by T. H. Breen
Cambridge, Ma.: The Belknap Press, of Harvard University Press, 2019. Pp. viii, 262.
Notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0674971795
What Drove the Patriots?
The Will of the People is an inquiry into the thoughts and actions of ordinary Americans during the revolutionary era, by a noted historian of the colonial period and early republic, demonstrating, among other things, that despite the widely held belief that the Patriots were in arms over taxation, that was not their gripe. Ultimately, Prof. Breen (Northwestern) argues, it was the acceptance by most of the ordinary citizens, as a class used to self-government, of the need for resistance to the violations of “the rights of Englishmen” by the Crown (i.e., not “No taxation!” but “No taxation, without representation!”), and ultimately, the need for independence, that was the critical factor in uniting them to secure independence and in the success of the Republic that emerged from it.
During the Revolutionary War, the people, most of them anyway, agreed that the Crown had violated their rights as Englishmen, and as a result supported the actions of the “Founders”, enlisted in the Continental Army and Navy, turned out in the militia, kept internal security, and more.
Breen makes several interesting observations. For example, he very tellingly uses the word “Creole” to describe the colonists, Britons born in the Americas and thus not genuinely true Britons, that lay at the root of tensions between the colonists and the Crown, a phenomenon found in other colonies as well; the leaders of the wars for Independence across Latin America and in many other colonies were also “Creoles”. Although even at that time, some British political thinkers on both sides of the pond suggested what we would call “dominion status” for the colonies, the notion was rejected. Yet had George III sent one of his sons to America to convene a regional parliament to legislate for the colonies and hand out a few titles, would the Revolution have occurred?
The Will of the People not only helps us better understand America in the Revolutionary era, but it also reminds us that popular consensus underpins the success of the Republic, and needs to be preserved.
Note: The Will of the People is also available in several e-editions.
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