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Was the Big Revolution in 1775?

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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Lieutenant Thomas Grosvenor of the Connecticut Minute Men at the Battle of Bunker Hill, 1775; detail of a painting by John Trumbull. The figure behind him may have been either Peter Salem, a freed slave who fought with the Americans in the Revolutionary War, or Grosvenor’s servant.

Phillips has read and absorbed well over four hundred monographs on the American Revolution, including some unpublished doctoral dissertations—in effect justifying all the detailed historical research on the Revolution that has gone on over the past century or so. Although the frame and general thesis of his book are his, he says that for all the complexity that he emphasizes, all the specifics he details, “be they colonial money supplies, local merchant ethnicity and religion, the European munitions trade of 1774–1775, the evolution of Philadelphia committees, or the intramural tensions between Coetus and Conferentie in what is now suburban New Jersey, the original spadework is someone else’s.”

He treats all these hundreds of monographs more or less equally, none of them seeming to be much more important than another. What he wants from them is evidence of some irritation, some clash in imperial relations that will help explain why the majority of colonists supported the Revolution. Each of his chapters is rich in interesting and often unfamiliar detail drawn from the many historical monographs he has absorbed.

Nearly everyone has heard of the battles of Lexington and Concord, but outside of North Carolina few know about the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge that occurred in February 1776. How many Americans know about the colonists’ capture of the British schooner Margaretta off the coast of Maine in June 1775, an event that James Fenimore Cooper called “The Lexington of the sea”? We have a similar disparity of knowledge between the famous “Boston Massacre” of March 1770 and the earlier “Battle of Golden Hill” in New York City. In January 1770, two months before the event in Boston, cutlass-wielding and club-carrying seamen and dock workers in New York confronted bayonet-armed redcoats and suffered many injuries and one fatality. These Sons of Neptune, as the angry seamen, dockworkers, carters, sailmakers, and others in the seaports often called themselves, became important participants in the coming of the Revolution, perhaps as important, Phillips claims, as the more well-known Sons of Liberty.

Everywhere in the colonies countless numbers of ordinary people like the Jack Tars—artisans, mechanics, militiamen, and farmers—were radicalized by arrogant, out-of-touch officials and irritating government regulations and actions; and they were exceedingly touchy, and ready at a moment’s notice to rise in defense of what they called their liberties. As Edmund Burke pointed out in 1775, the colonists anticipated grievances before they actually suffered them: “They auger misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.” Everywhere in North America, says Phillips, “matches were being put to a surprisingly short fuse.”

In September 1774, six months before Lexington and Concord, militiamen in western Massachusetts and southern New England heard rumors that the British had bombarded Boston. Thousands of them took up arms and marched on Boston and only turned back when the rumor proved false. Lexington and Concord were no surprise. “Conflict,” says Phillips, “was less an accident waiting to happen than an expectation.”

In his amassing of mountains of facts from numerous monographs, Phillips has tried to do what most academic historians these days have not been much interested in doing—bring together all the meticulous research that has been going on for decades and turn it into a comprehensive and readable book designed for general readers. Much of what Phillips has written is clear and free of jargon. His assessments of the various military situations, especially those faced by the British, are always realistically based, and his judgments of what was possible and what was not possible for the British to do are always sound.

Still, Phillips’s book may not ultimately suit many readers. Although he says that he has “tried to avoid too much detail” in his analyses, he also admits that his experience has “bred not contempt for detail but appreciation.” And it shows. Convinced that “proof matters” and that “elaboration is sometimes essential to understanding,” he has given his readers very large amounts of particulars. Those who will especially love it are Ph.D. graduate students preparing for their preliminary examinations and young professors trying to put together lectures for a course on the American Revolution.

Phillips also tends to presume too much knowledge on the part of readers. He refers to the Tea Party of December 1773, for example, but never describes it; he assumes readers will know what it was. Without any chronological story line, and overwhelming in its accumulation of facts, this largely analytic book will mainly appeal to those who already know something of the period.

Phillips’s handling of ideas and the political and constitutional debates between the colonists and the mother country seems particularly weak. Instead of seeing ideas as the means by which people understand, explain, justify, and rationalize their behavior—in other words, as necessary accompaniments to all human action—he treats them as simply “factors” to be lumped alongside other “factors” as causes of events. Consequently, his treatment of ideas and his discussion of the imperial constitutional debate are thin and ill-informed. He can’t really appreciate Bailyn’s ideological argument in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, even though it grows out of the same widespread sense of colonial grievance, fear, and anger that he himself has been documenting.

Nor does Phillips understand the development of the constitutional debate between the colonists and Great Britain. He mentions more than once that by 1774 the colonists’ arguments over the issues of taxation and representation were losing their cogency without being aware that by that date the overwhelming issue of sovereignty had replaced them. As far as Phillips is concerned, the disappearance of the issues of taxation and representation is simply evidence that the colonists were already emotionally separated from Great Britain and no longer needed those ideas.

Although the debate over sovereignty—the most important notion of politics in the eighteenth-century Anglo-American world—was what finally broke the empire apart, Phillips doesn’t understand it. The idea of sovereignty, made most famous by William Blackstone, held that in every state there must be one final, supreme, indivisible lawmaking authority; and for most Englishmen that authority was Parliament. The colonists tried to argue that Parliament could do some things, such as regulate their trade, but it could not do other things, such as tax them. But the British replied that since Parliament’s sovereignty was indivisible, if the colonists accepted one iota of Parliament’s authority they had to accept all; or if they denied Parliament’s authority even in one instance, they had to deny Parliament’s authority in all instances.

Finally tiring of trying to divide the indivisible, the colonists by 1774 gave up, accepted the logic of sovereignty, relocated it in their separate provincial legislatures, and concluded (not “periodically,” as Phillips claims, but once and for all) that they were totally outside of all parliamentary authority. Hence, they said, each of their legislatures was tied solely to the Crown. This is why the Declaration of Independence was scrupulous in not mentioning Parliament, even though Parliament had been the source of most of their grievances over the previous decade.

Despite his misunderstanding of the imperial debate, however, Phillips’s book is a significant achievement. He has read more about the early months of the Revolution and soaked up more of the details of that reading than most historians. In his meticulous account of the local and often obscure events of 1775, he has compiled a convincing case that most colonists were angry and prepared for revolution well before 1776. He is correct in saying that we are not as well informed about the period between the fall of 1774 and the beginning of 1776 as we ought to be. “To call this a ‘hidden history’ of the early Revolution,” he says, “is an exaggeration. But this is principally because it is not really hidden, merely too little studied.”

Although many experts have suggested that if the British were to put down the insurgency, they had do it quickly, in the early years of the war, before the entry of the French and Spanish, Phillips persuasively demonstrates that this possibility was unlikely in 1775–1776. Support for the Patriot cause was wider and deeper early on than we have usually acknowledged. Loyalty to the Crown, where it existed at all, was largely dependent on the presence of royal troops. The Patriots everywhere harried and harassed the royal authorities. Right from the outset, for example, most harbor pilots refused to help British ship captains navigate into the tricky waters of America’s ports. Royal commanders could only shake their heads in bewilderment at the various ways the colonists sought to undermine and sabotage British authority. It wasn’t IEDs or suicide bombing, but it was effective. “The ingenuity of these people,” declared one exasperated British officer, “is singular in their secret modes of mischief.”

Putting down an insurgency thousands of miles away is not easy, as we Americans have been finding out. Not only does Phillips’s book demonstrate that the year 1775 was more important than we have generally appreciated, but it also shows that the American insurgency had such an initial degree of popular support that British suppression of it was probably not possible.

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