Alcohol to Zealotry: The Revolution A to Z (Part 2)

Beyond the Classroom

August 16, 2013
by Matthew P. Dziennik Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

Continued from yesterday. Read A to Z first.

battle of guilford courthouse 1781M is for mobilization.  Revolutionary authorities became masters of mobilizing resources at a local level to fight the war.  The war debts for the Continental Congress and the various states were massive, but it is impressive just how many men the revolutionaries managed to put into the field, around 200,000 by recent estimates.  Most of these men were in locally-raised militias and were uniformed, equipped and officered at the local level.  Not all of this mobilization was voluntary and, in a society that opposed the use of corporal punishment, fines were often levied upon groups and individuals for not turning out for military service.  Records of individual men being fined upwards of £600 are known (fines were levied based on the ability to pay) and many nominally-loyal Patriots did attempt to evade militia service on the grounds of profession, status, or ailment.  There is no doubt that the revolutionaries placed far higher demands on their citizens than had ever been the case under imperial government.[14]

N is for neutrality.  Very much related to mobilization, the idea of “neutrality” was one of the first victims of the war, being replaced by a “with us or against us” attitude.  While it is likely that most Americans simply wanted to ignore the war and get on with their lives, many Patriots saw this as a form of Toryism and sought to combat it wherever they could.  Those who were deemed not to have done their fair share were sometimes subject to forced labor, fines, and confiscations.  When the son of the royalist Lieutenant Governor of New York, Cadwallader Colden, told revolutionaries of his desire to remain neutral, he was told that “No such state of neutrality can be known.”  Similarly, in 1776, a militia colonel in North Carolina announced that he had forced “the neutrals, as they call themselves” to work on field fortifications, “greatly against their inclinations.”[15]

O is for organization.  It is difficult to know precisely how many colonists opposed the Revolution.  Many revolutionaries did not seem to believe that they were as numerous as subsequent historians have often assumed.  Pennsylvanian revolutionary Joseph Reed believed that the great majority of colonists were in the “British interest … It is by the activity, zeal, and bravery of the comparative few that many have been kept under.”  While certainly an over-exaggeration, it is clear that the activity of a small but determined number of active revolutionaries, well-organized and well-led, did have a disproportionate impact on the war.  This was particularly true in the southern colonies.  By the time the royal army arrived in strength in the South in 1779, southerners had been living under revolutionary government for four years; the unwillingness of many to risk their lives and properties for the king’s cause was likely a result of the organizational capacities of local Whigs during those years.[16]

P is for price-fixing.  One of the greatest concerns on the revolutionary home-front was the price of everyday essentials and the potential for war-profiteering through shortage.  While many recent historians have identified the origins of the Revolution in the networks of merchants in urban centers, most ordinary people at the time believed that merchants would seek to line their own pockets regardless of the needs of their neighbors.  Many local communities therefore sought to regulate prices and prevent the hording of surplus wheat to artificially drive up prices.  Items that were subject to managed economic interventions included candles, salt, wheat, flour, Indian corn, rye, peas, oats, butter, beef, mutton, veal, lamb, beer, cider, rum, and bed and board.  Such actions created tension not only between merchants and their neighbors but between local revolutionaries and wealthier elites in the state legislatures, many of whom stood to gain from unregulated prices.  As Gouverneur Morris decried “the People should be actuated … to private Interest which has been ineffectually written and preached and prayed against from the Fall of Adam to the present Hour.[17]

Q is for quiet.  Most local political meetings took place, for want of any other civic meeting houses, in taverns or places of business.  Inevitably, this placed particular limits on the nature of such meetings, which were not helped by the rambunctiousness of the members themselves.  Some committees passed resolves on social decorum because “in our meetings Several Disorders are usual.”  Non-members would often enter meetings unannounced in order to use the same room for business and a perennial problem was members themselves using such meetings to conduct their private business, even while war-related discussions were on-going.  Evidence suggests that tardiness, profanity, interrupting speakers, and the constant comings and goings of members were all legislated against in order to professionalize the conduct of committee work.  That some of these committees got anything done at all was a remarkable triumph.[18]

R is for retaliation.  In comparison to other Revolutions, the American Revolution was remarkable for its adherence to the rule of law, with executions, massacres, rapes, and indiscriminate pillaging less frequent than was the case during the French or Haitian revolutions.  But violence was a part of the war and the desire for revenge was a frequently cited reason for violent atrocities.  In New Jersey, a “Committee of Retaliation” emerged during the latter part of the war and set about making arrests and pillaging the properties of suspected Tories without recourse to the local sheriffs, who were doing all they could to prevent their illegal activities.  According to historian Michael Adelberg, the tension between those Whigs who supported the rule of law and those who were willing to ignore the law to create security (such as the Retaliators), was often more profound than the tension between Whigs and Tories.[19]

Tarring and feathering was a popular public punishment. Source: Library of Congress
Tarring and feathering was a popular public punishment. Source: Library of Congress

S is for spiketing.  Eighteenth-century Americans lived in a society where punishment was explicitly designed to dissuade others from committing crimes.  As a result, public punishments, common in American communities, were carried over into wartime.  William Gipson, a revolutionary soldier from South Carolina, later wrote of a method of torture he witnessed being inflicted upon a Tory in 1779.  Known as spiketing, it involved placing a man’s foot on top of a sharp metal pin secured to a block and slowly twisting him until the spike drove itself through his foot.  The man, by the name of Campbell, was then turned loose, disabled for life.  Gipson reported that such tortures made sense to those who had witnessed the “unrelenting cruelties” of Tory partisans.[20]

T is for taxation without representation.  The cause celebre of the Revolution, this frequently occurred within revolutionary America as well.  In the first few years of the war, in particular, before elected state legislatures emerged to replace the former colonial assemblies, citizens were taxed by their local committees, some of which were only voted for by a minority of the population, or not voted in at all.  Refugee communities that had been displaced as a result of the war were also subject to taxation without having any representation in the state assemblies.  Loyalists were also disproportionately taxed for the war effort and frequently excluded from voting.[21]

U is for understanding.  Despite what has been said above, far from exposing the disaffected to unremitting violence, revolutionary communities were quite understanding in their treatment of opponents.  This is not to say that Loyalists were treated well, or to underestimate the effect of social excommunication, but the aim of most communities during the war was social cohesion.  A public declaration of apology was the most frequent “punishment” to which Loyalists were subjected.  Pennsylvania executed less than 1% of those Loyalists charged with treason against the state during the war.[22]

V is for voting rights.  One of the great assumptions regarding the Revolution is the extent to which it vastly expanded voting rights and democracy in America.  The story is, as always, more complicated.  Voting rights were already quite expansive in colonial America with a majority, up to 75% in some areas, of adult males being able to vote in assembly elections.  Only around half of the new state constitutions sought to reform voting rights, though those that did made efforts to extend the franchise; many property qualifications which had previously limited the franchise were ended and Vermont even introduced universal male suffrage while New Jersey allowed qualified women to vote until 1807.  There was a trend toward democratization but higher property qualifications still existed for office-holding and voting was still done in public.  More people did participate in politics, but it was, at best, “partial democracy.”[23]

W is for war-weariness.  Because of the eventual triumph of the United States during the war, it is easy to get lost in the triumphal narrative of Americans steadfastly resisting the forces of parliament until their liberties were eventually won.  In fact, war-weariness was a common problem as inflation and shortages hit the home-front.  Historian Barbara Clark Smith has identified at least 30 major bread riots between 1776 and 1779 alone.  Mutinies by Continental soldiers are also well-known, one of the worst occurring little more than half a year before the victory at Yorktown in 1781.  As British commander Sir Henry Clinton discovered when he tried to recruit the mutinous Pennsylvanian Continentals, war-weariness did not necessarily mean revolutionaries were willing to join the British, but it does suggest that there was a limit to the sacrifices Americans were willing to make for their independence.[24]

X is for xenophobia.  As familiar as we all are with figures such as the Marquis de Lafayette, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, or the Baron von Steuban, foreigners who came to offer their services to the American cause, we should also remember that, as it did in Britain, the war provoked vehement denunciations of foreigners.  Perhaps most notable in this regard were the increasingly poisonous attitudes adopted toward Native Americans.  The widespread belief that the British were attempting to enlist all manner of “savages” against the colonists had huge propaganda value and, in the minds of frontier settlers, turned all Indians into implacable enemies of America.  Racial categorizations, which had gained political traction during the French & Indian war, were employed to demonstrate the threat of British-allied Indians to “honest frontier settlers.”  The need to keep these settlers supportive of the Revolution led to a laissez-faire attitude on the part of government toward the outrages committed by Patriot soldiers and militias on the frontiers.[25]

Y is for Yankee Doodle.  The war was fought not just on the battlefield but in broadsides, pamphlets, and songs.  Eighteenth century society was a very public one and we have already seen how election days were often very convivial.  The American population was no doubt sustained during the war by the feeling of collaborative effort in which public festivals and celebrations were crucial.  As the poet Joel Barlow commented upon entering the army “I do not know, whether I shall do more for the cause in the capacity of chaplain, than I could in that of poet; I have great faith in the influence of songs; and shall continue, while fulfilling the duties of my appointment, to write one now and then, and to encourage the taste for them which I find in the camp. One good song is worth a dozen addresses or proclamations.”[26]

Z is for zealotry.  In all of the above explorations, local people displayed a zealotry for the revolutionary cause that was every bit as important as that displayed by those in Congress.  Consider for a moment that of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, not one died in actual service or as a result of enemy action during the war (Richard Stockton is the only figure to which it might be said enemy activity truly contributed to his ill health); it is highly doubtful whether the same can be said of any group of individuals who participated in revolutionary politics at a local level.[27]         

[14] John Shy, “Looking Backward, Looking Forward,” in War and Society in the American Revolution, eds. John Resch and Walter Sargent (DeKalb, 2007), 14; Courts martial, 23 Mar. 1778, f. 12, Box 7, John Williams papers, New York State Archives.

[15] Eugene Fingerhut, Survivor: Cadwallader Colden II in Revolutionary America (Washington, 1983), 84-5; State Records of North Carolina, ed. William L. Saunders (Raleigh, 1886), 10:467.

[16] Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, ed. William B Reed (Philadelphia, 1847), 2:372; for the unwillingness of Loyalists to enlist in the royal army in the south, see Charles Cornwallis, Campaign in Virginia 1781: An Answer to that part of the narrative of Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton KB which relates to the conduct of Lieutenant General Earl Cornwallis, ed. Benjamin Franklin Stevens (London, 1783), 10.

[17] Minutes of the Albany Committee to Regulate Prices [1779], Mss. 100, Albany Institute of History and Art; Staughton Lynd, Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution: ten Essays (Indianapolis, 1967), 117; see also Jennifer Nedelsky, Private Property and the Limits of American Constitutionalism (Chicago, 1990), 74.

[18] Minutes of the Albany Committee of Correspondence (Albany, 1925), 2: 1038 & 2:1104; Mohawk Valley in the Revolution: Committee of Safety Papers & Genealogical Compendium, ed. Maryly B. Penrose (Franklin Park, NJ, 1978), 75.

[19] Michael S. Adelberg, “The Transformation of Local Governance in Monmouth County, New Jersey, during the War of American Independence,” Journal of the Early Republic, 31 (Fall 2011), 486, 495.

[20] The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War of Independence, ed. John C. Dann (Chicago, 1980), 188-9.

[21] For taxation without representation among refugees, see Frederic Gregory Mather, The Refugees of 1776 from Long Island to Connecticut (Albany, 1913), 700, 713, 899; for the effects of high taxes and confiscations on Loyalists, see Christopher Moore, The Loyalists: Revolution Exile Settlement (Toronto, 1994); Beatrice G. Reubens, “Pre-Emptive Rights in the Disposition of a Confiscated Estate, Philipsburgh Manor, New York,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., 22 (Jul. 1965), 435-56; Marc W. Kruman, Between Authority and Liberty: State Constitution Making in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill, NC, 1997), 98-103.

[22] For attempts by revolutionaries to promote social inclusion, see T.H. Breen, American Insurgents American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (New York, 2010), 162-4, 216-17; for the treason trials and their consequences in Pennsylvania, see Henry J. Young, “Treason and its Punishment in Revolutionary Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 90 (Jul. 1966), 291-94.

[23] Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (New York, 2000), 3-21.

[24] Barbara Clark Smith, “Food Rioters and the American Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., 51 (Jan. 1994), 3-38; John A. Nagy, Rebellion in the Ranks: Mutinies of the American Revolution (Yardley, PA, 2007); for attempts by the British to recruit American deserters, see Germain to Clinton, 7 Dec. 1780, f. 39, Vol. 132, Henry Clinton papers, William L. Clements Library.

[25] Alex Fowler to Edward Hand, 18 Aug. 1779, Edward Hand papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; the most recent and effective exploration of revolutionary Indian policy and its increasing ferocity is Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America (New York, 2009).

[26] I.C. D’Israeli and Rufus W. Griswold, Curiosities of Literature… with Curiosities of American Literature in One Volume (New York, 1846), 28.

[27] See “Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” [ (accessed 30 Jul. 2013)].


  • I thought for sure “X” would be the mark made on the enlistment roll an uneducated soldier might make. Overall, an enjoyable and informative article though I disagree somewhat with your entry for X insofar as the Native Americans are concerned. My understanding from several respectable and recent books on the western NY frontier is that both sides could be particularly savage, culminating in the 1779 Sullivan Expedition. Burgoyne, as I recall, embraced the reputation of his NA allies for the very reason that they did strike fear in the hearts of the Colonists. Propaganda wasn’t really necessary in reporting the “after action” reports of the Wyoming, Cherry Valley and other frontier engagements led by Joseph Brant. Perhaps the roots of American Xenophobia were planted during the War but it took later American administrations and populations to perfect it. I’d love to see sequels on the A – Z format dealing with other sub-topics of the Way as it is an ideal format to deal with interesting leads into further reading.

    1. There is conflicting evidence of Brant’s involvement in those engagements, however I believe that the point at hand and that Mr. Dziennik was making was that no side’s hands were clean but that zealous “patriots” took full advantage of the situation to exercise lands from Native Americans. While prejudices existed, whether they be of race, religion or the mere fact that those Natives possessed what was desired, the long standing Euro-centric notions fueled violence against all nations of Natives, allied, neutral or enemy for the sake that they were different.
      True “that both sides could be particularly savage” but this would not end – nor did it begin with – the the Revolution.

  • I enjoyed the two part series immensely. I’m sure we could very easily add to each letter, but it is fun to write a list like this up. Good Work!

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