U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Interview with Robert Parkinson, author of The Common Cause

Continuing with my recent suggestion that 2016 was a marquee year for the intellectual history of race, I started a series of interviews with three authors whose books about race came out this past year to much acclaim. A few weeks ago I interviewed Ibram X. Kendi.

Today I am excited to share with our readers an interview with Robert Parkinson, author of The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution that won the OAH’s James A. Rawley Prize for the best book in race relations. Parkinson is Assistant Professor at SUNY, Binghamton.  

Since this is an interview for the blog of the Society for US intellectual History, I thought to start by asking if you view yourself as an intellectual historian and if you have any interest in or perhaps critique of that category.

I would consider myself a political historian. I was trained by Peter Onuf, a political historian who is certainly steeped in intellectual history.

 Your study offers one of the most challenging critiques to Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Was that your intention to begin with or was that something you picked up along the way?

I didn’t really begin this project as a historiographical intervention, I began this project thinking vaguely about wanting to say something about race and politics and the Revolution. I started reading newspapers, because I figured that was the best source base at hand and I figured I would find a lot of my stories there. It turns out that I certainly did. What I came to understand by reading newspapers—every single one—was that Bailyn and Wood didn’t take into consideration how the Revolution changed when the war began. The framing epigraph to Ideological Origins is a John Adams quote from 1815 that says that the war played no part of it, that the hearts and minds were changed before the shooting started and that’s it—the Revolution happened before 1775. What I found was exactly the opposite, and that the person who knew that best was John Adams. He and his close circle of colleagues were very instrumental in changing what those hearts and minds were all about after the shooting started. One of the last tweaks I made to the book was to highlight that. I have to give David Waldstreicher a lot of credit for that. In some of his reviews of the manuscript he wanted me to emphasize how historians’ placing of the war in our retelling of the Revolution has been made treacherous by Adams and his circle from the very start. That was very helpful to me—to see how these guys were being mendacious after the war was over and how they wanted future generations to focus on the ideas before 1775, as opposed to the ones that happened after. What I found in those newspapers was just how much talk about African Americans and Indians (and, to a lesser extent, German mercenaries) there were in the newspapers because it was a surprising amount. And so, what I didn’t find in the historiography—other than people writing about African American or Indian participation—was people talking about how all these stories got there, who was involved in their sponsorship, how they spread all over the place, and what that meant. And I felt like that was my intervention.

At several points in your book you juxtapose the racially motivated components of the common cause with the more familiar components that invoke the enlightenment language of natural rights and popular sovereignty, such as “Common Sense.” How can we tell which were more significant? Do you think that is something that historians can tease out? 

It is incredibly hard to quantify. One of the things I dismissed from trying my very best to figure out was what actually mobilized people. Robert Gross’s famous and important question—“what brought people to the bridge?”; what were the personal motivations for mobilization—that did not seem answerable or provable to me in the broad strokes. Every person who took, or did not take up a musket, who volunteered or did not volunteer—each one had a huge sifting filter of reasons for why they would take such actions. What I did think I could focus on was what patriot political leaders thought the American people should do. I focused on the arguments they spent their time and money putting out there and getting behind. In the book I talk about this Janus faced “common cause,” a two-sided argument. Often these dual claims sit rather uncomfortably next to the other. Before 1775, the language of the Continental Association was the zenith of the common-cause argument that John Adams would talk about in 1815, which he wants us to think as encompassing and encapsulating the entire Revolution. It’s about liberty-loving, masculine, tyranny-identifying, virtuous citizen-soldiers, who are going to defend natural rights. And that is an argument that has been building for ten years. It is one that features antislavery as part of a consistent argument for liberty. But after 1775 they don’t talk about that in the newspapers as much as we might expect them to do. What they do spend a lot of time and money talking about was how evil the British are, which makes a lot of sense—and is also in some ways steeped in fact if you strip it from some of its value judgments. British agents are doing a lot of these things. They are freeing slaves in Virginia, and they are thinking about it in North Carolina and they are whispering about it in South Carolina. The British are sending people out to meet with Indians all over the place, who are themselves somewhat receptive. So this is partly based in truth, but these patriot leaders seize upon that as a golden opportunity. They stop talking about antislavery—almost entirely—and they start shouting about slaves and British agents acting together to destroy American liberty. The “common cause” argument changes dramatically. These two things rest with each other, what I call the light side and dark side of the common cause. And I think that they mutually reinforce one another. What identifies a good patriot is taking up arms to resist this kind of conspiracy and tyranny in opposition to attempts to snuff out natural liberty. After 1775, that means being anti-emancipatory too. The fragility of union demands that patriots move away from antislavery and therefore the consistency of a fight for liberty equating a fight against bondage for all evaporates.

Would you feel comfortable with saying that Dunmore’s Proclamation was at least as important a document to the history of the United States as “Common Sense”? 

To say specifically that it is Dunmore is probably going too far. But this idea that the British are stirring up African American resistance and potentially murderous violence generally—in more than just Virginia—I think that is an incredibly saturated point in patriot newspapers.  We often talk of saturation as one of the most important parts of “Common Sense”—the pamphlet is being talked about everywhere. But this is true of African American participation with British agents too. One of those agents, after his exile from South Carolina and after being accused of trying to gain Indian assistance, said just weeks before Paine published Common Sense, that the words “instigated insurrections” were “in the mouth of every child.” I found this to be the case, mostly because it is also not just Dunmore. Josiah Martin in North Carolina is ejected from the colony largely because of a rumor that he was hiding and arming slaves at Fort Johnson, which leads to its being torched in the fall of 1775. And there are all kinds of whispering about what Governor William Campbell is doing in South Carolina, and this is reported all over the place. It is reported in New England and all over the North. Dunmore fits a pattern; he is not a singular person. He was taking the furthest steps on this, he is actually doing it. And that is, of course, very well known. “Common Sense” itself, for many reasons, has gotten this credit for being a flash that crystalized all this opinion. But if that is the explosion, the gun powder has been put there over 1775. The year 1775 is incredibly important for setting the stage for what comes after. These stories of what will Indians do are incredibly important. When “Common Sense” comes out there are all these rumors that the Russians are coming, that the Crown is negotiating with Russia. So what will happen in the upcoming campaign is a real question. The continent is very uneasy and these are the reasons why.

How do you envision historians teaching the history of the Revolution after your intervention? What is the proper place of the “republican” and “liberal” examinations of the founding of the United States by Bailyn, Wood, and others?

I just finished my graduate class on the Revolution and I taught Ideological Origins, which is now 50 years old. One of the things I asked my students is: “this is by far the oldest book on the syllabus, why do we still have to read the Ideological Origins?” It explains why the Revolution happened, and it seems we have moved away from questions of causation over the last generation of scholarship. (I had students read Eric Nelson and Brendan McConnville to complicate Bailyn’s interpretation, too.) One of the things I want people to know after reading my book is that the war is incredibly important. There are two different things going on here, there is the American Revolution, which is a larger abstract and political concept, it will frame the ideas about how to form a government, and it will frame some of the ideas about how bonds are being dissolved and how to think about building new ones. But the Revolutionary War is narrated as a separate event. The war was a very important part of the Revolution, and we cannot ignore it. In Radicalism the war is relegated to a handful of pages; to many the war is either an afterthought, or is something that is really of no significance at all, it’s not the real story. And that’s also another part of how I’d like people to think about my book, how much patriot leaders —by whom I mean people in the Continental army, the Continental Congress or various state houses, local committees, etc—are thinking about African Americans and Indians on a daily basis. Day after day after day. When we teach the Revolution, at either the undergraduate or graduate level, you’ll often have breakout days or weeks on black people, on Indians, on women, and then you get back to the real story. That’s not how it worked at the time. They did not think of it that way. Jefferson, while he is writing the Declaration of Independence, is also the secretary of a Congressional committee to investigate what has happened to Indians who have attacked American prisoners. They are thinking about participants in the war who are not wearing redcoats all the time. One of my favorite things that I found was Washington sitting down the night before Trenton—after spending three weeks writing non-stop, uninterrupted letters and memos about how to stop desertions, about supply lines and reinforcements, all this stuff about military and material stuff—and writes a letter to the St. John and Passamaquody Indians, who are thousands of miles away on the Maine frontier, to warn them not to take up the hatchet for the King, or be on our side. So, this is how much that kind of thinking impinges on the nationalist mythological Revolution of the story. Washington is thinking about Indians a lot, and Franklin and Jefferson and Adams are either thinking about African Americans or Indians or German mercenaries and what to do about them a lot. It needs to be focused on and woven into how we teach this stuff.

In several ways The Common Cause defies recent editorial tendencies, for example it is much longer than most monographs and it has footnotes rather than endnotes. I was wondering if you would be willing to share with us some of the decision making that went into these and other structural and editorial decisions.

First of all, I can’t take any credit at all about the footnote thing; it’s not every Omohundro book that has footnotes, but it is their tradition, and the book would be far, far less effective with endnotes. I think that that is an incredibly important part of the text itself. I had the great honor of being a part of that incredible publishing series, and one of the things that makes it especially important to me is the footnotes. One of the points I wanted to get across was to illustrate how  this argument appears in these 19 newspapers; and here they are listed at the bottom of the page. Now this of course adds a tremendous heft to the book, but I think it is a great benefit.

As for the writing part of it, the dissertation looked absolutely nothing like the book. Soon after arriving at the Omohundro Institute for my fellowship I decided to rewrite the whole thing and interweave everything together (originally the dissertation had separate chapters on African Americans and Germans in 1775-1776) because I think keeping the strands together tells a much more powerful story about how all of these things are overlaid on top of one another, and I think that’s an important way to think about the Revolution, that this is happening in real time. I have extended discussions about certain days. Take May 27, 1776. It’s the day Congress takes up Virginia’s resolutions on the question of independence and that process begins. But that’s not all they did that day. They started that morning with a military review to impress a delegation of Iroquois Indians who were in town. Then they opened mail from frontier agents in Pittsburgh warning of native unrest in the Ohio. In that day’s Philadelphia newspaper there are reports of Germans on the high seas and Dunmore disturbing estates in the Chesapeake. This is informing how they think about their business on a day to day basis. So I felt like I had to just slow down and tell that story, and get the reader to understand this is what it’s like—it’s confusing, and it all seems like it’s happening at once, and no one really knows how to react to it; they are making it up as they go along. There’s no sort of overarching cloud bank of ideas about creating a republic that’s about self-government; that might be the goal, but getting there is incredibly torturous and crooked, so they have to figure this out, too. And those conversations are not cordoned off from one another.

So, I decided to rewrite the entire thing, and it got to be really, really big—the first draft was a quarter longer than the end result. The other reason why it is so big is I wanted to relate how much material I actually found, because I was surprised. When I started reading these newspapers, especially in the early stages of the war, I was blown away by how much stuff I was finding—why hadn’t anybody ever talked about this in this kind of way before? Some communications historians, such as Patricia Bradley, had talked about how much Dunmore was in the news, to some degree, but not how far and widespread it is. I wanted to track what they’re talking about and also what they’re not talking about—I spent a lot of time trying to find stories that I couldn’t find: where are all the stories about the Indians who are working for the U.S. government? They’re not really there. What happens to the Hessians after Trenton? They kind of just fall completely off the map, so the book is also about the stories that aren’t there. I wanted to be able to have the reader walk through all those things, and I also did not want reviewers or other scholars to be able to say, “Yeah, of course they talk about that stuff, but it never dominates the real story.” I felt like this needed to rise above being dismissible, because I thought it was. I wanted a big book that suggested just by its heft to say, how do you deal with all of this?

The Common Cause makes a controversial argument that openly challenges some of the most powerful myths at the heart of U.S. nationalism. What was it like to undertake such a task? What kinds of responses have you received to your book? 

Last year I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that came out on the 4th of July, and it was about how we need to pay much more attention to the Declaration’s last grievance, and how that informs all the stuff about the pursuit of happiness and all men being created equal—we must not forget about the merciless savages and domestic insurrectionists bit at the end. And this was middle of last summer, and there was a huge election going on, rife with a lot of visceral talk and emotions about nationalism. I was prepared for a backlash. I did get some hostile e-mails—one of them wanted me to be deported to England, which I don’t think would be as much of a punishment as the person wanted it to be—but, I also got just as much support, saying wow, these are stories that we need to tell, I did not know some of these things, and we need to not sanitize or white wash our history. So I was actually rather encouraged that at least half of the responses I heard from the public were very positive.

Your argument concerning the significance of the Carlisle Commission of 1778 and its failure is one that I never heard before. It serves as an important watershed moment in your narrative. Could you say a few words about the significance of the Carlisle Commission to your overall argument and how you came to think of it in that way?  

I will say that it is not entirely original to me, and if you read the footnotes you will see that one of my sources, Leonard Sadosky (who I went to graduate school with and is a good friend) in his book Revolutionary Negotiations talks about this too, and I always thought that he was incredibly right. The Carlisle Commission has been misunderstood, and under-acknowledged, because it always seems like it is going to be a failure from the start. It’s a non-starter, partially because the politics of the commissioners seems to poison things from the start. But, as I say in the book and Leonard talks about in his book, too: what they’re offering is tremendous! It’s everything the Americans ever wanted, except for independence. It’s the best deal they’re ever going to get, it’s a great deal, it’s basically turning them into Canada in the late 19th century. They could have kept the Continental Congress, they could have kept the Continental Army, everybody would have been pardoned, they would have been able to make their own rules, their taxes would have been lowered; this is a great deal. Why is this such a non-starter? Is it really? This is another example of the stories that aren’t told: the patriot leaders spend an enormous amount of time shutting up any kind of news of what the Carlisle Commission is about and what they are actually offering. They even consider at the time what we would consider a very shocking resolution (although it is not as shocking at the time as it would be later) that gives the army permission to open the mail of any Americans to find out if they are talking about this at all. When we talk about the privacy issues in the Patriot Act and the modern state, this proposed resolution seems to be along those lines. Now, the sort of sanctity of the mail—the idea that once you put something in a postal box it becomes the sacred responsibility of the U.S. government to carry it—that’s something that develops over the next generation and afterwards, they don’t think like that in 1778. But this idea that they would intrude upon Americans’ privacy, to see who is talking about the Carlisle Commission and what steps they could take about that, shows the coercive side of the Revolution—and it shows how panicked they might have been and were beginning to be. So the rejection of the Carlisle Commission, and the solidification of the French alliance, those two things together is a huge turning point for the Revolution. This is what the Declaration of Independence was all about—they were trying their best to get recognition and an alliance. But this is so fragile, especially the union. What if one state, or two states say, yeah, we’ll take that deal, and breaks the union? One of the things I also found was that in the middle of the siege of Charleston, when John Laurens is there trying to drum up support for black regiments, and he’s arguing that the only way South Carolina will survive is if we arm black people, a significant majority of the governor’s council says, just make a separate peace and leave the Union and go back to the British Empire, THAT is not worth independence. The idea that the Union is something that will stay together is a fallacy; it is constantly in peril. That is the biggest risk with the Carlisle Commissioners. So they do their best to keep the British offer quiet. Success on that score, along with the French alliance, goes a long way to shore up the union, at least that’s the hope.

So much of your work was tracing the process of fabrication of narratives and of outright misinformation. Was that in some ways influenced by contemporary frustration with false news? Did it give you more of a perspective about contemporary politics?

It’s funny, when I first started the dissertation in 2002, several of my friends at the time said oh, this is the John Ashcroft project. (That’s the attorney general after 9/11 who had all the color coded terror levels and was accused of ginning up American fear.) Then later, it became an Iraq war project about insurgency and winning hearts and minds. Then after that, it became a race book about the Obama years. And now, it’s a Trump book. So my answer to this is well, how does this fit everything all the time? Perhaps these themes are not “ripped from the headlines,” but are embedded deeply in our history.

Regarding the fake news bit. I wrote a piece in November for the Washington Post about fake news, about how Franklin made stuff up too, and he did. Franklin is the chief fabricator of news during the Revolution. He made up fake documents that looked real, and tricked a lot of people—for a long time. People will bring out his 1782 hoax—when he talks about bags of American scalps taken by the King’s Indian allies being sent to England for the his refreshment—in 1814 as truth. When that same thing ostensibly happens again on the Canadian frontier after the River Raisin massacre, printers republished Franklin’s hoax and say see?, they’ve been doing this since 1782. But none of it is real.

But I was hesitant about saying these things in the Post because I didn’t want to establish this as having a long tradition in American history. Or give the current situation cover by saying a Founding Father did it too. The current problem with fake news is a drastically different situation. Franklin employed the latest technology he had at hand—newspapers—to convince people of his point of view. The stultifying number of outlets, platforms, and access that people who want to make an argument today have at their disposal boggles the mind. Franklin said not long after he produced his hoax (and I think he was obliquely referring to it) that through newspapers opinion makers can not only strike while the iron is hot, but keep the iron hot through continual striking. This is exponentially true now, and it is a problem we have only begun to comprehend. The implications for truth, belief, and the essential shared understandings and empathy that underscore self-government are tremendous.

As a followup, what are your thoughts about historians and politics?

I’ve had a long internal argument with myself about this. At first, when you’re in graduate schools you have these kinds of ideas about the purity of academic inquiry and how we should stay away from political things, so I used to think that no, of course we shouldn’t be political. But these are important things, and times have indeed changed. The Founding especially is one of these moments where it matters who we think we are. There is a big special issue that is coming out jointly in the Journal of the Early Republic and the William & Mary Quarterly about writing to the Revolution and from the Revolution, and I was having a conversation with Frank Cogliano and Patrick Griffin, who are writing an essay in it about the role the Revolution plays. And one of the points I raised was that the historiography has gotten away from this notion that the Revolution and the revolutionaries—and the founding—says something about who we are as a people. We have really shied away from that conversation in the last 25 to 30 years. Who are we? And what do they have to do with us? Instead, the emphasis has been that the Founders don’t speak for us. There is no connection between their world of slaveholding, patriarchy, and dispossession and our. I can totally understand hesitation about making those kind of claims, but I do think we ceded some vital ground here. In part because it assumes that we know that story, or who they were. We need to keep inquiring about the Revolution as much as we need to keep searching for answers to our own questions. If professional historians are shying away from the idea that we should look to the founding to say this is who we are as a nation, this is what the republic stands for or doesn’t stand for, this is who we are as a people, this is how we have included some people but excluded others and that has ramifications today—then I think that by ceding that ground, we’ve surrendered it to people who may or may not have everyone’s best interests at heart when they make those claims. I think that professional historians could do a better job of staking out that ground again; I think we used to do it better than we do now, and we should do it again.

Where do you see the intellectual history of the Revolution, and the Revolution in general, and the Founding go from here?

That’s a good question. I don’t know. Certainly the republicanism and liberalism debate has been put to bed; books like Sarah Knott’s (Sensibility and the American Revolution) book or Nicole Eustace’s book (Passion is the Gale) looking at other cultural influences such as sensibility, fellow feeling, and early novels have added layers to what were the cultural influences to the intellectual coming of the Revolution, and the ideas that made that happen. That’s very important work, but I’m not entirely sure where we go from here.

I see my book as speaking, in many ways, to an older generation of scholarship. I asked my students on their final exam about where to go from here, and what book had they read in the class that captures where we are today. And I don’t think that’s mine; I think mine is looking at what has come before. If I was answering that question, I would’ve argued Kathleen DuVal’s book (Independence Lost). I think her book captures the current events in American historiography. It’s multiethnic, its multi-imperial, and it’s not the thirteen colonies. It’s looking much more continental and even hemispheric—that seems like where we are now. But I do think that it captures the best practices of what we think now, that’s how I would have answered that question for them.

But where the intellectual history of the Revolution goes from here? Janet Polasky’s book (Revolution without Borders), is a good place to start. Her approach revives R. R. Palmer (Age of Democratic Revolutions) and then complicates and adds a lot more voices to his notion of the age of intellectual revolution. I think more work could be done there looking at cross-currents, and how these revolutionaries bounce their ideas off of one another. There’s a lot of good stuff in that book, and I think more could be done.

What are your personal plans for the future?

I am in the process of writing a short book—partly to prove that I have the ability to write a short book!—on something that I published in the Quarterly more than a decade ago about Michael Cresap. He’s known to be an Indian killer, and ugly things are said about him as a slayer of Indians (although misappropriated to him), right on the eve of the Revolution. Then he is transformed into this American hero after the shooting starts at Lexington and Concord and he’s buried at Broadway and Wall Street in Trinity Church yard and given a huge funeral. So he transforms from “man infamous” (what Jefferson calls him) for all these terrible atrocities on the frontier into a hero. So I am going to write a 150-page book or so on him and the murders that happened at Yellow Creek in 1774 and what effect this has on American politics and culture in the generation afterwards. There are interesting stories to be told about the longer legacies of that murder.

And then, once that’s done—and I hope to get that done in a year or so—I’m going to launch a big project again. From 1750 to 1850, the so-called age of revolution seems to have put notions of personal freedom and emancipation on agendas all over the western world. But it’s also a time of forced marches: of people being led away from their homes and families at the point of a gun, and this seems to be oddly acceptable. You have the rise of the internal slave trade, the culmination of the Atlantic slave trade, Indian removal, the removal of the Acadians, and others. In other words, you have a number of movements going on all over the world where people are being ripped away from their homes, for seemingly nothing that they did wrong at all.

So again, this is another way of looking at both sides of a story and how they fit together: How can the age of revolution also be an age of forced marches?  How do those discourses develop? How do the marches come to an end? This is also happening at the same time as the rise of the individual/self and the concept of the family is changing in significant ways. So I’m trying to put these stories together—for example Nick Guyatt’s book (Bind Us Apart) is about putting colonization and Indian removal in the same kind of universe, and I think it’s really, really good.  Then it becomes this incredibly cruel and terrible thing that we break families up—so I’m thinking about how to put these thoughts together in a way that crosses discourses and thinks about how these discourse may have influenced each other. I have a lot of affection for David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, and I want to think about it in that kind of large, multi-causal study, how we think of all these influences and factors together.