Benjamin Carp: Rebels Rising

rebels.jpgIt is a Monday, and I thought you guys might be interested in some cross-disciplinary posting. (My Friday fun post having left you “baffled”.) So I invited Benjamin L. Carp, an Assistant Professor of History at Tufts University, to write up a little review of his new (and well-received) book from Oxford Press, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. Ben has previously written articles on firefighters (sub. req.), nationalism (sub. req.), and the destruction of New York City (sub. req.) Ben’s comments on the book, which may intrigue ahistorical law prof types enough to motivate a purchase, follow after the jump.

About a month ago, Nate Oman wrote a neat post entitled Why I Read History. He wrote in particular that history (though it implies something temporal) helps him to find a “sense of place.”

I liked Oman’s post, since it echoes the goals I had while researching and writing Rebels Rising. I was interested in the politics of the Revolutionary movement, and I wanted to tell a story of the Revolution that conveyed a “sense of place.” Rebels Rising looks at the coming of the American Revolution in the cities: it settings include the Boston waterfront, New York City taverns, Newport churches (and synagogue), Charleston households, and the State House and State House Yard in Philadelphia (now Independence Hall and Independence Square).

Although late colonial American cities were small (the largest, Philadelphia, may have had fewer than 40,000 people), they were still dense, pluralistic places—hubs of communication and exchange. Cities, therefore, offered unique opportunities for political activity and the formation of political coalitions. A look at political mobilization helps to reveal how and where the Revolution unfolded, not just when and why.

The shape of Revolutionary debates was hotly contested. At a mass meeting in the State House Yard on June 18, 1774, the Reverend Dr. William Smith (the first head of what became the University of Pennsylvania) asked that “every person may be allowed to speak his mind freely, and to conclude what he has to offer, without any such outward marks of approbation or disapprobation, as clapping or hissing.” Smith was right to worry, because when the meeting’s chairmen announced a slate of candidates for a committee of correspondence, the crowd asked “what right they had to dictate.”

Because of this discomfort with noisy, disorderly debates, the stuffy Pennsylvania Assembly had long asserted the right to close the doors of its meetings. Newspaper writers had attacked “the absurd and tyrannical custom of shutting the Assembly doors against you, whose interest and right it is to enter whenever you think it necessary to your security.” Yet even Benjamin Franklin, in 1764, had been part of an Assembly committee that defended Pennsylvania’s restrictions on public debates. When Pennsylvania’s radicals adopted a new constitution in 1776, it mandated that “The Doors of the . . . General Assembly, shall be and remain open for the Admission of all persons, who behave decently except only when the welfare of this State may require the doors to be shut.” Whether it was a dockside riot, a tavern debate, a boycott on tea, or a continent-wide fast day, expressions of political mobilization were subject to challenge.

These challenges raised a variety of interesting questions. In the face of an unresponsive legislature, what were the effects of politics “out of doors”? What were the benefits and risks of suddenly throwing open the doors to debate? When mobilizing for rebellion, how far would the limits of the civic community extend? At a time when Senator Barack Obama is emphasizing his roots as a community organizer and Americans are arguing over when “the welfare of this State” justifies limits on free speech, I think it’s interesting to take a look at how city dwellers of the 1770s organized a political movement along with their neighbors.

By the end of the Revolutionary War, Americans were already forgetting (or deemphasizing) the contributions of the cities to the Revolution. The Founders framed the Constitution and chose the location of the capital during a time when Americans regarded the cities with distrust and distaste. Whether this explains anything about subsequent political and legal structures with regard to cities, I leave for others to judge. This is a book on the court of public opinion—from the courthouse to the pub across the street—and how it shaped the American republic.

Good stuff! Go ahead, spend a few bucks and learn something new. Oh, and if you are a reader of this blog, and a professor in another discipline who has a new book out that you think would interest our readers, drop me a line. Maybe we can make this a regular feature: “scholarship by people who don’t need to bluebook.”

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