural chores competed for
attention in the diary with the collapse of an American empire.
Matthew attended more meetings; he tried to keep informed about what
was happening in other parts of New England.
His son John volunteered to serve in the newly formed American army
and was seriously wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The
countryside now contained people defined as enemies. No one threatened
them with physical violence, but the pressure to take sides in a
national conflict increased with each passing day.
John left the farm once again, this time to march to Canada with the
American forces under the command of General Richard Montgomery.
On May 21, 1776, Matthew learned that his son had died. In his diary
he tried to give meaning to the loss. His words spoke of anguish
translating itself into a renewed commitment to the political cause
for which John had given his life. A letter had informed the Pattens
that their John had become ill with smallpox, and although the
American troops tried to save him, he "died on the 20th day of June".
"The Reason of moveing him", Matthew wrote, was the Retreat of the
army which was very preceipitate and he must either be moved or be
left behind. Whether the moveing him hurt him, (the letter) does not
inform us but it seems probable to me that it did. He was shot through
his left arm at Bunker Hill fight and now was lead after suffering
much fategue to the place where he now lyes in defending the just
Rights of America to whose end he came in prime of life by means of
that wicked Tyranical Brute (Nea worse than Brute) of Great Britain.
He was twenty-four years and thirty-one days old.
A few days later, Matthew attended a public reading of the Declaration
of Independence, a gathering where he encountered "the Prinsable
Gentlemen of the County . . . but not any who have been suspected of
being unfriendly to the country". In little over two years, loyal
subjects of the Crown had become fighters for colonial independence.
Matthew may have taken political advice from the local gentry, but one
suspects after reading his diary that he and his family came to a full
understanding of the "just Rights of America" on their own.
Other ordinary Americans explained to themselves and their loved ones
the meaning of the fight for independence without assistance from the
Founding Fathers. In a letter sent to his wife in June 1776 - in other
words, at least a month before the formal Declaration of Independence
- Israel Shreve of New Jersey reflected on the risks of war. "I soon
shall Experience the feeling of Battle", Shreve wrote, " (and) God
only knows whose fate it will be fall." He missed the comforts of
"I have a great Desire once more to Return, But knowing I owe my
service to my Country am Determined to Defend our Rights and
privileges . . . with all my (p)owers." No doubt, John Patten and
Israel Shreve admired how well the leading gentry articulated theories
of republican government. At the moment when they made the most
difficult decisions of their lives, however, they spoke the plain
language of rights.
When the members of the newly independent state legislatures presented
constitutions to the ordinary voters, the leaders sometimes discovered
that the followers had minds of their own. Participants at town
meetings throughout Massachusetts, for example, repeatedly rejected
plans of republican government which did not meet their own demands
for political equality. They occasionally raised hard questions about
African Americans and Native Americans. In 1778 the town of Hardwick
turned down a constitution by a tally of 140-16. One reason for their
decision was "that whereas a Number of Negroes that are Now slaves
have from time to time Humbly Petitioned to the General Court for
their Liberties and Freedom and as yet have Not obtained it, But are
still Held in Slavery, which is very Contrary to the Law of God and
Liberty that we profess". The small farm community of Sutton came to
the same conclusion. The voters objected to the proposed Massachusetts
constitution because it "appears to us to wear a very gross
complextion of slavery; and is diametrically repugnant to the grand
and Fundamental maxim of Humane Rights". But that was not the only
problem. The Sutton voters added, "it must be thought more insulting
tho not so cruel, to deprive the original Natives of the Land the
Privileges of Men".
The village of Boothbay spoke up for the poor, noting that they ought
"to have a voice herein as well as their rich neighbours". After
thoughtful debate, Boothbay concluded that "we know of no reason in
nature, or in revelation, to justify our depriving the Africans and
their descendants (whose long continued Shameful and unchristian
Slavery reflects dishonour and Endangers the curse of heaven on our
public Struggles for our own rights) of a natural privilege of all
men". Spencer and Westminster reminded the state's legislature that
"we Conceive that the Depriving of any men or Set of men for the Sole
Cause of Colour from giving there (sic) votes for Representative, to
be an Infringement upon the Rights of Mankind".
These returns suggest that at least some revolutionaries took quite
seriously the notion that all men are created equal. The Founding
Fathers were seldom willing to push their own rhetoric in such a
radical direction. Their modern defenders argue that criticizing these
leaders for their failure to implement a modern civil rights agenda
ignores the political realities of the late eighteenth century. Even
Thomas Jefferson, who invited all Americans to think in terms of human
equality, could not imagine awarding black people the same rights
assumed by whites. In communities like Boothbay and Hardwick, however,
ordinary New Englanders put forth radical ideas. To the objection that
these were not typical American towns or that ordinary citizens in the
South would not have accepted such boldly radical thinking, one can
only observe that a small group of Founding Fathers has yielded most
of the current generalizations about the character of the American
Revolution, and they were not in step with forgotten voters of Sutton
Many African Americans also understood the compelling logic of
revolutionary equality. They listened to the white protest against
political slavery; they took up the popular arguments for natural
rights. When Caesar Sarter, a black man living in Essex County, north
of Boston, petitioned for the liberation of the slaves in August 1774,
for example, he spoke the language of rights: "This is a time of great
anxiety and distress among you (the whites), on account of the
infringement, not only of your Charter rights, but of the natural
rights and privileges of freeborn men". In words that Israel Shreve
and John Patten would have understood, Sarter asked those who were
rebelling against an Empire, "why will you not pity and relieve the
poor distressed, enslaved Africans? -Who, though they are entitled to
the same natural rights of mankind, that you are, nevertheless are
groaning in bondage". Earlier that year, a number of Boston slaves
reminded General Thomas Gage, then the commander of the British army
in America, that they "have in common with all other men a naturel
right to our freedoms without being deprived of them by our fellow
men(,) as we are a freeborn Pepel and have never forfeited this
Blessing by aney compact or agreement whatever".
Some accounts of the American Revolution ask what the Founding Fathers
did for the slaves. Whatever the answer to the question may be, it
tends to obscure what the slaves - at least, many living in New
England - were doing for themselves. For them the Revolution meant
freedom. Their failure ultimately to gain their rights in no way
diminishes their contribution to the common cause. With rare
exceptions the Founding Fathers showed little enthusiasm for the
people. They saw popular demands for fuller participation in politics
as threatening, as potentially inviting anarchy. From the perspective
of the Framers, the danger to the rights of property holders seemed
genuine, and they did their best in the name of order and security to
contain more radical demands for equality and democracy. For designing
an enduring republican government, they deserve much praise.
But the narrative of revolution must also include ordinary men and
women who spoke up - often in awkwardly blunt language - for equality,
rights and freedom. As the people of Pittsfield, Massachusetts,
announced in a petition written in May 1776, "We beg leave . . . to
represent that we have always been persuaded that the people are the
fountain of power". A few years earlier the Boston Gazette had
observed "however meanly some people may think about the populace or
mob of a country, it is certain that the power or strength of every
FREE country depends entirely upon the populace".
The heritage of the American Revolution encourages the people to
participate in political debates on their own terms. In a time of
crisis they need not assume that their leaders will do what is right
or that they should return "to their homes to abide the issue". They
are not obliged to wait for the Founding Fathers.
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