Book Reviews December 2019

Community Activism in Colonial Pennsylvania: How Popular Participation Became State Policy

The broader citizenship did not passively wait for elite men to decide how their government should work. Instead, they mobilized and created political structures based on a rich history of broad-based political participation.

by Sydney Sweat

Although Political Community in Revolutionary Pennsylvania 1774-1800 is Kenneth Owen’s first book, he is already revolutionizing how historians of Early America view political organizations of ordinary citizens. Owen, an Associate Professor at University of Illinois Springfield, challenges the tradition of using elite statesmen’s perspective when looking at the creation of policy and instead utilizes the political involvement of ordinary citizens prior to and following the Revolution as the centerpiece of his analysis. Whereas traditional scholarship focuses on the elite to highlight how colonists sought to create representative governments, Owen posits that this focus on elites has obscured the diversity of political actors in order to provide a fuller history of activism.

Contrary to traditional histories of British America, Pennsylvania was not a homogeneous colony of peasants. Instead, it was a diverse locale with citizens from varying ethnic groups and religious backgrounds where only a third of the population claimed English heritage, a third German, and a quarter with Scotch or Irish background. William Penn’s guarantee of religious freedom in 1701 encouraged people with varying religious backgrounds to move to Pennsylvania. According to Owen, historians’ tendency to ignore this diversity leads them to misunderstand the scope, nature, and goals of Revolutionary Pennsylvania. He argues that the heterogenous nature of Pennsylvanian communities strengthened citizens’ sense of political community over similar interests with the ultimate goal of establishing a framework where issues could be addressed. There are three primary modes of redress highlighted in Owen’s work: formal, extra-legal, and illegal. Formal modes include government forums that allowed for the community’s voice to be heard, like voting. Extra-legal forms of activism included informal but legal modes of activism such as pamphleteering. Illegal and often violent modes of communication acted as a last resort and included rioting.

Pulling from a variety of partisan and bi-partisan newspapers, broadsides, and committee minutes, this book charts how Pennsylvanians used popular mobilization to consent to British rule, or in most cases, to constrain it. By looking at how Pennsylvanians interacted with the power structures around them, Owen broadens the historiography of grassroots activism in Colonial America and how this activism set the foundation for national policy-making following the Revolution. Pennsylvania’s political philosophy, which Owen identifies as political community, mandated that the power to govern could only be removed from the people when necessary and with their consent—in times of war or other extraneous circumstances where the locality explicitly gave the ruling body permission to act outside of their normal scope of power. Owen focuses on the ways that citizens voiced their concerns through various means of participation in public life, specifically through the use of town meetings, county committees, pamphleteering, civil disobedience, and rioting. Community-based activism restrained the government’s available options while creating political mechanisms that sought to enact popular sovereignty at a state level.

Owen challenges the traditional view of Pennsylvania politics, specifically surrounding the Constitution of 1776 and the interpretation that it was created by naïve democrats who failed to consider the implications of a government that relied so heavily on the people. Pennsylvania’s positive experience with community activism prior to the Revolution directly impacted their political ideology that was enshrined in the 1776 constitution—that the government should serve and represent the people. Post-Revolution, Pennsylvanians continued to push for a representative government with a narrowly defined scope of power. Building on over 30 years of popular participation, the 1776 constitution created a system that relied on an unprecedented amount of popular participation for its power and structure.

Ending with four case studies of political upheaval in the 1790s—the Jay Treaty, the Alien and Sedition Acts, Fries Rebellion, and the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election of 1799—Owen shows how Pennsylvanians deployed different kinds of political activism that demonstrate the persistence of these mechanisms as well as its evolution into a sophisticated extra-legal forum to shape state and national politics. The negotiation of political power and the role of the community throughout the 1790s reflects the difficulty of creating a political program that appealed to the state as a whole. The rhetoric and publication of events like the 1799 gubernatorial election reflect a design meant to emphasize the importance of trust in relationships between state leaders and local communities. When this trust was broken—or worse, when there was no foundation of confidence in leadership—Pennsylvanians reverted back to their experiences of popular participation to force the hands of state leadership.

In a book about negotiating power structures, I expected more on enforcement mechanisms like tarring and feathering and the Provincial Assembly withholding a Governor’s pay as well as more time spent on local actors that aided in the creation and success of these mechanisms. Owen’s decision to concentrate on legislative tensions lacked the life colonists lived as they fought for policies that best represented their localities. While this undoubtably made his analysis clear and easy to follow, at times it lacked specificity and a certain level of humanness. Pennsylvanians lobbied, rioted, and voted for a better life. This was a tumultuous time in Early America and the prose did not always convey that for Pennsylvanian’s policy was life changing, for better or for worse.

“The Bostonians paying the exciseman, or tarring and feathering,” 1774, Library of Congress.

Owen disputes a number of accepted truths about community involvement in politics during the Revolutionary War Era. While historians continually ask, “Whose Revolution was it?,” Owen’s narrative of community answers that class differences played only a small role in Revolutionary Pennsylvania as the colonists sought to create a government independent of Great Britain. Claims to popular legitimacy mattered more than claims of individual respect or deferment. The broader citizenship did not passively wait for elite men to decide how their government should work. Instead, they mobilized and created political structures based on a rich history of broad-based political participation with extended rights for citizens, including the right to hold local and state governments accountable. This book is indispensable to Early Americanists in academia as well as history buffs interested in the era seeking to understand community solidarity and the roles that Pennsylvanian communities played in creating and enforcing local and state policy. 

Sydney Sweat is a graduate student in the Department of History at Virginia Tech and received her BA in history from the University of West Georgia. Her work focuses on the interaction between grassroots activism and economic policy and their effect on Pennsylvania’s long-term financial development. Additionally, she is a graduate editor for the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Historical Review.

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