Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A People's Army Redux

Here is my full review of Fred Anderson's A People's Army (see unscholarly review here). Comments, suggestions, and criticisms are more than welcome, but please don't tell me about any typos, as I already handed it in.

Modern Americans seldom give much thought to the Seven Years’ War, and when they do, they generally remember it as a distant imperial struggle made up of dates and names that vanished back into oblivion immediately after the AP US History test. In A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War, Fred Anderson attempts to bring the Seven Years’ War back into our national narrative as a pivotal moment in the formation of an American identity. By examining the experiences of Massachusetts’ provincial soldiers as they endured deprivation, argued for their contractual rights, and interacted with the might of the British Empire through contact with its military system, Anderson argues that “the war gave the provincials a sense, at a crucial point in their lives, of their identity as a distinct people” (223). This common experience enabled Massachusetts’ soldiers to conceive of themselves as Americans rather than as Englishmen, and opened mental space for them to consider separation from the empire in the 1760s and 1770s.

In its most basic argument, A People’s Army closely resembles T.H. Breen’s work in “Baubles of Britain: The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century” and The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. Both Anderson and Breen believe that common experiences translated into a shared language that united colonists and made it possible for them to communicate their outrage over the perceived excesses of imperial domination during the Stamp Act, Boston blockade, and Nonimportation crises. Yet, Anderson’s argument differs substantially from Breen’s in that he argues for a distinctive provincial identity that was based on outdated English principles that had incubated in an isolated American environment for over a century, while Breen emphasizes the Anglicization and interconnectedness of American culture after mid-century. These contrasting portraits of American identity offer radically different interpretations of the roots of American independence: the latter imagines a British people who feared becoming too dependent on the metropolis that was so important to them, while the former supposes a colonial population that awakens to realize that they have been their own nation all along.

Because he focuses so specifically on the observations and beliefs of ordinary soldiers, Anderson is more convincing in translating experience into action than is Breen. Whereas Breen’s central argument requires an alchemical transformation of shared material culture into shared political ideals, Anderson draws a concrete line between wartime experiences and later events. The most vivid of these examples is his discussion of provincial soldiers’ interactions with the purposefully cruel and arbitrary system of British military justice. After seeing imperious officers maim, kill, and dispense seemingly capricious mercy to common soldiers during the war, Massachusetts men were horrified to find Boston occupied by regulars in the 1760s. Without accounting for their experiences in the Seven Years’ War, colonial reaction to occupation might seem hysterical and unfounded, but when we consider their frame of reference, fear of what regulars might do to a civilian population seems entirely reasonable.

The crux of Anderson’s argument is that when provincial citizen-soldiers interacted with regulars, they recognized themselves as a distinct and morally superior people. The regulars, particularly the officers, responded in kind by imagining themselves to be professional and civilized in contrast to the dirty, disorganized, traitorous peasants who made up the provincial army. Since, in Anderson’s telling, the provincials had had little contact with native-born Englishmen for over a hundred years, they understood the regulars as representatives of Britain in general, and they did not like what they saw. Anderson highlights several aspects of British military life that were especially repugnant to provincials, including the class-based deference due to officers, vulgar behavior such as gambling and whoring, and the shocking impiety of officers and men who swore, ignored the Sabbath, and were generally irreligious. From these attributes, provincial soldiers constructed an unflattering portrait of what it meant to be British. Anderson argues that this perception overturned an older generation’s fond and largely illusory affinity with the realm and allowed the younger generation to see themselves as a separate people.

Anderson’s careful attention to the specifics of local conditions, customs, and beliefs contributes to both the strengths and the principal weaknesses of his argument. By confining his attention largely to the writings of common soldiers, Anderson fails to place Massachusetts’ pre-war history within an imperial context. His Massachusetts is a place of agricultural villages, neighborliness, and the ties of kinship, not a bustling Atlantic community with a shipping industry that tied it to the far-flung reaches of the empire and an ongoing relationship with metropolitan politicians. While Anderson is careful to stipulate that colonists did not inhabit “bucolic utopias,” his intense focus on local considerations implies a strict isolationism in the century before the Seven Years’ War (30). There can be little doubt that American colonists experienced a more intense imperial integration in the years after 1750, but it is important not to overstate their seclusion before that time.

Anderson’s local focus also reinforces two pillars of the standard narrative of the Revolution: the central importance of Massachusetts and the middle-class origins of appeals to universal rights. Although it is unreasonable to fault Anderson for focusing on a single colony, his argument is so firmly grounded in local conditions that it cannot be applied to other colonial populations. If resistance to empire was partially the result of the Massachusetts militia’s recruiting practices and the economies of independent farms, how can we explain Virginia’s or South Carolina’s participation? Anderson’s argument is convincing for Massachusetts, but it does not extrapolate well. Similarly, Anderson’s focus on the experiences of the sons of middle-class yeoman may obscure the Revolutionary contributions of laborers, sailors, and servants as explored in Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s “The Many Headed Hydra:Sailors, Slaves, and the Atlantic Working Class in the Eighteenth Century.” While Anderson finds several examples of middle-class men talking about their “rights” long before Linebaugh and Rediker would have predicted, he does not consider the possibility that “seamen in particular and wage workers in general were foremost among the most radical parts of the colonial population” (Linebaugh and Rediker, 235). A People’s Army tells an important story about the coming of the Revolution, but it is not the whole story.

One aspect of Anderson’s argument that might prove useful to historians of the later eighteenth century is his discussion of popular religious belief among provincial soldiers. Too often, historians explain Revolutionary-era ideology as exclusively rational, legalistic, and inspired by the Enlightenment without taking the colonists’ providential worldview seriously. If, as Anderson argues, young provincial soldiers were “accustomed to casting events into [a] providential framework,” it is unlikely that they would have abandoned this habit of mind twenty years later (199). Without further investigation, it is impossible to say definitively whether soldiers from other colonies would have shared Massachusetts’ fondness for interpreting events as signs from God. Still, Anderson makes a crucial point by casting popular religion as a political, as well as a cultural, phenomenon. Although any exploration of the faith of the “Founding Fathers’” generation is a political minefield for modern historians, Anderson’s work provides a reputable model for others who wish to explore the politics of popular religious belief.

A People’s Army makes a compelling argument and goes a long way toward restoring the Seven Years’ War to a place of prominence in early American history. Despite its limited scope, this book supplies important information about the relationship between Britain and her colonies on the eve of the imperial crisis. Anderson argues that the contest between pan-British and distinctly American identities was predicated on interpersonal contact and differing standards of personal and professional conduct, not just on official policies, taxes, or political ideals. By examining the defining event of their young lives, Anderson reintroduces us to the Revolutionary generation.

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