[Paleopsych] TLS: Ordinary founders

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Ordinary founders
The Times Literary Supplement, 4.5.28
Ordinary founders

    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
    hardback alone.

    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
    popular support."

    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
    and Westminster.

    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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