Understanding forms of dissent in colonial America


"Let our opinions vary as they will, I shall nevertheless retain a very sincere Regard for you. Your very affectionate Friend & humble Serv't, John Randolph" Facsimile of a letter from John Randolph Jr., to Thomas Jefferson, written from Cannon Coffee House, London, dated October 25, 1779.

To understand Randolph’s decision to remain loyal to Great Britain while acknowledging his lifelong dedication to the colony of Virginia and the wider North American colonies, a useful starting place is to understand the nature of dissent during revolutionary times. Individuals and communities used dissent to achieve their own ends and to block the goals of others with whom they disagreed. Dissent contained the potential of so much power, it could be directly attributed to winning a war, such as the American Revolutionary War.[1]

If we look at the historical research generally, we see distinct types of dissent. To better understand how dissent was used as a tool by people in the eighteenth century, I have grouped common types of dissent during the revolutionary era: Formal, language-based forms of dissent included "lobbying, pamphleteering, framing petitions, and [taking the lead in] forming associations."[2] Popular, language-based forms of dissent included newspapers, especially revolutionary newspapers supporting specific causes. Formal, participation-based groups of people were founded on a defined structure, such as associations, for example, the Sons of Liberty groups.[3] Popular, participation-based groups of people could form randomly as mobs. Pauline Maier (in Countryman) notes that "risings were so frequent because colonial society had no other way to defend itself."[4]

The behavior of and fluidity between these last two forms of dissent is helpfully positioned by Barbara Clark Smith in her book The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America.[5] The formal or informal nature of these behaviors could change when what started as a planned action devolved into mob anger, and sometimes the reverse when a leader took advantage of a mob and focused it for his own ends.


[1] Thomas Paine, “The American Crisis,” ebookcentral, ProQuest, 2000: 1, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.mutex.gmu.edu/lib/gmu/reader.action?docID=3314614.

[2] Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), xi.

[3] Edward Countryman, “Social protest and the revolutionary movement, 1765-1776,” in A Companion to the America Revolution (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 2000), 186-7.

[4] Countryman, “Social protest,” 184.

[5] Barbara Clark Smith, The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America (New York: The New Press, 2010), 86.