The Secret Founding Fathers
Enough about Washington, Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers, says historian T.H. Breen, on July 4th we should celebrate the forgotten, ordinary men who took to the streets to fight British tyranny — and are the bedrock of our republican values.
From the page: “…During the two years before the delegates to the Continental Congress issued a formal Declaration of Independence, ordinary Americans launched an insurgency that energized resistance to British rule. They drove the revolution forward, often staking out positions more radical than those of their leaders. Before the Congress convened (September 5, 1774), they had driven Imperial officials from office, formed associations of resistance, policed neighborhoods for dissent, even fielded in New England an impromptu army estimated at 20,000 men in response to a rumored bombing of Boston. Because they engaged in violence, they may make modern Americans uneasy. But whatever one thinks about the messy business of waging revolution, we should not forget that without the insurgency of ordinary people, we would not today be celebrating our independence.
Two examples immediately come to mind. Matthew Patten owned a hardscrabble farm in Bedford, New Hampshire. What distinguished him from his neighbors was his marvelous diary that chronicled how he and the members of his family were drawn–slowly, often reluctantly–into the resistance movement. His reflections remind us how revolutions transform local communities. On the day that the inhabitants of Bedford learned that British forces had shot farmers in Lexington, Massachusetts–people much like the Pattens–Matthew noted a flurry of activity. His son John and forty four men marched in support of the Americans. Matthew’s daughters also responded to the revolutionary moment. “Our Girls sit up all night baking bread and fitting things for him [John].” The boy received a serious wound at Bunker Hill, but no sooner had he recovered than he rejoined the Continental forces. He was killed early in 1776.
Matthew’s diary recorded a parent’s pain. John, the father explained, died “defending the just Rights of America to whose end he came in the prime of life by means of that wicked Tyrannical Brute (nea worse than Brute) of Great Britain. He was Twenty four years and 31 days old.” The Pattens did not need the Declaration of Independence to tell them about the American Cause.
Nor did Samuel Thompson require the Founding Fathers to explain why ordinary Americans had to defend their rights against a despotic parliament. Like Matthew Patten, Thompson was a struggling farmer. During the spring of 1775, he organized his neighbors into an insurgent group, and wearing only sprigs of spruce in their hats, they attempted to seize a British warship, thus sparking what is know locally as “Thompson’s War.” Later, he pledged to the Americans serving under him in the Continental Army “I never will forsake you.” One person noted that Thompson assured the soldiers, “It was enough if he could at his Death see his Country Free, and it was a Pleasure to Die for the Rights of this People rather than submit to the cruel Hand of Tyranny.”
The ordinary people who resisted the British Empire spoke for the common good; they reached out to distant strangers, creating broad political solidarities. Samuel Thompson and Matthew Patten were not political theorists in the way our Founding Fathers indisputably were. They likely did not read Locke or Montesquieu. And while they may not have perceived resistance in intellectual terms, they brought a key element to the revolutionary equation. They infused abstract ideas about rights and liberty with passion: fear, anger, a desire for revenge, and a sense of betrayal. Without such emotion, they would never have sacrificed so much in the cause of independence. We owe it to them to understand how they came to believe–in the words of Thomas Paine–“The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth – Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected, even to the end of time, by the proceedings now.”
Tip my hat with thanks to BILKLB for this great article