by TH Breen
In The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America, TH Breen provides the missing piece in the story of America’s founding, introducing us to the ordinary men and women who turned a faltering rebellion against colonial rule into an unexpectedly potent and enduring revolution. With striking originality, Breen restores these missing Americans to our founding and shows why doing so is essential for understanding why our revolution ended differently from others that have shaped the modern world. In the midst of revolution’s anger, fear, and passion — the forgotten elements in any effective resistance — these Americans preserved a political culture based on the rule of law. In the experiences of these unsung revolutionaries can be seen the creation of America’s singular political identity. Here is a brief excerpt.
For Americans, revolution always involved a process of discovery. It constantly opened up new conversations on new ground. One remarkable example of this process comes from a small New Jersey community. It reminds us how revolutionary action progressed incrementally from discussion to resistance. At the center of the story was Matthew Potter, an immigrant from Ulster, Ireland, who had been forced in 1740 to leave home because of English commercial restrictions that nearly destroyed the linen trade. Potter made his way south from Connecticut, trying his hand at blacksmithing and logging. He settled at last in Bridgeton, New Jersey, where he established a popular tavern.
Late in 1775, as the constitutional controversy with Parliament seemed increasingly intractable, a notice appeared in Bridgeton and other communities in Cumberland County — named ironically for George III’s uncle who had brutally put down a rising in Scotland. A group of townspeople concerned about “the circumstances of the times” announced that “the most Important Service that they can render Society, will be to communicate — Weekly, to their neighbors the result of their inquiries and speculations on political occurrences and other important Subjects particularly calculated to suit this place.”
The declaration signaled the launch of a newspaper known as the Plain Dealer. The only problem with the proposal was the inability of organizers to obtain a printing press. Improvising with the resources at hand, they urged authors of opinion pieces to attach handwritten texts to a board in Potter’s Tavern where anyone could read them. A new essay was posted every Thursday. The Plain Dealer protected the anonymity of its contributors, noting in its original appeal for commentary that,“the Secretary being under obligation to keep the names of the persons who write the pieces secret, those that desire it, may communicate their sentiments to the public without the inconvenience of being known or personally criticized.” Patrons of Potter’s Tavern were encouraged to discuss the essays, even to copy them, but the rules prohibited them from taking the original statements home.
Only a few numbers of the Plain Dealer survive, something of a miracle considering their fragile composition. The first essay appeared in late December 1775, fully six months after the Battle of Bunker Hill. The author showed no interest in American resistance, advocating instead a campaign to raise the general level of public education. The writer invited everyone “both male and female who have ability or inclination to serve in this way” to help improve Bridgeton’s intellectual life. Over the next several Thursdays only one essay directly addressed the political situation. It excoriated “rank Tories” and “TurnCoats,” and praised the “True Whigs,” who believed that “all power is derived from the people and not from any imaginary divine right.” This attempt to distinguish friends from enemies did not generate as much discussion as did the next week’s contribution, a somewhat prurient analysis of bundling, a practice encouraging courting couples in Cumberland County to spend the night together in bed.
Little more than a month later, by the end of January 1776, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the imperial crisis. Local writers struggled to comprehend how armed resistance in distant cities such as Boston might play out in Bridgeton. Public discussion exposed differences of opinion. The growing intensity of the tavern exchanges certainly annoyed one writer, who insisted that he was a “true Son of Liberty.” He declared that Lord North and his allies in Parliament “are a pack of rascals, & deserve to have their brains beat out.” The author also thought that many locals who loudly proclaimed support for the American cause were hypocrites who“would Immediately change sides if a good opportunity offer’d.” In his opinion, most of the townsmen who pontificated about politics were ignorant fools. “I believe,” he informed readers at Potter’s Tavern, “many people who talk about politics know about as much of the matter as a hog does Latin, or a Horse of divinity.” These know it alls reminded him of a monkey climbing a maypole.“The higher an ignorant man gets,” the author insisted, “the more he will show his A .”
However irritating it may have been to listen to half-baked assertions, the people of Bridgeton gradually found that they could no longer escape the revolutionary ferment. In their small, rural town everyday political conversation over drinks became more heated, more partisan. People increasingly found that they had to declare where they stood; neutrality was no longer a public option. The flow of events persuaded the writers of the final surviving issues of the Plain Dealer to explain to the readers at Potter’s Tavern how Britain’s rulers were responsible for the political situation. One person prepared a proAmerican history of Parliament’s senseless at tack on colonial liberty. Another essay recounted the death of Richard Montgomery, a Continental Army general, during an ill-fated American attack on British fortifications at Quebec City. The local conversation was no longer about pompous neighbors pretending to know more about the imperial crisis than did their friends. One essay called for courage and sacrifice: “Arouse my Countrymen. let us draw our swords, and never return them into their scabboards [sic], till we have rescued our Country, from the Iron hand of Tyranny, and secured the pure enjoyment of Liberty, to generations yet unborn!”
The results of the political discussion in Bridgeton were not much different from those occurring in other settlements throughout America. The point is that the people who read the handwritten postings, arguing points and making concessions, came to an understanding of organized resistance to imperial power that was not only fundamentally local, but also similar to the kinds of conversations taking place in other communities. Potter’s Tavern was the site where men and women crafted their own stories of revolution, a narrative of pigs, horses, and monkeys, of the death of generals and drawn swords, and not of great political philosophers. It was around the posted essays of the Plain Dealer where folksy observations about misrule energized mobilization for war.
Captain Joseph Bloomfield, then a local lawyer who later became governor of New Jersey, appreciated how his friends and neighbors in Cumberland County had transformed the discussion of political grievance into a commitment for military service that might cost them their lives. Facing a newly recruited company of Continental soldiers on March 26, 1776 — almost three months before Congress proclaimed national independence — Bloomfield recognized young men in the group who had grown up in this community. They were his neighbors, the sons of friends. “As most of you were born and brought up in this place with me,” he observed, “I feel my self greatly interested in your welfare & success.”
Bloomfield then spoke to the men about why the confrontation with Britain now required armed resistance. It was an eloquent speech. “The American states [have] entered a new era of politics,” he explained. At such a moment the soldiers must stand together, avoiding faction and confusion that could promote anarchy and lead to the rise of an“aspiring Demagogue, possessed of popular talents and shining qualities, a Julius Caesar, or an Oliver Cromwell . . . [who] will lay violent hands on the government, and sacrifice the liberties of his country to his own ambitions and dominating humor.” It would be a hard fight.“Some of you will lose your lives in battle,” and should that happen they should know“you will die gloriously; you will expire in the defense of your country, and suffer martyrdom in the cause of liberty.”
The audience probably appreciated Bloomfield’s stirring words. He spoke the language of an educated gentleman. But for the local men going off to war, political conversion to the American cause had occurred earlier. As one writer of an earthy essay commented in the Plain Dealer, “I believe the best method to frighten hogs out of mischief is to lug them well by the ears.”