Vol. 30 No. 6 (July 2020) pp. 86-91

THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE: THE REVOLUTIONARY BIRTH OF AMERICA, by T.H. Breen. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019. 272pp. Hardcover $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-674-97179.

Reviewed by Matthew B. Kirk, Department of Political Science, University at Albany. Email:

In many accounts of the American Revolution, scholars frame the concept of popular will in terms of the political philosophies espoused by the founding generation. Whether drawing from Locke, Montesquieu or others, these portrayals note how popular consent and legitimacy permeated the thought of the nation’s founding leaders. Yet popular will itself may not be manifest in these heady notions. T.H. Breen’s THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE combats the prevailing narrative that public will during the American Revolution responded to admonitions from key political leaders who extracted principles from political theory. Instead, the “voice of the people” can be found in the sentiments of communities as they participated in local affairs. Drawing from a series of localized narratives, Breen offers an alternative theory that envisions the Revolution as ensconced in communal organizations – in committees, church congregations, etc. In doing so, his text captures a genuine popular will as it emerged in the politicking of ordinary people.

Consulting a wide array of primary sources – including letters, accounts of sermons, newspapers, and local committee reports – Breen constructs an evolving portrait of revolutionary stages from the “ground up.” Of these sources, the notes and actions of local committees (of correspondence, safety, and inspection) offer the greatest repository of localized political interests. The various committees regulated and maintained revolutionary fervor at a local level where broader political movements could not reach. While Breen gives some deference to the influence of high minded theorists or noteworthy events, he ultimately locates the revolution in the ground level maintenance of the revolutionary agenda. As a result, the portrayal of public will during the era is wide ranging; committee notes from local townships are juxtaposed with gubernatorial dictums, allowing the author to make an argument for an inclusive conception of public will across the nation. Taking this evidence together, Breen offers a chronological history of the Revolution that proceeded along a series of stages, with each marked by a particular discursive theme. [*87]

In Breen’s account, it was emotive impulses and restraints that characterized the shifting sentiments across the Revolutionary period. Breen offers a historical account of these evolving emotive impulses; instead of a trajectory from the Declaration of Independence to the Treaty of Paris or an account of leaders’ invocation of Locke and Montesquieu, he argues that emotion that guided the actions of communities that in turn maintained the Revolution. As a result, the history offered is comprised of six discrete epochs of sentiment. A sensation of rejection following the failure to arrive at amicable reconciliation (taking the form of the Coercive Acts) gave way to assurance that resistance in the ensuing conflict was justified. The next period was dominated simultaneously by fear and justice: faced with the threat of domestic enemies, local communities vacillated between fear of those enemies and a sense of justice that produced judicial restraint when addressing them. Towards the end of the war, hyperinflation incentivized speculation and profiteering among neighbors – leading to a sense of betrayal. Following the Treaty of Paris, a wave of refugees – consisting of Tories desirous of returning to their homes – facilitated a transition to a new period of revenge. This comprised the final emotive evolution of the Revolutionary epoch, as local discourse revealed a desire for revenge against those who had betrayed the cause of the Revolution. Combined, each of these eras suggests that the true location of revolutionary politics lay in community endeavors instead of those political philosophies.

Breen is particularly adept at illustrating each of these emotive periods with local discourses and histories, with one significant event to frame each chapter. For example, a chapter on the theme of justice revolves around the attempts of Alexander Hanson (a judge in Frederick County, Maryland) to punish Toryism with increasingly savage methods. In that particular instance, plans to draw and quarter political prisoners were quickly shelved in favor of more civilized executions. Breen’s contextualization of each chapter around such a story is illustrative of the tension between the emotions that dominated local discourse and the institutional structures that worked to restrain those emotive impulses. The remainder of each chapter is filled with histories of similar experiences depicting a local mode of politicking that exists without reference to the dictums of leaders (or at least politicking that only grudgingly adheres to mandates from above when they conflict with sentiments in the locale). What results is a complex arrangement whereby the overall work is a narrative of both emotion and restraint of emotion; persons “on the ground” experienced these emotions in response to broader events, yet the exhibition or inhibition of such emotive impulses occurred within those ground-level, idiosyncratic [*88] contexts. While this occasionally clouds the argument that each period is characterized by an overarching shifting popular sentiment, one must bear in mind that Breen’s argument is one of shifting spheres of discourse – not necessarily monolithic paradigmatic shifts. For example, local discourses surrounding the Treaty of Paris were not dominated by the desire for revenge per se; rather, the sentiment of revenge shaped the scope of the content of the debates in that period.

One of the most significant strengths of Breen’s work is his insistence on denying the universal “founding” narrative that plagues many inquiries into the Revolutionary period. It is tempting to conceive of the founding generation as a monolithic body engaged in the pursuit of Lockean natural rights. While Breen does not deny the importance of political philosophy’s contributions (he even goes so far as to suggest that a theological interpretation of the Lockean right to revolution indirectly influenced discourse surrounding assurance), he does not overstate its significance by focusing only on the founding leaders who directly invoked those philosophers. In a move reminiscent of Gordon Wood’s (1998) scholarship, Breen reveals theories of a unified founding as fictitious. Where Wood does so with respect to the diversity of founding sentiments across time, Breen locates the “will of the people” in the diversity of emotive sentiments exhibited in ordinary communities. The monolithic founding narrative is countered not by changes across time, but rather by revealing the variety of voices that constitute popular will across space. In his account, the impetus underlying the nation’s founding “can be found in the quotidian experiences of managing local affairs…in a political system in which ordinary Americans found that they had to negotiate power with other ordinary Americans” (p. 13). The diversity of political engagement offered in the text bears this assertion out. As a result, Breen’s analysis is a significant contribution to a field of research committed to problematizing universal narratives of the founding.

Legal scholars should be particularly interested in Breen’s discussion of popular sentiments concerning justice in the face of local dissent against the Revolutionary cause. In keeping with the overall thrust of his work, Breen suggests that political dissent was policed through extralegal groups – particularly committees – which constantly reinforced communities’ revolutionary commitment. The administration of justice at the local level entailed both the violation and protection of rights; as Breen notes, one would be “fully justified in associating such forms of community enforcement with vigilantes or kangaroo courts” (p. 124). Basic procedural rights that one associates with the legal process were absent. Yet at the same [*89] time, Breen frames committees as attempting to retain the rule of law in the face of popular sentiments that trended towards fear and revenge. Overly energetic state laws aimed at stamping out dissent and potential enemies were effectively nullified by resistant locales. While some degree of neighborly antagonism was present, local enforcement of these laws offers instances of judicial restraint in a decentralized system. This portion of the text suggests that committees enabled persons to not only attain a “greater sense of self-confidence in their ability to govern, but also [learn] what it meant to exercise authority in a new system in which no one could claim privilege” (p. 126). This point harkens back to Tocqueville and Hartz, inviting us to reconsider the role of ascriptive tendencies and whether they truly undermine these arguments for the American judicial system as distinct from those preceding it. In any event, Breen’s reflections on revolutionary justice necessitate subsequent reflection on scope of legal mechanisms at the time and its implications for this debate.

Furthermore, legal scholars should consider the weight of Breen’s conclusions when invoking original intent in constitutional jurisprudence. Breen’s contribution reinforces other scholars’ suggestions that there may be no coherent “founding” intent in spite of popular founding and constitutional narratives. If this is the case, then attempts to configure current legal interpretation to meet these fictitious ideological strictures may fall apart. For instance, consider the constant invocation of founding intent with respect to liberty frequently found in Justice Kennedy’s opinions. Such legal interpretations are contingent upon an original consensus concerning the concept of liberty; one that would be easily supported by the traditional depictions of liberty found in founders’ correspondence and canonical political theory. Yet if the Revolution was realized and maintained through ordinary local action (and not the heady ideals of its leaders), then perhaps our understanding of law itself ought to be situated in these everyday lives as well. This suggests that judicial invocations of original intent or public meaning should carefully examine the popular will that brought the nation into existence in conjunction with the principles articulated by its leaders. Subsequent research should continue to investigate the implications of these historical accounts for jurisprudential interpretation.

One potential concern with the text entails Breen’s argument that great events did not determine the voice of the people, but that communities operated through local organizations (such as committees) to exercise restraint in light of their emotive impulses. One of the hallmarks of the text is that the will of the people was [*90] exerted in the local politicking and regulation of neighbors – and not with reference to leaders, philosophers, or remote events. To be certain, he makes a compelling argument that local communities were more concerned with the practicable application of law than the heady arguments of political theory. However, the text also suggests that key events altered the paradigm of local political discourse in each period. For example, it was the Treaty of Paris that reframed the debate surrounding vengeful sentiments by presenting the nascent American Republic with a problem of refugees. The fact remains that these local communities reacted to external stimuli to determine the character of the “people’s” voice. While Breen’s argument for local communities’ independence from philosophy is well taken, one might question whether the same argument holds with respect to local versus national politicking.

One may also question whether Breen’s attempt to parse sentiments into periods of time runs afoul of the same critique levied against the “universal” founding narrative. As noted above, one of the greatest strengths of this text is that it refutes the notion of a unitary frame of discourse throughout all stages of the American Revolution. However, when Breen makes the assertion that local discourses can be categorized into discrete episodes, it risks undermining that strength; he appears to replace theories of a unified discourse (that of the leading founders’ invocation of natural rights and political philosophy) with a set of unified, chronologically ordered discourses (observed on a local scale that nevertheless uniformly suggest certain emotive themes). It would be a mischaracterization of Breen’s text to suggest that he perceives subjectivities within each of these discourses as homogenous. Yet at the same time, his insistence that persons within each era were responding to a certain realm of issues (such as the discourse of rejection following failed reconciliation in the form of the Coercive Acts) seems to imply less diversity of thought than one would initially suppose.

Ultimately, these are trifling concerns. Breen’s contribution is a worthwhile reflection on the emotional sentiments underlying the Revolutionary era. Persuasively, it beckons us to reconsider the locus of politics, exertions of law, and popular will itself. It suggests that a politics conducted by ordinary persons is capable of enabling their political efficacy and restraining their emotive impulses. These observations, placed in conjunction with a wide array of local accounts, result in a compelling work that brings the Revolutionary will of the people into clearer focus.


Wood, Gordon. 1998. THE CREATION OF THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC, 1776-1787. Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

© Copyright 2020 by the author, Matthew B. Kirk.