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Breen, T.H. Page 1 of 6
T.H. Breen, American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (New York, NY: Hill and Wang,
Ibidem KW: Revolution; Bottom-up; U.S.; Early American Comps; Jesse Lemisch;
Ibidem Annotation: In this book, T.H. Breen discusses the importance of small community action during the
American Revolution. The main argument of this essay is to hold that the Revolutionary War was not dictated by
high politics but the actions of small local communities. He holds that local communities were well-aware of the
importance of autonomy. So as movements happened against the Northeast ideals were able to spread and small
communities throughout the colonies were able to rebel and establish local extra-governmental stability.
TH Breen BA Yale 1964, MA Yale 1966 and Oxford 2001, Yale 1968.
Taught at Yale and then Northwestern.
Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of Revolution
Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence
Imagining The Past: East Hampton Histories
The Character of the Good Ruler: A Study of Puritan Political Ideas in New England, 1630-1730
With Stephen Innes, “Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore (Oxford, 1980)
Is this work too common sensical? We try to correct for this premise in our classes but we still tend to be too
Intent: What is the intent of the work?
The intent of this work is to correct the historiography of the American Revolution.
Thesis: What is the main argument?
The main argument of this essay is to hold that the Revolutionary War was not dictated by high politics but the
actions of small local communities. He holds that local communities were well-aware of the importance of
autonomy. So as movements happened against the Northeast ideals were able to spread and small communities
throughout the colonies were able to rebel and establish local extra-governmental stability.
Historiography: What is it dealing with? What is it using?
While not mentioned, I am wondering to what degree this fits into Ben Anderson’s Imagine Communities. It seems
like communication allows for the development of stable American community far before 1776. Mainly deals with
David Armitage The Ideological Origins of the British Empire, Breen holds that people could recognize that they
were British, Commerce, Maritime, and Free. So when autonomy attacked, they were able to conceptulize. Also
works with history of printing, politics of insurgency, and religous appeals. Also very clearly this is a response to
Jesse Lemisch’s call for history of the American Revolution from the top-up.
Audience: Who is the audience?
Scholars of the American Revolution.
Why is the contribution important?
It is very important in that it contrasts with popular view of top-down view history.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Its main strengths are its ability to show how small countrysides very active prior to the traditional timeline of
Revolution. It particularly argues that Lexington and Concord in April of 1775 marked the point when Americans
knew that independence was necessary. The weakness is the lumping of importance on to religous aspect. In
arguing that small community members expressed their dissatisfaction with the British through local religious
infighting. This tends to be weak because while dissatisfaction manifest itself through religious infighting, yet it
was only a single thread of the conflict over autonomy.
Breen, T.H. Page 2 of 6
In the “Introduction: The Revolutionary World of Matthew Patten,” T.H. Breen outlines why historians
should account for populist version of Revolutionary War. The war was not dictated by high political thoughts but
the actions of small local communities. “Two years before the Declaration of Independence, a young, evangelical
colonial population accomplished something truly extraordinary.” (Breen:3) Small communities from North to
South challenged parlimentary rule. “American insurgents resisted parliamentary rule, first spontaneously, as loosely
organized militants who purged the countryside of officials, and then, increasingly after late 1774, as members of
local committees of safety that became schools for revolution.” (Breen:3)
Matthew Patten as one of the insurgents of this era. The term ‘insurgents’ used by contemporaries then to
describe those who openly defied parliamentary acts. Patriots that led upcoming independence recipients of
insurgencies efforts. “By restoring the insurgents to the story we tell ourselves about the nation’s origins, we gain
greater appreciation of the achievements of the patriots.” (Breen:4) Patten came to NE in 1728 from Ulster. He
was Scots-Irish but lumped into the Irish category. Moved to small New Hampshire town to farm and trap, fish,
speculate, etc. Only thing that made him distinct was his diary. Important because it shows what marginal
families that the cause of America was (Breen:5). Some of the time clearly identified the American revolution as
Ireland’s rebellion in America. Patten came in conflict with John Houston (his Presbyterian minister). Matthew
and family pushed more egalitarian views there at the time. Matthew challenged preists authority. First
insurgencies here occur shortly after the passage of Coercive Acts, where expecting to harrass a Tory from nearby
town. Also challenged men against electing people to Continental Congress. Local Newspapers affirm this. This
action was his political baptism. On reception of the news of Concord on April 19, 1775, Patten’s accepts armed
violence after hearing of great loss. His sons and daughters join the war effort after this moment. Sons fought
while he focused on local things. “Esquire” as a term for Tories (Breen:9). “Through the lens of Patten’s diary we
witness insurgency in small scattered communities - communities that could not claim ot have been the birthplace of
a single celebrated Founding Father - evolving into a genuine war against Great Britain.” (Breen:9) Within diary
also get reactions of family to hearing of death of child at war.
From current vantage point we can recognize Patten family as patriots. Because of our incessant focus on
leaders, these experiences tend to get glossed over. These stories need to be restored to give us more insight to our
own political culture. Revolution began actually in 1774, when people found it necessary to take up arms against
British. While politics partly obscured by fear and resentment in dictating insurgents actions. Tom Paine and
Reverand Nathan Fiske noted this as the calculus for insurgency. “Those who today torture the revolutionary
record by trying to transform these people into partisans for narrow and selfish causes - as if the sole purpose of the
Revolution was the avoidance of taxation - insult the memory of those who once imagined a more just and equitable
structure of government.” (Breen:12) People flooded governmental positions to form effective political resistance.
This populist history of the Revolution raises questions about mobilization and
commitment. Discussions about insurgency taking place in secret in the 1774 and 1776, tend to subvert traditional
feelings on revolution. While the move to political resistance slow, armed resistance even slower. Gage
complained about meeting regular farmers on the battlefield. Gage often exagerated that these people partook in
harsh and cruel actions. Yet this was exageration. Often times harsh cruelty, unitenentially came from general
acts of political warning. But even in some of these cases, court cases resulted. Even important symbolic events
of demanding Tories surrender their colors.
Insurgency in small towns forced the hand of delegates in late 1774, making their policies more radical.
Even then PA and SC resistance to ignore NE support. What resulted was charity effort to drum up support and
material. “The key to expanding the insurgency was communication.” (Breen:17) Second stage of insurgency
channeled into a liberation effort. Holds that this period could have easily turned into a bloodbath a la French
Revolution. Local communities and communities of safety establish local infrastructure and governance. Ideology
of insurgents. It does not have to be intellectual or philosophical but many sure that “they possessed basic, God
given rights that protected them from arbitrary rule.” (Breen:19) Many people turned to the Crisis as a religious
justification for war against British.
In “Chapter 1: The Face of Colonial Society,” T.H. Breen discusses the strata that the insurgents came
from. These insurgents were free white farmers with general impression of rights in the British empire. Hannah
Leighton obscure person from Acton MA. Memory of 1775, as a mother caring for several young sick infants
(Canker-rash). Husband (Isaac Davis) captain of Acton Minutemen. Led men into Concord as being attacked.
Concord anxious for her, her husband killed at Concord. “For the people of nineteenth-century Acton, Isaac was a
hero, a patriot who had died defending American rights and liberty.”(Breen:23) Lexington and Concord brought
Breen, T.H. Page 3 of 6
Americans into the reasoning of violent action needed. Salem Reverand John Cleaveland held that vengence will
not be satisfied until ‘blood is shed.’ (Breen:24)
Insurgency goes missing in our account of ordinary people. Insurgency largely comes from white farm
families. Large population boom took place before the Revolution. Insurgents tended to be so young that did not
really participate in earlier events with the English (ie French and Indian or Stamp Act). Men were from small
town communities and active in the communities. Also these communities had access to a great deal of
manufactured goods. “When push came to shove in local matters, ordinary Americans certainly had no
compunction about aggressively speaking out for what they had regarded as their just rights.” (Breen:29) The
people of dependent classes never really appealed for equality. Ownership of land fed farmer’s sense of
independence (even squatters asserted this importance). Most families caught up in the revolution children of the
Great Awakening. Revivals led to tensions within the communities, over the proper structure of community and
power. “The British Empire, the colonists fervently insisted, brought liberty and prosperity to all the king’s
subjects.” (Breen:36) Protestantism also defining. Commerce also important. While fan of monarch, “Americans
took for granted the notion that power derived ultimately from the people.” (Breen:40) Imperial officials then
tended to be on thin ground.
Prior to 1760 nothing indicated a break with Britain. 1774 and 1775, still referred to as Civil War.
Colonists did not accept the fact that they were rebels, regardless of joining the insurgency. British realized the
ability to whip people into fever to shutdown imperial government. Many realized that their ranks were growing in
numbers leading up to Lexington and Concord (Breen:46).
Samuel Thompson in Brunswick, ME. In 1774, led group of vigilantes pushing American cause. On
hearing about Lexington and Concord, led group to take HMS Canceaux near Portland. Captured the comander and
challenged British to bombard town for commander. The people of the town begged him to leave, Thompson and
his men left ransacking the town though. While disliked for bringing instability during the war, won multiple
elections and positions after.
In “Chapter 2: Ghost Stories in a Time of Political Crisis,” T.H. Breen discusses how the news of the
Boston Massacre worked through communications sytems to raise political angst. Civil disobedience began during
the summer of 1774. Not in urban centers but countryside. Tea party uniting but in round about way. The
Coercive acts and occupying army . “Colonists believed that the punishment for the Tea Party was totally out of
proportion to the alleged crime.” (Breen:53) The attack on traditional rights made people all over have a radical
awakening of political consciousness.
Americans found it hard to sever their political identity from the British Crown. A story originating in
1774, Gentlemen shaken by angel, devil, and ghost. Sort of like a xmas story but related to politics and the way the
effected contemporaries.
British officials not corrupt but part of a British upperclass (Breen:59). Colonists not fans of virtual
representation. North and other British politicians convinced themselves that Americans had begun to foment their
own radical agenda (Breen:62). North initially wanted to proceed by dragging Boston ringleaders to London for
show trials. But lawyers said he had no grounds. Instead he worked out Coercive or Intolerable acts. Port Act
passed March 31, 1774 closing the port until June 1. May 20, Massachussetts Government Act dissolving
representatives. Edmund Burke opposed Lord North’s policies (Breen:68).
Gage arrived May 13, 1774. Before he arrived to enforce different acts Americans already heard the news
and contemplated resistance (Breen:72). Popular anger focused on Thomas Hutchinson. “Sometimes appeals for
resistance appeared in the form of a secular catechism.” (Breen:74)
In “Chapter 3: Revenge of the Countryside,” T.H. Breen discusses the importance of the actions of people
in the countryside before actual physical warfare. This should not be construed as fitting the intellectual rebellion,
in that this peaceful take over of power had no precedent at the time. Ordinary people were insulted by the
punishment on all. With British occupation gave Americans conception as second class citizens (Breen:79). This
manifest itself in many different ways: boycotts and vigilantes. “Calls for a congress of representatives from all of
Britain’s thirteen mainland colonies offered another fairly undemanding form of resistance.” (Breen:82) Focus here
misguided because undermines more subversive attempts in local places. Tax resistance and colonial militias. In
many ways anonymity was the name of the game but some personalities did shine through. Use of newspapers to
convey what groups active or semi-active in resistance important becuase shows ability to resist transcending
August 1774, small farmers took it into their own hand to dismantle colonial authority around occupied
Boston. Gage could not send troops outside of Boston (because he had too few). Taking or forced resignation of
Breen, T.H. Page 4 of 6
office from public officials by ‘the people’. These upset traditional narrative and are a mistake to view as
inconsequential. The relative lack of violence is not as important as the precendent of the people demanding
authority or to challenge royal leaders (Breen:98).
In “Chapter 4: Reaching Out to Others,” T.H. Breen discusses communication networks in the colonies.
One wonders why we people (from other regions) did not condemn these people as troublemakers, as Tories did.
“The success of the Americans in reaching out to one another owed a lot to the creation of effective networks of
communication.” (Breen:99) “Newspapers-a relatively innovative form of communication in eighteenth-century
provincial society - helped persuade colonial readers that no matter where they happened to live, they had a personal
stake at what occured in Boston.” (Breen:99) This created a shared experience. This shared experience means that
it did not have to be intellectual for everyone to get on board. Knowledge of the Coercive acts and accounts of
people who did not seem too unlike nieghbors allowed them to live through Boston.
“By creating a foundation of shared experience, newspapers played a key role in sustaining the American
insurgency.” (Breen:101) Newspapers relatively new to 18th century US. Often times contained list of goods and
governmental decrees. Stamp Act backfired in that it created a demand for knowledge. So 42 newspapers in
operation by 1770. As people wanted more politics, the newspapers met the demand. “They made not attempt to
accurately to report what was happening in Parliament or at the court of George III. Rather, more like partisan
peices found in editorial sections of modern newspapers, they exposed the conspiracies and moral corruption
allegedly to be found in the imperial capital.” (Breen:102) Hard to guage how critical people read this.
Goddard promotes a more effective postal system (distributing newspapers) as a way to resist. By 1774, he was
able to promote postal system taking advantage of the idea that Americans already had common insterests.
Americans also used this system to provide humanitarian aid to Boston and reply back. These
humanitarian efforts had to go through overseeing distribution committee. While there were still issues on who
recieved and who deserved funds by both donators and distributors it continued and required massive cooperation.
Goods particularly went to the unemployed working classes. Not only a donation of goods but raising of monies
too. “The astonishingly positive response to the needs of Boston’s poor marked the moment when mony ordinary
people, from Georgia to New Hampshire, openly cast their lot with resistance.” (Breen:121) Colonists lived in
fairly integrated society. All of this connection happened 2 years prior to Continental Congress.
In “Chapter 5: The Power of Rumor: The Day the British Destroyed Boston,” T.H. Breen...Continental
Congress had no idea to handle what was going on initially. Congressmen learned that British forces had destroyed
Suffolk Resolves (September 17, 1774). Radical resolves from around Boston delivered by Paul Revere.
It was extreme in that it implied that people could decide for selves to obey British rule and then a responisbility to
defend rights and liberties. Loyalists abhorred as congress endorsed them. This is not simply a political fluke.
“A rising of unprecedented size alerted congressional leaders that the people were quite capable of making their own
history.” (Breen:132)
Early accounts of British bombardment of Boston vague. Delegates unsure of extent. Describes it as time
stopping. “Rumors of bombardment soon gave way to much more unsettling reports from New England that a huge
American army intent upon revenge was prepared to settle the imperial dispute without waing for directions from
Congress.” (Breen:134) British officials moved to Boston and fed information. Gage captures gunpowder from
Charlestown. Summer of 1774 Benjamin Hallowell (customs commissioner) chased through town by those
pressuring for Oliver to resign his office. Hallowell came into military camp accounting how thousands of men
would soon be in town. Questions as to whether Gage would engage and the amounts he would meet spread
throughout the NE. This sparked random and mass mobilization. “The ordinary people of southern New England
most emphatically did not regar their response to the false alarm as an embarrassing blunder The entire episode particularly the spontaneous mobilization of so many men - generated an exhilirating sense of pride.” (Breen:149)
The sheer size of an imagined insurgent forec became the measure of success. This news also importnat because
reached communities that had few ties to Boston itself - who then decided to unite with them.
For delegates the non-leveling of Boston not as big concern as NEers taking power into their own hands.
Many account of how people raised up and quited by rumors, in Boston. Again not good to dismiss this, “Rather,
by restoring the people to the history of their own resistance, we rediscover a complex interplay between the
deliberations that took place in Carpenters’ Hall and what was happeing on the ground.” (Breen:156)
Gage aware of insurgent abilitiy to mobilize and feret out the friends of government. The British did not
even have the power to pretend to help. MA men wanted to remove the earthwork fortifications of the British that
Breen, T.H. Page 5 of 6
they could not defend. Men also wanted to quit Boston. In reporting to London, Earl of Dartmouth (Secretary of
State of the Colonies) tended to downplay the cohesiveness of resistance.
In “Chapter 6: The Association: The Second Stage of Insurgency,” T.H. Breen discusses the Association
(boycott) and how establishing means of enforcing created top-down and bottom-up authority. “Instead of causing
the revolution to dissipate or run amok, creative tensions between local militants and continental leaders produced a
brilliant structure that at once legitimated Congress’s leadership and authorized the people to sustain, define, and
channel the insurgency within their own communities.” (Breen:160) Congress’s endorsment of a general boycott
(called the Association) important because allowed locals to feed passion into local project and endorse the larger.
John Adams own account tended to obscure the reality of demographics during the war. Insurgents and Congress
had fundemental agreement on revolutionary goals. Local trials of people was not bloodletting but meant to
frighten authorities and loyalists. Association not only support but penalties for those that abused it. Article 11 of
14 in the Association divested enforcement in local people voted on from locals. This was not top-down in that
these committees required support from above and below to actually carry things out. Local places interpreted this
not only as plan to disrupt trade but a foundational document (Breen:172). These committees became the training
grounds for leadership. Many quick to recognize that. Concern that these efforts were in preperations for rebellion
with multiple troops. While all extra-legal even the most violent (threats made with weapons meant to scare).
In “Chapter 7: Schools of Revolution,” T.H. Breen discusses how the Association transformed to political
issues. “These networks amplified and reinforced a shared sense of common purpose. Long before Continental
Congress declared independence, comittees spoke to Americans of an imagined collectivity - a country of the mind and so, by aggressively monitoring popular alegiance to a common cause, they laid the foundation for a shared
indentity that later generations would celebrate as nationalism.” (Breen:185) They commitees moved from shuning
economic cooperation (boycott-abusers) to political (loyalists). “The comittees served as powerful schools of
revolution.” (Breen:186)
Wilmington, NC Committee of Safety slow to move becoming revolutionary. Early on did not really
punish judiciously. On March 6, 1775, the committee begins to move due to a number of reasons. “Whatever
procedures were adopted, the towns and counties throughout America encouraged expanding the traditional pool of
people involved in local political affairs.” (Breen:198) With this increased participation, there was not really a
concern that they could develop into local authoritarian structures. Mrs. Washington in Philly and a ball was to be
held where she was invited. Comittee there refused to back down and told people to shutdown the excess
entertainment. By May 1775, most of these associations were transcending beyond simple economic coercion.
Important to this whole association experience was that locals actively participated in obeying them.
In “Chapter 8: Insurgents in Power,” T.H. Breen talks about how local committees handled governance.
How did insurgents resist violence? Abuse of power is not really too evident there. “However messy the
enforcement of revolutionary mandates was on the ground, the committes struggled to observe rough forms of due
process and judicial procedure.” (Breen:208) “Considering the extrodinary popular rage generated by the imperial
controversy, it is striking that committes throughout America strove so hard to mobilize resistance within familiar
legal and administrative frameworks.” (Breen:208) Things went through less disruptive bureaucratic means. Uses
Worcester, MA as the example. Crisis develops over who is on Committees, protest develops yet no violence
Committees often checked violations against witnesses before acted. Even actions built in whereby if
involved in a case, members could step down. They often quagmired investigations when it was a potential
explosive situation. Reconciliation allowed; however, needed to be noncoerced. As armed resistance happened
these committees increasingly became revolutionary governments. James Rivington’s New York Gazetteer as a
well-run staunch supporter of British Crown. Crowds and Committees thought things too dangerous to read and
publically pushed censorship. But in theory still supported freedom of press. Press was able to print. Rivington
appealled to Continental Congress but they did not hold power. After Lexington and Concord, efforts shifted to
disarming those that did not support the Revolution.
In “Chapter 9: An Appeal to Heaven: Religion and Rights,” T.H. Breen...There is no question that
insurgents shared views on liberty and rights that priveleged British and Americans had. After Lexington and
Concord and before George Washington arrived, General Israel Putnam unfurled a flag with the motto “AN
APPEAL TO HEAVEN.” Representative of Locke’s Second Treatise. Locke regained popularity in 1773 in the
Breen, T.H. Page 6 of 6
colonies and a new publication would ahve been available for people of NE. Importance of this whole thing was
that it was regular people advancing this.
“Popular political thought in insurgent America began with an imagined contract.” (Breen:249) God
important to give people their divine rights. Often times these rights framed as property and sanctity. Important
here is that this all tied to an idea of a common good. “In small communities throughout America, insurgents
carefully weighted the evidence of misrule, looking for signs that British authorities had in fact systemically and
irrevocably betrayed fundamental rights.” (Breen:254) Conspiracy theories resonated here. The Crisis released in
1775 aimportantly expressed concerns to ordinary Americans (Breen:262). Printed in London to inform the English
people that the balance of the empie hung in the balance. Condemned for offending the King. This then came to
the Americas in late spring 1775. “Newspaper editores throughout America recognized immediately that these
essays - more than any other publication then available - explained to colonial readers not only who was to blame in
Britian for the oppressive imperial policies but also what they must now do to save their country.” (Breen:268)
This spread the idea of Royal conspiracy on God-given rights and liberties accross American political landscape.
Essay reminds people of authority in the people, it imagined a grand union, and it sanctioned violence against a state
stripping people of their rights. “What we must remember is that before ordinary Americans could address national
independence, before they could contemplate seriously the formation fo a new republican government, they had to
accept the legitimacy of insurgent violence.” (Breen:274)
In “Chapter 10: Endgames of Empire,” T.H. Breen...What results from this is two different but
complimentary ideas: April 19, 1775 (Lexington and Concord) or July 4, 1776. This was the first time that they
realized they were no longer British subjects. Another time is when British officially left America.
Lexington and Concord not really a surprise to people that lived in the countryside. Gages men instructed
him on the American mindset; but, he ignored and in this march initiated war. Intellegence men Captain John
Brown and Ensign Henry De Berniere. They were challenged at every turn. Under pressure, Gage pressed ahead.
For Americans this validated views of the British as cruel (Breen:278). The other important thing was that this
defense was not to defend small town but an American way of life. Common identity emerges. As popular
outrage grew people took charge of their own Revoluiton (Breen:281). American press reports were in London
before Gages official reports.
“The spontaneous rising of the ordinary people in support of other Americans marked the end of an
imperial order that the colonists had know for more than a century.” (Breen:287) Popular resistance also clear for
agents of the empire. In 1775, British Authority broke down in the entire Atlantic coast. Taking of forts
important. Also symbols of the governors’s retreats. The July 4th date, suggests that many Americans were
spectators in the intial parts of the American Revolution. Even with cutoff lines of standard communication
“newspapers reported the activities of distant strangers.” (Breen:300) “Through the crucible of confrontation that
stretched from years of resistance to Britain’s eventual capitulalation, American insurgents emerged as American
patriots.” (Breen:300)