- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 10, 2007

LIBERTY TREE: ORDINARY PEOPLE AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

By Alfred F. Young

New York University Press, $22, 419 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY JAMES SRODES

For 40 years Alfred F. Young has been in the front ranks of historians who try to bring into sharper focus how the beginnings of our nation, the Revolutionary War in particular, were shaped by ordinary Americans — known then as those people “out of doors,” or alternatively, “the mob.”

“Liberty Tree,” a collection of his essays (including two never published before), is a valuable contribution to what I think is the healthy evolution of American historiography away from the dry, theoretical dissections that prevailed well into the last century. While Mr. Young adds new details and insights to the story, he also helps clear up the contradictions in the way we view our better known Founders through today’s political classifications (Federalist equals liberal, etc.).

The key point that shines through all these essays is how dependent our hallowed Founding heroes were on the shifting political alliances they had to form with citizens of lower economic status in order to provide the leadership we honor them for today. Critics of the American War for Independence who deride the revolution as being dominated by silk-breeched, wig-wearing crypto-aristos need to read these essays for some salutary mind-clearing.

The two themes that dominate these essays are, one, that the theoreticians of American liberty that we honor (Mason, Jefferson, Adams, et al.) were themselves being swept along by radical and often contradictory tides of political thought that bubbled up from below. Very clearly defined special interest groups began to coalesce as British economic sanctions began to bite in the decade or so before 1776. And two, these shifts in popular will explain what until now has been glossed over: Why the big-name Founders seemed to change their minds so often. They were politicians who had to listen to constituencies back home; it’s what politicians do.

It is worth remembering, in this anniversary of Jamestown’s founding in 1607, just how rapidly that coming together took place. For the first 100 years, Britain’s Atlantic seaboard colonies were what they were intended to be: Almost exclusively English and white settlements designed for exploitation of raw materials that would fuel the home country’s burgeoning industrial machine. But by 1720, the tide of English migration to America began to dry up and was swamped by a larger flood of immigrants (some recruited, some enslaved, some exiles) from Scotland, Ireland and, increasingly, northern Europe.

This change in population mix produced huge cultural and political changes as the Englishness of colonies became irreversibly diluted. Southern colonies had dominant black populations. Pennsylvania’s population, by 1750, was divided into rough thirds among the largely Quaker English, the fractious Scots-Irish clans and the largely German middle European communities.

The economic character of the colonies also changed, Mr. Young points out. Farming remained the dominant occupation to be sure, and would do so well into the next century. But by the middle of the 1700s, America became increasingly and more rapidly urban and industrial in the sense that craftsmen, small manufacturers of everything from buildings, clothing, luxury goods and processed foods, joined forces and an identifiable artisan class emerged and began to look for a place in society. They called themselves “tradesmen” and “mechanics” and took pride in the products they (and increasingly, their apprentices) turned out.

Mr. Young explains, “Artisans were the largest proportion of the population in the colonial cities, and although cities were not a very large segment of the overall colonial population, they were important in public life out of proportion to their size. In the decade before 1776, a total population of about 2,500,000, which included 500,000 slaves, about 100,000 people lived in the largest cities on the Atlantic seaboard… . By 1800 the population of these cities had more than doubled to about 200,000 in a total population of 4,000,000. Within the three largest cities (Philadelphia, New York, and Boston) easily two-thirds of the free adult males were in the laboring classes as a whole, and about 45 percent of the total population were artisans. In Boston in 1790, when occupations can be counted with some precision, there were 1,271 skilled artisans out of 2,754 adult males, almost half.”

Not all artisans were equal of course, either in earnings or political action. Silversmith Paul Revere and printer Benjamin Franklin are the best known of the prosperous craftsmen who gained influence early on within the better heeled political elites. But the one thing the mechanics had in common was their instinct to band together for self-help, mutual protection and strict protection of their work rules and access to their craft.

Early on that translated into political action as British economic sanctions such as taxing paper (the Stamp Act) and restrictions on exports led first to protests and then to organizing rebellion. It was the mechanics who dumped the tea in Boston Harbor, who organized intelligence groups to spy on British soldiery and who finally provided the muscle and firepower of the seven-year war itself.

Small wonder that their activism did not end there. Come the peace in 1783, farmers and mechanics alike had different but just as bitter grievances against their own brand new, democratic government as they had against the old monarchy. Again, they were largely economic complaints. Taxes to pay for the war fell heaviest on the ordinary folk, and the sanctions for nonpayment were more rigorously enforced against them. Even after the new Constitution of 1787 was put in place, insurrections including Shays Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s showed that the ordinary folk would not submit to a top-down government any longer.

Women too began to raise their heads on the eve of the Revolution. Those who were fortunate among colonial women remained the property of first their fathers and then their husbands. Widows and women alone enjoyed even fewer rights and faced severely limited economic opportunities. So it was on the eve of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that Abigail Adams wrote to husband, John, in Philadelphia her famous injunction, “Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.”

Less often quoted is John’s derisive response, “We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient — that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent — that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented.”

Yet if women lacked the economic clout of manufacturers, they did wield the weapon of economic consumption by enforcing boycotts of British imports, by public activism to shame Loyalists and even by joining and leading the protest riots that roiled the decade before the war broke out in earnest. In time some even followed their husbands and sons to the battlefield as well.

Against this tide of radicalization, it is small wonder that the debate over whether government should be responsive to, or rather wary of, the mass of ordinary citizens remains central to American politics to this day. This book is a valuable tool for understanding that debate.

James Srodes‘ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

blog comments powered by Disqus

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide