In his recent review of Kevin Phillips’s 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, Jack Rakove argues that in tackling the causes of independence, “Phillips deals with political loyalties more fundamental than the mere matter of party allegiance.” The inference is clear—deciding to be a member or an activist for a political party is one thing; but your nationality is something that defines you in perpetuity. Once revolutionaries chose to take on the label ‘American’, there was no turning back. It was who they were; while that American identity might be complex and multifaceted, there is something about ‘national character’ that stands above the rough and tumble of party politics.
This strikes me as a misguided view of national identity in the revolution, not least because in the early stages of the revolution, American partisans were not defined by national labels, but rather as ‘Whigs’ and ‘Tories’ – political labels above all others. Indeed, even a close focus on 1775—as nationalist labels begin to harden in the crucible of war—shows that political labels were absolutely critical to the processes that defined the revolution. Popular movements which had relied on a vague sense of unease against specific British measures were suddenly asking people to sign on for an all-encompassing revolution. It was for this reason Richard Ryerson identified 1775 as the year in which the revolutionary coalition in Philadelphia came closest to breaking down.
But the importance of political labels did not stop with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Francis S Fox’s superb study of Northampton County, Pennsylvania, shows how in many ways ‘American’ was a term that was a proxy for a particular type of political ideology that caused great hardship for many who considered themselves to be patriots, but were uneasy at the thought of adopting revolutionary ideas wholesale. And once the war had been won, ‘American’ was hardly the only label with salience in the new republic. Quite apart from the contrasting state loyalties many possessed, the political notion of being a ‘Whig’ in 1775 and 1776 was frequently brought up to establish a claim to legitimate authority into the 1780s and 1790s.
The issue of the depth of national identity is more pressing in Rakove’s review, though, when he refers to Phillips’s skepticism of what Rakove calls the ‘the narrative that has dominated historical interpretations of the Revolution for the past half century’. In this telling, the political thought of the Revolution assumes primary significance. Ideologies concerning the ‘self-governing autonomy of the colonies’ provided the crucial determinant factor in causing the colonies to break apart from Britain. Reading this, I couldn’t help but wonder why the political ideology of a ‘country party’ would be a transient political label, but would become something much deeper when that ideology transmogrified into ‘American founding ideals’.
Or, to put it another way, if the Revolution rested solely on the ideological development of a critique of British government, how is being ‘American’ anything other than a political label of convenience, in exactly the same way as one would identify as a ‘Federalist’ or a ‘Republican’ or a ‘Whig’ or a ‘Tory’?
Only very rarely in life does one get to choose a nationality. (Those who do are often caught uneasily between two cultures into which they never completely fit.) One is born into the passport claimed as a ‘birthright’. Yet people spend considerably more time thinking about the political ideologies that define them, and the political parties they will identify with and vote for. It seems to me that in day to day life, self-identification as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ (or ‘moderate’ or ‘progressive’) is often far more deeply meaningful to an individual than being ‘American’ or ‘British’. People may claim that nation is more important than party, yet assertions of ‘national interest’ often are more reflective of a partisan ideology than anything that can genuinely encapsulate and accommodate an entire community. Indeed, those who advocate the most partisan political programs are often those who wrap themselves most tightly in the flag.
What I find particularly odd about this is that America’s revolutionaries were most successful when they didn’t essentialize their definition of national identity. 1775 is an important case in point—it was at this point that there were almost as many plans for independence, resistance, or reconciliation as there were politicians. Defining patriots according to a narrow political ideology would have blown the patriot coalition apart in the early stages of the War of Independence. (I dare say, too, that the bulk of the patriots had considerably more radical and revolutionary tendencies than those espousing more classical political thought. Similar factors were at play in the debate over the ratification of the Constitution—though the Federalists were arguing for a highly partisan political program, their ability to couch it in an inclusive language of broad appeal (matched by an inclusive mobilization network) saw their arguments prevail.
Throughout the Revolution, nationalistic appeals to the people had to be kept broad and often remarkably vague. This was precisely because the American effort in the war could only succeed by mobilizing large swathes of the population; an essentialist view of what it meant to be a patriot (beyond the willingness to fight for Independence) would have fundamentally weakened the movement. Ultimately, it was the malleability of a nationalist appeal that allowed so many people to attach their more deeply held beliefs to the flag.