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.