Between Sovereignty and Anarchy: The Politics of Violence in the American Revolutionary Era

By Rindfleisch, Bryan C. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, October 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Between Sovereignty and Anarchy: The Politics of Violence in the American Revolutionary Era


Rindfleisch, Bryan C., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Between Sovereignty and Anarchy: The Politics of Violence in the American Revolutionary Era * Edited by Patrick Griffin, Robert G. Ingram, Peter S. Onuf, and Brian Schoen * Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015 * xii, 316 pp. * $45.00

This edited compilation focuses on the "role of violence in the founding in America" and deals with the much "darker aspects" of the Revolutionary era. This is not only welcome but also refreshing because the majority of studies about the American Revolution revolve around its "origins" and "outcomes" rather than its "violence, vacillation, adaptation, [and] struggle . . . [that] have gone missing" (pp. 4-5). These essays also herald a "new narrative that is greater than the sum of the parts," what Patrick Griffin calls the "sovereignty revolution," in which the Revolutionary contest was not simply a conflict between ideologies of liberty and power but a struggle "between sovereignty and anarchy" (pp. 15, 17-18).

The authors collectively suggest that the Revolution-when situated within the paradigm of a "sovereignty revolution"-unfolded in three stages. In essays by Griffin, Chris Beneke, and Andrew Cayton, the origins of the Revolution stemmed from competing imperial and colonial sovereignties that were endemic of "a crisis in the process of British state formation" (p. 16). Though this is hardly breaking news unto itself, the essayists open new doors of inquiry by connecting this conflict over sovereignty to its seventeenth-century precedents, such as the English Civil War or the cultural anxieties that framed violence as a violation of British liberty and independence. It should be noted that Griffins analysis of violence in the British Atlantic is particularly insightful, as he links the "gruesome warfare" that characterized the American frontiers in the eighteenth century to England's colonization of Ireland and Scotland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (p. 40). By connecting "scalping" and other forms of grisly violence to the English past-like Humphrey Gilbert's pacification of Ireland-Griffin articulates how such violence fit into a broader transatlantic pattern as "all of these places became violent in a similar way" (p. 55).

The Revolutionary crisis itself was the second stage, otherwise defined as a period of collapsing authority within the British state. …

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