A History All Our Own: Identity, 1763–1776
A mid the turbulence of the 1760s, a group of articulate, youthful American dissidents made a declaration of America’s historical independence from Great Britain. Before political independence was pronounced, before anyone, including themselves, wished for independence, these men began to fashion and promulgate a new, separate history for their communities. They broke with the historical ideas of their fathers, the Whig maxims so dear to previous generations—including older leaders of colonial resistance. In his book A Season of Youth, Michael Kammen has explored our lingering attachment to the American Revolution as a “rite of passage.” For the younger revolutionaries, it was in fact such a rite. The controversy over British imperial policy between 1761 and 1776 was the occasion for their entry into the world of political strife. To that struggle for power they brought the idealism and optimism of their youth. Edmund Randolph, a youthful protagonist in the upheaval, later recalled: “The young . . . reacted on their fathers with new opinions, new demands, and new prospects.” Assigning meaning to the ideological and political currents that swirled about them, they made the discipline of history the voice of their search for identity and their idea of the independent history of America a metaphor of their public coming of age.1
The oldest of these young men, John Adams, was the first to survey the new historical ground. In his A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law (1765), prepared for the Boston press, he sharply distinguished Old World beliefs and institutions from those characteristically American. In Europe, one found “a wicked confederacy between the two systems of tyranny . . . [bishops and kings]. It seems to have been even stipulated between them that the temporal grandees should contribute every thing in their power to maintain the ascendancy of the priesthood, and the spiritual grandees in their turn should employ their ascendancy over the consciences of the people in impressing on their minds a blind implicit obedience to civil magistracy.” Adams refrained from glorifying the mother country’s history, for England was not exempted from this pattern. She still had bishops (active ones, if the Puritans’ fears of an American episcopate were justified), and her kings still could be tyrants. Against this system of autocracy a few brave, wise men rebelled—not by raising the standard of liberty in Europe but by casting their fortunes with a new world. “It was this great struggle which peopled America. It was not religion alone as is commonly supposed; but it was a love of universal liberty, and an hatred, a dread, an horror, of the infernal confederacy, before described.” Adams continued, “After their arrival here, they began their settlements, and formed their plan . . . in direct opposition to the canon and the feudal systems.” One must not miss the significance of Adams’s argument. He was separating American history from British history.2
As other young men joined the protest movement, they gave voice to similar visions of historical separatism. American history had made the colonies an asylum for liberty; should Britain fail, history had begun here another experiment in liberty. In 1768, James Wilson, a young immigrant from Scotland to Philadelphia, committed to paper (though not yet to print) a historical disquisition on the independence of America. Philip Freneau, an aspiring Princeton poet, set these yearnings for a new and worthy American past to verse in 1771:
But what change is here!—
What arts arise! What towns and capitals!
Our forefathers came from Europe’s hostile shores to these abodes,
Here to enjoy a liberty in faith,
Secure from tyranny and base control.
And found new shores, and Sylvan settlements
New Governments (their wealth unenvied yet),
Were formed on liberty and nature’s plan.
Paradise anew, shall flourish.
Freneau’s message was clear: one need only note that the “forefathers” he praised were not conceived as English settlers but as the founders of new communities, historical originals.3 Continuing British impositions gave urgency to the younger revolutionaries’ irreversible historical separatism. Even the youngest of the generation of 1776, Alexander Hamilton, made his debut in the pamphlet wars carrying the banner of an independent American history. No sooner was the slight, graceful youth of seventeen enrolled in the King’s College of New York than he rushed to answer the Loyalist contentions of the New York “Farmer” (actually Anglican cleric Samuel Seabury). In his replies, Hamilton condemned “old parchments” and “musty records.” Although he found the history of England and America linked at many points, the links were coordinate, not sub- and superordinate. For his purposes, American history was every bit as important as English history in establishing the colonists’ right to political freedom.4
In the most ringing historical disquisition of all, lines that would make him the penman of the Revolution, young Thomas Jefferson placed the case for American rights entirely upon the wilderness shore of the Atlantic. The natural rights philosophy in his Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774) borrowed abstractions from the Old World but drew force from use of American history. The settlers had conquered the continent not as agents of the crown but as independent entrepreneurs: “For themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone.” Americans had political rights not as Englishmen, petitioning the king for a portion of their inheritance, but as a “free people, claiming their rights as derived from the laws of nature.” In 1775, Jefferson drafted a declaration of the causes of taking up arms which asserted that the settlers had “established civil societies with various forms of constitutions (but possessing all what is inherent in all), the full and perfect powers of legislation.” The people of Virginia constituted a political community with a history separate from that of England, based upon their own authority and law.5
Jefferson and his youthful allies had arrived at an unexpected conclusion: American history was not a continuation or recapitulation of English history. Whig political theory had rested upon a different Anglo-American historical concept—a concept of continuity. The “British constitution” which the older American dissidents of the 1760s—for example, James Otis, Jr., Daniel Dulany, and John Dickinson—lauded was rooted in English history. According to the canons of Anglo-American Whig history, colonists’ full partnership in English history conferred English liberties upon Americans. With justice, the young revolutionaries’ decision to sever these historical ties may be called novel. Although the idea of an independent American history was not without precedent in the colonies—Puritan divines long had spoken of the special destiny of their communities—the young men who fabricated the separatist history of the 1760s and early 1770s were not the inheritors of Puritan biblical typology. Many of these youths were not conventionally religious, and all of them regarded political questions as secular matters. The forces they discerned behind events were human, not divine, and their narratives focused on human acts, not divine omens. Indeed, their historical ideas derived from a materialistic, scientific culture, an empire of reason and human resources, incomprehensible without its close ties to English thought and theory.6
The Whig scholarly tradition embraced a liberty based on “English ideas and English principles.” The young patriots often spoke of themselves as the full possessors of the privileges of Englishmen, despite the colonial status of their communities. “They knew the origins and the history of the rights to which they so persuasively laid claim,” H. Trevor Colbourn has written. Anglo-American history—not separatist history—ought then to have been their intellectual home until other considerations forced them to abandon it. Nevertheless, in the years before independence, they voluntarily set forth upon the journey to a new, autonomous history.7
Admittedly, within the Whig tradition, history was often regarded as no more than a method of arguing from concrete examples. If the commitment to an independent American history by the young men of the Revolution was incidental to their condemnation of things English, then their separatist history might be regarded as a rationalization, adversarial points to deny English authority in America. Following this line of reasoning one could expect some older revolutionary leaders to anticipate or at least embrace quickly the concept of a separate American history. This did not occur. While just as vehement in their protests against England, the older generation of American rebels did not espouse the theory of an independent American past until after 1776. Mature revolutionaries clung instead to Anglo-American history, or provincial history, as one may term such chronicles when Americans wrote them, because it was the language of their political apprenticeship. The younger revolutionaries mastered politics under different circumstances and used history in a different fashion. They did not discard other histories—merely uncoupled American history from them. The variation is striking.
The theme that dominated the historical essays of provincial Americans was balance. The summum bonum of provincial culture was equilibrium between English authority and American autonomy. The great expositors of this ideal on the eve of the crisis, Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts and William Smith, Jr., of New York, were well into their adulthood. They became Loyalists because they could not accept an America without the harmony and order which such balance brought—a harmony and balance they had learned to accept. In the preface to the first volume of his History of Massachusetts (1754), Hutchinson conceived the empire as a partnership: “The addition of wealth and power to Great Britain in consequence of this first immigration of our ancestors exceeds all expectation. They left their mother country with the strongest assurance that they and their posterity would enjoy the privileges of free and natural born English subjects. May the wealth and power of Britain increase in proportion to the increase of her colonies. May these privileges never be abused; may they be preserved inviolate to the latest posterity.”8 Combined—balanced—in Hutchinson were the themes of autonomy and dependence. Smith’s History of New York warned that upsetting the balance would bring dire consequences to the crown: “For though his Majesty has no other subjects upon whose loyalty he can more firmly depend, yet an abhorence of persecution under any of its appearances is so deeply rooted in the people of this plantation that no attempt will probably be made upon the rights of conscience without endangering the public repose.”9
An ear sympathetic to the larger goals of such Loyalists as Hutchinson and Smith will hear much in common between their vision of Anglo-American liberty and that of earlier generations of colonists. All drew from the same traditions of provincial writing. Protest against imperial injustices regularly appeared in provincial histories—Hutchinson and Smith both voiced such concerns at one or another time in their careers. The provincial chronicler slipped criticism into a philosophical aside, as in William Penn’s secretary James Logan’s assurance that the colonies would be “loyal” so long as they were “treated with tenderness and humanity and not considered only as slavishly subservient to the interest of the country they come from.” Other provincial historians camouflaged protest with dull technical discourse. William Keith, governor of Pennsylvania in the 1720s, reminded British readers that “we shall find, that in the advancement and security of a free commerce is the only solid foundation whereon to raise the interest, power and dignity of any state.” A more rancorous critic of imperial conduct, Dr. William Douglass of Boston, cried out in 1748: “I may be allowed to drop a tear . . . over the languishing state of . . . Massachusetts Bay, formerly the glory of our plantations, but now reduced to extreme misery and distress,” but he added that his purpose was to warn against “innovations upon the established constitution of our colonies.” His virulent attacks upon governors and admirals, policemen and politicians, were never a prelude to separatist history. Benjamin Franklin, whose intellectual fertility had provincial roots, was a master of the hidden protest, an alchemist in alloys of optimism and good sense, practicality and material incentive. He loved the empire but was willing to chastise its rulers for past abuses: “But how contemptibly soever these gentlemen [in England] may talk of the colonies, how cheap soever they may hold their assemblies, or how insignificant the planters and traders who compose them, truth will be truth, and principle, principle notwithstanding.” When Franklin demanded the colonists’ due in the 1750s, he meant the rights of Englishmen in the framework of the British constitution. Protest was normal, within the accepted, conventional boundaries of greater loyalty to the empire and the British constitution.10
It was this carefully circumscribed, balanced form of history that older protesters advanced in their pamphlets during the crisis of 1763–66. Dissent was couched in terms of rights won at Runnymede and Marston Moor and liberties expressed in the Magna Carta and the Act of Settlement. Such Whig stalwarts as Richard Bland, Jr. (who was born in 1710) could not convince themselves to abandon the resources of the British constitution. They agreed that “we must recur to the civil constitution of England, and from thence deduce and ascertain the rights and privileges of the people.” Such deduction might lead to strong stands against Parliament and crown, but not to a new history. When James Otis, Jr., forty years old in 1765, “deduced” the rights of the colonies, he claimed much more autonomy than actually lay in imperial precedent, but, rehearsing the supremacy of Parliament at great length, he never left British history behind. Older pamphleteers of protest held up past American sacrifices and toils with pride and decried the negligence of crown or Parliament, but they assumed that Americans had acted for Britain and deserved to be compensated for their labor. Even Patrick Henry, no stranger to historical hyperbole, saw little need for the separation of American history from English history. In 1775, at the age of thirty-nine, he consistently adopted historical rhetoric that was Anglo-American, and in private conversation he admitted that “men would never revolt against their ancient rulers, while they enjoyed peace and plenty.”11
As the crisis worsened, the older leaders of American resistance confronted the poverty of traditional protest against Parliament. English history led not to the autonomy of the colonies but to the supremacy of Parliament. Nevertheless, committed by experience and fidelity to provincial ideals, the older delegates to the first Continental Congress clung to Anglo-American historical arguments. From such Loyalists as Joseph Galloway this attitude might be expected, but it was also true of a future supporter of independence, the mature (forty-two years old in 1774) Richard Henry Lee. Early in the first session, Lee offered a “fourfold foundation” for the political opposition to the crown based “on nature, on the British constitution, on our charters, and on universal usage.” Though his subject was politics, he would not abandon the old history, at least not yet. As Lee was aware, it had become increasingly difficult to base the protests on the English constitution because the protests challenged the very basis of the constitution’s applicability in America. Nevertheless, as a child of the provincial synthesis, his own identity was tied to a larger imperial connection, and for him it was not easily severed. The voices raised against provincial history at the Congress were younger and belonged to men who had come of age in the crisis era. John Jay of New York, for example, retorted “I can’t think the British constitution inseparably attached to the person of every subject.” He later continued that “the only authority over the colonists” was that derived from the contractual agreement of the first settlers—a separate people—with the crown.12
Resistance to Great Britain did not require the creation of a separate American history, and the older revolutionaries, schooled in the historical writing of the provincial period, did not hazard such a course. Instead, younger revolutionaries sounded the call for a new American history, which older revolutionaries heard and finally adopted as the official creed of the movement. The older leadership accepted the new historical vision because it pointed the way out of a cul-de-sac in Anglo-American history: there was no legitimate appeal, within the history of the imperial system, from king in Parliament. And if the colonists wished to place themselves under the king (for they lived in that legal fiction called his “ancient domain”), then they must bow to his instructions. A separate history—a history that began with their flight from tyranny, tied them to crown and Parliament only by their own consent, and left them autonomous—was a history that supported the claims of right against tyranny, including the right to rebel.
Although the younger revolutionaries advocated the separation of American and English history almost as soon as they burst upon the political scene, they did not demand (or envision) actual independence for the colonies until late in the crisis. Both Adams and Jefferson, for example, believed reconciliation to be possible and desirable through the winter of 1775. The sequence of their ideas—the demand for a severing of historical ties long before a hesitant espousal of independence—suggests that the young rebels’ historical pronouncements were not propaganda for political independence. The implications of this fact are worth pursuing. The young men of 1776 went to some trouble to fabricate (an appropriate word, for their history was deliberately manufactured for the occasion) a separatist view of history but did not desire to follow the practical implications of their own ideas. The younger protesters must at first have aimed at a different target than independence. They insisted that their goal was recognition of the rights of Americans. They also sought recognition of themselves as a new generation of spokesmen for the colonies. Their purpose was at the same time greater and less than independence: a striving for identity, in which their new vision of American history worked upon two levels. The first level was public and brought them and their ideas before revolutionary councils; the second was intensely personal and attached their own fortunes, as new men, to the fate of the protest movements.13
It was the young who yearned for a new history, for it is the young who need a new history. Their existence—their identity and uniqueness as individuals—cannot be derived from examination of old histories. To Hugh Henry Brackenridge, then an undergraduate at Princeton, it seemed as though “‘Tis but the morning of the world with us.” So it might appear, for youth is a state of suspended animation, no longer childhood and not yet full maturity, at least maturity that others recognize and respect. The young person wants and needs to be someone different from others, including himself as a child. Strong emotional currents swirl through this period of adjustment and adaptation. The struggle within the individual may become violent, for it involves the rejection of childhood and the authorities who govern a child’s life. A second theme of this stage of life is alienation, denial, and rejection. This can be fruitful, for it is against the authority of parents and surrogate parental figures that the youth must battle to establish identity. There is also a demand for unity of experience, for “allness” and wholeness in life. The youth attempts to pull together fragments of new and old experience, to create a new person. The challenge of identity may be postponed or partially overcome, but if it is to be met fully and successfully, the young person must assemble the materials for an integrated, adaptive personality. An individual may be more and less conscious of these strivings, but those who recognize the challenge and deal with it truly fuse their psychological needs with the larger social concerns of their world.14
Although today one associates the search for identity with adolescence, this was not the case in preindustrial societies. Martin Luther did not resolve this challenge until his thirties. There are sound demographic reasons to argue that all forms of maturation took place later in life in centuries before our own. Dependence upon the family, particularly upon patriarchal, authoritarian families, and the control that such families had over their children, lasted longer in the eighteenth century than they do today. Education and courtship were more disciplined, giving less scope to the early development of identity. This does not mean that the early modern Western youth did not experience the pains of the transition from childhood to adulthood. There was such a period, filled with the sturm-und-drang of alienation and rebellion, the search for wholeness and uniqueness, and visions of universes of possibilities. One finds the telltale evidence of such struggles in ministers’ warnings against too worldly a late adolescence, tutors’ protests against their collegiate charges’ rowdiness, and parental condemnation of the sins of youth. These excesses were often far more fearsome to authority figures than dangerous to the youth—for what may have seemed disobedience to those above was often the young striving for identity. One may therefore posit an extended period of identity crisis for the young men of the Revolution, from their late teens until their middle twenties and perhaps beyond.15
The concept of identity crisis offers a new perspective upon the role of the young revolutionaries in the uprising. Historical separation from Great Britain may be viewed as an expression of the search for a separate, worthwhile identity by young men caught in a period of great stress for themselves and great danger for their society. This combination of personal needs and larger public problems provided the dynamic for the declaration of American historical independence before the 1776 document was composed. Other generations of young colonials faced similar identity crises, but in no other period of colonial history did their communities simultaneously strive so openly for self-definition and mature political status. As the personal became the political for these youths, so their own need for independence merged into their colonies’ drive for autonomy.
This wedding of private life and public concerns was predictable. In the eighteenth-century American colonies, making one’s way into adulthood was for the ambitious, able, propertied youth of the upper and middle classes synonymous with entering public life at some level. Civil duty and political participation were enjoined upon able young men, and many youths fulfilled these obligations. Young southern revolutionaries such as Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Edward Rutledge obeyed the call “in which all private considerations were to yield to the public good” while still in their teens. John Adams’s recollections of personal turning points in his youthful diary were invariably triggered by political events in which he had a part. For the young men of the Revolution, personal development and political causes were linked in everyday life. Even if young people from this milieu did not seek office, they kept abreast of political news, supported and often knew candidates, and sought or secured favors from government. Their rise to emotional adulthood was at one and the same time a personal rite of passage and a political event, a transition from private to public life which the entire community witnessed.16
There were many ways in which young men could express their hopes and fears as they made this passage. For those entering public life in the tumultuous 1760s and 1770s, a struggle against the tyranny of an autocratic father figure must have seemed inviting. They could act out, in the public arena, their need for identity, wholeness, and power—without violating the social norms of their real parents. They could seek personal identity in the drive for American identity. The very same language that clergymen and parents had used to denounce the private licentiousness of youth, the Loyalists adopted to describe the young revolutionaries’ aims. The rebels were naughty schoolchildren, Anglican priest Myles Cooper of New York wrote at the height of the prewar disorders: cavorting while the teacher’s back was turned, they “cabal, harrangue, resolve, rebel, associate, [and] run away.” Although this Loyalist thesis had its roots in the assumption of hierarchical relationships in families, including political families, one must not dismiss the insight out of the hand. There was much groping for personal meaning and expression of youthful alienation and negation in the young revolutionaries’ declarations.17
Were the young men of 1776 experiencing a period of identity crisis, in which the controversy with Great Britain came to play a major, creative role, and did visions of a new history help them to face the crisis? Before the end of the French and Indian War, while still in his twenties, John Adams confided to his diary that he sought fame above all else. A sincere Puritan, he struggled with pride daily, indulging his intellect and curbing his acerbic passion for ideas by diving into the theoretical depths of every subject he studied. Though married and a lawyer of growing reputation in 1765, his thirtieth year, he was still young and eager in his ambition for public notice. He soothed ambition with applications of Puritan homily but burned all the while with the desire to command attention. In one arena his personal goal and his Puritan convictions coincided: in the published admonition, the scholarly newspaper article and pamphlet on political morality, a road to greatness lay open to him. His dissertation on the canon and feudal law was an “old style” sermon brought up-to-date. With it, and the stream of essays and letters on historical subjects that followed, he became a public man. Henceforth, his identity lay in the advocacy of the great cause of the people, and history was his voice.18
On the opposite end of the spectrum of age lies a second example of identity crisis and historical revision. In 1773, Hamilton introduced himself to the Presbyterian elite of Elizabethtown, New Jersey. Newly arrived from his mother’s home in the Virgin Islands, he was but sixteen years old. With polish and presence of mind he insinuated himself into the good graces of Elias Boudinot and others, patrons who would help him to the next step in his career—admission to King’s College. Though without family or means, Hamilton was as ambitious as Adams and far more aggressive. Avid, confident, and quick, the youthful undergraduate soon sat at the feet of New York’s leading Whigs. With other young men climbing the same ladder (from a position many rungs higher than his own), he found the crisis a source of energy and opportunity. In it, he could test his powers and, by so doing, bring himself to the attention of and receive assistance from established political figures. He would soon cast off the role of revolutionary writer for that of revolutionary soldier, but his identity was secured by his pen and the vision of a new history it proclaimed.19
Jefferson has left perhaps the fullest evidence of the connection between the coming of age of a young revolutionary and his need for a new history. Like Adams’s, Jefferson’s was a delayed identity crisis. He had taken a seat in the House of Burgesses in 1769, an aspiring lawyer, accomplished scholar, amateur scientist, a man of intellectual passions. His idealistic faith in simple republicanism and liberty—a radical faith in an age still dominated by status and wealth—had not yet burst forth. His budding legal practice and inherited lands provided a reasonable income, to which marriage to a vivacious young widow would bring additional wealth. His upcountry ways were quaint but no longer uncommon in the corridors of Williamsburg’s brick houses. To others, he seemed a man of promise, and from within he was driven by the same yearning as Adams and Hamilton: he wanted recognition. When he joined the revolutionary cadre, well into his twenties, his study of history and his pronouncements on the past combined personal feelings with public opinions. He criticized the older Virginia legislators, whose minds “were circumscribed within narrow limits, by an habitual belief that it was our duty to be subordinate to the mother country in all matters of government.” As protest mounted in other colonies, “not thinking our old and leading members [of Burgesses] up to the point of forwardness and zeal which the times required,” Jefferson met with a number of other young men to plot rebellion. “A new generation had grown up,” unwilling to submit to British authority. Jefferson, with results we have already seen, led the search into history to prove this new generation was the legitimate expositor of American rights. By one account, Jefferson’s personal life had come to a crisis in these years, and his advocacy of rebellion against Britain was a release from his struggle against maternal control. One may, if one chooses to follow the parental imagery of the Declaration of Independence closely, trace his movement back and forth between resentment against parental restraints placed on him and on the colonies as a whole. It suffices for our purposes to recognize the way Jefferson resolved delayed personal identity conflicts of whatever nature with an appeal to a new American history. With “all the zeal and enthusiasm which belonged to [our] age,” as John Marshall put other young planters’ conversion to revolutionary activism, these men fashioned an independent history of America.20
Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson were typical of this generation. For these young men, history was both the trusted teacher of politics and the vehicle by which they might gain esteem in public arenas. With the aid of historical pamphlets, letters, and essays, the last course in a graduate school of public service, the young men traversed the path from private youthful concerns to adult political responsibilities. Entry into politics had presumed an apprenticeship in ideas long before this generation arrived on the scene. The young men of the Revolution were thoroughly schooled in the utility of historical studies before they went into the wider world of affairs. Some, like Jefferson and Adams, kept careful records of their historical inquiries, following the principle that every endeavor must improve the individual as well as his society. To Adams, the study of history was worthwhile because it allowed the student to distinguish and to pursue that which was useful; it taught the lessons of real life. Jefferson insisted that history contributed “to the information of all those concerned in the administration of government.” History, to Adams, Jefferson, and others would remain an essential link between private and public life, spanning the two in the most virtuous way.21
Certain historical terms, actually formulaic references to a “new history” or a “rising empire,” became for these young men a conventional medium to announce conversion to the revolutionary cause. One case in point: Timothy Pickering returned to Salem from Harvard in 1763, a gangling, uncertain youth of eighteen years. For the next decade, while he sought a wife and a career, he vacillated between Loyalism and Whig opposition. When at last he chose the revolutionary cause, he reached for a historical formula to express his decision. His future direction—his adult loyalties—determined, he portrayed himself as one of the founders of “a new empire.” His radical audience easily decoded the message; Pickering had cast his lot with them. Mastery of these new historical conventions was recognized as a passport to revolutionary political prominence. With this in mind, James Madison advised his college classmate William Bradford to study history: for it seems “to be of the most universal benefit to men of sense and taste in every post and must certainly be of great use to youth in settling the principles and refining the judgment.” So it was, Bradford replied, as he took up his books. James Wilson carefully polished his shelved 1768 disquisition on the historical rights of the colonies and presented it in his debut before the 1774 Pennsylvania Provincial Congress—realizing that his burgeoning political career might rest upon the reception his address received. He was correct; his reputation among the revolutionaries gained ground when his remarks circulated. Alexander Hamilton, though but two years in the mainland colonies and only a King’s College freshman, sallied forth against the Loyalist pamphlets of Samuel Seabury, firing historical broadsides as he went. Elbridge Gerry of Marblehead, Massachusetts, though a Harvard graduate and nearly out of his twenties by the time that General Thomas Gage entered Boston, also found an adult identity in the struggle against the crown and explained his rite of passage in historical terms. He might live in his father’s house, remain unmarried, and work with his older brothers in the family business, but in the Whig protest against Parliament he played an independent, mature role. He gave this role larger meaning by arguing before local meetings and writing to Sam Adams in Boston that the American “people” were a different sort of men from those who ruled and were ruled in England. Americans had learned rationality and virtue in the New World, qualities that distinguished them from Englishmen. It was a difference between “we” and “they” deeply rooted in American history.22
Differences between “we” and “they” underlying the different historical traditions of America and England became particularly apparent to young American students in London during the crisis. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney reported how he gloried in the role of an American when news of the Stamp Act protests in South Carolina reached the imperial capital. More thoughtful responses to these events brought similar results. While studying medicine in Edinburgh, Benjamin Rush gradually discovered that Americanism and republicanism fit together. He kept his revelation to himself, but his new receptivity linked a growing sense of personal independence to an aroused concern for American interests. He began to read history, and shortly after his return to Philadelphia, he encouraged Thomas Paine to circulate his own radical views of history. Rush liked the notions of Common Sense, which at its center was a plea for the sovereignty of American history. Not long after Rush sponsored Paine’s polemical history, the physician assumed his first revolutionary political office.23
Not all of the young men of the Revolution liberated themselves from tyrannical kings and more immediate parental authority by indulging in historical flights, but many did turn to history—American history—to understand their own situation. When they did, they found the notion of independence attractive, for it met personal as well as political needs. One finds striking resemblances between the substance of their historical essays and the characteristic concerns of youth in the identity crisis. First, out of the many pieces of their experience they built a new composite. Fragments of Roman and Greek annals, of Saxon chronicle and later European narrative, were pasted together with colonial events to explain the settlers’ experiences and expectations. Remarkable catalogs of historical precedents, willy-nilly, in John Adams’s notes for his speech on the Quebec bill before the first Continental Congress—“Romish religion/Feudal Government . . . Goths and Vandals—overthrew the Roman Empire. Danger to us all. An house on fire”—went into pronouncements on the American historical experience. But all roads led to the present, in an egocentric quest for a larger meaning to the rebellion. These historical pastiches were not just decorative to the young rebels, nor, as we have seen, were they a residue of Whig historical lessons. Their significance for their fabricators lay in an entirely different mental space. To the young men of the Revolution, non-American historical episodes and maxims were the whirling debris of the Whig historical universe which the crisis had exploded. Unaffected by contradiction, the young revolutionaries rearranged the pieces and added new ones of their own. Strive as later historians might to make full sense of the revolutionaries’ jumble of Saxon laws and anti-common-law pronouncements, appeals to the Magna Carta and denunciations of aristocracy, and countless other contradictions, they remain evidence of the youthful origin of the first independent history. The eclecticism of the young revolutionaries’ separatist history was produced in part by the haste and zeal of its makers, but more important, it was a sign of their capacity to build their own world from portions of old and new experience.24
The historical separatism of these young men was filled with alienation and anger. Freneau, poet laureate of the Whig Clio-Sophic—Clio, of course, the Greek muse of history—society at Princeton whose number included Madison and Brackenridge, swore: “Rage gives me wings and boldly prompts me on.” Historical study counseled those promptings, and this in 1770, when older, wiser men still sought compromise. The king had betrayed his children, leaving them to fend for themselves at the outset of colonization and oppressing them as they grew toward maturity. The anger the younger rebels displayed here might, in some measure, have originated deep within their own guilt at rising up against an anointed king and his legitimate government. This was still a patriarchal age, and the king was the head of the family. Some felt anxiety at their disobedience, which may or may not have amounted to patricide in their minds, but could not express that anxiety if they were to pursue their revolutionary aims. In personal situations guilt of this nature is often replaced by anger at others for real or imagined injustices. It can be argued that until 1774, the crown had done relatively little to merit such abuse. The rejection of childhood and childhood’s submission in this stage of life is often marked by a totalism—an unwillingness to compromise. In such fashion, Jefferson’s indictment of George III in the second half of the Declaration of Independence hardly did justice to the subtlety of the author’s mind or the reality of the king’s conduct. Instead, it placed the king totally in the wrong and the American people totally in the right. That this historical brief had propaganda value cannot be denied, but its passion went far deeper than informing public opinion. Jefferson’s prose boiled with inner anger and alienation.25
The anger and zeal of youth may be constructive, especially when harnessed to genuine struggles for liberty, for the aim of this anger is to build a new life. The creation of a new history, with themselves at its center, helped the generation of 1776 transform anger into identity. For some, it was a life belt in a sea of turmoil. Impoverished, frustrated, and unable to vent his feelings, Noah Webster found life at Yale difficult. The Revolution gave him a cause; he would be its prophet and interpreter. Alienated from his father and family, he found, in American history, the traits of honest and dogged virtue that his father had pressed upon him. From his first Primer and Essays, every lesson he offered the public would be couched in historical narrative. As hostile as other young rebels were to authority, they depended upon their past, their childhoods, for identity models. The moral fervor with which the young revolutionaries wrote their histories, the sterling moral qualities they assigned to the settlers, their “forefathers,” were in reality the very values parents, ministers, and teachers had demanded from every generation of colonial youth. With righteousness borrowed in this fashion from parents and teachers, the young men of the Revolution could justify their attacks on illegitimate authority—corrupt father-king and mother country. Their histories, shaped by their incorporation of parental models, told them that good men had to struggle for liberty if they wished to preserve it. Whatever disorder the young rebels might have to condone, whatever destruction of property they might allow, was justified by history—their own, made into their nation’s.26
In their drive to bring wholeness to their own experience, to give themselves an identity in this chronology of strife, they homogenized the historical variety of colonization and imperial relations into simple categories and telescoped one hundred and fifty years of colonial growth into what seemed to be no more than a generation. When Adams took up his pen to warn against the importation of bishops, he could have delved into the difference between the first New England Puritan churches and the Anglican establishment of the mother country. Cotton Mather had done just that, continuing the older English confrontation between dissenters and Episcopalians. But Adams did not want to ground his Dissertation in the connections between England’s and New England’s histories. He wished instead to distance American history from its English roots. Jefferson’s Summary View did not attempt to distinguish the variety of reasons that brought the settlers to the English colonies. He idealized and generalized the motives for colonization because he wished to portray the character of future Americans as being very different from that of their English brethren. His emphasis upon the common rights of the immigrants reduced very complex events to simple lessons. In this way, Adams and Jefferson manipulated the past to root their own vigor and virtue in earlier generations. They made American history into their history; its independence from parents (that is, from king and empire) was theirs; its wholeness was theirs, and they gloried in it.27
This young man’s new history celebrated the new and the young—befitting the ambitions of men newly established in their identity as builders of a nation. “Getting forward,” as Brackenridge put it, meant more than finding clients for his new law practice—it entailed establishing an empire in the wilderness. The young revolutionaries did not hunger for a provincial reputation. They wanted an identity separate from England, yet one as large and worthy as they thought the empire might once have been. The American settlements were not great—but might the purpose and promise of the young men of 1776 not be omens of future greatness? Their own grandiose estimates of the North American colonies’ role in the history of liberty reassured the young revolutionaries that the future was theirs. America was the “asylum” nature provided for her worthiest refugees. Benjamin Rush boasted that “from its remote and unconnected situation with the rest of the globe [the asylum] might have remained a secret for ages” (the great importance of the British Empire would confute his argument, so he ignored the colonial status of the American settlements), but “British oppressions” gave notice to the world that the Americans would not tolerate tyranny. The rebellious colonies were now to be the center of the universe. All eyes would turn to America; all people would remember what happened there. As Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on the eve of the Fourth of July, 1776, “Yesterday, the greatest question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater, perhaps, never was nor will be decided among men.” Hyperbole, from a man given to caution, makes sense when the subject is the identity he had struggled to build for over a decade. Destiny spoke to these men through their new vision of history and heralded an entirely new age for men—a limitless universe of possibilities. They could, if they read the message of their own historical discovery properly, change the world in a fashion that no men had before.28
The recognition of the power that came with independence attracted these young men. All of them were ambitious, and independence offered the capacity to be one’s own person and determine one’s own future. With this goal in mind, the young revolutionaries transformed the notion of “genius” in American history. They took a concept expressing the inspiration of places and transformed it into a concept of individual brilliance. The original meaning of “genius” derives from the Latin for the protecting spirit of a particular place. Though genius might be evil or good, it always had special powers. In 1774, William Bradford told Madison, “Liberty . . . is the genius of Pennsylvania, and its inhabitants think and act with a freedom unknown [elsewhere].” The revolutionaries at first believed the New World conferred this power upon its settlers. As they explored their newly created history, they began to use a recently developed second meaning for the term. Genius came to denote the transforming brilliance of mind of an individual or group, the power that intellect and insight conferred upon men such as themselves. Bradford came upon this definition later in the year and extolled the “genius” of the revolutionary poet Hugh Brackenridge. David Humphreys, a Yale classmate of Webster, extolled the “genius” of the revolutionary leaders in a series of poems begun when peace gave him the opportunity to take up his pen. The revolutionaries had transferred the power of the Latin “genii” from external, supernatural forces to visible, internal, human agents. The young revolutionaries knew where this genius could be found; one had only to look within their own councils. The “genius” of their constitutions would become their watchword.29
The history they wrote and believed true was for these young revolutionaries not simply the history of the colonies but increasingly their own story. It was their heritage and their deeds, fashioned into a basis for an adult identity. Their true parents were not king and empire but the fathers of the settlements. Having chosen their parentage, they could assert freely their true identity: they were the defenders of liberty, of revolution, and finally, of republican independence. Henceforth, the history of America would truly be their history, and its glories, monuments of their identity. By separating American history from the history of Great Britain and its empire, the young men meant to leave the field clearer for the recording of their own deeds. As yet, these feats were few, but were they not mighty in significance? So Adams believed, and John Jay predicted when he told a disgruntled patriot general, Alexander McDougall, “posterity, you know, always does justice.” The desire for fame, a very real part of the universe of possibilities a young man envisions, permeated the historical ideas of the young men of the Revolution. The urge was passive—a willingness to be judged, and active—a hunger for glory and honor. Douglass Adair has captured this passion: “As the war for independence enlarges the provincial stage upon which they act their roles to that of a world theatre, the greatest of the great generation develop an almost obessive desire for fame. They become fantastically concerned with posterity’s judgment of their behavior.” Confident of their revolutionary identity and of their adult responsibilities, the young revolutionaries welcomed the challenges of nation-building. The desire for fame, flickering in their drive for identity, burst forth in their resolution of who they were. It became, to follow Adair, “a dynamic element in the historical process; it rejects the static, complacent urge in the human heart to merely be and invites a strenuous effort to become—to become a person and force in history larger than the ordinary.” History, their golden bridge from the passive studies of youth to the active political life, their spokesman for identity, would also lead them to greatness.30
The frank recognition of their potential role in history marked the way to a successful resolution of the young revolutionaries’ identity crisis. The young men of the Revolution impressed that identity upon the face of reality. They drew from the history they had created before 1776 the materials for new political systems after 1776 and thereby mastered the challenge of identity as few generations have throughout history. In effect, they refashioned their communities in their own new, adult image. The independent states required the energy and confidence of youth and were founded upon forms of representative government that youth had embraced in the crisis period. The young men who operated these new governments had achieved a sense of ego integration, an “accrued confidence” in the inner wholeness and the continuity of their experiences. Placing themselves within the history that they built, they became the inheritors of the protorepublican traditions their forefathers were supposed to have enunciated.31
Out of the fusion of personal and public needs, each reinforcing the other, would come the substance of a national identity, the mirror of the young revolutionaries’ quest for personal independence. A sense of nationhood is nothing more or less than a shared identity, an awareness of communal purposes and expectations. The rise of American nationalism has perplexed historians for two centuries. Americans were held together before 1776 by common ties to England. When these ties were severed, the only sure bond among the colonies was animosity against England. Regional and local infighting at the Continental Congresses was hardly proof of national feeling; quite the contrary. Even the first separatist histories of America, born in the crisis of the 1760s, were as wedded to locality as they were to native aims. Yet behind regional partisanships lay the great shared experience of building communities in the wilderness and defending those communities against aggressors—the fact of actually becoming independent. The young revolutionaries drew upon the reality of the very recent American past to fabricate a national history. They recognized, beneath the details of local difference, a common character and desire in all the colonies as they leaped toward liberty. If the young revolutionaries’ nationalism lay not in the reality of a shared history before 1776, it could be found in these men’s shared effort to define American identity, a common wish for a new kind of nation, based upon their own newly confirmed identity.32