In the first episode of HBO’s John Adams miniseries there’s a memorable scene (NB: it includes nudity) in which Adams is present at the tarring and feathering of a customs officer at Boston harbour. The purpose of the scene was to frame Adams as an outsider whose firm principles prevent him from ever being an organic leader of the American people—a theme that runs throughout the series. But it also does something else, which is to acknowledge early on that the American Revolution was an affair of violence. In a particularly poignant moment of the scene (2.02-2.07 in the clip), the director even chose to portray slaves in chains, looking on silently at the anger of the American mob. That is, he chose to remind us that violence in colonial and revolutionary America wasn’t just momentary and spectacular, but also pervasive and structural.
Peter Thompson, in remarks at the recent Revolution Reborn conference written up in Common-place, characterised the revolution as “an internal civil war of extraordinary violence, justified by the rhetoric of a country in peril and folded into a formalized war for independence directed against external troops and their savage native allies, a terror erupting with particular force whenever and wherever these two wars collided.” Historians generally now accept that the United States had a “violent birth,” just as violent as any European revolution. That scene in John Adams, which never appeared in McCullough’s book, perhaps marks a watershed in public acknowledgment of revolutionary violence. If so, it is only the beginning of coming to terms with it.
Before we recognised the violence of the revolution, we had Hannah Arendt, the political theorist and philosopher whose 1963 book, On Revolution, marked the high-point of triumphalist, Cold War, consensus historiography. Arendt’s American Revolution was exceptional because, unlike the French and Russian Revolutions, it did not entail a civil war of extraordinary violence. “The superior wisdom of the American founders in theory and practice is conspicuous enough,” she wrote, “and yet… it is as though the American Revolution was achieved in a kind of ivory tower into which the fearful spectacle of human misery, the haunting voices of abject poverty, never penetrated…
Since there were no sufferings around them that could have aroused their passions, no overwhelmingly urgent needs that would have tempted them to submit to necessity, no pity to lead them astray from reason, the men of the American Revolution remained men of action from beginning to end, from Declaration of Independence to the framing of the Constitution.
For Arendt, then, it was the “social question” that distinguished American from French Revolutions. Because in her view and the view of her times, America lacked social tensions and inequalities, lacked the “spectacle of human misery” or the “haunting voices of abject poverty,” and thus lacked the motivation to resolve the social question, to redress unequal power relations, for those reasons the American Revolution had the privilege of cold reason and “superior wisdom.” This picture now bears very little resemblance to what we know about America or its revolution; yet the idea of the founders’ superior wisdom still sells many books.
If we recognise Thompson’s picture of the revolution better than Arendt’s; if we acknowledge the violence and the passion of the revolution in the way even John Adams asks us to do; then we might also look again at the structural violence, the invisible or symbolic violence, that comes with it. The rediscovery of violence among the American public may be a sign that they are no longer willing to swallow the old Arendtian story about America’s exceptional founding and wise founding fathers. Or to put it another way: perhaps what it will take to put the social question back on the public agenda is a little bit of violence.
 Thompson supervised my doctoral dissertation. His master-work on the Articles of Association and the role of slavery in structuring American approaches to public violence and surveillance is long-awaited. Seriously, I’m thinking about starting a petition, so get in touch if you want to help pile on the pressure…
 Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking, 1963), 90.
 A year and a half ago, I taught a course that Sarah Pearsall had developed for Oxford Brookes University, which framed the entire colonial and revolutionary period around the concept of violence. At the time, I wasn’t sure how she’d made it work, or why she’d chosen that central theme, and I’m sure I taught it much less innovatively than she did. But I think I’m starting to get what she was going for.