Liam Riordan explores how the American Revolution politicized religious, racial, and ethnic identity among the diverse inhabitants of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey from 1770 to 1830.
2007 | 392 pages | Cloth $49.95 | Paper $24.95
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
List of Tables
Chapter 1. The Importance of Place: Cultural Diversity in Three River Towns
Chapter 2. The Crisis of Everyday Life during the Revolutionary War
Chapter 3. Local Struggles and National Order in the Postwar Period
Chapter 4. Protestant Diversity in the New Nation
Chapter 5. The Campaign for Christian Unity
Chapter 6. The Campaign for Political Unity
Chapter 7. The Persistence of Local Diversity
A Note on the Unit of Comparison
List of Abbreviations
Public self-reflection is a necessary (if unsettling) element of historical inquiry if we want it to be more than an antiquarian pursuit. So let me begin by sharing some autobiographical information with a bearing on this book. How does identity shape my own sense of self? I'll start by posing an old, and perhaps tiresome, question. What's in a name? In my case, Liam O'Boyle Patrick Riordan, there's quite a bit of Irishness wrapped up in self-understanding. My childhood memories are replete with public events where ethnicity mattered, like riding in the St. Patrick's Day parade with my father, who served on the local community college governing board, or hearing him give Robert Emmet's "Speech from the Dock" in Golden Gate Park at the annual celebration of the Irish martyr's death (for a photo of me there as a three-year-old, see the San Francisco Examiner, March 9, 1970). Later, my first semiprofessional public presentation as an undergraduate historian would come at the Irish Literary and Historical Society of San Francisco. Nevertheless, my sense of being Irish American was far from all consuming. Irish step dancing always struck me as weird. I never attended parochial schools, didn't live in an Irish American neighborhood, and have a strained sense of myself as a Catholic (note how ethnic and religious lines are difficult to untangle). Still, growing up in San Francisco made me very aware that a host of cultural identities (numerous Latino and Asian groups, gay and lesbian cultures, African American urban life, and more) shaped my world. Being Irish American and Roman Catholic gave some purchase, a helpful orientation, in negotiating daily life that in my fortunate case only very rarely imposed themselves as obligations or carried public penalties.
Imagine, then, my surprise when my Guatemala-born, California-raised, German-citizen sister-in-law informed me by chance that my brother did not consider himself to be Irish American! She thought he was in denial, and perhaps I did too, but I was wary about insisting on his proper group membership. If he was "just American," as he later told me, so be it. What, then, separated our self-understandings? I am two and a half years older, but otherwise we are remarkably close. The same parents raised us, we lived in the same household, we traveled together to Ireland twice, and we share professional commitments as teachers. Our main difference regarding ethnic self-identity, perhaps, is that he left the private high school we both attended to go to a public one where he met working-class Irish Americans who were a somewhat rough group. I suspect that these schoolmates gave Irishness a connotation that he wanted little part of, whereas my more sheltered path led to an easier and more genteel embrace of ethnicity.
Our divergent sensibilities resonate as a cautionary tale about casting historical judgment in the subtle arena of cultural identity. If my brother's sense of self surprises me, how can I be certain of how group identity operated in early America? The point is not to suggest that my personal experience allows direct access to the issues faced by my historical subjects. Archival research and a close reading of evidence produced in the period are the basis of my claim to any insight. Indeed, as an early American specialist, I am deeply aware of the distance that separates contemporary America from the Revolutionary period that I study. Nevertheless, the art and mystery of the historian's craft arise from exploring the fragile ties of continuity and rupture that bind past and present together. While the transformation of the Revolutionary Delaware Valley examined here is separated from us by two centuries, there are important elements of that world that deserve our careful attention. In particular the fluid processes through which cultural identities are formed and transformed in situational social contexts occurred along an erratic continuum from separatist particularism to assimilation with which we remain familiar today.
The main actors here inhabited a region comprised of eastern Pennsylvania, western New Jersey, and northern Delaware in the period from 1770 to 1830. The dynamism of the Revolutionary Delaware Valley's multicultural society has struck me as its most compelling feature, especially how religious, racial, and ethnic identities there combined, diverged, and infused the shifting popular culture of ordinary people during these decades of rapid change. The most prominent groups and their basic trajectories in this broad Revolutionary period can be quickly limned, but, as the bulk of what follows should plainly indicate, analyzing the oftentimes ambiguous and always contested processes of cultural change requires careful attention to detail in order to properly assess the subtleties of self-understanding and perception as they find public expression.
The most distinctive aspect of the colonial Delaware Valley, and perhaps the reason that it has often been treated as an exceptional place outside the mainstream of early American development, arises from the regional prominence of the Society of Friends. Quakers were a major political force there to the eve of independence and, along with appointed officials who were often Anglicans, fashioned a distinctive regional public culture. These religiously and ethnically Anglo groups occupied the conceptual and geographical center of power in the colonial Delaware Valley. While these groups wielded considerable influence, their declining demographic presence and heated disagreements with each other undermined their hegemonic claims and assumptions. Large waves of immigration in the eighteenth century brought German speakers and Scots Irish people to the region, and the newcomers' primary settlement beyond older English areas made ethnic and religious identity an obvious fact of everyday life. The rapid expansion of colonial society in the Delaware Valley, as elsewhere, was an economic and geographic phenomenon, but it also included a vital cultural diversity that merits closer consideration.
The range of cultural groups in the eighteenth-century Delaware Valley will surprise those who think of early America as the province of Englishmen. As one leading historian has observed of the entire Mid-Atlantic, of which the Delaware Valley was a central component, "more than any other region of colonial British America, the Middle Colonies were a pluralistic society containing a large variety of linguistic, ethnic, and religious groups." However, the implications of this increasingly recognized "mélange of cultural configurations" remain dramatically understudied.
We still know surprisingly little about the multicultural nature of eighteenth-century society in the Delaware Valley. The area's initial colonial settlement by Dutch, Swedes, and Finns; subsequent Anglo colonial policies (including a relatively open legal system, equitable access to land, and an active promotional campaign committed to religious liberty); and its bountiful agricultural potential combined to attract huge numbers of immigrants, who created a remarkably mixed landscape. An impressive scholarly literature about the Delaware Valley, and the Mid-Atlantic more broadly, has begun to question the enduring narratives of early America that place Massachusetts and Virginia at the center of our historical imagination of the early United States. Traditionally, Puritan New England has been portrayed as America writ large, and, in a more compelling version, the black-white racial dualism of the Chesapeake has been deployed as the towering synecdoche of the American dilemma. These classic renderings of early American history gain influence by anticipating the sectional cleavage of the Civil War but wholly avoid the significance of cultural diversity in the large Mid-Atlantic region stretching from New York to Delaware. Cultural diversity powerfully shaped not just the Mid-Atlantic but also the heterogeneous societies of Rhode Island, Maryland, North Carolina, and the expanding frontier zone from Maine to Georgia. Most early Americans experienced cultural diversity as a regular feature of their lives. Close attention to this pluralistic social reality where no single group dominated may offer us a more usable past than the traditional origin myths of Puritan New England and the racialized slave societies of the Chesapeake.
The Delaware Valley's fluid multicultural social reality is recovered here through intense local scrutiny of the interaction of diverse cultural groups in three river towns-New Castle, Delaware; Burlington, New Jersey; and Easton, Pennsylvania. These towns stand on distinct parts of a 130-mile run of the Delaware River (fig. 1), but several common characteristics make them appropriate for comparative treatment. They shared roughly equivalent size, ranging from about 350 to 3,500 inhabitants during the period under study. All had working waterfronts and shared similar economic functions as market centers at significant crossroads. Finally, each had similar political and judicial functions as seats of county government at the start of the period. In sum, these three modest places are representative of Philadelphia's small-town hinterland and mediated between the region's metropolitan center and the mass of rural people. Most importantly, these towns had decidedly mixed local populations. In Burlington, New Jersey, Quakers and Anglicans dominated local life. In New Castle, Delaware, Scots Irish Presbyterians competed with Anglicans for public leadership in a town with a large number of African Americans. Farther upriver at Easton, Pennsylvania, Native Americans shaped the eighteenth-century frontier town whose Pennsylvania German majority often seemed shockingly foreign to those at the Anglo center of the region. These three towns offer a microcosm of the Delaware Valley's cultural diversity, and the arguments made here would vary only in detail, but not in essential thrust, had different Delaware River towns been selected instead.
An early desire to understand the significance of religious buildings in each town and the people who worshipped in them was critical to deepening my sense of the striking local diversity of these places. Public space in each of them today remains anchored by churches used in the period under study. None possesses the more familiar landscape of New England with a central Congregational church to give the appearance of a homogenous community, nor do they have the characteristic Anglican crossroads church of the Chesapeake to serve as a focal point for people on scattered plantations. Instead, the built environment of the Delaware Valley foregrounds multiple religious communities (pointedly excluding Native Americans) with potentially competing claims as spiritual and social institutions. This focus led me to see that religion occupied a vital center of multiculturalism in the Revolutionary Delaware Valley.
Our first focused look at these towns deserves to begin with their religious buildings for they can effectively introduce us to the region's diverse inhabitants. As early as 1700, the Dutch Reformed congregation in New Castle had joined with local Presbyterians, and seven years later the Dutch Reformed title to land and property was transferred to the Presbyterian congregation. The new church that they built on the site remains in use today (fig. 2). Scots Irish respectability manifested itself in the maintenance of this church. Its three ministers from 1769 to 1824 were born in Ireland, or were of Scots Irish descent, and reflected a major ethnic strain in the congregation and local population. New Castle's Anglican church, also still in use today, although reconstructed after a devastating fire in 1980, was built as a modest Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) mission in 1703 (fig. 3), but gained a far more imposing physical presence with the addition of an attractive tower and steeple in 1820 (fig. 4). The lack of surviving religious buildings from the period also raises an important issue. New Castle's active Union Church of Africans has no structure surviving from the period. Just as in Delaware's formal politics, where bitter disagreements between Presbyterians and Anglicans never disrupted their common belief that African Americans should be barred from a political voice, New Castle's surviving religious architecture from the Revolutionary period recalls only white religious groups and conceals the local prominence of blacks, who made up as much as a third of the town's population.
Burlington also has two surviving religious buildings used during the Revolutionary period. St. Mary's Anglican Church was a small SPG mission built on the same model as its counterpart in New Castle. Additions in 1769, 1811, and 1821 expanded the original squat structure, but even after those additions its proportions remained just 66 by 33 feet (fig. 5). In the mid-nineteenth century the congregation raised an impressive Romanesque church across the large lot from the original one and chose to preserve the old building. Members of the Society of Friends in Burlington replaced their unique seventeenth-century octagonal meetinghouse with a new two-story brick one in 1787 (fig. 6) that plainly displayed Quaker distinctiveness. Friends rejected the sacral power of a consecrated church in favor of a simple structure that lacked essential features in other Christian churches such as pulpits, altars, and steeples. Yet this understated building for silent worship was carefully constructed of fine material and rigorously maintained. As in so much Quaker material culture, it was "of the best sort but plain."
The placement of religious buildings in these landscapes symbolized each group's relationship to colonial authority. The surviving religious buildings in Burlington and New Castle are located close to one another at the center of each town. In Burlington, the Quaker meetinghouse and Anglican church practically share rear burial grounds, as the street front religious buildings stood around the corner from one another at the town's central crossroads of High and Broad streets. In New Castle, they stand along the town commons close to the once-bustling waterfront. Tellingly of their difference in status, however, the Anglican church stands on the commons itself, while the Presbyterian church is across the street in a mixed residential-commercial row of buildings. Yet the German church in Easton, the town's only permanent structure for formal religious worship until 1818, was built just off the town's central square. Members of Easton's Lutheran and German Reformed confessions banded together in a manner typical of Pennsylvania Germans when they raised a shared "union church" in 1774, where both groups worshipped with separate ministers for the next six decades (fig. 7).
The displacement of the union church from Easton's focal point underscores the outsider status of Pennsylvania Germans in the colonial period. Whereas in New Castle theological similarities hastened cooperation across ethnic lines between Dutch Reformed and Scots Irish Presbyterians at the start of the eighteenth century, in Easton ethnic bonds facilitated ties among Pennsylvania Germans with distinct theological traditions. Easton's Pennsylvania German union church could not occupy the town center, like its counterparts elsewhere, because the county courthouse had been built on that central site a decade earlier (fig. 11). Nevertheless, the German church was a large and impressive stone structure, enhanced by an imposing brick tower in 1832, which announced a far stronger public presence than that of the Union Church of Africans in New Castle, which, in turn, occupied more central space than displaced Native American spiritual traditions, which lacked any publicly acknowledged structures in these towns.
These varied religious buildings remind us in a very material way that taking the measure of cultural diversity in the Revolutionary Delaware Valley will require careful sifting of local evidence in order to describe that which groups in these towns had in common as well as how they moved in distinct ways. Who did these structures represent? Did they point toward differences or similarities in the lives of people in each place? How did the locally grounded experiences of individual and group life symbolized by these institutions inform the Revolutionary transformation from outposts in a transatlantic empire to places in an independent nation? Did an emerging national identity reconcile, coerce, or ignore the ongoing traditions expressed by this religious architecture?
If geography—both the multicultural region and its specific expressions in each town—provides one critical axis of analysis, the other is chronology. Examining cultural diversity in the Delaware Valley is especially important in the era of rapid change inaugurated by the Revolutionary War. Although the war itself directly touched the Delaware Valley for a relatively short period from 1776 to 1778, the Revolution must be understood to extend beyond the war, and even beyond such famous postwar political events as Constitutional ratification and the election of Thomas Jefferson, if we are to understand its impact on ordinary people. The Revolution was inseparable from early national public life in these places. The broad cultural transformation examined here did not occur as a result of singular events on precise dates as the traditions of military and political history have often led us to expect. People throughout the new nation experienced the local implications of the American Revolution over the course of several decades, which informed how they created a much more recognizably modern Jacksonian society starting in the 1820s. This expansive chronology leads to a mixed assessment of the interconnected achievements and limitations of Revolutionary change in the Delaware Valley, an important stance in trying to understand the Revolution's ongoing legacy for the United States.
Group identity traversed an especially sensitive terrain as a result of the new nation's experiment with representative government. The American Revolution challenged individuals to decide how "the people" were to be understood within a framework of popular sovereignty and republican equality. How were both individual rights and social order to be secured in the Revolutionary nation? This tension has long been recognized as a fundamental question of the period and has received careful scholarly attention. Based primarily on formal political sources, however, this distinguished literature does not reflect the transformation in early American scholarship wrought by social historians of the past generation. A notable gap separates social historians with their tendency to focus on the colonial period and ordinary people in specific places, from political historians of the Revolution and early republic who more often focus on leaders and institutions whose influence transcended particular localities. This cultural history seeks to bridge that gap by applying some of the demographic techniques of the former approach to understand how politics reached local people and how they helped to shape the Revolutionary nation.
The implementation of popular sovereignty in the postwar period through the creation of a nonethnic "civic culture" of American nationalism and citizenship has been widely acknowledged. However, it has too rarely been noted that such an ideologically defined national identity responded to resurgent ethno-religious concerns. National identity required a greater imaginative dimension in the United States than it had in any European polity, as in the United States national identity would always be distinct from ethnicity. The new nation's potential instability encouraged the submersion of ethnic and religious differences in defining citizenship and heightened the salience of "whiteness" as a broadly shared identity for maintaining national order.
Citizens in the Revolutionary nation faced troubling questions about social stability in their postcolonial and postmonarchical society. Sensitivity about the relationship between personal and national identity was particularly problematic in the culturally diverse Mid-Atlantic and received probing attention from its leading creative writers. Washington Irving, for example, created the persona of Diedrich Knickerbocker as the author-preserver of New York's Dutch culture, and his most famous character, Rip Van Winkle, "doubted his own identity, and whether he was himself or another man." Similarly, the Pennsylvania author Hugh Henry Brackenridge's massive satire Modern Chivalry (1792-1815) created a lasting comic character in Teague O'Regan, an illiterate Irish immigrant whose ambitious opportunism led to political office. These characters' ethnic associations were critical to their resonance and drew upon widely shared values and opinions that are difficult to recover from the evidence typically given interpretive weight by social and political historians. Even more than Irving or Brackenridge, the Philadelphia-born Quaker Charles Brockden Brown cast unstable identity at the very heart of his work. As one recent critic noted, all Brown's novels "echoed with the crashes of shattering identity." No resident of the towns studied here probably shared Brown's hypersensitivity to the instability of self, but they certainly understood that diverse identities shaped their lives in new ways as a result of the American Revolution. It is no coincidence that these leading Mid-Atlantic creative writers wrestled with the variability of personal identity in the Revolutionary nation.
The American Revolution sets this story in motion because it heightened people's awareness of the public consequences of personal identity. The region's multicultural demography was politicized in a mobilization for war that challenged established authority and contained distinct consequences for different groups. Anglican and Quaker political preeminence in the region was toppled, Pennsylvania Germans and Scots Irishmen were newly assertive, and African Americans seized upon the period's social turmoil and idealistic rhetoric to begin the process of successful emancipation. Perhaps the starkest transformation of group identity occurred for Native Americans, whose peripheral status in late colonial society plummeted to an even more complete exclusion from the nation.
These distinctive group engagements with the region's rapidly changing public culture should be understood as variants of a shared Revolutionary identity politics that arose during the war and that continued to influence public life in the Delaware Valley into the 1820s. In each case, group identity had new consequences as the Revolution dismantled the colonial order. The overlapping relationships among religion, race, and ethnicity reshaped one another throughout the broad Revolutionary period, and their renegotiation informed the national social order that gradually cohered in the region. The upsurge of group consciousness central to Revolutionary identity politics also inspired attempts to restrain the potentially destabilizing consequences of this politicization. The supple nature of these contests over group identity (fought by individuals within groups as much as between groups) rarely yielded absolute victors and vanquished, but from the mass of detailed local evidence produced in the struggles to articulate legitimate group claims, an overall pattern of assertion and resistance, followed by rejection and repression and then negotiation and accommodation, can be observed from 1770 to 1830. Placing the public struggles over the proper expression of group distinctiveness in the context of everyday life in three specific towns yields a new understanding of how cultural identification structured the emerging Jacksonian society of the 1820s as a culmination of the Delaware Valley's Revolutionary identity politics.
The examination of ethno-religious diversity in the Delaware Valley during the earliest years of nationhood reveals that a conflicted relationship between varied local identities and national unity has been at the heart of American public thought and social experience since the founding of the republic. Awareness of group distinctiveness has been a persistent feature in national characterization. Similar issues, of course, had also emerged in the colonial period, for colonization was fundamentally defined by the relocation of diverse groups into new settings. In fact, the creation of recognizably "ethnic" distinctions (often based in language, religion, and national origins) accelerated as a result of the colonial experience. However, the rapid reformulation of group relations in the Revolutionary Delaware Valley makes close attention to cultural identity then and there especially fruitful. The changing places of three groups studied here are especially clear. Quakers were pushed from public office and often treated as un-American for refusing to join the patriot movement. Pennsylvania Germans secured a far more central place for themselves as American citizens than they had achieved as provincial British subjects. African Americans made similar claims to public legitimacy only to discover that the benefits of national unity would not include them.
The ways in which individuals took public action as members of self-consciously distinctive groups were extremely varied, and it is imperative that group relations not be treated as static or monolithic. Indeed, the situational variability of identity formation requires the painstaking comparative local methodology adopted here. Awareness of difference arises from specific cross-cultural encounters that are best interpreted with a close understanding of local context. The constructionist view of identities as fluid, situational, and dynamic has come to dominate most recent assessments of cultural identity and quite appropriately levels a searing critique of previous scholarly and popular assumptions that have tended to essentialize the nature of identity. While one must recognize volitional aspects of identities, they simultaneously take shape from a connection to the past and in relationship to external and structural forces that limit their possible forms of expression.
The approach taken here emphasizes cultural identities as contingent historical constructions and aims to preserve the recognition of difference in the past while striving to avoid forcing those often fragile expressions to conform to my own preconceptions about how they should manifest themselves. I hope to do justice to the transcendent qualities of their particularity by considering several groups comparatively and to show how their multiplicity of interwoven experiences marked a constant struggle for mutual interaction. Moreover, my retelling of stories within stories about cultural diversity in the Revolutionary Delaware Valley strives to be a dialogue with people in the past who, like us, struggled to organize their heterogeneity into at least provisional unities that would permit a multicultural and non-exclusionary society. In our ongoing effort to reconcile diversity and unity we often still fail to recognize our high degree of commonality as individuals participating in shared processes of identity formation and assertion.
One clear consequence of the close analysis of local diversity in the Revolutionary Delaware Valley has meant that ethnicity and religion must be assessed alongside European American, African American, and Native American "racial" identities. No study of early American cultural diversity could possibly be complete without considering groups understood to be nonwhite today. While Indians in the Pennsylvania backcountry suffered disastrous losses as a result of the Seven Years' War, and the region never became totally defined by slavery like places to the south, Native Americans and African Americans played critical roles in the Delaware Valley for specific local reasons as well as for important symbolic ones. The simultaneous analysis of these intertwined strands of cultural identity does not imply that white ethnicity and nonwhite racial identity were somehow equivalent. Categorization as black or Indian clearly marked an extreme form of difference and carried more severe social penalties in early America than various forms of white identity. However, to treat (white) ethnicity as wholly different from (black or Indian) racial identity only reinforces the notion of race as a fixed social category. By examining the varied ways that ethnic, religious, and racial identities shaped one another and the dynamic political culture of the Revolutionary Delaware Valley we can better understand how racial identity's negative connotations became more fixed by the 1820s than they had been in the 1770s. In short, this book seeks to explain how respectable, white, Protestantism came to present itself as normal—and with special claims to being American—by the 1820s. Close scrutiny of specific individuals and groups in carefully bounded contexts reveals this claim to authority to have been more contested by varied local identities than we have recognized heretofore.
The tight focus here on individuals and events in three river towns owes an interpretive and methodological debt to the rich community-study literature that flourished for two decades starting in the 1970s. Assessing multiple overlapping records together can yield a richly layered understanding of everyday life, and the demographic emphasis of community studies is essential for tracing the varied allegiances of individuals and families over time. However, social history, and especially its classic expression in the community-study monograph, has been under siege for some time. The inward gaze of such studies that often celebrate particularity, the growing specialization of academic discourse, and the theme of local diversity tied to social conflict have seemed to many to abandon the telling of a common story that can give clearer meaning to the past.
Committing oneself to studying ordinary people in specific communities need not be the narrowly conceived project that such critics decry. A comparative approach can help avoid the insularity of a single community focus. Calibrating the experiences of individuals from three towns permits larger patterns to emerge and underscores that each town is studied not for its own sake, but to answer a more pressing question about the diversity of its inhabitants. How did individuals experience and understand cultural diversity in a period of nation building? Knowledge about the local context is not an end in itself: it provides the evidence to consider how multiculturalism and nationalism intersected in the Revolutionary Delaware Valley. While the developments in each town studied here may at times seem divergent, the comparative approach allows us to see how different people engaged a shared experience of negotiating their relationship with the new nation in distinct ways.
Historical ethnography provides a second methodological model essential to the interpretation of how personal identity arose from local difference. Because ethnography has been most influential among scholars who examine contemporary societies (especially in the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, folklore, and cultural studies), doing research as an early American ethnographer requires modifying its participant-observer fieldwork method. Although documents and artifacts sometimes reveal the past with startling immediacy, more often their significance surfaces very slowly, and only the gradual compilation of varied evidence begins to point in directions that bear careful scrutiny.
This historical ethnography reconstructs local encounters of cultural difference from both quantitative and qualitative sources. Evidence for this analysis includes a database with more than four thousand individual entries compiled from tax, census, military, and church records from the late 1760s to the early 1830s. This data provides a demographic springboard for interpreting a wide range of material from personal manuscripts and newspapers to folk art, hymnals, clothing, and architecture. Nontraditional historical sources linked to popular culture often contain especially powerful expressions of cultural identity whose meanings take clearest shape when triangulated with other evidence. The attempt here is to illuminate a previous world of experience by assembling words, actions, images, sounds, objects, and built environments from three river towns. The ability of an outside observer to enter such places, interpret specific events, and recognize broader patterns stems from the fundamentally public nature of group identity in these encounters. As these were incidents that were shared at the time, a careful scholar can reasonably hope to recover some of their meanings.
The account that follows unfolds chronologically with an introduction to each town and essential information about colonial development in Chapter 1. The remaining six chapters can usefully be divided into two halves. Chapters 2 through 4 examine the upsurge of the region's conflicted Revolutionary identity politics, first in the war itself and then in postwar political and religious life. At the center of the region's Revolutionary identity politics lay a dramatic expansion of what counted as public and political. From Quaker calls for the non-payment of taxes, to the Pennsylvania German Fries Rebellion, to the formation of the Union Church of Africans, group identity had dramatic consequences for how people understood themselves and their relationship to Revolutionary society. At no time, however, did all members of any one group act with absolute uniformity. Ambiguity and conflict coursed within these groups, and the labels of group identity were used in pejorative ways at least as often as they were employed in a self-affirming manner. Awareness of both the liberating and the repressive potential of identity politics informs this analysis.
The second half of the book explores varied responses to the heightened cultural particularism sparked by the Revolutionary War. The most successful forces that responded to Revolutionary identity politics, and that in many ways borrowed from it, were cosmopolitan evangelicalism and partisan politics, considered in Chapters 5 and 6, respectively. Both these key thrusts of early national public action struggled to reshape the Delaware Valley's resurgent local diversity into American unity. The unheralded persistence of Protestant social reform and permanent political parties, both quite novel in the early nineteenth century, marks an important moment of resistance to and accommodation with the teeming local diversity of the Revolutionary Delaware Valley. Although leaders of the evangelical and partisan movements were often deeply suspicious of one another, both championed the ideal of a unified and strengthened nation under their guidance and depended for their success upon massive grass-roots mobilization and firm local allegiances. The gradual growth of national society that they helped to foster never destroyed local diversity but it did stimulate new commitments in everyday group life by the 1810s and 1820s that are considered in Chapter 7. In sum, this study uncovers how religious, racial, and ethnic expressions gained heightened public significance in the Delaware Valley during the Revolutionary War, shaped public life there in the early national period, and helped form Jacksonian society. This account revisits some of the central concerns of the ethnocultural interpretation of electoral politics, but does so from a local ethnographic perspective that connects the party formation of the 1820s to developments set in motion by the war for independence.
The multiethnic, multiracial, multireligious, and multilingual character of the Revolutionary Delaware Valley suggests that it can provide a useful foil for reconsidering recent largely polemical assertions about multiculturalism in the contemporary United States. Some readers may be unsettled by the idea that multiculturalism could provide a useful interpretive framework for examining early America, but it is imperative to move beyond superficial connotations of that term, one of the most debilitating of which assumes that controversial public awareness about group identity has primarily been a recent phenomenon. Describing the Revolutionary Delaware Valley as a multicultural region highlights that religious, racial, and ethnic identities were widely recognized at the time as having significant social consequences. This subject demands attention precisely because disagreement still rages over how best to reconcile distinctive group identities with national unity. A historical perspective on multiculturalism is essential not only to properly locate cultural diversity as a central theme in American history but also to demonstrate how the politicization of group identity has changed over time. The rich interaction between group identity and cultural diversity needs to be understood not merely as a contemporary "problem," but as a constitutive feature of the societies created from the massive transatlantic migrations that inaugurated the modern world.
We still need studies that focus on lawyers in the courthouse, politicians in the statehouse, and merchants in the counting house. Still more, we need to learn about midwives at a neighbor's house, slave life behind the great house, paupers fleeing the poorhouse, and Iroquois meetings in the longhouse, but this book does not follow those lines of inquiry. Instead, it attempts to unite those sensible divisions to analyze a general transformation in public life during the broad Revolutionary era by following the paths taken by diverse people in three Delaware River towns. Only when a range of overlapping human relationships are understood in their local context can we begin to grasp how power operated and changed in a given society. Awareness of difference represents a fundamental matter of human concern that has increasingly moved along a distinctive trajectory in the modern era. By closely studying individual experiences in a multicultural context I hope to further our understanding of how certain cultural forms became privileged categories in the creation of the United States.