The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America
By T. H. Breen.
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019.
Hardcover, 216 pages, $30.
Reviewed by Jason Ross
In the midst of a wave of populist revolutions upsetting global politics, Timothy Breen has published what might be called a populist history of the American Revolution. This is not a muckraking “people’s history” on the order of a Howard Zinn, who aimed to knock America’s Founders off of their pedestals. Instead, Breen professes to tell the story of “a founding people rather than a few Founders,” so as to place ordinary Americans on a level of equality with their revolution’s leaders.
Though populism may still have some appeal to an older generation of historians who (like Breen) entered the academy in the late 1960s, populism is difficult to distinguish from nationalism, which today’s academy views with open hostility. The central tension Breen faces throughout, then, is how to tell the story of a people without appearing to celebrate a nation. Thus, while Breen succeeds in making a populist case crediting ordinary Americans for the success of the Revolution, his accommodation of the academy’s hostility toward nationalism renders his success ambiguous. In placing America’s revolutionary generation on a level of equality with their leaders, has he raised them up in our nation’s pantheon as worthy of our emulation? Or has he lowered them to the status now accorded to our Founders by much of the historical profession—as flawed, corrupt, even sinful men, deserving of our moral condescension?
Challenging a common conception about the revolutionary significance of America’s founding ideals, Breen argues that the Framers’ “abstract and highly intellectualized ideas about public virtue and vigilance—sometimes seen as the driving force of revolution—were not sufficient to trigger or sustain resistance. Something more was needed, an additional catalyst. Revolutions require passion.” The people supplied that passion, and Breen’s narrative is of these popular passions that caused the Revolution and propelled it to success. In this way Breen has not written a political or intellectual or military history of the Revolution, but an emotional history of it.
In his chapter titles, Breen traces an emotional arc through the Revolution, identifying the feelings and sentiments that, when experienced in common by British colonists, created an American nation. “Rejection” tells the story of a people whose “[h]aunting suspicion of second-class status” led them to recognize “their own perceived inferiority within the empire,” triggering their desire to resist British authority. “Assurance” explains how Americans came to see themselves justified—by God—in rejecting British rule, even to the point of taking up arms and shedding blood. “Fear” explains how America’s revolutionaries united not only against a distant power, but also against domestic conspirators, often located in their own communities. “Justice” argues that the revolutionaries managed to maintain commitment to the cause, despite the existence of competing loyalties within their communities, by way of extra-legal committees of correspondence or committees of safety. “Betrayal” addresses the ways in which Americans coped with the physical, emotional, and economic hardships of rebellion, including failures of commitment to the cause. Finally, “Revenge” credits the American Revolution for avoiding the cycle of recriminations that plagued so many other internecine conflicts. (One could raise the question of whether Americans or the peoples of other nations today are beginning to realize their own “rejection” by their political elites, and ask what this portends; Breen does not.)
These revolutionary passions serve as the animating spirit of Breen’s populist narrative, and were largely acted out, in his telling, through local associations known as committees of correspondence or safety. The existence of these committees throughout the colonies is well known, even if their significance, in Breen’s view, has not fully been grasped. These bodies serve as the main characters of Breen’s narrative.
It was in these committees, Breen argues, that American revolutionaries first “tasted a measure of political equality.… If they were not, as some might argue, a reflection of the growth of democracy,” he celebrates, “then they were at least a latent force in American politics known as public opinion.” While Breen contends that these committees served, in a salutary way, as cradles of a more egalitarian political culture, he also notes their tendency toward democracy’s “mobocratic” extreme, as these bodies lacked formal authority, and were often wanting for substantive leadership or even due process. The committees of correspondence pointed toward the best of democracy and the worst of democracy.
In pointing toward mobocratic excesses, Breen suggests that these committees played a similar role to those groups that compelled compliance with the popular will in the French and Russian Revolutions. These, too, were “extralegal bodies that justified their actions, however violent, in the name of the people.” Though Breen notes, “We do not often think of the period immediately before American independence in these terms,” he insists, “We should.” Were we to do so, he continues, we would note that during the Revolution, “local committees performed many of the same functions as did those found in France or Russia. They mobilized opposition, ferreting out counterrevolutionary elements from New Hampshire to Georgia. These revolutionary cells sustained resistance to Great Britain during periods when it seemed that the colonists had little chance of victory.” It was the ability “to police political dissent,” Breen concludes, by which “the committee system provides the key to explaining the success of the Revolution.”
Viewing the American Revolution in this comparative perspective, Breen must ask what kept the passions of America’s revolutionary committee system from reaching the totalitarian intensity seen in the French and Russian Revolutions. He credits the people’s “highly Protestant culture,” which provided a language of resistance parallel to but distinct from the political and legal arguments of America’s leading citizens, and which tempered the people’s aims for and uses of power.
In fact, the most interesting and convincing arguments in his book are those in which Breen details the revolutionary rhetoric of America’s Protestant ministers. Strangely, he qualifies that the theological substance of their sermons was of secondary importance, undermining his own compelling account of the development in these sermons of a religious justification for resistance, a rejection of monarchy as an institution, and a shared conception of persecuted colonists as members of a “chosen people with special responsibilities to the Lord.” Rather than pursuing the significance of these teachings for the development of the uniquely American political culture and identity that sustained the American Revolution through to the creation of a new constitutional republic, then, Breen almost apologizes for exploring them, saying his goal in highlighting the contributions of Protestant ministers was nothing more than “to locate our understanding of the Revolution in the communities.…”
Here we sense Breen’s affinity for populism coming into conflict the historical profession’s disdain for nationalism—and particularly for those features of American nationalism that were drawn from the theology and practice of dissenting Protestantism. In minimizing the features of this emergent American nationalism, Breen de-emphasizes the religious commitment to the rule of law that moderated the activities of extralegal committees of correspondence, while overplaying the comparison to the totalitarian spirit of the French and Russian revolutionaries.
It is a testament to the profound depth of Breen’s knowledge of the primary sources of this era and his narrative skill that he is able to create a brief and impressionistic account of the ways in which these committees throughout the colonies wrestled with the dangers of faction or majority tyranny that Madison and Tocqueville would later diagnose as central problems within American democracy. Still this part of his argument seems somewhat forced, as if he were obliged as a historian not to credit the positive dimensions of the national identity that sustained the revolution, but to critique the “negative side” of that identity, which included “an intense, often quite repellent awareness of who were and who were not citizens.” Though Breen evidently wants to admire revolutionary Americans, he repeatedly reiterates that they were racist.
While Breen attaches sinister connotations to the exclusive nature of American national identity, this question of who is or is not a citizen is, of course, central to any revolution; the question of who we are necessarily raises the question of who we are not—and who is not us. But if the Revolution did not settle once and for all in American history that race is neither a principled nor a prudent ground for answering this question, it did point in this direction. (Even the New York Times 1619 Project has reluctantly conceded this point.)
As early as 1763, James Otis had written in his influential pamphlet, “The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved,” that according to “the law of God and nature … the colonists, black and white, born here, are free born British subjects, and entitled to all the essential civil rights of such …” When such appeals failed, blacks and whites fought together in the Continental Army and in northern state regiments to win the privileges of citizenship. By contrast, in the wake of Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation promising freedom to enslaved blacks who would bear arms for the British cause, Southern states became palpably aware of the debilitating weakness and insecurity introduced into their society and institutions by their racial caste system.
The question of who is or is not a citizen is a permanent one in a revolutionary regime like ours, which does not make a traditional appeal to any race or creed for its answer. Breen’s premise for responding to this question was promising—to reconnect the reason of the American Founding to the animating public spirit and shared sentiments that birthed America as a nation and has sustained it. But the moral Breen suggests drawing from his narrative is of an America that must be home for any and all peoples of the world, and thus of an American identity that is bloodless, borderless, and leaderless, disconnected from any particular people constituted by any shared sentiments, history, or loyalty. Rather than renewing the connection between our Revolutionary ideals and our national identity, then, Breen reminds us—despite his evident sympathy for America’s revolutionary generation—that the intellectual class to which he belongs remains utterly disconnected from its body politic.
Jason Ross is Associate Professor of Government at Liberty University.