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Robert Parkinson's new book is called "The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution."
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
History professor examines ‘common cause’ of American Revolution
January 23, 2017Tweet
Lumping an entire group of people together as “the enemy.” Fake news meant to manipulate public opinion. Fear-based political dialogue.
Robert Parkinson’s new book features elements that would make readers believe they were about to get an overview of the 2016 presidential campaign. Instead, the assistant professor of history at Binghamton University has taken a fresh look at the Revolutionary War and the communication strategies of the founding fathers.
Fifteen years in the making, “The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution” (University of North Carolina Press) argues that political leaders – with an assist from newspaper printers – connected British aggression to the stereotypes and fears of Native Americans and blacks in an effort to unite the 13 colonies. The elements of the “common cause” became part of post-Revolution America and continue to this day.
“At first people said: ‘You are writing a book about (former U.S. Attorney General) John Ashcroft,’” Parkinson recalled. “Then they said: ‘It’s a Tea Party book about fear and racism.’ Now they say it’s a Trump book.”
“What does that tell you? Every few years, we have these echoes and resonances of things I’ve been working on for a long time. Fear and worry stir up passion and get people to think a certain way. It’s an effective lever.”
It is a lever that the founding founders were forced to pull following the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. The patriots needed more than “the British are coming” to unify colonists up and down the coast and keep the war momentum going. So they targeted black slaves, Indians and (for a short time) Hessian mercenaries as “proxies” of the British who were just as much a violent threat.
“The (patriots) reached into their toolbox and pulled out their most effective weapon,” Parkinson said. “They were in emergency mode. … The 13 colonies didn’t like each other and didn’t know anything about each other. If they didn’t stick together, they were in big trouble.”
Colonial leaders turned to newspapers to get their messages to the masses.
The importance of the middle pages
As a doctoral student at the University of Virginia, Parkinson read every newspaper that is still available from the Revolutionary War era. He supplemented those 14 months of work by examining documents from the time at the Boston Public Library and South Carolina Historical Association.
“The research process is the heart of this book,” he said.
Parkinson said he noticed that the front page of newspapers usually featured political essays stressing natural rights and liberties, while the back page offered local advertisements. The middle of the newspapers, however, featured the same dark stories about British tyranny.
“I would drive home and be astounded about how much news there was about African Americans and the potential threats of Native Americans, especially early in the war,” Parkinson said. “It was a puzzle: how come I was seeing the same stories over and over again? And what did that mean?”
Although there were no reporters at the time, “people interested in the Revolution wanted (colonists) to know what they were doing,” Parkinson said. Over time, newspapers were able to share not only resolutions from the Continental Congress, but “stories” issuing warnings about the potential of violence from British allies.
“Sometimes you can pull back the curtain on the wizard a little bit and say: ‘Oh, that’s John Adams (writing). Oh, that story is actually Ben Franklin,’” Parkinson said. “A reader may just see it as a gentleman from Philadelphia writing to his friend in Boston. But these are people highly vested in the Revolutionary movement.”
The fear tactics against blacks and Indians came when thousands of the minorities were fighting with the colonists.
“You would be hard-pressed to know that they were there unless they marched by your house,” Parkinson said. “The Continental Army was the most integrated army the U.S. would field until the Vietnam War.”
Six to 10 percent of the Continental Army was comprised of African Americans. Nevertheless, “blacks were always seen in the press as helping the British,” Parkinson said. “They were portrayed constantly as aiding and abetting the enemy.”
The Oneida and Stockbridge Indians, meanwhile, fought valiantly next to George Washington for much of the war.
“They got nothing for their service,” Parkinson said. “They were treated the same as groups who did fight for the King because of this notion that all Indians were on the side of the British.”
Real and fabricated news
As the war progressed, patriot leaders believed it was important to reinforce unity. One example Parkinson emphasizes is the death of a young woman named Jane McCrea in the summer of 1777. McCrea was living in Saratoga when she became engaged to a Loyalist named David Jones. She was headed to Ticonderoga to visit Jones when she stopped in Fort Edward to stay with an acquaintance. On July 26, Indians associated with British Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne killed a number of people in the town, including McCrea.
The murder of McCrea soon became a national story, as patriot leaders and newspapers warned of the savagery of not only the Indians, but Burgoyne, as well.
“They think it will not only hurt Burgoyne, but that it might encourage people to help us, while increasing their sympathies,” Parkinson said.
Parkinson noted the importance of McCrea by emphasizing that only three Revolutionary War-era stories appeared in every newspaper: the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Declaration of Independence and the McCrea murder.
“It tells you how much people thought (McCrea) would resonate,” he said. “I can’t prove that it did resonate, but I know patriot leaders thought it would. They believed it was a story that would make (colonists) be sympathetic or, even better, volunteer to fight.”
The founding fathers also were not shy about fabricating a story. In 1782, Benjamin Franklin – concerned about a potential reconciliation with Britain – reported that American forces had discovered packages containing the scalps of women and children taken by Seneca Indians. Franklin then wrote a fake letter from naval great John Paul Jones urging the importance of independence because the king “engages savages to murder their defenseless farmers, women and children.”
By the war’s end, the colonies gained their independence. But the “common cause” contributed to racial prejudice becoming ingrained in American society.
“We often give the founders a pass,” Parkinson said. “We say: ‘Look at all of the things they changed.’ It’s more complicated than that. Hamilton, Jefferson and all of the (founders) – despite all of their qualms about slavery – participated in the hardening and deepening of it.”
Praise for Parkinson
Parkinson has promoted the 742-page “The Common Cause” by writing columns for The New York Times and The Washington Post, while also doing podcasts and radio shows in Virginia.
“It’s a big book,” he said. “I think it will take some time for people to get their heads around it. It’s not a ‘sit down over the weekend and read it’ book!”
“The Common Cause” has also received critical acclaim. Library Journal called it “engrossing” and “a must-read for anyone interested in the American Revolution and issues of race.” The Jan. 19 issue of The New York Review of Books called it “brilliant, timely and indispensable.”
“Parkinson writes with authority on military, political, social and cultural history, reconstructing the story of this critical period as it actually unfolded, with everything happening at once,” the review said.
Parkinson’s next project will focus on Michael Cresap, a Maryland frontiersman who was accused of Indian massacres in the Ohio Country before joining the Continental Army. He later died in New York City and was buried with honors in Trinity Church Cemetery.
“I want to get it down in the next year or two to prove I can write a short book in a timely manner,” Parkinson said with a chuckle.
‘The common cause’ today
The United States is still dealing with the consequences of the “common cause” more than 230 years after the end of the Revolutionary War. One can substitute “Muslim” for “Indian” and observe that an “all-are-bad” attitude persists among some Americans.
“At the very heart of the republic is the idea of exclusion,” Parkinson said. “It’s the idea that some people are Americans and some people just don’t belong. Those notions persist today. There are people who are automatically seen as outsiders. It is so deeply interwoven into the history of the United States. In many ways, it’s what originally united the states.”
“When somebody is always seen as a threat or suspicious, that’s something that has evolved over the 19th and 20th centuries. But it is right there at the founding of the republic and these are the men who buried those notions there.”