Benjamin L. Carp, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
No less a personage than John Murrin suggested that Carp’s achievement with this text was to craft the most important study of origins of the American Revolution in nearly three decades. Other historians pointed out that the book was well written, demonstrated strong and far ranging research, and opened discussion on a range of important subjects in the time period.
Pr. Carp gets dual praise within one week from me (and dual pickings from the bookshelf) as well as serious consideration for book selection in my upcoming revolutionary America and the early republic class. Carp is, I would argue, presenting an innovative (yet concise) book based on an impressive number of manuscript collections and newspapers. He writes vividly about how port cities connected the American colonies economically, culturally, and politically to the British empire. Carp argues that the physical environments of cities served as catalysts for political change. Urban colonists, therefore, were among the first to get rid of a British identity and unite as Americans (this despite the fact that Loyalists were significant numbers in the urban setting!)
Rebels Rising, which evolved out of Carp’s graduate research, focuses on political activity in Boston, New York, Newport, Charleston, and Philadelphia. Interestingly, and, I suppose somewhat problematically, Carp examines different aspects of each of these cities: waterfront, taverns, congregations, elite patriarchy, and common people at the state house, respectively. His point is that people’s everyday interactions in different cities evolved into life and community altering political activities. I like this idea and approach, though I do wonder whether focusing on the same types of environments in each city might have revealed other continuities?
This complaint of mine is minor – because truthfully I have to agree with Murrin, Jane Kamensky, and others. This text is concise, yet the best kind of dense, and truly zesty. I’ll close with a few examples of key points I believe Carp offers readers of the period that are important to understand. From the opening sentences of the piece, Carp emphasizes the ways in which American cities represented the possibility of anybody knowing one another. People talk about six degrees of Kevin Bacon – I’ve been two degrees from Mr. Bacon since his wife Kyra Sedgwick referred to my daughter as beautiful and how interacting with her made her day eight years ago – but Carp’s point is that it was possible in the compact cities of Revolutionary America for any two people to know each other (3).
These cities were full of activity, animals, smells, celebrations, and opportunity? That opportunity and gathering space sometimes created political mobilization and that, as Carp argues, these urban people created community, defined it, and created challenges for their environments (5). And yet, as Carp explains, these same cities became places where that community of revolutionaries could barely hang on to the independence movement they had created. I am not fully convinced that urban environments changed so completely after the revolution as to diminish their importance in fomenting political change – rise of Democratic party politics? labor movements? draft riots? (and that is only the nineteenth century) – but, Rebels Rising is important writing about the American revolutionary era.