John Adams famously reflected, many years after the fact, that the American Revolution took place long before the war itself began. “The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People,” he wrote, “a Change in their Religious Sentiments of their Duties and Obligations.” When enough Americans came to believe that the King and the Royal Family, for whom they had long been accustomed to pray, actually desired their harm, they began to pray instead “for the Continental Congress and all the thirteen State Congresses, &c.” To be sure, religion was not the only factor in the Revolution. Adams conceded that some people cared less about religion than habitual ties of interest in and affection for the Mother Country. But religion, he believed, had played an essential role.
A new book from Harvard University Press, The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America, discusses the indispensable contribution of ordinary citizens in making the American Revolution a success. No doubt the author, historian T.H. Breen (Library of Congress) addresses the religious commitments of those citizens. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:
A prize-winning historian 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.
Over eight years of war, ordinary Americans accomplished something extraordinary. Far from the actions of the Continental Congress and the Continental Army, they took responsibility for the course of the revolution. They policed their neighbors, sent troops and weapons to distant strangers committed to the same cause, and identified friends and traitors. By taking up the reins of power but also setting its limits, they ensured America’s success. Without their participation there would have been no victory over Great Britain, no independence. The colonial rebellion would have ended like so many others—in failure.
The driving force behind the creation of a country based on the will of the people, T. H. Breen shows, was in fact the people itself. In villages, towns, and cities from Georgia to New Hampshire, Americans managed local affairs, negotiated shared sacrifice, and participated in a political system in which each believed they were as good as any other. Presenting hundreds of stories, Breen captures the powerful sense of equality and responsibility resulting from this process of self-determination.
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.