Journal of the American Revolution interviews T.H. Breen

tags: interviews, American Revolution, T.H. Breen




I recently asked our readers via Facebook who they’d most like to see interviewed next and T.H. Breen was among the handful of historians named (hat tip to Matthew Kroelinger). Breen is the William Smith Mason Professor of American History at Northwestern University and a specialist on the American revolution. He is the author of several books and more than 60 articles. In 2010, he released his latest book, American Insurgents, American Patriots. Breen won the Colonial War Society Prize for the best book on the American Revolution for Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (2005). Breen currently lives in Greensboro, Vermont, and recently took the time to answer a few questions about past and future works, recommended reading and time travel.

1 // American Insurgents, American Patriots reminds us that revolutions are violent events. Do you think there was a greater strategy behind most of the violence, or was it primarily raw emotion and vengeance?

The point of American Insurgents was that revolutions demand extreme personal sacrifice.  They put ordinary people in harm’s way.  The book was written to correct the notion that the American Revolution—unlike other revolutions that have changed the world—could be explained simply through an examination of political ideas.  Of course, the men who risked their lives in battle or served on committees of safety could explain to themselves why they were resisting British oppression.  The language of popular protest owed a lot to evangelical religion.

But to explain the Revolution as an ideological moment—as the play of abstraction notions about virtue and power–fails to address persuasively key questions about popular mobilization and structures of protest, about coercion and commitment, about communication of resistance across the divides of class and space, and about the ability to maintain revolutionary fervor over eight long years in which the prospects for success must have seemed remote.  It should come as no surprise that the American Revolution—again, like other revolutions—involved violence.  That fact should not be disturbing.  Dissenters were treated as enemies.

Some historians may wish that our revolution had been less like the English or the French Revolutions—in other words, less violent—but then, if independence from Great Britain and the overthrow of the structures of aristocratic society had involved no more than a discussion of political ideas, Americans would still be part of the British Empire....



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