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.
This 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.
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.
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.
 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.
 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.