The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution. By Robert G. Parkinson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. 768 pages. Cloth, ebook.
This review first appeared in William & Mary Quarterly, Jan. 2017, Vol. 74 Issue 1, pp. 180-183.
The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution
Robert G. Parkinson
Reviewed by Michael A. McDonnell, University of Sydney
Thorny questions about the origins and nature of the American Revolution have long concerned scholars. What and who drove the revolution? Was it ideology or interests, elites or those out-of-doors? And just what was the revolution? Was it a contest for liberty or a war of conquest, a pathway to democracy or a promise unfulfilled? Historians have also struggled to reconcile accounts of colonial America that stress the differences, divisions, and conflicts between and within the colonies, and a historiography of the revolution that often emphasizes themes of unity and nation building in order to explain the creation of the Constitution and the founding of a new nation. And we still struggle to reconcile what John Shy long ago called the “destructi[ve]” War for Independence with the “constructive” political revolution. 
In this wonderfully written and deeply researched new monograph, The Common Cause, Robert G. Parkinson uses two strategies to cut through these Gordian knots. First, he focuses on the Revolutionary War itself. While that might seem a self-evident strategy for historians outside the field, few scholars have looked to the conflict for answers to these questions. Instead, they have tried to find them in the patriot resistance movement or the political developments that culminated with the adoption of the Constitution. Second, Parkinson has revisited well-used sources, colonial/state newspapers, with a fresh perspective that makes excellent use of scholarship that has emphasized African American and Native American agency on the eve of, and during, the American Revolution. While many have mined the newspapers for political commentary and the scant few details they reveal of the social history of the period, Parkinson’s major innovation is to ignore the headlines and instead read the middle pages. In an exhaustive, almost forensic study of how colonial printers stitched together and juxtaposed news from all over the colonies and new states during the war, Parkinson reveals a very different and much darker picture of the revolution.
Parkinson’s great insight is to show that leading patriots and patriot printers were well aware of the divisions that beset American colonists and were equally cognizant that something extraordinary was needed to unite colonists in the “Common Cause” against Britain. Reports of conflicts with Indians over coveted land and new slave revolts made many patriots fear that a war with Britain would only exacerbate such divisions. But instead of backing down from their confrontation with Parliament, they began to exploit those stories for their own ends. Patriot printers tied those stories to the threat posed by Britain. If enslaved Americans rebelled, or Native Americans attacked, it could only be because the British were behind it. As resistance turned to open conflict, patriot committees of safety conspired with newspaper printers to emphasize, amplify, repeat, and even fabricate stories about the threats from and damage done by the King’s “proxies” (22)—most notably African American slaves, Native Americans, and, at least initially, the Hessians. Readers were treated to a potent and often horrifying mix of news stories from across the colonies that all pointed to the perils of ignoring the threat from Britain. No colony was safe from such dangers. Unity was imperative.
Full of illuminating insights about familiar events, the book is at its best when describing just how the patriot partisan story was created, represented, and propagated in the pages of newspapers. Parkinson shows clearly how patriots controlled not just the narrative—the war stories that would be printed and how they would be framed—but also at times the very roads along which those stories traveled. Publishers and editors magnified reports of slave insurrections, downplayed and sanitized divisions between white colonists, and represented Britain’s new allies as savage—sometimes to reassure readers, sometimes to alarm them. We learn that even in New England, reports of slave insurrections in the weeks preceding the alarms of Lexington and Concord helped put inhabitants on high alert—and provided local residents with a store of memories to demonize African laborers for generations to come. Parkinson’s work explains why stories of a small skirmish in Virginia in February 1776 and Indian attacks on the northern frontiers, for instance, took up as much room in the pages of the papers as did commentary on Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. And he shows that Thomas Jefferson was obsessively preoccupied with newspaper stories of Dunmore’s success in recruiting black soldiers in Virginia and with conflict on the colony’s western frontiers as he penned the Declaration of Independence. The reader also finds out why Indian attacks in the latter half of 1781 received more coverage than the now-better-remembered events at Yorktown.
Parkinson’s sophisticated textual analysis is also attuned to the newspapers’ silences and fabrications. Printers suppressed reports of Benjamin Church’s espionage, for example, because the story of betrayal by a high-ranking patriot officer from New England threatened the common cause narrative and thus had to be quarantined. Later generations of abolitionists would have to work harder to rediscover the stories of thousands of African Americans who served in the patriot armies because there was little newspaper coverage of their exploits. Their stories, along with their rights, were sacrificed to the common cause narrative that demanded unity. Similarly, few newspapers carried reports of offers from the Stockbridge and other Indians to join with the patriot forces. Instead, many white participants spun horrific—but completely unfounded—tales of Indian murders, such as that of the so-called Wyoming Massacre of 1778, when Britain’s Iroquois allies supposedly slaughtered dozens of patriot families after their peaceful surrender. Even previous critics of white frontiersmen such as Benjamin Franklin helped propagate a fabricated story despite evidence that no such massacre had taken place.
The Common Cause shows that revolutionary storytelling and strategic omission laid the basis for the future fault lines in the historiography and even in current popular views of the American Revolution. The tales patriots told while at war demonized the king’s proxies and ultimately undermined most attempts—during the war or afterward—to either establish good relations with Native Americans or to abolish slavery, however much some patriot leaders wanted to do both in the aftermath of the conflict. Moreover, as Parkinson argues, the revolution was not an opportunity lost because the revolution was impossible without the common cause argument. Racism, anti-abolitionism, and frontier warfare with Indians were inextricably tied to the success of the revolution. They became a part of the narrative in which white unity trumped the promise of liberty and inclusion. We have been living with the consequences ever since.
If Parkinson helps solve some key paradoxes in our view of the American Revolution, he thankfully leaves room for further debate. For one, it is sometimes unclear whether he is arguing that the common cause narrative had causal force. At several points, for example, he speculates that enlistments may have been buoyed by the propagation of stories, and he comes close to asserting that the revolution in the South was less unified because of the lower number and limited circulation of newspapers there. But Parkinson is too good a historian to make those claims with any certainty. As he notes in his exemplary discussion of the killing of Jane McCrea, the number of stories that circulated about her death cannot really prove whether those stories compelled ordinary people to mobilize. Instead, what is fascinating about the outpouring of print is that it illuminated “how patriot publicists thought these stories might produce such a mobilization” (350). So Parkinson can tell us much about the stories spun by patriots, but less about their effect and their audience. The former is vitally important in understanding the origins and legacy of a patriot story that still haunts us, but we also need studies of how ordinary people spun their own tales of the revolution and how and when these other stories clashed, competed, and converged with the common cause narrative.
Moreover, while Parkinson does an excellent job of incorporating recent scholarship on African Americans and Native Americans, a burgeoning scholarship on loyalists and the disaffected is less well represented. This is perhaps more of a problem than is apparent at first glance, since it is clear that many in the colonies were unmoved by the common cause argument. Thus, we need to know why so many people in the southern states ignored patriot representations despite the greater threat there from slaves and Native people. Nor is it as clear as it could be what role loyalists played in the common cause story. They flit in and out of Parkinson’s analysis. We are told, for example, that the stories about the skirmish at Moore’s Creek Bridge in February 1776 gave a new label to tories as rebels and insurrectionists, and we know that patriot printers often accused loyalists of heading up bands of pro-British African and Native Americans. Loyalists were deeply implicated in supposedly stirring up proxies. Yet they seem to get a gentler treatment at the hands of the patriot press. Parkinson argues that this was because they were white, so they could be brought into the body politic (as Hessians were, especially after the attack at Trenton)—they had the “capacity” (315) to be loyal to the patriot cause. But in the heat of the battle, those claims seem counterintuitive, particularly given how much animosity there was between patriots and loyalists. More attention to the fate of the loyalists who both stayed and left after the war might also have strengthened Parkinson’s analysis of postwar political battles.
Perhaps the book could have benefited from a stronger editorial hand, especially given that its length (some 768 pages in all) may limit its readership. This would be a shame. The appendices alone will be worth the price of the book for some. Here, Parkinson provides one of the most comprehensive and exhaustive accounts of the extant newspapers that were in circulation during the Revolutionary War. He gives potted histories of the colonial newspapers on the eve of revolution, their weekly publication schedules, and the years they operated during the Revolutionary War (along with start and end dates where applicable). It is a gold mine for those starting their research. He also provides careful tallies and assessments of the subscription and customer base and the distribution of the Pennsylvania Journal on the eve of and in the early years of the war, along with other revealing details of the contents of the paper. Parkinson’s detailed analysis throughout of how printers brought the news together and disseminated it will be a starting point and a model for the next generation of graduate students.
In short, this book deserves to be read for many different reasons. Although focused on the Revolutionary War, The Common Cause reveals much about the nature and legacy of the American Revolution. From the potential wreck of a chaotic war that pitted neighbor against neighbor, slaves against masters, and Native Americans against land-hungry colonizers, patriot leaders and printers managed to stitch together a compelling argument for resistance to Britain, the creation of newly independent states, and eventually federal union. To do so, they drew on a powerful brew of deep-seated prejudices, old animosities, and a cleverly chosen and rearranged pastiche of new war stories and grievances to conjure up a creation story that justified exclusion at the moment of the nation’s founding. Parkinson joins a growing chorus of scholars who are putting violence, terror, and intimidation back into the revolution. He also contributes to a renewed call to focus on the war stories that emerged from the conflict and ultimately helped sustain and shape the new nation—as one premised on the exclusion of African Americans and Native Americans and the perpetuation of slavery and frontier wars. It is that founding narrative with which we all still grapple.
1. John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1990), 119 (quotations), 131–32.