The Origins of the American Revolution: Social Experience and Revolutionary Politics

This is the third post in our roundtable on the origins of the American Revolution. Tom Cutterham kicked things off on Monday with a post about Nick Bunker’s recent book and on Tuesday Jessica Parr wrote about religion and the American Revolution.

BCC Votes and ProceedingsThis roundtable grew out of a sense that the study of the Revolution’s origins or causes has been neglected of late. Which seems true enough. At the very least, historians have proven more comfortable talking in more amorphous ways about the “the coming of the Revolution” or “the making of revolutionary America.” I am certainly guilty of that. Yet there are, I think, compelling reasons for approaching the Revolution this way.

Framing work on the Revolution in terms of causes or origins leads naturally to ending studies in 1776. I would not dispute that we need to do more of this. But the less concrete tack that I prefer to take is, perhaps, less temporally restrictive. And at the broadest level, I am interested in thinking about the Revolution as process in which the ending is as important as the beginning. When teaching or researching the Revolution, I try to understand what institutions, organizations, trends, forces, and political developments allowed American colonists to even conceive of revolution as a viable, how those shaped the experience of the war, and how they help explain the Revolution’s settlement and consequences. To a large extent, I think this comes from my training and interest in both the political and social history of the Revolution.

Work on voluntary associations, networks, and committees—in effect, the creation of social capital—has reinvigorated the study of the interconnections between social and political history, and can help us understand the continuities between the revolution’s coming, course, and consequences. This literature has been most influential in the historiography of the early republic, unsurprising given Tocqueville’s focus on nineteenth-century Americans’ predilection for voluntarism. But it has become increasingly clear that the origins of the United States’ vibrant civil society lay in the colonial and revolutionary periods. Moreover, in many places, colonial-era associational culture spurred on early agitation and resistance, and ultimately enabled outright rebellion and revolution. Fire companies, student groups, proto-political parties, militia associations, and a range of other formal voluntary associations and informal networks morphed into committees of correspondence and safety, militia companies, and military units. Colonial voluntary culture greased the wheels of mobilization for revolutionaries, it created the social capital that made Revolution possible. This history of voluntarism did not only shape patriot resistance. As work by our own Chris Minty shows, loyalism also had its roots in colonial-era social and political networks.[1]

What I want to make sure does come through here, though, is that there was and is a porous line between friendship, kinship, and formal association. So focusing on voluntary associations and committees actually puts people back at the center of the Revolution’s origins. That is a good thing. If your experience is anything like mine, students connect better with, say, George Robert Twelves Hewes’ story, than primary or secondary sources that speak to the ideological or imperial origins of the Revolution, which can seem abstract. But both matter, and they intersected in voluntary associations and group action.

The minutes of the Boston Committee of Correspondence (the New York Public Library is in the process of digitizing this collection, and it should be available soon) illustrates this well. The BCC was the vehicle through which constitutional grievances and ideological debates spread throughout New England in the early 1770s. The towns responded to the BCC’s constitutional arguments in different ways and committed to varying levels of political solidarity. Often some combination of local politics, idiosyncrasies in communal and religious life, and even personal squabbles explained the myriad ways in which towns reacted to the BCC and their policies. At the same time, the reigning ideological assumptions and political structures limited the range of options available to any individual community.[2]

Interpersonal connections and associative action help tether the Revolution’s origins to what happened once the Revolution began. In our current historiographical moment, “Committees are exciting,” as Tom Cutterham put it in his report on the third recent high-profile conference on the Revolution—“The American Revolution: People and Power,” hosted by the Huntington Library. By 1774 in some places, and by 1776 in others, committees had become de facto governing bodies. In addition to simply trying to maintain communal order, they guided opposition to Parliament and the British Army, enforced Congressional resolutions at the local level, regulated local militias and marshaled supplies, while also rooting out loyalists, attempting to limit trade with the British, and coercing allegiance to the patriot cause. This last function suggests that, though these committees drew on longstanding precedents for voluntary action that ran back to the colonial period, the Revolution also changed American associationialism, a point ably made by Jessica Roney in the final chapters of her recent book.

Revolutionary committees existed as the government itself during the liminal period between the breakdown of effective British control and the establishment of new formal institutions of governance. Their influence, though, did not ever disappear. Finally, and this may already be obvious, associative and collective action set the boundaries of belonging in post-revolutionary communities. If committees and associations policed adherence to the revolutionary movement during the 1770s, they became tools for expressing consent in the new republic. This transition opens up all kinds of interesting questions about how the violent nature of revolutionary politics gave way to stable political routines. There is a logical story that runs from the emergence of increasingly thick interpersonal networks in the colonial period, to the committees that brought down the old imperial state and served as governing bodies for a revolutionary society, and through the voluntary associations that shaped the creation of the American state and states. It is a story historians have begun to uncover. And it is certainly one worth telling.


[1] Benjamin L. Carp, “Fire of Liberty: Firefighters, Urban Voluntary Culture, and the Revolutionary Movement,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 58, no. 4 (October 2001): 781-818; Jessica Choppin Roney, Governed by a Spirit of Opposition: Origins of American Political Practices in Colonial Philadelphia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), esp. ch. 7; Mark Boonshoft, “The Great Awakening, Presbyterian Education, and the Mobilization of Power in the Revolutionary Mid-Atlantic,” in The American Revolution Reborn: New Perspectives for the 21st Century, ed. Michael Zuckerman and Patrick K. Spero (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Christopher F. Minty, “Mobilization and Voluntarism: The Political Origins of Loyalism in New York, c. 1768–1778,” Ph.D. diss., University of Stirling, 2014.

[2] Richard D. Brown’s work on the BCC obviously bears mentioning here. More generally, his work from the 1970s anticipated much of what I discuss in this essay. See Richard D. Brown, Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts: The Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Towns, 1772-1774 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970); and id., “The Emergence of Urban Society in Rural Massachusetts, 1760-1820,” The Journal of American History 61 (June 1974): 29-51.

10 responses

  1. Mark,

    Great point about the students struggle connecting with JUST the abstract ideas of the ideological or imperial origins of the American Revolution… Teaching APUSH to HS students for many years inspired me to dig deeper to help the students relate these actions through their emotional IQ… When they can relate their own social interactions, causes through…”social media,” AND THEIR OWN AGENCY… to those that occurred in the colonial era….they begin to connect with these people…and stop seeing them as “demigods,” and begin to FEEL… a connection and relevancy that inspired them to dig deeper.

    I read a great book this summer about Gouverneur Morris that connected so much with your points about the myriad of associations that developed before, during, and after the Revolution…and their impact on the direction of the Revolution, their influence on the creation of the institutions that would govern them after the Revolution, and their continued development as the Early Republic transformed…it even suggested that perhaps the ideological elite had to compete with the “mechanics” as prime influencers of these dynamic changes before, during, and after the Revolution. I enjoy teaching a chaotic and competitive development of a “public opinion,” through the early 1800’s…The book discussed the many ways that these people from different economic, religious, and social backgrounds influenced each other and thus the entire process due to their need to OVERCOME…such huge obstacles along the way… TOGETHER.

    Thank you so much for contributing work that my students can use to discuss our beautiful and most amazing story… the idea that AGENCY exists in all of us…and has created this amazing story.

    • Jonathan, wow thanks for this really generous comment. I’m glad the post resonated with you and it’s heartening to hear you introduce you introduce your students to the Revolution in such a complex (to use a meaningless word) way. Out of curiosity, what primary sources do you tend to use when teaching this period to your HS students?

  2. Mark, thanks for your thoughtful post. For researchers, especially, it’s good to know that the Revolution will be, er, digitized. From Boston, a shout of thanks to the NYPL staff fulfilling the scholarly pledge to connect the BCC story–imprinted in rare manuscripts–with a wider audience.

  3. Pingback: The Origins of the Revolution: Definition, Periodization, and Complexity « The Junto

  4. Mark, thanks for a really engaging and thoughful post! I’m glad you referenced Tom Cutterham’s recap of the Huntington conference on the Revolution last May (which I also had the great pleasure to attend) because I kept thinking back to the arguments developed there as I was reading this.

    It does seem like a renewed focus on associational institutions and their various committees has rejuvenated our understanding of the Revolution’s origins in colonial British America. Recognizing the power of Committees of Safety (this is actually Tim Breen’s argument from that conference) frees us from the need to imbue revolutionary Americans with a nuanced understanding of constitutional affairs and the implications of the politics of state-building. Instead, we begin to see much more continuity in how local affairs were administered, with the British institutions being (relatively seamlessly) replaced by local associational ones. In this respect, at least in New England, it’s almost a throwback to my own period, the late 17th/early 18th century, when colonists began to complain of encroaching imperial institutions replacing and undermining their own, colonially-contained and charter-instituted public bodies.

    In short, I think this line of argument is excellent, and can go a long way to addressing some of the points that Jessica Parr brought up yesterday about ideological coherence during the Revolutionary period. It was the committees, rather than any inherent nationalist sentiment, to whom revolutionary Americans turned to for guidance in matters political at the outbreak of the war.

    • Thanks for the comment Craig, and for clarifying what went on in LA. I am sorry to have missed it. Interesting point about the 17th/early 18th C parallels. As the post suggests, I’ve been spending some time with the Boston Committee of Correspondence papers. And Massachusetts town committees during the early-1770s were certainly going on and on about their “ancient charter rights.”

  5. Pingback: The Origins of the American Revolution: Politics and Politicized Societies « The Junto

  6. Pingback: The Origins of the American Revolution: Empire « The Junto

  7. Pingback: Considering origins, causes, and ways to look approach the American revolutionary period « The Historic Interpreter

  8. I’m committed to the proposition that Americans who were alive between the years 1760 and 1800 experienced and participated in a phenomenon that was profoundly revolutionary–far more than a civil war. I have made my case un a new book, HEROIC VISION; A STORY OF REVOLUTIONARY ART AND POLITICS. This book began selling on Amazon and elsewhere today, December 1, 2015.

    HEROIC VISION is an eBook, because modern eBook technology allowed me to present the art experientially. I contend that American arts (painting, literature, music, and architecture) between 1760 and 1800 were profoundly and self-consciously revolutionary, that the artists knew their works departed from Old World norms, and that they reveled in the distinction. Moreover, I contend that the artists’ links to politicians were close, not in the manner of propaganda, but in a way that one would expect in a movement that embraced a powerful ideology.

    Although HEROIC VISION is built on strong scholarly foundations, it’s writing style and narrative are easily accessible. I wrote this way because I thought the book might make for good reading in lecture or seminar courses grounded in the basic historical narrative of this time-period.

    HEROIC VISION is an eBook, because modern eBook technology allowed me to embed many dozens of artistic examples in the text, accessible with the click of a button. Moreover, the costs of eBook publication are so low that t can offer it at a price within the range of student budgets (ten bucks).

    I’d much appreciate any commentary from from interdisciplinary-minded historians who look at this book, whether or not they agree with my notion that it might be a useful course-text. To learn more about the book (or to buy a copy), go to

    Charles S. Olton


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