It would be hard to find another book about the origins of the American Revolution that is so stunningly original and yet so...



It would be hard to find another book about the origins of the American Revolution that is so stunningly original and yet so deeply troublesome. At a time when most historians are preoccupied with the intricacies of Revolutionary ideology and the complexities of Revolutionary social structure--subjects that dispose us to think of the movement for Independence as rational and reasonable--Peter Shaw draws our attention to the often erratic, alien, and downright loony behavior of patriot crowds and patriot leaders. His argument--a tour de force of inspired research and fearless theorizing--consists of three propositions: first, that the emotional source of this behavior was the patriots' need to suppress and displace anxiety-producing resentments against imperial authority before 1776; second, that very old traditions of popular celebration and protest, especially the Pope's Day of New England, supplied a mechanism or vehicle for the displacement of these resentments and anxieties; and third, that the results were ""rituals of Revolution""--conflations of new personal need and old collective ceremonies, sustaining the struggle against British policy and preparing Americans to strike out on their own. In support of his case Shaw writes lucidly about the origins of such practices as tarring and feathering, decodes the symbolism of protest cartoons and banners, and draws brilliant portraits of four very prominent and very eccentric patriots: John Adams, Joseph Hawley, James Otis, Jr., and Josiah Quincy, Careful readers will be troubled at many points along the way, however. Shaw neglects to consider the Loyalists, an important omission because more than a few Loyalists had been ""patriots"" prior to 1776 and the patriot movement was thus not so monolithic as Shaw sometimes seems to imply. The burden of his evidence comes from New England, and he makes no effort even to conjecture about the relevance of his argument elsewhere. He psychologizes a little too freely to inspire real confidence (how do we know, for example, that we can use Freud's modern fable of rebellion against paternal authority in the primal horde to describe what was wrong with James Otis?). Finally, Shaw's dogged pursuit of what was non-rational and bizarre about the Revolution keeps fostering the impression that he thinks the patriots had no real grievances worth fighting about--an impression strengthened by his solicitous treatment of Thomas Hutchinson, the Loyalist Governor of Massachusetts and (for good reasons) bête noir of patriots throughout the country. Major reservations about a major contribution.

Pub Date: March 1, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1981