BOOK REVIEW: Thirteen Clocks: How Race United the Colonies and Made the Declaration of Independence by Robert G. Parkinson (Williamsburg, VA: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture; Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2021)
The final grievance that Thomas Jefferson included in the Declaration of Independence used blatantly racist language, making it stand out in the document: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” The aboriginal peoples of North America were described as vicious terrorists, but the British king was also guilty of a crime that was worse than instigating the Native Americans: fomenting insurrections of the people in the colonies. Those people were the enslaved African Americans, and the king’s supposed efforts to turn them against their enslavers was a factor in unifying the colonists against their monarch. In fact, according to Robert G. Parkinson, the thirteen colonies were truly unified in their fear of both slave insurrections and the Native American threat.
Parkinson’s recent book, Thirteen Clocks: How Race United the Colonies and Made the Declaration of Independence, explores the statement made by John Adams as to how and when the thirteen colonies started to act as one nation. Adams wrote about this when he was in his eighties, in 1818, when he was exchanging letters with his dear friend Thomas Jefferson, discussing their historical legacies and the true meaning of the American Revolution. Parkinson quotes from a letter to publisher Hezekiah Niles, in which Adams explained the difficulties in getting the different colonies to act towards a common goal: “‘The complete accomplishment of it, in so short a time and by such simple means, was perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind. Thirteen clocks were made to strike together—a perfection of mechanism which no artist had ever before effected’” (page 1). Adams was trying to argue that the Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people long before blood was shed at Lexington. The premise of Thirteen Clocks, however, is that the fears brought on by Virginia royal governor Lord Dunmore’s emancipation proclamation and possible British alliances with Native American nations were what really got the thirteen clocks to begin working together. It was not revolutionary idealism, but basic hysteria.
The first chapter is a look at how colonial newspapers operated and how they disseminated information throughout the colonies. There are details of the printing process, and even two broadsides showing how a typical newspaper was arranged. The papers focused on local affairs, but the Sons of Liberty were not averse to manipulating the news in order to promote their cause (an early example of “fake news”). The second chapter describes the difficulties in trying to get thirteen separate entities from different geographical regions to unite in any cause. Loyalists argued that the British empire was the real protector of individual liberties, especially when southern patriots continued to deny such liberties to their slaves. The empire was the true union of the colonies, and the rebellion was upending that fact:
Many loyalists argued, in the months before the outbreak of war, that Britain was the true font of liberty and prosperity. The patriots were making disastrous choices to sever imperial institutions, commercial ties, a shared Protestant history, and a beloved royal family. Unity should include the British Isles in the shape of a reformed Anglo-American empire, not an independent America—which is what the traitorous faction from New England had secretly been after all along. (p. 60)
Parkinson then revisits the battles of Lexington and Concord. Were the people arming themselves against the British regulars in the months before the fighting? Or were they getting ready to defend themselves against potential slave uprisings in different parts of the Atlantic colonies? The newspapers were more concerned with the slave conspiracies. At this time, Lord Dunmore seized gunpowder from the colonists, which increased their paranoia of being attacked in their homes by their slaves. Such stories made the papers in New England before the “shot heard ‘round the world.” The offering of freedom to enslaved people in return for their service in His Majesty’s armed forces is the topic of the fourth chapter, “Britain Has Found Means To Unite US.” And it was left to the machinations of men like John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson to make sure that the newspapers constantly printed stories and broadsides about the threat from the British proxies who could destroy the colonies: the enslaved people and the Indians. It was no wonder that Jefferson included them so prominently in the Declaration.
The conclusion, “Founding Stories,” shows how the fear of the British proxies continued throughout the war and how it helped to determine the idea of citizenship in the new republic. Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Lafeyette worked on, but never completed, a publication that would have presented the dangers of the Indigenous people and freed slaves to the new nation. And the image of the merciless Indian was adopted as a permanent part of the nation’s founding narrative.
Thirteen Clocks offers an original perspective on the legacy of the Revolution, a task that John Adams was trying to figure out before he died. The explanations are very thorough, showing that Parkinson expertly examined many primary sources, including a wealth of colonial newspapers. What intrigued this reviewer was the idea that the Revolution was not an idealistic endeavor. Parkinson downplays the concepts of equality and liberty, which most Americans internalize since their elementary school days. Accepting the possibility that the American Revolution happened only due to naked fear and panic is a little difficult. However, it is also difficult to argue with Parkinson’s findings. Certainly, a great deal to ponder after reading.