Todd on Parkinson, 'The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution'

Robert G. Parkinson
Anna Leigh Todd

Robert G. Parkinson. The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. xi + 742 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-2663-5.

Reviewed by Anna Leigh Todd (University of Pennsylvania) Published on H-Early-America (November, 2017) Commissioned by Joshua J. Jeffers

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If scores of historians have looked to John Adams’s famous horological metaphor, that “Thirteen clocks were made to strike together,” for evidence of the extraordinary coalescence of Revolutionary fervor, Robert G. Parkinson in The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution finds greater promise in the second half of the quote. Evoking the act of fashioning implied in the verbiage “were made,” Adams went on to emphasize the manufacture of the clocks, describing their synchronicity as “a perfection of mechanism which no artist had ever before effected.”[1] In Parkinson’s telling, this mechanism was encapsulated by the rhetoric of the “common cause;” its clockmakers were the printers and newspaper editors who crafted it (p. 5). Faced with the task of making the culturally familiar British foreign, printers and patriots rhetorically linked them to entrenched threats of rebellious slaves, menacing Native Americans, and opportunistic mercenaries--what he terms “proxies”--through the reproduction and dissemination of carefully crafted war stories. For Parkinson, this redirection of patriotic anxiety onto racial and cultural others is at the heart of “the American founding myth,” the foreclosure of the promise of liberty and equality for many Revolutionary participants and the predestination of an American citizenry defined exclusively as free and white (p. 24). This reality has been obscured, he argues, by its very representations. “With the war stories they would tell, refused to tell, or were ineffective in telling,” he writes, “the patriots would bury race deep in the political structure of the new republic” (p. 24).

Representation, in fact, constitutes the core of Parkinson’s interpretation in that the common cause both sought political representation and relied on cultural representations to achieve that end. He pays careful attention to the limitations of a term popular among scholars--“propaganda”--which he deftly criticizes for its anachronism and “cultural baggage” (p. 17). Yet Parkinson also variously employs the terms “rhetoric” and “discourse,” collapsing other complex notions within the same process of the linguistic construction of a shared enemy without attending to their nuances and theoretical histories. He makes an interesting claim that the common cause gained legitimacy by selectively reporting on “real” events, but his frequent interchange of a fraught vocabulary leaves one wondering about the relationship between each of these terms and “truth” as well as the role of language in constructing reality. The term that is conspicuously and significantly absent from Parkinson’s theoretical framework, however, is “ideology.” In fact, he firmly rejects Whig ideology as the driving force of the Revolution: “Independence,” he argues, “was not an organic upwelling of patriotic fervor” (P. 262). Rather, in an important twist, Parkinson injects ideology with its own dose of conflict, arguing that the common cause “became as much about fear and outrage as the defense of inalienable rights” (p. 22). This dismissal of ideology with its connotations of the innate and universal serves Parkinson’s emphasis on the contingency of patriotism, its inherent prejudices, and the stakes of the contest over hearts and minds.

In order to trace the consequences of these representations over the course of the Revolution, Parkinson first must address its medium of distribution: the sinews of early American print. The book begins by painstakingly recreating the circulation networks of roughly three dozen newspapers and their publishers, linking them to committees of correspondence, a nascent American postal system, and the shift from an unbiased press to one increasingly dedicated to influencing political opinion. Particularly memorable is Parkinson’s case study of William Bradford’s Pennsylvania Journal, encompassing subscription records, distribution maps, textual materiality, and the process by which news items were received and recycled. Appendixes offer further data on Bradford’s paper as well as bibliographical information on other circulated titles, proving a welcome resource to readers interested in Revolutionary-era print culture.

Parkinson then proceeds roughly chronologically through the war, tracing the proliferation of the common cause. Specifically, his methodology prioritizes “the succinct paragraphs, the extracted accounts, the mundane details” found in between celebratory, front-page headlines and back-matter advertisements (p. 14). Within these pages, mainstream Revolutionary narrative fought for primacy of place with tales from the periphery as printers deployed carefully chosen war stories to harness the prejudices of an American readership predisposed to distrust so-called proxy groups. In 1777, for example, newspapers countered reports of Ticonderoga’s fall to General Burgoyne with widely circulated accounts of the murder of a young frontier woman, Jane McCrea, by Indians near Fort Edward in New York. McCrea’s murder, despite her loyalist sympathies, provided printers with the perfect opportunity to cast Burgoyne, the British more generally, and their Indian allies as cruel, thus bolstering patriot confidence and uniting colonists against a common enemy. Critically for Parkinson, the effect of this rhetoric was less important than the logic and expectations implicit in reproducing stories like McCrea’s. “Patriot generals,” he argues, “believed fear, outrage, and prejudice would animate the populace and bring them to the defense of New York” (p. 350).

Yet, printers were not the only ones preoccupied with stories from the periphery. Parkinson also demonstrates the consequences of war stories for policymaking during the Revolution in what he terms “the circular relationship between event, discourse, and policy” (p. 232). This cycle is particularly evident in Parkinson’s dissection of the minutes of the Continental Congress during the crafting of the Declaration of Independence. Emphasizing Jefferson’s deliberate grouping of grievances for “maximum effect,” Parkinson draws the reader’s attention to the revisions of the last five charges, including the insertion of the claim that the king had inspired attacks on colonists by domestic threats, most specifically Native Americans on the frontier (pp. 251-253). What is more, Parkinson demonstrates that the proxy threat indeed weighed heavily on Jefferson during the Second Continental Congress--his distraction indicated by his creation of a map of Gwynn’s Island, the refuge for a disturbing number of runaway slaves heeding Dunmore’s proclamation. More generally, Parkinson deftly demonstrates the preoccupation of some of the most prominent patriots with these peripheral threats, challenging assumptions of the hegemony of ideology and providing more nuanced assessments of frequently celebrated figures like Benjamin Franklin, who appears here as strikingly prejudiced against indigenous people.  

While Native Americans and the enslaved constituted the most pronounced threat to colonial livelihood in these war narratives, Parkinson deliberately counts another group among the ranks of proxies: profit-driven German mercenaries. Yet these mercenaries enjoyed a crucial distinction: the ability for rehabilitation in the eyes of the patriot press. After Washington’s attack on unsuspecting Hessian troops at Trenton, patriot rhetoric turned to accusations of cowardice, effectively neutralizing the threat they posed and severing their ties of allegiance with the British. In a similar way, loyalists found themselves linked discursively with these dangerous proxy groups, yet their closer cultural connection to patriots made their alienation less effective, resulting in remarkably quick reintegration in some former Tory strongholds like New York.

The redemption of the Hessians and Tories points to another factor lurking beneath the common cause: the ubiquity of early American racial prejudice. Without explicitly evoking whiteness as the determining factor in these reunification narratives, Parkinson alludes to its importance in the final section of the book, linking common-cause rhetoric to the institutionalization of white male citizenship in the new republic. Parkinson looks to the consistent negative representations of traitorous slaves and Native Americans as the primary contributing factor to their exclusion from the initial call to arms and the inalienable rights of the Revolution. Yet he does not emphasize the long history of these racial-martial discourses in colonial history and the significant changes in racial ideology occurring over the course of the eighteenth century. Consequently, he misses an opportunity to critically analyze the ways in which his war stories contributed to discourses of race that would shape the early national period and the history of slavery and racism in America more broadly. Were there subtle differences in the discursive representations of the three proxies beyond the issue of the potential for rehabilitation? Given that the threats of Native Americans and enslaved African Americans existed before the war, how do issues of precedence and continuity affect the war stories produced during the Revolution? Were there changes in the ways these more familiar threats were represented before and during the Revolutionary period?  

Despite these lingering questions, Parkinson’s privileging of the periphery and centering of Native Americans and the enslaved in a work concerned almost exclusively with patriot print representations are welcome and useful additions to the historiography of the American Revolution. Furthermore, Parkinson’s balance between patriotism and prejudice injects The Common Cause with a certain timeliness in an age in which questions of journalistic accuracy, rhetoric, and representation are heavy on the minds of American readers. Drawing back the curtain to reveal the deliberate craft of Revolutionary news-making, Parkinson forces readers to confront the means by which early Americans received their news and created notions of self, unity, and patriotism in the context of the fear of and prejudice toward a host of Others, both foreign and domestic.


[1]. “From John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, 13 February 1818,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017,

Citation: Anna Leigh Todd. Review of Parkinson, Robert G., The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. November, 2017. URL:

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