The Unknown American Revolution
Gary B. Nash, 2005

This was a popular history by a UCLA professor who specialized in women, Indians and African Americans in history. The book reflected this focus, and yet still seemed to dwell excessively on the names you’d find in any old-fashioned political history. I grabbed a bunch of things that pertained to my interests and added a bunch more books he referred to, to my queue of titles.

Nash mentioned that George Lippard (1822-1854) was called out for embellishing his histories with legend or things he just made up. He defended his attempt to personalize the story, saying that official history or the “thing that generally passes for History is the most insolent, swaggering bully, the most graceless braggart, the most reckless equivocator that ever staggered forth on the great stage of the world.” You can’t really argue with that.

The Great Awakening, in Nash’s telling, was “a search for new sources of authority, new principles of action, new foundations of hope” (quoting William G. McLoughlin). “The Awakeners preached that the old sources of authority were too effete to solve the problems of the day, too encrusted with tradition, self-indulgence, hypocrisy, and intellectualism to bring a sense of hope and faith to a generation that was witnessing the transformation of the world.” In what ways was their world being transformed, that were more alarming to them than to others? All the listed problems would have been equally recognizable to infidels. Was the Awakening really a reaction of people who wanted to remain religious, to increasingly credible critiques from outside?

George Whitefield’s message was that “God did not work through the elite corps of learned clergy and their aristocratic allies. Rather…through the inner light…The message was one of social leveling, for it put all people on one footing insofar as the conversion experience was concerned.” This argument was also played out in the English Civil War and countless other times in Christian history (but the Levellers lost). It explains how Jonathan Edwards could be socially democratic and theologically ultra-conservative, because the evidence of grace had to be based on some measure, if not on material success.

“Virginia’s ruling class had another reason to fear and oppose religious enthusiasm: It held great appeal for the enslaved.”

Ethan Allen: New York attorney general John Tabor Kempe won a court victory over the Hampshire Grants. “Allen later wrote that Attorney General Kempe took him aside in a tavern the night of the court decision and tried to get him to convince his farmer friends to leave the area or recognize that they had new landlords. Said Kempe—at least in Allen’s recollection— ‘We have might on our side, and you know that might often prevails against right.’ Allen claims he replied, ‘The gods of the hills are not the gods of the valley,’ indicating that the New England farmers would not give up their lands without a fight.” There was some truth to this, at least for some. Ethan’s cousins Lamberton and Samuel Allen refused to sign loyalty oaths after Shays’s Rebellion and left Ashfield and Deerfield for Vermont.

“The New York Riot Act, which Allen promptly called the ‘Bloody Act,’ specified that an assembly of three or more persons with ‘unlawful intent’ would be subjected to the provisions of the law, which included capital punishment for infractions such as destroying fences and outhouses and burning haystacks. With the Continental Congress about to assemble in Philadelphia, Allen defiantly wrote to [Governor] Tryon that ‘We shall more than three, nay more than three times three hundred, assemble together if need be to maintain our common cause’ and promised that ‘Printed sentences of death will not kill us…We will kill and destroy any persons, whomsoever, that shall presume to be accessory, aiding or assisting, in taking any of us’.”

“The Baptist religious revolution of the 1760s was far more subversive than the Presbyterian revivalism of the 1740s and 1750s because it challenged gentry values and their social order more sharply and reached even lower into the social order for its recruits. It was all the more subversive because almost all Baptist preachers were unschooled farmers or artisans—men drawn from ‘Christ’s poor’.” I saw this in “River God” Israel Williams’s tirade against Baptist preachers Chileab and Ebenezer Smith of Ashfield and their church.

“Vermont’s constitution went farther than Pennsylvania’s in several respects: it provided unrestricted manhood suffrage without even a taxpayer qualification; made all judges elective; gave special protection to debtors; and declared all slaves free, without compensation to their owners…The abolitionist principal received real application when Yale-trained David Avery arrived in Bennington to assume the pulpit of the Congregational church in 1779. There he found that his congregation refused to commune with him because he owned a female slave. Encouraged by Ethan Allen, the woman sued for her freedom.”

“New York’s legislature went so far as to threaten to withdraw from the war against England unless Congress took ‘speedy and vigorous measures for reducing them [the Vermonters] to an obedience’.”

“In many respects, the New York constitution was the most conservative passed by the states…it lacked a bill of rights… Ira Allen, Ethan’s youngest brother, carried the constitutions of New York and Vermont from town to town in the Green Mountains region in 1777, inviting the citizens to compare them carefully…Forty towns in the region endorsed Vermont’s constitution while rejecting New York’s as perversely undemocratic.”

Theophilus Parsons’ Essex Result was a criticism of the [already ultra-conservative] draft for the Mass constitution, claiming it didn’t do enough to protect the wealthy against democracy.

“Reconvening to count the votes in early June 1780, the convention declared that the requisite two-thirds of the voters had given their approval…they had a constitution. But it was not a constitution that they had actually approved. Of 290 towns returning votes…only 42 accepted it without amendment…nearly half of them rejected the constitution because it strangled the voice of the people at large in favor of a government controlled by the elite…The constitution, wrote [Joseph] Hawley violated ‘the natural, essential and inalienable right’ of every freeman to vote and hold office.”

John Hancock was elected governor. One of his first acts was to receive the resignations of two militia captains, Samuel Talbot and Lemuel Gay, who had been disenfranchised by the new Massachusetts constitution’s property requirements in the course of fighting in the Revolution. Their small farms had dwindled while they were away fighting. They said “We can no longer with truth encourage our fellow soldiers, who are so poor as to be thus deprived of their fundamental rights, that they are fighting for their own freedom; and how can an officer possessed of the generous feelings of humanity detach any of them into a service in which they are not interested.” They refused to lead men to fight for “a form of government…that appears repugnant to the principals of freedom.” Whose revolution indeed?