Before Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams signed the Declaration of Independence, everyday farmers were already banding together, ready to take on tyranny. These lost heroes, their stories scattered among letters and diaries for more than 200 years, come to life in American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People by historian T. H. Breen. The book weaves together tales of ordinary Americans who sacrificed quiet lives to stand together and resist injustices by a far-off Parliament, setting the stage for the American Revolution. Breen, a history professor at Northwestern University, recently spoke with U.S. News about the ragtag revolutionaries and the credit they deserve for establishing American freedoms. Excerpts:
Who were the real heroes of the American Revolution?
Of course, the Founding Fathers, George Washington in particular, were marvelous leaders and deserve a great deal of credit. But they get a lot of credit. The people that go missing from the story are often anonymous, the kinds of people that showed up in Lexington and Concord, insurgents in little towns. They're just people who were caught up in one of the great events of our history.
How did these people come together?
Without newspapers or weekly journals, there would have been no revolution. Little communities published reports of their own revolutionary activities that were picked up and reprinted in distant places. And the effect of this was to give individuals a sense of solidarity with distant strangers, largely without the help or even the interest of the famous Founding Fathers.
What relationship did these "founding farmers" have with the Founding Fathers?
The Founding Fathers went to the Congress that first met in 1774, and they passed statutes that affected these little communities, the most famous being the [Continental] Association. What this did was to invite every community to create a local Committee of Safety to monitor revolutionary activities, and these were entirely elected. It's estimated that over 15,000 men served on these committees in the first year, and they had never held political office or seen it as their social role to serve in a political office before this. The Congress and the Founding Fathers issued the invitation, but the people took it and ran with it. They created, in their own communities, an infrastructure of revolution that perhaps the Founding Fathers had not anticipated.
What did the founders think of this result?
By and large, the Founding Fathers were a little uneasy that perhaps they had released popular democracy in ways they feared occasionally would get out of control.
Are there any key figures who should be added to the canon of Founding Fathers?
I suspect these people would be embarrassed to be put in the same group as the Founding Fathers, but one was Samuel Thompson, who lived in Brunswick, Maine, which was then Massachusetts. He was a tough-minded, Scotch-Irish person who was a fierce insurgent, and he was ready to start the revolution long before anyone else. He kidnapped British officers; he tried to capture a British ship. This was before the Declaration of Independence.
What drew the Americans into rebellion?
After the destruction of the tea in Boston Harbor in December 1773, Parliament passed a group of very punitive acts that closed the port of Boston completely, creating massive unemployment and suffering. The British were punishing a population for the crimes of a few, and ordinary people began to be drawn into politics—they were really angry. Violence on a local level and mobilization of ordinary people began to accelerate. The next point was the killing of Americans at Lexington and Concord. After that, whole communities in New Hampshire, Vermont, and western Massachusetts rushed to the scene to be part of the action. Long before Washington took charge of the Continental Army, the American insurgents were ready to take on the British.
To what extent does today's Tea Party movement compare to these insurgents?
The Tea Party supporters try to legitimize their efforts by looking back at the American Revolution, and they have every right to do what they want. But populism and anger at government policies is not new. If the Tea Party movement wants to look back, it should, but it should be reminded that great and liberal leaders have also found energy and inspiration in this same moment of history.
What do you hope readers will take from your book?
Some of my readers have said, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could have leaders like they had in the Revolutionary times?" To them, I say, "If you want leaders of that standing and those qualities, it's up to you to find them." In a sense, this nostalgia for the past paralyzes the ability of ordinary people today to create a just and equitable society for all. Waiting for a George Washington is simply an excuse for inaction.