A historian’s work is embedded in documents, so it is no surprise that Mary Beth Norton, History, has spent so much of her time in libraries. For her current project, she’s done work at the Massachusetts Historical Society Boston, the Huntington Library in Pasadena, the New York Historical Society, and the South Carolina Historical Society, among other places.
On this particular day, Norton sits in her Olin research space overlooking the Arts Quad, with a very large book on her desk. It is a compilation from the nineteenth century that includes a wide range of items from the revolutionary era, including newspaper clippings, personal letters, and local records.
She is working on a book, titled 1774: Year of Revolution. (The book should be completed around 2017 and will be published by Alfred A. Knopf.) It would have been the second book she wrote had she not changed her focus to women’s history once coming to Cornell, she says.
A Time for Women’s History
When Norton arrived at Cornell, she helped to found the Women’s Studies program, known today as the Feminist, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program. She became interested in women’s history and published four books focused on the interplay among gender, politics, and history.
Norton recalls one of her first research endeavors at Cornell. “I’ll never forget it,” she says. When working on her book about women’s lives during the revolution, titled Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750–1800 (published in 1980), she found a reference to a very obscure source. “It was a published memoir of a revolutionary woman that appeared in something called the Lower Norfolk County [Virginia Antiquary for 1898],” she says. “I thought I would never find it. But Cornell has it!”
After working on and writing about women’s history across the seventeenth century—her books include Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society (1996); In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (2002); and Separated by Their Sex: Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World (2011)—Norton is returning to the revolutionary era in the United States.
Year of Revolution
1774 is born out of her dissertation and first book, The British-Americans: The Loyalist Exiles in England, 1774–1789 (1972), and will take a broader look at a specific time period. “The idea of my current book has been in the back of my head for so long and nobody has done it. I thought I’d better do it before somebody else does!” Norton says with a laugh.
Having read so many documents from the loyalists during her graduate work, Norton says she pinpointed 1774 as the crucial year in which Americans became divided in political belief and strategy. The book looks at what Norton calls “the long 1774,” which starts in late 1773, when Americans learned that tea was coming under the auspices of the Tea Act, and continues until the day before the fighting started at Lexington and Concord in 1775.
“It was a published memoir of a revolutionary woman,” Norton says. “I thought I would never find it. But Cornell has it!”
Other historical works on the revolution tend to skip over the year 1774, says Norton. Historians often jump from the Boston Tea Party in 1773 to the convening of the Continental Congress in September 1774, and then straight to the fighting in April 1775. “Nobody has ever paused to look seriously at the events of the year 1774, to see how the American population, which previously had been quite united in opposition to Britain, divides over various issues,” she says.
Most revolutionary era books also privilege the revolutionary viewpoint. Norton, however, is taking a comprehensive view of the events that took place and will spend as much time with the loyalists as the revolutionaries. In doing so, Norton says that she will write a more accurate story of the events.
For example, she says that the proposal for the Continental Congress came from Americans with more conservative viewpoints. “The current literature presents the Continental Congress as if it is the logical outgrowth of the specific response to the Boston Tea Party, but in fact it is not,” says Norton. “The Bostonians didn’t want a Congress. They wanted people to come immediately to their defense after Britain retaliated against them by closing the port of Boston until the tea was paid for.” In fact, Norton says, many Americans thought that the Boston Tea Party was a terrible idea, that they heard about the protest and did not support the destruction.
Norton’s book will examine not only the full range of disagreements but also how Americans overcame such disagreements and wound up fighting the revolution. “What’s most interesting to me is how people who disagree considerably in the early summer of 1774, by late summer and fall, come to a consensus that is quite different from months earlier,” Norton says. “How does that development happen? What is driving it?”
Everybody argues that 1775 and 1776 are the crucial dates of the revolution, Norton says, but the book will prove that it’s 1774. She mentions a correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson that took place in 1815, in which Adams famously says, “What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people . . . before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.”
“What Adams says is absolutely right, and that’s what my book is going to show,” says Norton.
The goal of the book is the same as Norton’s overarching goal as a historian: to recapture what people thought at the time and shape it in a way that is relevant to people in the present.
“I’m interested in writing a book that will speak to the general public, to write a narrative history that will show that the founding era is not an era in which everyone agreed,” Norton explains. “We had just as many disagreements then as we have today in politics, if not more.”