Parkinson writes with authority on military, political, social, and cultural history, reconstructing the story of this critical period as it actually unfolded, with everything happening at once. Instead of picking representative samples, he addresses what was happening across the breadth of the colonies. This makes for a long book, but scholars and readers interested in race and the Revolution will be grateful for all the detail. The Common Cause lays bare the patriots’ activities with such precision that it will be impossible to think seriously about the American Revolutionary War—or the revolutionaries—without reference to this book’s prodigious research, wholly unsentimental perspective, and bracing analysis.
How is a society persuaded to go to war, and to persist in the face of mounting casualties and all the suffering and dislocations attendant to war? This was a particularly vexing question for the proponents of war with Great Britain in the 1770s who, if they were to have any chance of success against the most powerful nation on earth, had to find a way to make thirteen separate societies act as one. Parkinson reminds us:
Jealousies, rivalries, and even violent controversies alienated the colonies in the early 1770s. Border conflicts, religious disputes, and concerns about slavery drove them apart. The colonies were just as poised to attack one another as to join together on the eve of war. The near impossibility of getting the colonies to agree to oppose Great Britain with one voice meant compromises on the most divisive issues on the one hand, and creative storytelling on the other….
The leaders of that movement had to craft an appeal that simultaneously overcame some of those inherent fault lines and jealousies, neutralized their opponents’ claims, and made them the only true protectors of freedom. They needed to make what they called “the cause” common.
American colonials were familiar with the phrase “common cause” from two traditions. Protestants used it to exhort the faithful to stand against other denominations and religions, and British monarchs spoke of the “common cause” in annual messages describing the empire’s participation in one or another military contest—messages that were then printed in colonial newspapers. It signaled that something important was at stake and, at the same time, created an inside “us” versus an outside “them.” Delineating a common cause—protecting the colonies against alleged overreaching by the British government as it made various imperial reforms—was a necessary first step in the process of binding the colonies to one another. A crucial question would be how to figure out who was the “us” in this formulation and who was to be designated “them.”
The patriot leader John Adams perhaps has been the most influential voice in shaping the historical view of how the colonies came to make common cause with one another. His words on the subject have echoed through the years, influencing scholarly and popular conceptions of the Revolution and the war:
The complete accomplishment of [uniting the colonies], in so short a time and by such simple means, was perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind. Thirteen clocks were made to strike together—a perfection of mechanism, which no artist has ever before effected.
The image of “thirteen clocks” striking all at once is poetic, to be sure. It captures both the autonomy of the colonies (each its own clock) and the uncanny nature of the unity achieved once they came to believe their “cause” against Great Britain was “common.” It does not, however, tell us exactly how they came to “strike” together. It was as if the concerns about taxation, representation, and British tyranny made it self-evident why the colonies ended up in an armed conflict with their cousins across the sea. Parkinson convincingly demonstrates that the clocks did not strike at once all on their own. Patriot leaders, Adams among them, were setting the clocks to ensure they struck as near together as possible.