It is a commonplace that being an American is a matter neither of blood nor of cultural connections forged over time. It is, instead, a commitment to a set of ideals famously laid down by the country’s founders, and refined over generations with a notion of progress as a guiding principle. The Declaration of Independence, with Thomas Jefferson’s soaring language about the equality of mankind and the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” is the most powerful statement of those ideals. It is sometimes called America’s “creed.”
Of course, what it means to be an American is not—has never been—so simple a proposition. Seeing the men most typically described as the “founders” of the United States as sources of inspired ideals equally available to all conflicts with our knowledge of the way most of them saw and treated Native Americans and African-Americans during the founding period. Indeed, for decades now, much of the historiography of the founding has presented a complex story, exploring the many ways in which the Revolution, and the people who made it, fell far short of sharing with all people the Spirit of 1776’s indictment of tyranny and calls for liberty and equality. A good number of the most famous revolutionaries enslaved people, and the ones who did not own slaves chose not to work actively against the institution—even when they recognized that slavery was a great injustice. Some of those same men, eager for westward expansion, talked of removal of Indians whose land would then be taken by white settlers.
Balancing the tragic aspects of the country’s origins against the triumphant is a tricky business. And some may even question whether a balance should be struck, thinking that either tragedy or triumph so obviously predominates that it is unnecessary, if not foolish or immoral, to do any weighing. But it appears that the more complicated narrative, which now includes blacks and Native Americans, has heightened interest in the founding of the United States. People who may have been frustrated reading histories that failed to acknowledge how the past had worked upon their ancestors—or avoided reading them at all—feel part of a searching conversation. That inquiry almost invariably touches on the extent to which the past influences the present on matters of race, for there is every reason to believe that the basic contours of the country’s treacherous racial landscape were fashioned early on in our history.
There have been many occasions of late to think about these matters. A series of widely reported events involving black people and law enforcement has raised anew the question of exactly what type of citizenship African-Americans possess. That the United States has a race problem is not exactly news. Explorations of this aspect of our culture have produced some of America’s finest fiction and nonfiction over the years. But technology now brings the problem home in urgent and visceral ways. With too great regularity, encounters between blacks and police officers, captured on smartphones, fly across cyberspace, revealing to the world what African-Americans and other people of color have been saying for years: the Constitution does not work for black people as it works for whites.
Instead of being treated as citizens at liberty in a republic who have the right to be free from tyranny, African-Americans are treated as if the words “liberty” “republic,” and “tyranny” have no application to them. These were some of the words the founders used as they made the case for breaking away from the British Empire and setting up a federal union for the benefit of a newly constituted American citizenry. The policing of black people, in contrast to the treatment of true citizens, too often employs tactics that might be used against a captive alien group living in a country at the sufferance of a dominant community. How did this happen?
Certainly the institution of slavery, with its plantation rules and slave patrols, helped tell both Americans and the world how blacks living in the United States were, and are, to be seen and treated—“plantation to prison” is now a familiar plus ça change remark, linking the black present to the black past. And then there is 1787, when the framers in Philadelphia, seeking to “form a more perfect Union,” ended up creating what the historian David Waldstreicher has called “slavery’s Constitution,” which enshrined racially based slavery in the “supreme law of the land.” What could be a more powerful statement about how people of African descent can be treated?
Robert Parkinson, in his brilliant, timely, and indispensable book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution, offers a provocative alternative to the conventional views that blacks’ perpetual alien status in the United States is simply a natural outgrowth of having been enslaved, and that making them—and Native Americans—outsiders in the United States was a post-Revolutionary, early-nineteenth-century project. Americans were deciding who was “in” and who was “out” as soon as they began to fight Great Britain.
Parkinson does not discount slavery’s importance to shaping attitudes about African-Americans. Nor does he deny that the early American republic saw the rise of open calls for a “white man’s government” and the formalized policy of Indian Removal. But he goes back to 1775, when the American Revolution turned into the Revolutionary War, to locate the origins of racial exclusion in the society that would become the United States of America. It was during these days, Parkinson says, that patriot leaders made a fateful choice. They embarked upon a specific and concerted plan to place blacks and Native Americans—no matter what their condition, whether they believed in the patriots’ ideals or not—firmly outside the boundaries of America’s experiment with democratic republicanism.
“Men like Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington,” Parkinson writes, “developed a myth about who was and was not a part of the Revolutionary movement; about who had an interest and who did not.” Other esteemed advocates of the Revolution, such as Thomas Paine and the Marquis de Lafayette, joined the effort. According to Parkinson, these men chose to prosecute the American war for independence in a way that put race at the heart of the matter. They used—actually helped foment—racial prejudice as the principal means of creating unity across the thirteen colonies in order to prepare Americans to do battle with Great Britain. The base sentiments they promoted for “political expediency” survived the fighting, and the “narrative” that dismissed blacks and Native peoples as alien to America—and conflated “white” and “citizen”—“lived at the heart of the republic it helped create for decades to come.” It kept both groups from “inclusion as Americans.” Parkinson is blunt about the results of this program:
This refusal to extend to African Americans and Indians the benefits of emerging concepts of liberal subjectivity in the form of citizenship had ghastly consequences, for it legitimated and excused the destruction of vast numbers of human beings.
Parkinson writes with authority on military, political, social, and cultural history, reconstructing the story of this critical period as it actually unfolded, with everything happening at once. Instead of picking representative samples, he addresses what was happening across the breadth of the colonies. This makes for a long book, but scholars and readers interested in race and the Revolution will be grateful for all the detail. The Common Cause lays bare the patriots’ activities with such precision that it will be impossible to think seriously about the American Revolutionary War—or the revolutionaries—without reference to this book’s prodigious research, wholly unsentimental perspective, and bracing analysis.
How is a society persuaded to go to war, and to persist in the face of mounting casualties and all the suffering and dislocations attendant to war? This was a particularly vexing question for the proponents of war with Great Britain in the 1770s who, if they were to have any chance of success against the most powerful nation on earth, had to find a way to make thirteen separate societies act as one. Parkinson reminds us:
Jealousies, rivalries, and even violent controversies alienated the colonies in the early 1770s. Border conflicts, religious disputes, and concerns about slavery drove them apart. The colonies were just as poised to attack one another as to join together on the eve of war. The near impossibility of getting the colonies to agree to oppose Great Britain with one voice meant compromises on the most divisive issues on the one hand, and creative storytelling on the other….
The leaders of that movement had to craft an appeal that simultaneously overcame some of those inherent fault lines and jealousies, neutralized their opponents’ claims, and made them the only true protectors of freedom. They needed to make what they called “the cause” common.
American colonials were familiar with the phrase “common cause” from two traditions. Protestants used it to exhort the faithful to stand against other denominations and religions, and British monarchs spoke of the “common cause” in annual messages describing the empire’s participation in one or another military contest—messages that were then printed in colonial newspapers. It signaled that something important was at stake and, at the same time, created an inside “us” versus an outside “them.” Delineating a common cause—protecting the colonies against alleged overreaching by the British government as it made various imperial reforms—was a necessary first step in the process of binding the colonies to one another. A crucial question would be how to figure out who was the “us” in this formulation and who was to be designated “them.”
The patriot leader John Adams perhaps has been the most influential voice in shaping the historical view of how the colonies came to make common cause with one another. His words on the subject have echoed through the years, influencing scholarly and popular conceptions of the Revolution and the war:
The complete accomplishment of [uniting the colonies], 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 has ever before effected.
The image of “thirteen clocks” striking all at once is poetic, to be sure. It captures both the autonomy of the colonies (each its own clock) and the uncanny nature of the unity achieved once they came to believe their “cause” against Great Britain was “common.” It does not, however, tell us exactly how they came to “strike” together. It was as if the concerns about taxation, representation, and British tyranny made it self-evident why the colonies ended up in an armed conflict with their cousins across the sea. Parkinson convincingly demonstrates that the clocks did not strike at once all on their own. Patriot leaders, Adams among them, were setting the clocks to ensure they struck as near together as possible.
In a late-in-life missive to Thomas Jefferson, Adams drew a distinction between the American Revolution and “the war” that “was no part of the Revolution.” “The Revolution,” Adams insisted, “was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775.” While “a sea change in the attitudes of many colonists toward Britain and the empire” did take place within the period Adams set out, the American Revolution was far from complete in 1775. As they pushed out the British, the Americans were actively creating, in their minds and in practice, the world that would exist once the British were gone. Situating the Revolution in the mind privileges the abstract ideals associated with the Spirit of 1776, diverting our attention from the interplay between thought and action—that is to say the ideological justifications for starting the Revolution and prosecution of the war that made the Revolution successful.
After Lexington and Concord, Parkinson writes, “the patriots needed a new script to animate a new kind of resistance. They needed war stories.” The war stories the patriots told, and in some cases declined to tell, “made republican policies of exclusion possible by supplying patriotic ammunition for attacking Indians and expanding west” and gave “rhetorical cover for those who sought to deepen and extend the slave system.” The common cause narrative thus buried “race deep in the political structure of the new republic.”
Effective war stories were definitely required because despite the colonists’ complaints about tyranny and being reduced to—of all things—“slavery,” they were “the least taxed, most socially mobile, highest landowning, arguably most prosperous people in the western world.” Convincing a critical mass of this population to believe their lives were so miserable that they had to take up arms to fight their so-called oppressors required a very good story, indeed. Eloquent words about abstract rights would not do. History has taught the sad lesson that fear and contempt are the most predictably powerful motivators for galvanizing one group to move against another. The same was true for the American colonists with regard to their “cultural cousins.” Leaders of the movement “had to destroy as much of the public’s affection for their ancestors as they could.”
It was essential, Parkinson argues,
to demonstrate that the British were strangers. Suspicious foreigners. To accomplish this vital, difficult task they embraced the most powerful weapons in the colonial arsenal: stereotypes, prejudices, expectations, and fears about violent Indians and Africans.
They tied blacks and Indians and, for a time, Hessian mercenaries to George III, labeling them as his “proxies.” They were all to be considered “strangers,” even though blacks (enslaved and free) had lived among white Americans for years and, in spite of the many conflicts with Native peoples, whites and Indians did not only meet in battles. They were not unknown to one another. British overtures to Indians and blacks were, according to Benjamin Franklin, enough to “dissolve all Allegiance” with the Mother Country.
Franklin made up stories about groups being used by the British—proxies—and worked with Lafayette to prepare a book (never published) with illustrations for “children and Posterity” detailing British abuses of Americans. Of the twenty-six proposed illustrations—we have Franklin’s suggested twenty and Lafayette’s six in their own hands—many revolve around proxies. Lafayette suggested an illustration showing “prisoners being ‘Roasted for a great festival where the Canadian Indians are eating American flesh.’” He also proposed a scene depicting “British officers” taking the “opportunity of corrupting Negroes and Engaging them to desert from the house, to Robb, and even to Murder they [sic] Masters.” Britain’s military mercenaries, the Hessians, were not depicted. Americans today often speak of racial prejudice as a thing that simply exists—like air—with no nod to the actual work it takes to create and maintain systems based upon prejudice. Parkinson homes in on that work: what it took in the 1770s to stoke racial hostility and keep it in place.
Patriot leaders helped spread the racially based narrative of a common cause through newspapers, the “most advanced method of communication of the age.” They planted stories and supplied letters and other documents to make the case. This material was not placed on the front pages, which were directed at “elite colonists”—containing political and cultural writings—or the back pages, which carried advertisements. It was placed in “the interior of the newspaper[s], where the bulk of the actual news appeared,” a place, Parkinson argues, that has received insufficient attention from historians of the Revolution. These pages were made up of reports gathered through the newspaper exchange system by which publications shared news of events in cities and towns throughout the colonies. Before the Revolution, they were filled with stories from “the eastern side of the Atlantic.” Once the Revolution and the war started, the exchanges were nearly always concerned with intercolony affairs.
The importance of these papers for “propagating” the common cause was clear from the start.* By “the summer of 1775,” the “majority” of the stories on the inside of colonial newspapers were about “the role African Americans and Indians might play in the burgeoning war.” While historians have focused much attention on George Washington’s going to Cambridge to head the Continental Army, the real story of 1775, Parkinson says, was the “hundreds of smaller messages” that were pushed through colonial newspapers about the threat that blacks and Indians, allegedly under the total control of the British, posed to patriot lives. These messages continued throughout the war.
The patriots did have cause for concern about some blacks and Indians. Many enslaved people saw the war as an opportunity to gain their freedom, while many free blacks saw fighting in the war on the American side as a way to prove their patriotism. Great books have been written about these men, which Parkinson duly acknowledges. The offer of Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, to free men enslaved by patriots in return for their military service inflamed white colonists and brought scores of blacks to the British side. And some Native Americans, long accustomed to playing European power politics, sided with the British. Patriot leaders “worked assiduously to make this the foundation of why colonists should support resistance [to the British] and, eventually, independence.” They did so despite the fact that other blacks and Indians fought alongside white patriots, and more would have done so had the patriots been willing to put more of them in uniform.
Parkinson shows, however, that the newspapers did not circulate stories about black and Indian patriots:
Unless Americans watched the army march by, they had scarcely any idea that there were hundreds of African Americans and Indian soldiers serving under Washington’s command. Even though the Continental Army would be the most integrated army the United States would field until the Vietnam War, most Americans had little knowledge of their service in fighting for the common cause.
Items about blacks acting as soldiers in the British army and of Indian massacres (often in retaliation for massacres committed by whites) were regularly reported, and some of the stories about the Indians’ depredations were hoaxes.
There was no sorting of African-Americans and Indians into “good” or “bad.” Members of those groups could never be “good” no matter what they did, because they could never be white. Things were different for the Hessian mercenaries, also hated as “proxies.” Feared and reviled in the newspapers as “men monsters” when they arrived in America, the tune about the Hessians changed during the war. After Washington soundly defeated them at the Battle of Trenton, these white men were gradually transformed into sympathetic victims of the British. Eventually they were offered permanent places—land—in the new country they had tried to prevent from coming into being. There would be no redemption for their fellow “proxies.” Nor could the patriots undo what they had done in marking blacks and Indians “as alien” and “unfit to fully belong as members of the new republic.”
If Americans know how the patriots’ rhetoric of the common cause exploited fears about the “proxies” of George III, it is likely because of Jefferson’s recitation, at the end of the Declaration of Independence, of the monarch’s “long train of abuses.” These included “transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death,” inciting “domestic insurrections amongst us,” and endeavoring “to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages.” Parkinson sees that language, and the other grievances, as central to the patriots’ cause. In his view,
the Declaration was an effort to draw a line between friends and enemies, between “us” and “them”—or…between “we” [the Americans] and “he” [the King].
It is the “first assertion of an ‘American people.’”
While the language of grievance was central to the patriots’ cause, that is not the language that has moved generations the world over:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Parkinson insists that “the most important two words in the Declaration are not about equality or happiness.” The most important words are “he” and “we,” speaking of King George and the American people, the opposing forces to which the common cause addressed itself. But that is true only if the Declaration is, as some originalists and textualists say of the United States Constitution, a “dead” thing that can only bear the meaning given by the people who wrote it, and we can never move beyond their intentions—and their limitations.
Whatever one wants to believe about the Constitution, the course of American history shows that the Declaration is alive. Seeing the document’s pronouncements about equality and happiness as living and important—as our guiding light to progress—offers the best chance we have of vanquishing the continuing effects of the mischief Parkinson so ably describes in his very important book.