Theses Doctoral

Corresponding Republics: Letter Writing and Patriot Organizing in the Atlantic Revolutions, circa 1760-1792

Perl-Rosenthal, Nathan

"Corresponding Republics" is a study of how letter writing practices shaped elite political organizing during the early years of the American, Dutch and French Revolutions of the late eighteenth century. The heart of the project is a study of revolutionary leaders' correspondence and epistolary practices. Letters were the lifeblood of all early modern politics--the means to share information, develop strategies and resolve internecine disputes. This was particularly true of the eighteenth-century Atlantic patriot parties, which all faced the challenge of building cohesive movements in the fragmented political landscape of the old regime. Yet even though most studies of revolutionary politics make heavy use of private correspondence, nobody had yet examined the ways in which patriots' reliance on private letters and networks shaped the revolutions' broader political cultures. "Corresponding Republics" argues that the distinctive old regime private correspondence practices of patriots in each region persisted into the revolutionary period. These practices, which played a crucial role in patriots' political self-fashioning, helped produce different kinds of political networks and cultures of patriot organizing. Though by no means the whole explanation for the three revolutions' different courses, epistolary practices are an essential and untold part of that story. The main sources for the project are manuscript letters in American and European archives. The first three chapters of the dissertation examine inter-colonial organizing during the first years of the American Revolution. Chapters One and Two offer a revised view of the efforts by Sons of Liberty, as the patriot leaders called themselves, to build a cohesive inter-colonial patriot party from 1765 to 1772. They document patriots' deep immersion in mercantile correspondence and their persistence in using it after 1765. Yet this style, which raised high barriers to posing questions or engaging in debate, made it difficult for patriot leaders to have tactical discussions and coordinate their activities across the colonies. The Sons instead created a largely symbolic agreement on general principles of resistance. Chapter Three focuses on the developing relationship after 1772 between the patriots' private networks and public committees of correspondence. It shows how private letter writing helped the Sons organize formal inter-colonial corresponding committees in 1773, which reflected the private networks' focus on information transmission rather than discussion. Not until the meeting of the First Continental Congress in 1774 did patriot leaders develop an inter-colonial network whose affective depth enabled tactical and ideological debate. And even then, the patriots' epistolary tools still encouraged them to paper over serious differences about political strategy and ideology in order to maintain the unity of the colonies. The second half of the dissertation uses studies of national organizing in the Dutch and French Revolutions to examine what was distinctive about the Sons of Liberty's organizing efforts. The underlying problems the patriot movements confronted, I argue, were similar: like their American counterparts, Dutch and French patriots sought to build a cohesive political movement on a national scale through correspondence. In practice, however, the process differed significantly. French Jacobin leaders drew on a pre-revolutionary tradition of scholarly epistolarity, which encouraged discussion and dialogue among participants. These qualities helped them develop epistolary communities far more tightly knit than those of their American counterparts. This proved to be both an asset and a liability. It helped them forge a high degree of ideological and tactical unity within the movement. But it also made it more difficult for them to avoid internal disagreements, contributing to the serious internal dissention in 1792 that foreshadowed the eruption of violence among patriot leaders. The Dutch patriot elites, for their part, created highly hierarchical private and public networks. The division between the two types of networks, heightened by their reliance on courtly epistolary habits, inhibited their efforts to forge alliances with the growing popular militia movement. These divisions were a factor in the Dutch patriots' failure, in the short term, to successfully achieve their goal of seizing and holding national political power.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Foner, Eric
Woloch, Isser
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 6, 2013