Donald Johnson is Assistant Professor of History at North Dakota State University. This interview is based on his new book, Occupied America: British Military Rule and the Experience of Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Occupied America?
DJ: As with many first books, I began the project in graduate school. During the spring of 2010 I was studying the American Revolution and had a general interest in popular politics during the eighteenth century, and I needed a research seminar topic. In addition to history I am also a news junkie, and it also happened to be the time period when the utter failure of US occupation in Iraq was becoming clear to the public. This got me thinking about how military-civilian relationships might have affected the outcome of the American Revolutionary War. I realized there had been little written about this aspect of the Revolutionary experience, so I decided to do an initial exploration of the 1780-82 British occupation of Charleston, South Carolina. That research made me realize there was a much larger story to be told about how the experience of military occupation shaped the Revolution for thousands of Americans, especially in major port cities, and I decided to pursue it.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Occupied America?
DJ: Occupied America argues that the day-to-day experience of military rule doomed efforts to restore the empire in America. As men and women living in port cities endured the privations, violence, and social upheavals that accompanied the arrival of British troops, and as occupations progressed took ever more drastic measures to protect their lives, families, and property, they undermined royal authority and, in so doing, played a crucial role in securing American independence.
JF: Why do we need to read Occupied America?
DJ: Occupied America re-centers discussion of the American Revolution on the war period and on individual experiences of ordinary men and women. With the exception of military histories, narratives of the Revolution typically ignore the war period — either stopping at 1776 or skipping forward to the 1780s and the Confederation. This is a major problem, as the war lasted eight years and fundamentally changed the course and outcomes of the Revolution. This is an anomaly in Revolutionary studies–indeed, few historians would discuss the French or Russian Revolutions without dealing in depth with the wars that they spawned. Rather than taking John Adams’s dictum that the war was an after-effect of an already completed revolution, then, Occupied America, along with several other recently- and soon-to-be- published works, explores this period as just as formative for the Revolution and its legacies as the growth of resistance during the 1760s and early 1770s or the consolidation of the republic in the late 1780s and 90s.
Occupied America also highlights personal experience and contingency as a major factor in the deciding the outcome of the Revolution. Too often histories of political upheaval have focused on the persuasive power of ideology in shaping people’s political views and determining their actions. However, in the Revolutionary period as in the present, most people were more concerned with everyday, mundane matters like earning an living, supporting family and friends, pursuing love affairs, and maintaining their good standing in society. While ideology played a powerful role in shaping the course of events, so too did these more quotidian concerns, which varied as widely as individual circumstances did. As a proof of this–take allegiance. Although labels of patriot, loyalist, Whig, and Tory were often thrown around, my work shows that these dissolved quickly in the face of lived experience. This kind of popular politics needs to be further explored before we can understand the why and how of the Revolution, and I hope that my book contributes in some small part to that project.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DJ: In some ways it was fore-ordained. I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and spent my summers exploring the Smithsonian museums of American and Natural history, fascinated by the seemingly endless stories of the past. I later began devouring historical fiction and taking courses in high school in college, which led me to my present vocation.
JF: What is your next project?
DJ: My current project is a detailed study of small-scale revolutionary politics during the time period between the outbreak of violence in April 1775 and the Declaration of Independence in July 1776. I’m looking at how people living in ordinary communities–mostly rural counties and small towns–reacted to the outbreak of war and took part in the rejection of royal rule in their own locales. We have a lot of information about how the provincial elites who formed the Continental Congress and the state conventions acted during this period, but little about how the transfer of authority took place in lower-level, local contexts. This is significant, as many sources suggest that local militias, town councils, church congregations, and self-appointed committees drove events as much or even moreso than leaders who sought to organize them into a wider inter-colonial resistance. My new project, still in its early stages, seeks to parse those relationships and restore the agency of ordinary men and women in overthrowing the British Empire and initiating American independence.
JF: Thanks, Donald!