Feature

Book of the week: American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People by T.H. Breen

In Breen’s eye-opening account of the run-up to the Revolution, the so-called Founding Fathers are more tag-alongs than catalysts, ambitious gentlemen in the position of having to follow the lead of angry commoners.

(Hill & Wang, 337 pages, $27)

The truth about the American colonists who revolted against British rule two centuries ago “is a good deal messier and more interesting” than the story most textbooks tell, said Alan Pell Crawford in The Wall Street Journal. In T.H. Breen’s eye-opening new account of the run-up to the first shots of the Revolution, the so-called Founding Fathers are more tag-alongs than catalysts. The true energy of the rebellion instead comes from thousands of ordinary farmers and villagers whose militancy bubbled up, almost overnight, in early 1774. By that September, the 56 ambitious gentlemen who convened in Philadelphia for the first Continental Congress were “in the extremely awkward position” of having to follow the lead of angry commoners. Choosing otherwise might have brought their own political ambitions to an end.

A “powerful rumor” that swept into Philadelphia at about that time may have changed history, said Chiles T.A. Larson in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. The city of Boston, it was said, had been destroyed by the British. The story proved untrue, but it inspired 10,000 to 20,000 rural men to spontaneously take up arms and start marching north. Such grass-roots fervor emboldened the elites in the Continental Congress. Boston had actually been placed under a British blockade, in order to punish its residents for protesting a new tea tax, and in response towns all over New England were hounding their royal overseers out of office. Colonists from Maine to Georgia soon made a common cause, and eventually the Congress endorsed locally elected (if illegal) “safety committees” to replace the crown’s appointees—and even to raise militias.

There was a genius in Congress’ strategy, said Brooke Allen in Salon.com. Rather than sowing chaos, the plan effectively knitted the safety committees into a countrywide network, forming the foundation of a new, democratic order. Breen doesn’t apologize for the insurgents who tarred and feathered the loyalists who got in their way, becoming “terrorists and torturers” for the cause of representative government. The entire point of his fascinating account, in fact, is that revolutions are created not by elites debating political theories but by the passions of ordinary people.

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