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Feven Getachew
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Harvey Wilhelm `24.
Harvey Wilhelm
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Q&A: Northwestern’s Timothy Breen on revolutions

Timothy Breen, William Smith Mason Professor of American History at Northwestern University and author of eight books, visited Grinnell yesterday to deliver a lecture entitled “A Rumor that Almost Sparked the Revolution Two Years Before American Independence.” He discussed the events of September 1774 in Boston in which fallacious reports of British attacks on the city prompted a massive grassroots response. Afterward, he sat down to discuss his lecture, the American Revolution and his understanding of the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East.

Photo taken by Abraham Kohrman

What sort of similarities and differences do you see between Egypt and Tunisia and the American Revolution?
One thing that I’ve learned in my life is that scholars all kinds can make real fools of themselves when they try to talk outside their comfort zone, I am not a historian of the Middle East. … I think people who recommended my book were impressed by two things—the ability of ordinary people in Egypt to create new patterns of communication … and the other is the seeming spontaneity of the Egyptian protestors how suddenly there were lots of people in the square. It was wonderful. I support this movement, and I don’t believe it’s the voice of democracy. … So the American case seemed to be an analogy. People say, ‘Gee, that’s kind of interesting. We didn’t have twitter or iPhones, but we had these newspapers.’ The first newspaper in America was founded around 1707, but in the ten or twelve years before American independence the number of newspapers escalated, and they were—in a sense—equivalent to bloggers or twitter at the time.

In order to have a revolution, you have to believe that others are with you. Just simple unrest isn’t enough. It has to have a structure, and so in some countries there’ve been say isolated mobs or groups that protest something. They’re always beaten by authority. You have to move very carefully to funnel anger into an organizational structure … behind the Egyptian Revolution—we’re only now knowing this—but there were cadres.

And I think the bigger point here—and it has nothing to do with Egypt, but with us—is that Americans increasingly I think are becoming very parochial. They want to see their history as the good history, the pretty history, the history of enlightened thought. Whereas these other countries, they have bloody revolutions. They’re all riots and chaos and so forth. So the instinct among many scholars is not to compare our revolution with other revolutions, but to separate it out as exceptional.

People want to study the Revolution because we want to understand Jacksonian democracy. We want to understand the idea of a pluralistic constitutional state. That’s fine if people want to do that. The purpose of my scholarship is to situate our political culture at its point of origin into a dialogue with aspiring people in other places. If we say all insurgence is automatically a danger to our state, if we say they’re the bad people, they’re upsetting things, well I say maybe, but maybe we should review our own past. If we hadn’t had upsetting insurgency, we’d still be part of the British Commonwealth.

What is the dividing line between mass rioting and revolution? What were the things that had to happen for rioting in Boston for rioting in Cairo to become revolutions that swept the whole country?
It’s like trying to light a fire. You go to a match. Maybe the first match doesn’t light; it burns your finger. A second match crackles. The difference between a riot and a meaningful revolutionary insurgence is that the protest loses its localism. It becomes communicated over space, and to put it as one historian calls it: you have to communicate to imagined strangers. Through communication we might say, ‘Well, I’ve never been to that place, but I can understand what’s going on because I’m suffering that too.’ And when that moment comes you have the possibility of revolution.

And is that point in the American Revolution 1774 and the rumor?
April 1775 when people were shot and killed at Lexington, of course that was a signature event, but I would say that the summer of 1774 and the great rumor brought the ordinary people on board as they’d never been before. They got madder and angrier, and it created a structure of committees in every town to enforce the Revolution. They enforced the Revolution. … If you were caught drinking tea it was not a happy moment in your life.

If you could communicate one message to students of American history about the Revolution what would be?
That it was not exceptional. I would urge people to see American history perhaps, not more tolerantly, but to read current events through the lens of their own past.

In your talk you downplayed the role of the Founding Fathers and elevated the position of the ordinary people. Are founding figures necessary for a revolution to succeed?
Yes. Of course they were. They spoke a special language. These were the first Americans to articulate of doctrine of universal rights. Did they make good on that? No. They owned slaves, but they started a conversation that has resonated throughout American history. It spoke to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King about the possibility and the invitation for you and me to make good on the words that all men are created equal. That’s a wonderful language. … I would never think of excluding them from the story. There is a dialogue between the ordinary people and their leaders and between the leaders and the ordinary people. My point was that most of the writing on this period concentrates only on the leaders. That’s why this story. I found it, and no one had ever noticed it. It’s right out there. It’s in the newspapers. It wasn’t hiding. I remember when I read it, thinking wow. … Let’s say there were only fifteen thousand men, that’s huge. The whole population of America at this time was two and a half million, and half a million of them were slaves. … If you’ve got ten thousand men on a field that’s incredible. How did this happen?

What makes this story important is that ideas became actions. It’s kind of easy to talk. Most people do that. Some people think, ‘this weekend we should be on the streets.’ When that happens, then you have a political event, not just rhetoric. That’s why what’s happened in Egypt and what’s happening in Tunisia is interesting because those are reactions against truly oppressive regimes.

You brought up solidarity as a key factor and mentioned that Americans definitely had it by the time of Lexington and Concord and pinpoint this 1774 incident as one of the main instances that helped to establish that. To apply the idea of solidarity to a Middle Eastern context might be different in that, but on what level does that idea work in the Middle East?
It’s not clear. What people say is, ‘Look, there’s unrest in Tunisia and Egypt and Yemen and Jordan and Syria and Libya,’ when they say there’s solidarity. It’s not quite clear yet what that means. I think what the people who use it think is that it has to do with Islam. There’s a common religious unity, so they look to the Muslim Brotherhood or something. No doubt the common religiosity is a factor, but I suspect it’s more. I don’t know yet, but there were strong hints throughout of old-fashion class war: unemployed, poor, marginalized people in these countries who were tired of an elite who was just milking or bilking and sending all their money to Switzerland. And people say ‘Enough, we’re not going to put up with this anymore.’ So the working out of this class antagonism has unified people.

How do you view what’s happening in the Middle East?
Our country, before the Russian Revolution, was always the first nation to welcome revolutionary action and new countries, countries that had gotten freedom. Because we really regarded America, in the 19th century, as a revolutionary, democratic, republican country, and we welcomed other countries onto the team. After the Russian Revolution, it all changed. It’s amazing. That was the point where we didn’t quite know if we wanted to be the spokesman for revolution anymore.

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