King George, Virginia


Title: American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People


Author:  T. H. Breen

Copyright: 2010

Reviewer: Jim Hull


Main theme:

Confident of their God-given rights, driven by anger against an imperial government that treated them like second-class subjects, American insurgents resisted parliamentary rule, first spontaneously, as loosely organized militants who purged the countryside of Crown officials, and then, increasingly after late 1774, as members of local committees of safety that became schools for revolution.[1]  Without tens of thousands of ordinary people willing to set aside their work, homes, and families to take up arms in expectation of killing and possibly being killed, a handful of elite gentlemen arguing about political theory makes for a debating society, not a revolution.[2]  Thousands of Americans who had never before held office —indeed, who never even imagined that it was their right to do so— flooded into positions of leadership, and between 1774 and 1776 people from New Hampshire to Georgia invented new, highly effective forms of popular resistance.  This ranks as one of the most creative moments in American political history.[3]


About the Author (from http://www.history.northwestern.edu/people/breen.html):

T. H. Breen, the William Smith Mason Professor of American History, is an Early American historian interested in the history of political thought, material culture, and cultural anthropology. A Guggenheim fellow, he has held appointments at the Institute for Advanced Study and the National Humanities Center as well as the Pitt Professorship of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University and the Harmsworth Professorship at Oxford University. He has won several awards for distinguished teaching, including one from the Northwestern Alumni Society. His publications include five monographs, among them Tobacco Culture: the Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of Revolution (recipient of the T. Saloutos Prize) and Imagining the Past: East Hampton Histories (winner of the Historical Preservation Book Prize), as well as portions of the highly successful undergraduate text, America: Past and Present. Breen published Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence, with Oxford University Press, and won the Colonial War Society Prize for the best book in 2004 on the American Revolution. A recent recipient of an Alexander von Humboldt Award from the German government and a Fellowship from the Max Planck Institute, he has now completed a book entitled American Insurgents -- American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (2010). He is the founding director of the Chabraja Center for Historical Studies and is currently a visiting professor in the Humanities Division at California Institute for Technology (2012-2013).


Context of the Book:

The sine qua non of our Revolution— indeed, of any successful revolution— was the willingness of a sufficient number of people to take up arms against an unelected imperial government that no longer served the common good.[4]  Those who today torture the revolutionary record by trying to transform these people into partisans for narrow and selfish causes— as if the sole purpose of the Revolution was the avoidance of taxation— insult the memory of those who once imagined a more just and equitable structure of government.[5]


Context of the Book’s Review:

The King George TEA Party has observed some of the exact same abrogations of our compact with government that our forefathers experienced.  As contemporary members of the American citizenry we have more in common with the perspectives of our mercantilist and farmer peers from the 1770s than we do with the lofty Founding Fathers.  Thus, this account of the American Revolution as an insurgency led by We The People, not a coup d’état directed orchestrated by a few leaders, was expected to provide practical and useful advice that we members of the KGTP could apply towards our future. 


The thesis of the book:

American Insurgents, American Patriots follows a rough chronological path. After describing the colonial society that spawned resistance and reviewing the actions of a British ruling class determined at a moment of imperial crisis to be tough whatever the consequences, American Insurgents, American Patriots examines the spontaneous political rage that swept through the New England countryside during the summer of 1774. This was the time when thousands of ordinary people actively joined the resistance to Great Britain.[6]  To understand the containment of revolutionary violence—its use as a weapon against ideological enemies— American Insurgents, American Patriots looks not to congressional leaders, but rather to how the insurgents sustained and strengthened resistance on the ground. In small communities throughout the country, scores of men who previously had had no meaningful voice in political affairs served on local committees that during late 1774 and early 1775 became the de facto government. Variously called committees of safety, or committees of safety and observation, these groups provided a revolutionary infrastructure.[7]


Reviewer’s thesis of the book:

The thesis of American Insurgents American Patriots is that the conditions for the American Revolution were put in place long before the Declaration of Independence was signed by a handful of Founding Fathers and that common citizens instead birthed our nation on 19 April 1775.  Those early settlers seeking religious freedom made the wave of crossing of the Atlantic Ocean to the new country and the widely held religious views they brought with them instilled the common understanding of fundamental God-given rights.  The isolation imposed upon the people of America during the years after the initial founding of this country instilled a strong sense of self-sufficiency that resulted in the people rejecting overbearing imperial rule.  The organizational skills of the disparate Committees of Correspondence and other similar groups found in almost all cities and towns –groups not unlike contemporary Tea Parties today– created the communication system that fanned the flames of discontent into outright disrespect for the imperial government.  Thus the infrastructure for insurgency was in place when the British military made the mistake of killing a small handful of like-minded citizens during the battle of Lexington-Concord.  The ensuing spontaneous public reaction and mass mobilization unified Americans and turned America into the independent country and overwhelming adversary that imperial England could not defeat.


Summary of Content:

The American insurgents were generally drawn from white farm families— in other words, from a body of people who made up approximately 70 percent of the free inhabitants.[8]  Within these communities, no one was a stranger; families had long histories that, even when not openly discussed, were never forgotten. These were intimate, face-to-face settings— at church, the local store for imported goods, the county courts—in which few secrets, be they religious, political, or personal, were secure, and although ordinary Americans probably tolerated some idiosyncratic beliefs and behavior, they could bring powerful pressure to bear on dissenters who openly defied local norms.[9]


Property ownership promoted a spirit of possessive individualism; it served to make plausible a powerful grammar of political resistance. This core assumption about the structure of society helps to explain in part why ordinary people reacted so vehemently to parliamentary attempts to tax them without representation.[10]  In the development of insurgency, evangelical Protestantism probably played an even more significant role than did the possession of land.  The sudden and massive adoption of a new kind of religion that appealed more to the heart than to the head radically changed the character of colonial society.[11]  The revivals provided ordinary colonists with a persuasive, emotionally satisfying framework within which they interpreted ongoing political events.[12]  Commerce provided the third segment of imperial identity. Americans worked harder —increased the productivity of ordinary families— so that they could participate more fully in this new and exciting marketplace. By the middle of the eighteenth century, small farmers throughout America had become willing participants in complex networks of trade controlled by Great Britain.  These positive elements had the inevitable effect of heightening the colonists’ sense of their own importance within the empire.[13]


The key to expanding the insurgency was communication.[14]  The creation of a secure intelligence network promised greater secrecy, the bedrock of resistance movements and the very thing the British rightly feared.[15]  As individuals, citizens reasoned about rights and oppression, about sacrifice, but as the movement gained momentum, they began to experience an exhilarating feeling of solidarity.[16]  Long before the Continental Congress got around to declaring independence, a surge of shared information convinced Americans that they could in fact trust other Americans whom they had never met.[17]


As during the escalation toward the American Revolution, the possible use of military force in civil matters raised acute fears that contemporary decision makers would be advised to take seriously; these fears directly fueled an insurgency that became a successful revolution.[18]


Analysis and Evaluation of the Book:

This was an excellent book, easy to read, and provided very good insight into what has forged Americans into the America of the past and of today.  The focus on accounts of individual citizens, what they were thinking at the time, and how they reacted to events made the reader both empathize with and support those traveling the difficult road of insurgency on our country’s way toward independence.


Conclusion:

A highly recommended read for understanding the contemporary political environment by studying history that showcases how Americans uniquely respond to similar events.  No other book known by the Reviewer similarly uses history to foreshadow potential American reactions to contemporary political events.


Footnotes:

[1] Breen, T. H. (2010-05-06). American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (p. 3). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid, p. 4.

[3] Ibid, p. 12.

[4] Ibid, p. 10.

[5] Ibid, p. 12.

[6] Ibid, p. 17.

[7] Ibid, p. 18.

[8] Ibid, p. 25.

[9] Ibid, p. 28.

[10] Ibid. p. 31.

[11] Ibid, p. 31.

[12] Ibid, p. 35.

[13] Ibid, p. 38.

[14] Ibid, p. 17.

[15] Ibid, p. 108.

[16] Ibid, p. 45.

[17] Ibid, p. 100.

[18] Ibid, p. 79.

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