The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America by T.H. Breen (Harvard University Press, 2019)
In the latest of a series of influential works from T.H. Breen, the veteran historian provides his audience with an elaborate illustration of how the ordinary colonist interpreted, experienced, and survived the American Revolution. How did the Maryland farmer balance his physical and financial obligations in the wake of the Revolution? How did the Pennsylvania printer publicize the formerly Quaker-dominated colony’s changing attitudes toward an established militia? How did a group of New York wives collectively distinguish themselves from their Tory husbands? How did the Connecticut minister utilize a combination of scripture and notions of civil liberty to propel his congregation toward independence? The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America introduces readers to the ordinary individuals who were willing to make sacrifices both personally and professionally through partaking in public protests and town hall meetings, forfeiting the everyday convenience provided by luxury goods, enlisting in their local militias, offering supplies to American soldiers, and ultimately, abandoning certain familial and career responsibilities to sustain the Revolution.
Armed with a vast artillery of primary sources, including private correspondence, newspapers, journals, and published sermons, Breen brings to the forefront the memories of those underappreciated Americans who made difficult decisions, crafted plans, and committed to sacrifices for the common good during the Revolutionary era, utilizing The Will of the People to thoroughly explore the causes and reasons that ordinary Patriots and Loyalists chose to operate as they did. While Breen does not deny the influence of George Washington, John Adams and other heavy hitters, The Will of the People breezes past the Continental battlefields and intellectual hubs of eighteenth-century America to shed light on the commonly-neglected stories of everyday colonists. Divided into six core chapters, Breen draws on social psychological theory to explain how rejection, assurance, fear, justice, betrayal, and revenge not only aided in the mass mobilization of Americans, but also served to maintain allegiance to the colonial cause. Throughout each section, Breen recalls the theme of restraint which was skillfully established in 2010’s American Insurgents, American Patriots as an important factor in the success of the Patriot campaign.
As such, the author pays special attention to the practices of local initiatives and institutions which were established in towns and cities from New Hampshire to Georgia as a means of advancing the Revolution, including Committees of Safety and Correspondence. Because these ubiquitous committees were charged with policing their neighborhoods, identifying friends and acquaintances as traitors, and conducting the consequent judiciary procedures, they ultimately functioned as a de facto government. Accordingly, strength and pragmatism among these newfound community leaders were paramount to maintaining a degree of order in the midst of political upheaval. After acknowledging instances in which revolutionary committees overstepped their bounds or operated in an overly extreme fashion, Breen reinforces that those serving on revolutionary committees wholeheartedly believed in the balancing of governmental power. As those individuals perceived it, too much liberty would indeed present as grave a danger to society as British tyranny would. Moreover, as these ideals were communicated from town to town and colony to colony, revolutionaries were able to reinforce local ideals and concerns at the national level, stimulating an almost inescapable commitment to American liberty. This restraint, along with the implementation of checks and balances, Breen explains, propelled a seemingly mild colonial rebellion into an outright revolution.
In making a significant contribution to the more recent historiographical trend of straying from an inflation of the Founding Fathers’ roles in the Revolution, this original and enlightening work will prove to be key for early Americanists of all levels. With occasional nods to contemporary political issues, The Will of the People highlights the desires, needs, fears, and spiritual beliefs of the general public in the years before, during, and immediately after the American Revolution. Although no deed or activity singlehandedly defined American opposition to Great Britain, intricate systems of intercolonial communication along with a powerful sense of purpose amongst ordinary colonists facilitated the unification of a heterogeneous populace and the development of a distinctly American identity. Ultimately, through a dedication to accountability, equality, and a shared responsibility to the government of America, it was the people themselves who facilitated the revolutionary birth of America. With this work, readers are presented with a brilliant depiction not only of how the Revolutionary-era fear of impending British tyranny, perceived rejection and exclusion from the monarchy, and anger over what was deemed unjust Parliamentary legislation, evolved into a denunciation of all things British, but also of how ordinary individuals adjusted to the shifting demands of revolution and unprecedented participatory politics.
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