Review: Jessica Choppin Roney, Governed by a Spirit of Opposition

Jessica Choppin RoneyGoverned by a Spirit of Opposition: The Origins of American Political Practice in Colonial Philadelphia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).

CaptureIn recent years, early American political history has received considerable attention. A range of historians have enriched our understanding of how Americans participated in and contributed to politics in the early republic.[1] Popular politics during the colonial period has received less attention.[2] But in Governed by a Spirit of Opposition, part of Studies in Early American Economy and Society from the Library Company of Philadelphia, Jessica Choppin Roney focuses on politics in Philadelphia prior to the American Revolution. In so doing, she makes an important contribution to the field of early American history.

Split into seven chapters and focusing on the period between ca. 1682 and 1776, Roney uses Philadelphia as a case study to analyze colonists’ “everyday community problems” (2). Through a neat blend of qualitative and quantitative materials, she looks at how elite and non-elite Philadelphians carried out their daily lives, examining issues that have hitherto been overlooked, “from the most mundane to the transformational” (2). The scholarship that went into this book is rigorous. The number of archives visited, manuscript collections consulted, and numbers crunched is impressive. The book is filled with a number of particularly useful tables (68, 109, 114, 120, 122).

The most significant contribution of Governed by a Spirit of Opposition comes in the final chapter, “Mars Ascendant: The Military Association and the Reconstitution of Government.” In this chapter, Roney downplays the radicalism of colonial politics in Philadelphia prior to the American Revolution. Instead, she links Philadelphia’s colonial past with its revolutionary future. Simply put, on the eve of the Revolution the city’s political world did not have a number of new occupants. Roney shows how the people who took the lead in the developing imperial crisis, from 1774 onwards, “emerged out of and reinforced Philadelphia’s civil political tradition” (164). “[T]hese ‘new men’ were not at all new,” Roney argues. “They had long experience with precisely the kind of organizing and leadership” that was required in the early stages of the Revolution (165). How did they do this? Well, they had participated in Philadelphia’s culture of associationism for years—as members of at least one voluntary association. This “civic technology” gripped the city and its politically active participants were central to Philadelphia’s revolutionary mobilization. Seventy percent of 171 men who were in committees, between 1774 and 1776, were in at least one association. Forty-three percent were in more than one (165). This argument revises long-standing interpretations, ranging from those put forward by Eric Foner to Richard Ryerson.

In the chapters prior to this, Roney offers detailed analyses of the organization, establishment, and development of voluntary associations. In the opening two chapters, she covers the history of Philadelphia, as a political community, from its founding in the late seventeenth century. Though these chapters are broader than those that follow, the background information they provide is essential to understanding the origins of the city’s voluntary associations.

Thus, through well-written prose, chapters 3–6 focuses on the development of voluntary associations in Philadelphia. In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville discussed how Americans were associators. Over a century later, in 1944, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., concurred, writing, America was “a nation of joiners.”[3] For both, the “Golden Age” of associationism was in the nineteenth century. Governed by a Spirit of Opposition revises this interpretation. Roney shows that voluntary associations were formed well before de Tocqueville’s time. The first, the Carpenters’ Company, was founded in 1724. Other associations were founded soon thereafter, including the Junto, in 1727.[4]

Roney shows that the associations were popular, too. In 1748, at least one in two white men belonged to one or more. By 1770, this figure had fallen to at least one in five, which is still significant, given that the city’s population increase. Further, while some associations were not around very long—the Friendly Association and the Defense Association, for instance—others are still around today. Most notably, the American Philosophical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the College of Philadelphia.

Equally important, Philadelphia’s associations played a seminal role in the city’s civic and political life. Roney shows how they expressed opinion, played a role in policymaking, and were able to represent, at most, large segments of the population or, at least, a small, sometimes partisan, constituency. Finally, when discussing the history of credit in eighteenth-century colonial British America, Roney shows how at least ten associations also loaned significant sums of money, totaling over £112,000, between 1750 and 1776 (108).

Governed by a Spirit of Opposition is a stimulating piece of work and an exceptional piece of scholarship. It challenges our understanding of politics in colonial British America and it invites Carl Becker’s “home rule” and “who should rule at home?” thesis back into historical discourse.[5] For Philadelphians, Roney argues, “the second question came first” (181). It was the same in New York City, too: “who should rule at home?” was the question colonists were asking. Arguably, then, the book’s strongest contribution is that it could act as a model for future scholarship on colonial politics.


[1] This is not an exhaustive list, but see, for instance, for instance, Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001); Albrecht Koschnik, “Let a Common Interest Bind Us Together”: Associations, Partisanship, and Culture in Philadelphia, 17751840, Jeffersonian America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007); Simon P. Newman, Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic, Early American Studies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997); Jeffrey L. Pasley, “The Tyranny of Printers”: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic, Jeffersonian America (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001); David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 17761820 (Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, by the University of North Carolina Press, 1997); see also Jeffrey L. Pasley, Andrew W. Robertson, and David Waldstreicher, eds., Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Chris Beneke, “The New, New Political History,” Reviews in American History 33, no. 3 (2005): 314–24.

[2] For exceptions, see Brendan McConville, These Daring Disturbers of the Public Peace: The Struggle for Property and Power in Early New Jersey (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999); Benjamin L. Carp, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Luke John Feder, “‘No Lawyer in the Assembly!’: Character Politics and the Election of 1768 in New York City,New York History 95, no. 2 (Spring 2014): 154–71.

[3] Arthur M. Schlesinger, “Biography of a Nation of Joiners,” The American Historical Review 50, no. 1 (October 1, 1944): 1–25. See also Johann Neem, Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[4] Huzzah!

[5] Carl L. Becker, The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 17601776 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968), 22.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Q&A: Jessica Roney, Governed by a Spirit of Opposition « The Junto

  2. Pingback: The Origins of the American Revolution: Social Experience and Revolutionary Politics « The Junto


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