In the past two years, the Tea Party has noisily aligned the patriot cause in the American Revolution with its own rebellion against the government. From the first months of the Obama administration, when Rick Santelli of CNBC lamented the bailout of “losers’ mortgages” and recommended dumping government-backed securities into Lake Michigan, the spirits of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere have been summoned for reactionary ends. This is a disorienting moment for liberals: a generation after social historians claimed the events of 1776 for the people rather than the elites, the followers of Jim DeMint and Michele Bachmann are massing in their tricorns outside government buildings to denounce the extension of health insurance.
Liberal historians have mounted a counteroffensive. Last year, Harvard’s Jill Lepore and Northwestern’s T.H. Breen published books that castigated today’s conservatives for ransacking the nation’s founding story. But even within the ivory tower, the debate over the Tea Party’s historical claims has been acrimonious. Gordon Wood, emeritus professor at Brown and one of the deans of Revolutionary scholarship, recently accused Lepore of displaying “academic contempt” toward ordinary Americans and their “special need for authentic historical figures in the here and now.” According to Wood, Lepore doesn’t understand the resonance of the Revolution in the conservative imagination, or the pull of “popular memory” on the public at large. Beyond trying to label Lepore as an egghead and a snob, Wood raises a more serious question: what if the Tea Partiers are right to claim affinity with the patriot rank-and-file who tipped New England toward revolution? After all, the angry radicals of 1774 and 1775 sustained a visceral hatred of distant rule and an abiding belief that they could run their affairs without intrusive central government. They took bold action without waiting for directions from the Continental Congress, and were unafraid to use intimidation (and even violence) to draw the lines against friends and neighbors who were slow to support the cause.
Contemporary historians often present the period from 1775 to 1789 as a coherent and deliberate drive by a resolute American populace to secure independence and a lasting republican government. Wood has written several key books that reinforce this view, making him an unlikely instigator of a fresh struggle over the meaning of the Revolution. But after more than a decade of fat bestsellers and epic miniseries about the genius of the founding fathers, perhaps the Tea Party will challenge us to revisit our assumptions about the homogeneity and clarity of the patriot cause. As the Tea Partiers identify with the broiling world of the patriot grassroots, we might even take a second look at their principal antagonists: the many thousands of loyalists who refused to join the war against Britain.
Liberty’s Exiles, Maya Jasanoff’s terrific new book about the Revolution’s biggest losers, is not an apology for George III or his embattled supporters in the colonies. But when you finish reading it, you may agree that the loyalists earned the right to be considered Americans even as they balked at deserting Britain. At the very least, their story offers something more nuanced and revealing than either founder hagiography or the furious rejectionism of the Tea Party. The loyalists are so absent from the “popular memory” of the Revolution—and even from many academic studies—that most of us would be hard-pressed to name one; Benedict Arnold, maybe, though his fame endures precisely because he seemed like a good patriot until his treachery. And yet somewhere between a fifth and a third of the white population—perhaps half a million Americans—remained loyal to Britain in 1776. Liberty’s Exiles gives us a chance to ask some overdue questions about them. Why did they not hold the truths of 1776 to be self-evident? And what happened to the 60,000 or so who fled the United States by the war’s end?