Sins of the Fathers' Fathers

American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution By Peter Shaw Harvard University Press; 279 pp.

He is the first, the most malignant and insatiable enemy of my country: that he is the chief author and supporter of the calamities under which this people labor...that he has done more general mischiefs and committed greater public crimes than his life can repair or his death satisfy: and that he is the more against whom the blood of my slaughtered brethren cries from the ground.

WHEN THE FIRST American patriots were driven to rhetorical and physical attacks on their colonial lords, they did not do so happily. Their thoughts were not the good-natured, piccolo-accompanied, complaints of "taxation without representation" as advertised by subsequent children's textbooks. Instead, the American grievances with England were more often expressed in anguished and sometimes even irrational terms. Their epithets sometimes more closely resembled the utterings of the Ayatollah Khomeini on the subject of the United States than the pastoral musing we know from Thomas Jefferson. The author of the above passage was not an Iranian "student," nor was he a member of Mao's Red Guard--rather he was an American patriot. His name was Josiah Quincy--and his invective against Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson was hardly uncharacteristic of the times.

The decision to rebel came with agonizing difficulty to most patriots. Torn between a traditional love for the monarch and a growing conviction that his surrogates were abusing the royal prerogative, many like Quincy felt a crushing ambivalence toward their colonial rulers. Indeed, despite his vehement rhetoric, Quincy had once actually defended Hutchinson from the "Rage-intoxicated Rabble" who attacked his home years earlier upon passage of the Stamp Act of 1765. This kind of contradictory behavior characterized the actions of many men of conscience in the late colonial says; it did not come from political opportunism, but from heart-felt confusion about the justification, or lack thereof, for continued British rule in the colonies.

Peter Shaw's latest book, American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution, addresses this ambivalence, as many historians have doen before, but Shaw examines the problem from a psychohistorical perspective. Shaw argues that the American patriots, individually and collectively, partook in ritualized behavior that eventually resulted in insurrectionary impulses, or, in the author's words, "rehearsed a revolution." By participating in ancient rituals of early American society and ammending them in their own particular ways, the patriots displayed a nascent and ultimately unstoppable desire for independence.

IN HIS EXAMINATION of the personal crises of the American patriots, Shaw discusses the psychology of revolution in rather predictable terms, yet he develops his arguments in subtle and convincing ways. Shaw contends that many patriot leaders saw the king as a father figure, for whom they had the usual combination of filial love and resentment. Yet because it was unthinkable to show any disrespect for King George III in the early Stamp Act days, the patriots instead identified a surrogate father to hate--Thomas Hutchinson. Against him they launched a torrent of abuse and terror to relieve their overloaded its. This is no psychobabble. As Bernard Bailyn has pointed out in his sympathetic portrait of Hutchinson, the patriots' anger toward the royal governor surpassed all bounds of fairness, or even common sense. Hutchinson was a scapegoat, blamed for more crimes than even he could have committed, by a populace that had labeled him a villain and could not be convinced otherwise--even by the truth.


Shaw examines the psychological imperatives that drove four specific patriots--James Otis, John Adams, Joseph Hawley and Josiah Quincy--to rebel against the king. For an historian seeking to identify the roots of rebellion, they are not a surprising group: inevitably, they all had problems with their fathers, or father-figures, early in life--the sure trigger to a Pavlovian response from a Freud-fancier. But Shaw pursues the issue with considerable sophistication. The patriots. Shaw believes, saw Hutchinson as the perverter of the king's wishes. By attributing the onus for contested British actions--particularly the Stamp Act. Townshend Duties and Tea Act--to Hutchinson and not the king, the patriots convinced themselves (incorrectly, as it turned out) that Hutchinson was acting on his own and out of control to oppress the hapless American subjects. As Shaw writes:

By making Hutchinson the scapegoat and identifying him as a parricide, the patriots transferred to him the most frightening implication of their political resistance. As a result, they were able to regard themselves as continuingly loyal to the king, even as their readiness for separation matured.

Thus Hutchinson was indeed the crucial intermediary, the man against whom the patriots could excise their lingering anger against their fathers, yet all the while avoiding any confrontation with the ultimate patriarch, George III.

There can be little doubt that the Oedipal stirrings of many American patriots contributed to their willingness to revolt. The four men Shaw portrays were hardly unique in their view of the king as a father. Images of England as an unjust parent appear repeatedly in the pamphlet literature of the period, and influential works like John Dickinson's "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania" rely heavily on the America-as-wronged-child motif. Such metaphors served to remind Americans, in easily acessible terms, of the harshness of the British rejection. As Dickinson wrote. "The parent company...drew to herself the benefits she might reasonably expect, and preserved to her children the blessings, on which those benefits were founded"--a message sure to move almost anyone. Shaw's choice of his four subjects gives a good cross-section of the psychological dilemmas facing the patriots (though one may question his selection of Otis, whose periodic bouts with insanity made it rather difficult to know what he was thinking), and the author makes a convincing case for the parental rejection scenario.

Yet all revolts against the status quo, almost by definition, can be seen as revenge against some real or imagined father. And while these feelings no doubt existed during the American Revolution, it is easy to suppose that this type of emotion may have been even more evident in rebellions against such historically domineering father figures--the French King, the Russian Czar, or the Iranian Shah. Shaw's concept about the patriots, then, is in no way trivial, but it may not be as illuminating as it first seems. The existence of the patriots' unresolved resentment against their natural and royal fathers cannot be seriously challenged; what still remains to be proved, however, is what converted those subconscious rumblings into a revolution.

THE OTHER PART of Shaw's colonial equation concerns the collective, ritualized behavior of the American crowds. Shaw defines a ritual as a formal enactment of a prescribed ceremony or routine usually with religious overtones. In the most provocative section of American Patriots. Shaw analyzes how the rituals of colonial society--paramount among them local celebrations of religious and secular holidays--might easily have been converted to revolutionary purposes. Such celebrations, particularly the annual Saturnalia, featuring mock overthrows of legitimate and illegitimate rulers, expressed, says Shaw, a profound ambivalence toward authority. While stating that the highly moral and serious-minded leaders of the revolution were not caught up in this almost sensual form of protest, Shaw does suggest that "their strength derived from the popular rehearsal of revolution going on around them in Massachusetts."

Shaw makes a convincing case for the rituals-as-rehearsals, identifying salient features such as mock crownings and infantile behavior as proto-revolutionary consciousness. When he analyzes the crowds' obsessive hatred for Lord Bute and the equally irrational love for John Wilkes, the author deftly negotiates the problem of proving the nebulous concept of evolving crowd psychology. But in his enthusiasm for his thesis. Shaw treads perilously close to overstatement, and tends to ignore other parts of the revolutionary consensus that should likely loom larger than they do in his book.

Shaw regularly, for example, raises the question of religious influence on the revolution, only to dismiss it quickly for a number of unconvincing reasons. He notes the religious roots of the symbolism of the Stamp Act protestors, then trivializes it because the religious influence actually suggests "rites older than those of American Calvinism." Or he notes than non-importation of British goods developed into "a righteous, almost religious issue that recalls the politics of the Puritans," but this time he translates the issue into a "crisis of conscience regarding the propriety of crowd behavior." Shaw would have been better off had he simply acknowledged the crucial importance of the Puritan tradition in colonial thought. Several of the issues that Shaw discusses in a crowd context--such as self-purification, and preparation for salvation--would have been more accurately served by a discussion of their religious origins. Addressing that issue squarely, perhaps even looking at the crowds from the Great Awakening, might even have strengthened his arguments about the group psychology.

These flaws diminish but do not destroy the significance of American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution. Writing with confidence, though without much flair. Shaw wades into a murky swamp of history, psychology and anthropology and emerges with a readable and important book. Perhaps no decision in American history has ever come with more difficulty and anxiety than the choice of whether or not to become a nation: the wars within the minds of the patriots may have been as flerce as the later battles with the British. Shaw traces the sources of that choice and recognizes it as an assumption of a maturity, a new willingness to confront the world as an adult nation. Few other nations had ever taken, or even contemplated such a step, and the meaning of that decision reverberated long after the tie to the mother-country had been broken. Many of the issues in that decision were concrete, and the patriots, a uniquely articulate generation, spoke of them with eloquence and passion. But implicit in the decision to rebel were some forces that the patriots did not, indeed could not, understand. For his effort to confront those problems, Peter Shaw deserves credit.