By Matthew Dziennik
“New York’s Refugees and Political Authority in Revolutionary America,” WMQ (Jan. 2020) began with an intellectual humbling. It came at a brown bag at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation where I was presenting on my research. I laid out my argument in the clearest terms – the revolutionary committees of safety were fundamental to American independence but they were also oppressive organizations that limited the creation of free and open society. They had exercised unlawful power, restricted free movement, and had clamped down on public gatherings that posed imagined risks to public order. In the Q & A, I received a number of helpful questions and suggestions. One participant – who will remain nameless – told me “You paint a very Orwellian picture of the Revolution.” Proud of myself, I agreed and thanked the participant for the compliment. The reply was as incisive as it was chastening: “That was not meant as a compliment.” Of the many exchanges I’ve had over the years, this one remains with me. And it remains with me because it was one of the most valuable I have ever had.
My initial reaction was to double down on the interpretation. If the interpretation was unsettling, I must be doing something right. It is a good thing to be guilty of thoughtcrime. It took several days to realized that they might have had a point. I had been so committed to a particular vision of the Revolution that I had let my argument run ahead of the evidence. I had engaged in historical anachronism of the highest order.
The exchange did not change my fundamental understanding of the committees of safety but it was an essential course corrective. I needed to tell the story of the committees of safety in a way that embraced both the coercive aspects of political authority as well as the genuine commitment to republican theory embraced by the members of these committees. I needed to engage in some historical doublethink.
Trawling through the records of various committees of safety, I had uncovered substantive references to “refugees.” While almost entirely ignored in histories of the Revolution – displacement being seen as synonymous with Loyalism – it was striking that refugees sympathetic to the Revolution had been at the heart of debates over public welfare, taxation, property, and where political authority should ultimately reside. These debates were particularly contentious in New York. Refugees became a means of navigating the muddled story of how supporting the displaced came to help underpin revolutionary political authority in New York.
But the article that was finally published could not have been more different from my initial drafts. I experimented with various organizing themes – sovereignty, legitimacy, political authority – but could not strike the right balance between the genuine desire of revolutionaries to protect their citizens and the often callous disregard to which the dispossessed were sometimes subjected. I had initially posited that supporting refugees had been done to build revolutionary legitimacy but I quickly ran into a problem of source deficiency. The lack of refugee voices was an enduring problem and one that was never quite resolved even in the final article. I searched long and hard to find refugee perspectives but struggled to identify a solid base of evidence … perhaps there really is a memory hole!
Fortunately, there is an advantage in having numerous and excellent Readers Reports. It was the Readers who recognized the problem of legitimacy and suggested the possibilities of political authority. It was the Readers who recognized that, while there was something interesting to New York’s refugees, the article did not make a significant intervention in the historiography of the Revolution. And it was the Readers who challenged me to better understand the changing context of refugee relief throughout the war. Getting these reports – which I think came to about 18 pages in total including Josh Piker’s commentary – was a scary moment (my very own Room 101) but they were absolutely necessary. When combined with the comments of numerous friends and fellow historians they enabled me to situate the argument more effectively. Words cannot express the extent of the gratitude I owe to the Readers and my colleagues.
The resulting essay suggests that the political structures of the Revolution combined both altruism and coercive power in ways that resist easy categorization. It certainly gets to the heart of the complexities of the American Revolution far better than my anachronistic jaunt into revolutionary dystopia. The essay began with an intellectual humbling. Sometimes, 2 + 2 = 5.