Whose Revolution is this?

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By T.H. Breen
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

When Americans protest, whether it is today's Tea Party members or Vietnam Veterans Against the War being arrested on Lexington Green in 1971, they often lay claim to the ordinary patriots of the Revolution. The impulse of many protesters has been to assert kinship with the middling Americans who came forward to resist British imperial power. But what do we know about the motivations and actions of the ordinary colonists who risked killing and getting killed at the birth of independence? Judging by some of the uses to which their memory is put, not much. These remarkable men and women, however, left ample records; we can discern their motivations in their own words.

First, the American patriots of 1773 and 1774 worked hard to promote unity. The 13 colonies could have broken up into small, squabbling units, an event that would have doomed effective military resistance to Great Britain. But rather than trumpeting narrow regional, ideological or class interests, ordinary patriots insisted on promoting a general American cause. They understood that it was only by working together that they could hold their own against the empire. As the Rev. Nathaniel Niles of Massachusetts reminded parishioners in 1774, "The smallest particles have their influence. Such is our state, that each individual had a proportion of influence on some neighbor at least; he, on another, and so on; as in a river, the following drop urges that which is before, and every one through the whole length of the stream has the like influence."

Second, the colonists did not protest taxation. To be clear: They protested against taxation without representation, an entirely different matter. During the summer of 1774, when Parliament punished the city of Boston for the destruction of the East India Company's tea, people throughout Massachusetts Bay continued to pay taxes to the colonial government. At this chaotic moment, rather than keep their money, colonists voted in town after town to no longer transfer tax revenue to Harrison Gray, a treasurer of loyalist sympathies, but instead to send "moneys which they then had, or in future might have in their hands, belonging to the Province" to one Henry Gardner. Anyone who misses this point risks missing the fact that ordinary American patriots accepted the legitimate burdens of supporting a government in which they enjoyed genuine representation.

Third, the colonists appreciated that any disgruntled person can mouth words of protest. But resistance to Britain demanded serious sacrifice. Long before there was a clash of arms, ordinary Americans desiring to demonstrate publicly their full support for the patriot cause participated in increasingly successful boycotts of British imported manufactures. A Connecticut newspaper stated the point bluntly: "if we mean still to be free, let us unanimously lay aside foreign superfluities, and encourage our own manufacture. SAVE YOUR MONEY AND YOU WILL SAVE YOUR COUNTRY." Sacrifice, they knew, bred unity, as when the inhabitants of one Maine village voted "a Universal Withdrawment of our Commerce with the Island of Great Britain until the aforesaid Oppressive Acts of Parliament shall be Repealed." Giving up something desired declared intentions and forged solidarity far more meaningfully than angry rhetoric.

Fourth, Americans who supported resistance understood that revolution could destabilize the entire social order. Mass movements -- no matter how worthy -- often degenerate into anarchy, and private complaint serves only to compromise the common good. As the Rev. Nathan Fiske explained to his congregation in 1774, "When people oppose the authority of their rulers, it is generally called insurrection and rebellion. And when a mob assumes the government into their own hands, they are in danger of committing such violence and outrage as are many degrees beyond the guilt and mischief of bare opposition." For Fiske, resisting "arbitrary rulers" was one thing; engaging in "lawless riots" that had the capacity to become "tyrannical, imperious, and oppressive" quite another.

So Americans ceded to the Continental Congress leadership in creating a national infrastructure of revolution. That body ordered each town and county to elect a committee to monitor the consumer boycott. This elaborate structure -- a framework for a creative conversation between national and local goals -- helped sustain a rule of law.

Modern Americans owe a tremendous debt to the ordinary patriots who launched an insurgency that became a revolution that brought independence. Simply put, without them there would be no United States. The minimum repayment is to know their history. Anyone wishing to cloak present-day complaints in that early generation's sacrifice ought to understand how it managed during a severe political crisis to bring forth a new republic dedicated to rights, equality and liberty.

T.H. Breen, a professor of American history at Northwestern University, is the author of the forthcoming book "American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People."


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