Q&A: Jessica Roney, Governed by a Spirit of Opposition

RoneyYesterday, Chris Minty reviewed Jessica Choppin Roney’s book, Governed by a Spirit of Opposition: The Origins of American Political Practice in Colonial Philadelphia. Today, she speaks with The Junto about the book project and the process of turning the dissertation manuscript into a book. She received her MA at the College of William and Mary and her PhD at The Johns Hopkins University. She is currently Assistant Professor of History at Temple University in Philadelphia and is organizing a global early modern conference this November: Port Cities, 1500-1800, hosted by Temple University, the Program in Early American Economy and Society, and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies.

JUNTO: So many of these associations—the Friendly Association, New Building association, and Defense Association, for example—seem remarkably short-lived. How did you become interested in them, and what sustained your interest in tracking down the details of such ephemeral organizations?

JESSICA RONEY: I would respond by countering that in fact, Philadelphia’s voluntary associational world was in general remarkably long-lived, not ephemeral. On average Philadelphia associations lasted well over a decade (16.5 years), and many of the ones that survived past the American Revolution are still active to this day, for example the Library Company of Philadelphia, American Philosophical Society, Pennsylvania Hospital, College of Philadelphia, St. Andrew’s Society, Philadelphia Contributionship, and the Philadelphia Municipal Fire Department, which dates its origins to the first voluntary fire company founded in 1736. By contrast, according to Peter Clark, most voluntary associations in the British Atlantic world lasted no more than three or four years.[1]

I came to the Defense Association and Friendly Association early because of the radical work I saw each doing in transforming the scope of what voluntary organizations could effect, particularly in relation to layers of state authority. They were both short-lived but utterly transformative. In each case private actors seized the initiative to engage in tasks normally reserved to state officials—defense and Indian diplomacy—and in so doing successfully expanded the civic opportunities for ordinary men through voluntary association. The existing scholarly work tended to treat each of them in isolation, both from one another and from other voluntary endeavors. In fact they were vital to how eighteenth-century Philadelphians understood the parameters of voluntary association and governance. I came to the New Building only at the very end of my project as I did more research on the impact of religious organizations and of the “awakening” of the 1730s and 40s. I found that the ecumenical group that had briefly organized to build the New Building had in fact pioneered, even earlier than the Defense Association which I had thought to be the first, a civic project that did not enjoy widespread community support. The New Building group represented a small wedge at the time, but it showed the power of consciously adopting exclusion not just as a social but as a civic tactic, a lesson which would be exploited and expanded upon by later groups like the Defense Association and Friendly Association.

JUNTO: In many senses, this entire book is a study of the boundary between opposing ideas: early modern and modern; democracy and republic; consensus and disagreement—so I’ll offer an additional one. Do you see Philadelphia as more of an exception or as a model?

RONEY: Philadelphia was distinctive in many ways in the eighteenth century, but it would be going too far to call it unique or exceptional. I do argue that it pioneered some of the changes that other American urban areas would later come to adopt as their own polities became larger, denser, and more polyglot (which is to say, more like Philadelphia), but that said, I’m not sure I would hold up Philadelphia as a model either. The poly-centric accommodations Philadelphians reached worked less in tandem with representative government than in tension with it. To this day we’re still struggling with the appropriate role and power that private entities—be they voluntary associations, interest groups, or business corporations—hold in our democratic process. Philadelphia’s civic voluntary associations formed to fill a governmental void and provide badly-needed services. They offered lower and middling white men voice and hands-on power in influencing policy and services in their city,, but they also made it possible for minorities to hijack Indian diplomacy against the wishes of the majority; elites to dictate poor relief against the wishes of both the majority and those most likely to stand in need of it; and for majorities to usurp government altogether, write a new constitution, and trample the civil rights of dissenters—confiscating their property, imprisoning them, and revoking their right to vote. By no means did Philadelphians uniquely create or invent this tension between the activity of private group actors and the state in North America, which goes back at least to joint-stock company involvement in the earliest English settlements. But on a stage that would be of national importance from the very first moment that there was a nation, Philadelphians acted out both the opportunities and the problems inherent in private association. Perhaps all of this is to say, Philadelphia was not an exception and probably shouldn’t be taken as a model either. Perhaps best to say, it was a harbinger.

JUNTO: In referring to the two popular institutions of the Committee of Safety and the Pennsylvania Assembly, you call them “Radical and embracing independence on the one hand, conservative and leery of independence on the other” (175). The American Revolution has a long historiography debating its radicalism—where do you fall on the spectrum? Do you see Philadelphians’ involvement as a form of continuity? A form of radicalism? Or something else entirely?

RONEY: The Revolution from the perspective of Philadelphia looks at first blush to be radical. Here more than any other state you see the overthrow of one set of political elites and their replacement with an almost entirely new caste of political leaders. In the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 you have arguably the most radical frame of government to be drafted by any polity through the entire revolutionary era—so radical that Patriot leaders from other states looked at it askance. Here Thomas Paine wrote and published Common Sense calling for a new political order, a call which seemed to fall on receptive ears.

Closer examination suggests, however, that this picture is overdrawn and that the forces of continuity played an important role. The supposedly new political leaders of the mid-1770s had long been involved in Philadelphia’s civic life and decision-making through voluntary associations. They were already well-versed in the tactics and strategies of coalition-building and policy formation, skills that they drew upon when they overthrew the existing formal authorities. The revolutionary moment did not entail a radical education or introduction into politics or civic authority for such men; what it gave them was greatly enhanced power and scope. Was this a change? Yes. The degree to which it was radical though I think is less clear.

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 is heralded for its radicalism primarily because of its expansive suffrage (at least among white men); its unicameral legislature; and its weak executive. However, every one of those elements was part of Pennsylvania’s colonial government. These were not radical breaks, they were drawn directly from seventy-five years of experience. The one change that did represent innovation for Pennsylvania government was to extend full and equal political representation to the western counties, a move grudgingly adopted in the last days of Pennsylvania’s colonial government and enshrined in the new state constitution. Here again was an important change, perhaps even a radical one. Still, to my mind at least, the predominant theme between the 1701 Frame of Government and the 1776 State Constitution is continuity, not a break.

Finally, there is no question that Paine’s pamphlet, published in early January of 1776, galvanized opposition to Britain and reinforced the plausibility of independence. Still, months after it was published, Philadelphians rejected radical candidates and chose instead to elect moderates to the Assembly. A special election held in May of 1776 returned a slightly more radical but still mostly moderate Assembly, one that continued to reject independence. Thomas Paine fumed without much evidence that the election had yielded these results only because militiamen had been away at the time of the election, but the fact remains, that the last time that Philadelphians would ever have the chance in a democratic referendum to vote on the question of independence, they did not choose it. The new government that quickly seized power in the summer of 1776 never submitted itself or its new constitution to a popular vote; indeed, the new government proceeded to deny participation or full civil rights to anyone who refused to accept its legitimacy and swear allegiance to it. Did the majority of Philadelphians themselves become more radical between the May election and the call a few weeks later to dissolve the existing government? Perhaps. Another possibility might be that, presented with a fait accompli enacted by a vocal and organized constituency which was not, however, a majority, other Philadelphians accepted (but did not necessarily embrace) the new powers-that-be; certainly many of them would accept another change of government in the fall of 1777 when the British occupied the city for the better part of a year and then make their peace once again with the returning Americans the following summer. The balance of ideology and pragmatism in this calculus seems to have fallen for many more on the side of pragmatism.

The American Revolution did unleash many significant changes in Philadelphia, but to my mind many of these occurred as a result of the upheaval of civil war, rather than as a result of a radical ideological sea-change. Context and continuity are essential to understand how the Revolution unfolded in Philadelphia; they suggest that some of the elements considered to be radical in fact had deep roots and that the depth of the changes that were enacted may not have penetrated as deeply as some Patriots—and subsequent scholars—could have wished.

JUNTO: You talk about wharves as spaces that go beyond social services because they involved the common spaces of a town (33). To what extent have ideas about port cities or port towns shaped your research and writing projects?

RONEY: To be honest, not enough. This project was really about a political community that happened to be a port town, but exploring the comparisons and connections between global port cities seems to me an important and productive line of inquiry. That is why I am organizing an exciting conference in November of 2015 about global port cities between 1500 and 1800, sponsored by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, the Program in Early American Economy and Society, and Temple University. It brings together scholars working on ports from Mozambique to Bordeaux, Sierra Leone to Buenos Aires, and Manila to Kingston. The conference will take place, of course, in the greatest port city of them all: Philadelphia! (but then, I might be biased). I am looking forward to the scholarly exchange from such diverse areas of expertise to interrogate collectively how port cities and their hinterlands were affected by the rise of long-distance trans-ocean movement and trade after 1500.

JUNTO: You were physically present in Philadelphia during part of the time that you were making the revisions for Governed by a Spirit of Opposition. Could you say a little bit more about whether your location influenced your thinking during the editing process, or about the process of turning your dissertation into a book more generally?

RONEY: Getting to live in Philadelphia on a post-doctoral fellowship during the essential year when I really reshaped the book influenced it profoundly. Earlier drafts did not take into account so much the city as a lived space. The time I spent in Philadelphia, living in an eighteenth-century tavern in Society Hill and walking out to the McNeil Center almost every day brought the geography of the city front and center (appropriately, a spatial metaphor). It was while working in Philadelphia that the realization first occurred to me that Philadelphia evolved with no physical center and that that fact paralleled and perhaps contributed as well to the absence of a civil center. Getting to live for the year in the beautiful Man Full of Trouble Tavern, in addition to allowing me to host some excellent parties, reinforced the influence of location and physical space on the people and institutions I was attempting to describe.

In terms of turning the dissertation into a book, I was aided most importantly by two events. The first was being asked to contribute a chapter to a conference and published volume on violence in the American Revolution (since the original invitation, the book changed theme). That pushed me to think for the first time about the Military Association, its ties backwards to the Defense Association, and forwards in terms of its effects on Philadelphia and the American Revolution. That chapter helped me on to the second critical event, because that article was the writing sample that helped me win the McNeil Center post-doctoral fellowship. I got the fellowship three years after I had completed my dissertation—for me just the right timing to have matured a bit as a scholar and become more ruthless in what I was willing to change or jettison from my dissertation. The director of the McNeil Center, Dan Richter, organized a book workshop for me where he and a dozen or so generous readers took on the (to me) thankful task of reading and commenting on my entire manuscript. It was never the same again. That workshop encouraged me to move from a thematic to a chronological narrative arc, a choice that reshuffled all the original material, pushed me back in time fifty years earlier than I had originally intended in search of the origins for processes I had observed, and brought religion in where it had been almost entirely absent.

If any of my own experience is to be construed as advice for others going forward, I would say, think critically about how a different organizational scheme for your work would change the arc and impact of the argument. It may not be that changing organization is in the end the right strategy, but the intellectual exercise of mentally reorganizing the evidence into different groupings, categories, orders, and lines of argument can be liberating and show connections you might otherwise not have recognized.


[1] Peter Clark, British Clubs and Societies: 1580-1800: The Origins of an Associational World, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), 60-1.

7 responses

  1. The period from at least 1763 until 1776 seems like a long time to students who wonder why revolution and independence did not occur sooner. And the 1770-1773 period has often been described as a lull in the storm. Your book seems to contradict that at least in Philadelphia. There was much activity throughout the period and before.
    Do you believe the activity below the surface was the key to pushing Pennsylvania and the others finally to declare independence?

      • Understandable given the Gaspee Affair. Other examples can be found in other places as well. This book seems to make the point that opposition was much broader than perhaps realized and it resulted from participation by the many, rather than the few, in a host of organizations that served to bring people together on issues other than political ones. I don’t think that has been adequately developed before, in my opinion.

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


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