Robert Parkinson is Assistant Professor of history at Binghamton University. This interview is based on his new book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write The Common Cause?
RP: It started with a comment Peter Onuf threw off in a class, about the continued association with British and Indians on the frontier for years after the end of the Revolution. I thought that needed some research, but I had no idea where to start. So I figured, newspapers were as good as any place to begin. There I found a tremendous amount of material about British agents fomenting slave and Indian resistance against the “cause.” As I read more, I began to find the same stories repeated in different newspapers over and over and over again, and I began to wonder a) how that happened, and b) what did it mean? The central argument of The Common Cause came from the newspapers themselves.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Common Cause?
RP:In order to achieve and sustain union among the 13 jealous colonies after the shooting started, patriot leaders elaborated upon the “common cause” argument: all Americans should resist British tyranny because imperial officials were inciting the enslaved, Indians, and foreign mercenaries to destroy them. Spreading these ideas through weekly newspaper articles, patriot leaders (especially Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington) made the “common cause” about racial exclusion.
JF: Why do we need to read The Common Cause?
RP: For a long time now, scholars have gnashed their teeth and lamented about the impasse in Revolution historiography: ideas vs. interests, top-down vs. bottom-up, no synthesis only stasis since the 1970s. I didn’t set out to write an interpretation that merged the two, but I think I have. Unlike Wood’s Radicalism, I not only show how ideas actually move, but I explain just how prevalent and present African Americans and Indians were to the everyday strategizing, planning, and publicizing of the American Revolution.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RP: As for most of us, it started at a very young age. I remember being enthralled at reenactments at Lexington Green and demanding to go to Plymouth Plantation every Saturday. I didn’t decide to be a professional historian, though, until my senior year in college, doing serious research in social history in local historical societies, cemeteries, and county courthouses in Pennsylvania. In other words, because of public history.
JF: What is your next project?
RP: I am currently working on a short project and then taking on another long study. About a decade back, while doing research for The Common Cause I came across the elaborate funeral in NYC of the renowned frontiersman (and notorious Indian killer) Michael Cresap, and I wrote up my findings in a WMQ piece. I’m returning to that research now, writing a short book on the Cresap family and the consequences and legacies of the 1774 murders on Yellow Creek that I am aiming at an undergraduate/survey audience. We need more short books on the Revolution (look who’s talking!), especially ones that incorporate natives and the frontier, for the survey.
The long study is at this point not much more than a question: how do you write an environmental history of the Constitution? I am trained as a political historian, not an environmental one, and I think that has the chance to offer fresh insights and blend those two fields. Many of the questions in environmental history revolve around law and legal practice; how human rules intersect with, get inscribed onto, and shape nature. I think the supreme law of the land deserves study in this way. But the task is daunting, thus my phrasing: how do you write it?