Christopher Pearl is Associate Professor of History at Lycoming College. This interview is based on his new book, Conceived in Crisis: The Revolutionary Creation of an American State (University of Virginia Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Conceived in Crisis?
CP: At face value, that question seems simple, and people ask me that question a lot. But, at the same time, it is hard to answer succinctly. So, I apologize for this rather lengthy response.
If I had to sum it up, I think it started out of simple interest–I wanted to understand the causes and consequences of the American Revolution. I love the literature on the American Revolution, but always debated how the interpretations of the more imperial centered histories and domestic revolutionary histories worked together (a rather standard starting place, for sure). We have an extensive body of literature that interprets the causes of the American Revolution through an external lens, particularly through the dispute between the British Parliament and the colonial legislatures over constitutional issues, especially sovereignty. Then, we have another excellent vantage point looking at domestic problems rooted in the intersection of economics and politics. Adding to that, we have a vibrant history of the frontier and the racial, economic, and political motivations for dissent and revolution there, which often bridge the divide between imperial and domestic origins. And then we have investigations of the revolutionary war that see that period as dynamic for the foundation of the United States. I wanted to understand how all of those issues and periods intersected.
I think the other motivation for this book is my interest in governance–both how people in general experience power as structured in a particular government and how they understand what a government should do on the ground. We have a rich history about how early Americans thought about the limits of government, but, the other question, I think, is asking what early Americans thought about the place of government in their daily lives, or, quite simply, what government should and could do?
My book is an attempt to bring those questions together by looking at the structure of government, the practice of governing, and how people wrote and thought about both. I tried to do that in one colony turned state, Pennsylvania (sometimes on a very mundane level). For example, how do debates over the structure of the local courts or the regulation of fishing, hunting, lotteries, wagon wheels, oysters, bread, leather, the quality and price of consumer goods, or something as large and significant as land and property ownership (to name just a few) reveal essential aspects of early American visions of government and governance, and how did that understanding of government and governance shape the causes of the American Revolution and the states that were birthed in that moment? I try to address those questions directly in my book, showing how the dialogue about colonial and imperial governance shaped both the causes of the revolution and how the new states were formed and governed.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Conceived in Crisis?
CP: At a basic level, Conceived in Crisis argues that the American Revolution was not just the product of the Imperial Crisis, brought on by the British Parliament’s attempt to impose a new idea of empire on the American colonies. To an equal or greater degree, it was a response to the inability of individual colonial governments to deliver basic services, which undermined their legitimacy. Factional bickering over policy, violent extralegal regulations, and the dreadful experiences of conducting an imperial war while governing a demographically growing and geographically expanding population all led colonists and imperial officials to consider reforming the colonial governments into more powerful and coercive entities. Using Pennsylvania as a case study, my book demonstrates how this history of ineffective colonial governance precipitated a process of state formation that was accelerated by the demands of the Revolutionary War.
JF: Why do we need to read Conceived in Crisis?
CP: I think my book is important for its investigation of how problems of governance at the localist of levels helps explain the causes of the American Revolution and how colonies became states. Moreover, I think my book is important because it makes us grapple with how revolutionaries understood the basic principles of governance during a foundational moment for the United States. As I look out at the political landscape, I am continually struck by how many Americans don’t quite understand or have a very narrow conception of how the founding generation understood government. We tend to focus on “the founders” and the limits of government rather than how that generation envisioned what governments do and why they do it. I think my book is essential in filling that gap.
Despite my confidence in what I just laid out, I want to emphasize that my book is an attempt. I think more needs to be done to understand the myriad of ways that governments and the governed worked out the basic contours of governance in the revolutionary era.
Happily, many of the issues I see as intimately intertwined with what I tried to do are being done or have been recently done. I think recent works by Brian Philips Murphy, Robert Parkinson, Alan Taylor, Jessica Roney, Cole Jones, Patrick Spero, Ryan A. Quintana, Whitney Martinko, and Max Edling, coupled with some anticipated books by Hannah Farber, Susan Gaunt Stearns, Michael Blaakman, and Matthew Spooner, for instance, are and will be really important. The collective history here, I think, tells a significant story about the revolutionary era in a way that should make us rethink standard narratives, and through that, the thrust of history in the United States. As scholars, we all have individual focuses, and sometimes we disagree, but taken together our work tells a rich history and I think we are in an excellent moment for a new understanding of the revolutionary era.
As I look out at the new and coming literature on the American Revolution, I am energized. It has made me appreciate something Thad Tate wrote about the field in 1977. For Tate, the bicentennial of American Independence influenced scholars, from a host of directions, who tried to come to grips with the American Revolution. Surveying the scholarly scene, Tate thought that “the results were so impressive as to appear to leave limited room for additional work in the immediate future.” Time, Tate concluded, was necessary to digest and make sense of it all. I think that we are in the early stages of something similar, and I am excited.
JF: Tell us a little bit about the sources material you worked with in the writing and researching of Conceived in Crisis.
CP: I wanted to understand the practice of governing in the revolutionary period, so I started by creating a database of petitions to Pennsylvania’s colonial legislature from 1740 to 1775, trying to find common complaints and requests. Through that, I focused on public petitions, or, rather, petitions signed by multiple people asking for legislative action. Once there, it became readily apparent that there was a severe disconnect between how the government and the governed understood the basic elements of governance. Tracking the dialogue between “the people” and the government in other sources, such as court records, legislative minutes, statutes, newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, and private papers framed the book as it now exists. I think it all came together when I started to see the same requests over and again demanding reform of the judicial system and regulatory policies. Those were key reform issues throughout the eighteenth century. As Laura F. Edwards demonstrates in her book, The People and Their Peace, local legal institutions had a significant impact on the lives of all people in early America. The way they functioned shaped everyone’s economic existence and the security of their communities. In essence, courts and regulatory policies at the most local of levels, shaped by colonial, and, eventually, statewide laws, represented the totality of governance for most early Americans. When I found that those local grievances started to make their way into a wider public political dialogue in the 1760s and 1770s, essentially linking something disparate into something far more oppositional, and then the same ideas for change informed the state constitutions and subsequent legislation by the state governments during the revolutionary war, I knew I had an interesting thread to track down and write about.
JF: What is your next project?
CP: I am currently working on a book project that analyzes the development of American executives during the American Revolution by looking at the wartime tenures of the fledgling state governors, presidents, and plural executive councils of five states–Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. Such a study seems both timely and necessary considering the prevalence of modern discussion concerning the proper reach and remit of executives (of all stripes) as well as recent trends in the scholarly literature reemphasizing the importance of the war years to the development of the United States. Through this project, I am trying to understand how the war years shaped how executives acted, but more importantly, how people on the ground perceived and debated executive powers. I want to tease out how early Americans, from all walks of life, envisioned and experienced executive power. I think this new project will show how executive action and the public dialogue that it instigated had a lasting impact on a particularly American variety of executive power during the early republic and beyond. Thankfully, I will be a research fellow at The David Center for the American Revolution and the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies next year to help complete the project.
JF: Thanks, Christopher!