Archive | November, 2014

Review of Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution, by Benjamin L. Carp

25 Nov

Benjamin L. Carp’s Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution argues that, contrary to legendary accounts of a rural agrarian uprising, America’s seaport cities were the epicenter of the movement for independence. He asserts that their influence was quickly forgotten in the popular narrative about America’s formation both literally and figuratively in the postwar era. Carp focuses on the five largest American cities at the time of the Revolution and some of the unique aspects of their economic and social structures to make his points: the political mobilization fostered by New York’s tavern culture, Boston’s waterfront and its unique social and economic cohesion, Newport’s churches and the religious pluralism they brought about in that community, Philadelphia’s “out of doors” public assemblies and their trendsetting influence, the homes of Charleston’s elite and the way in which they doubled as fiefdoms where power and prestige were displayed.


The book is an intriguing investigation which definitely helps present information about the Revolutionary era in new ways. I found it more interesting for the details of daily life in colonial cities which it provided than for any new paradigm about the causes and origins of the movement for American independence, however. There are several reasons for this, the foremost of which is that not much presented seemed to me to really be establishing the root cause of political action as much as merely demonstrating how it manifested itself in an urban environment. In short, the events he discusses and demonstrates took place do not seem to be uniquely urban. With perhaps the exception of the unusually heavy concentration of taverns in colonial New York, all the other scenarios seem to be much more generally “American” and differentiated from smaller communities or rural areas primarily by scale. Above all, I question the underlying contention upon which Carp’s case is made that American cities either reached some sort of political zenith before the war or experienced a rapid decline in influence after it.

There are other reasons that the book misses the mark. There is much repetition as seemingly every example of every point the author found in his research is mentioned. It is not a long book, but it could make the same points and probably make them even better if reduced in size. His conclusion, which overreaches to demonstrate a cultural and physical distance between cities and countryside and explain some sort of wholesale effort to minimize the role of urban centers as players in our nation’s birth strikes me at best far flung and at worst unsubstantiated; at least not adequately explained to support it being such a definitive thesis. Regardless of whether or not American port cities were occupied by British armies during the Revolutionary War, for example, well over 90% of Americans lived in much smaller communities or on farms, after all. It would not appear to take much coordinated action to minimize their overall cultural influence during the era.

With all this said as reasons to not pick up the book, there is much more than expected to recommend it. The book is truly a fascinating and incredibly richly researched glimpse into the ways political power was created, nurtured, and exerted in colonial communities during the era of America’s founding. Carp takes perhaps the best example of a development which had a meaningful impact on American nationhood, tracks its origins in a particular time and place, and places it in context relative to the nation as a whole. Further, the book provides compelling new information on the early cultural and physical development of each of the communities which is featured. I truly did enjoy the book in the end and feel like I have a new, deeper, understanding of life in the Revolutionary era after reading it, even if it was not necessarily for the reasons suggested by the author. In short, the book in my estimation would seem to have been the basis for a wonderfully engrossing narrative about urban colonial era life that instead underwent contortion in an attempt to make some larger, inadequately supported point that fits the requirements of academe instead of striving for public edification. Whether my jaundiced appraisal is true or not, I am glad I read it and would recommend it for those interested in the Revolutionary era.