Process and Protest

One of the biggest difficulties I find in teaching the American Revolution is explaining to my students the large time gaps between so many of the most seminal events of the Revolution. The popular narrative of the Revolution has a tendency to conflate the Stamp Act with the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution, with perhaps a quick pause to celebrate Washington’s victory at Yorktown. Yet if the Stamp Act crisis happened today, it would be 2024 before we reached the Declaration of Independence, and 2035 before the Constitutional Convention met.

Over the last month or so, it’s been difficult to follow world news without seeing protests of some sort. Turkish protestors in Istanbul have attended demonstrations in opposition to Prime Minister Erdogan; Brazilians have protested the huge sums being invested in the 2014 World Cup at the same time many inhabitants are suffering from crushing poverty. In future years, it’s quite possible we will look at both protests as a seminal moment in their countries’ histories; stepping stones en route to a considerably more substantial change in governmental systems.

Yet if we were to look at the United Kingdom in the last couple of weeks, we might find evidence to suggest large protest marches are of little effect. G8 protestors were on the streets in Northern Ireland; yet to my eye, they seemed to be following a very similar agenda to the protestors who turned out in Edinburgh in 2005, or Italy in 2001—only in smaller numbers and with less effect on the news.

Reflecting on that made me think about the protests against British imperial reorganization in the 1760s. While the Stamp Act protests were haphazard, they clearly succeeded in their two main aims—resisting implementation of the Act and improving intercolonial correspondence. Response to the Townshend Taxes, though, was less successful; though attempts were made at coordinating non-importation across different cities, the level of cooperation necessary for consistent enforcement proved difficult to maintain over a long period of time.

Yet many narratives of the Revolution emphasize the committees that enforced non-importation in the late 1760s as crucial in the political development of the nascent nation. In my dissertation, for example, I argue that the formation of a committee structure in Pennsylvania in response to the Tea Act (and its subsequent institutionalization as a result of the Coercive Acts) is the critical context for understanding the structure of the 1776 state constitution. That is to say, when asked to make a new government up more or less on the spot, Pennsylvania’s revolutionaries necessarily turned to the political structures with which they were most familiar. These county committees, in turn, owed much to the committees that unsuccessfully attempted to oppose the Townshend Taxes in 1769.

Clearly, though, this is an argument that relies heavily on hindsight. Sure, we can trace the political involvement of those involved in committees in 1770 and 1776, as Richard Ryerson has done, to show that institutional development took place, and that institutional lessons were learned as protests blossomed. But I wonder what the proverbial man on the streets of Philadelphia would have said about the Townshend committees in 1772. Would he have looked back at them fondly as a worthy attempt at protest, or an unhelpful inconvenience to people who wanted to go about their daily lives unhindered?

One British news program, holding a discussion of the protests in Istanbul, made a point that in many cases, the success or otherwise of a protest was often incidental to its long-term effects. Striking union workers, for example, may not see management grant their immediate demands—but management may be more responsive to worker demands in trying to avoid future walkouts.

Standard histories of the American Revolution would stand in sympathy with this view—that even if Britain was unmoved by protest, there was a developing extra-governmental infrastructure that allowed Americans to move swiftly once Britain stepped completely beyond the pale in 1774. I wonder, though, if we should be more sensitive to the time lags in the revolutionary timeline. To take seriously the notion that in 1771, non-importation committees may just have easily been the failed movements of partisan hacks rather than the first or second step in an evolving tale of independence. At the very least, thinking more carefully about where effective resistance to British rule may have been derailed may call greater attention to the limits of republicanism and to ask historians to reflect more carefully on the role of process, and how it sits alongside protest in any narrative of political history.

7 responses

  1. Thanks for the great post, Ken. Your emphasis on process raises an important historiographical question: how does one capture “process” rather than mere “outcomes”? The alternatives and “might have beens” are much more present in the minds of participants in events than the people researching them from a distance. I think it means slowing things down, to give a fuller treatment of the perceptions of those experiencing the forward flow of history. But how do you think historiography has dealt with or might deal with this kind of challenge?

    • Thanks for your comment, Dave. I was hoping the comment thread would give some suggestions on how to capture process rather than outcomes!

      Joking aside, more careful analysis of protest movements would certainly help, as would a careful attention to the lived experience of those protesting (I know this is something I need to take more account of in my work, which tends to focus on groups of people rather than the motivations of individual actors).

      Another possibility is to be much, much clearer about the goals of a movement when it sets out. To use another example from my dissertation, the price-fixing committees formed in Pennsylvania in 1779 don’t really achieve their main goal of intervening to set ‘fair’ prices in the economy. But they do win a host of other battles related to the strategies they used and their broader vision of political participation. Being clear about the reasons behind protest, as well as an analysis of short-term, medium-term and long-term goals might help restore some of the balance caused by looking at the past from an omniscient future.

      • All these ideas seem good, but it would probably be necessary also to deal with the range of structures informing political organizations, running from formal, structured, and legalistic (committees) to the informal, unstructured, and occasional (riots, disturbances, etc.). My own research focus is on Wilkite and other forms of agitation in the early 70s, and their variety of expression and self-organization is really astonishing. So I’d add the work of Rude and Thompson to this kind of methodological prescription, to get a better sense of collective political acts and responses operating in time.

  2. Very Interesting analogy Ken. I appreciate your comment about Britain “stepping beyond the pale in 1774.” Are you referring to the Quebec Act that formed the basis of denning Ben Franklin permission to set up a government on his land in the Ohio River Valley? It is interesting how someone (Franklin?) was able to slip the Quebec Act into our Declaration of Independence (number 21 in our list of indictments against King George).

    • John, the Quebec Act is part of what I’m talking about, but I’m also referring to the other Coercive/Intolerable Acts, and the seeming concerted plan to shut down colonial government in its entirety in Massachusetts, and threatening to do so elsewhere.

  3. Ken, I agree with a lot of what you say, but I think there’s a common fallacy of believing that there is such a thing as a “proverbial man on the street.” There are lots of men and women on the street who come to very different conclusions about politics based on their experiences and viewpoints. Even with extremely advanced techniques of polling and market research, it’s almost impossible to get at the views of the generic “man on the street.” In the eighteenth century, the best that you can do is draw conclusion based on mobilizations of public opinion and contemporary observations about how different groups of people reacted to certain events. That said, I agree completely that there was certainly a possibility that the committee movement might have ended very differently and that we might have ended up writing a very different history imperial crisis in the colonies.

    • Justin, I don’t disagree there – slightly lazy wording on my part. What I was really meaning was not so much the ‘man on the street’ as a participant or sympathetic observer to the nonimportation committees in 1771. We all know that ‘public opinion’ can be fickle; those who express sympathy for a movement in one period can deny all knowledge of their involvement not too long after. I wonder what would have been the case with these committees.


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