‘American Rebels’ shows the network behind the Revolution

Nina Sankovitch pens another tour de force as she dives into the tight-knit web of colonial families that propelled the American Revolution.

Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers
“American Rebels: How the Hancock, Adams, and Quincy Families Fanned the Flames of Revolution” by Nina Sankovitch, St. Martin’s Press, 400 pp.

One of the maps at the beginning of Nina Sankovitch’s hugely enjoyable new book “American Rebels: How the Hancock, Adams, and Quincy Families Fanned the Flames of Revolution” shows the Massachusetts village of Braintree as it looked at the turn of the 18th century. Within the span of a few miles, we see the Hancock parsonage and the homes of the Quincy and Adams families. They’re connected by the same handful of paths, look in the same direction toward Boston Harbor, and cluster on the same road that leads north to Boston, where the anti-Royalist tensions were steadily building with every passing year. 

The small scale is the point of “American Rebels,” how in some ways the American Revolution was a local and even a family affair. Sankovitch concentrates her narrative on five people who have roots in that single mile: Abigail Smith, who would go on to become Abigail Adams; John Adams, “an exacting observer of the work habits of others,” who would go on to become one of the leaders of the Revolution; Dorothy “Dolly” Quincy, youngest of the sprawling Quincy clan and “very good at both self-effacement and understatement;” John Hancock, the future president of the Second Continental Congress, and Josiah Quincy, who “by nature and training” was always “impelled to look at the situation from both sides.”

It’s in some ways an odd quintet, and a similar geographic exercise could probably be conducted in a number of places in the American colonies of the 1740s. The Randolph, Washington, Custis, and Jefferson homesteads in Virginia, for instance, were close enough for happy socializing; surely they were close enough for fomenting rebellion as well.

The standout association in Sankovitch’s case is Boston, as the prototypical flashpoint of the break between the colonies and the Crown, the peninsular commercial hub that was always closest to both the wealth and the tyranny of England. When that familiarity bred contempt, it bred it first in Boston. 

The families Sankovitch singles out for her portrait of the turmoil had deep roots (the first Quincy, for instance, arrived in Boston in 1633) and fast connections to each other. “Living in such a close community and regardless of class or status, the young people of the North Parish of Braintree felt connected to one another,” readers are told. “They had been baptized together, schooled in the early years together, and raised together.” 

It was only natural, therefore, that they would all be caught up together in the animosity between certain factions of the colonial population (the majority was and remained Loyalist, but it’s seldom majorities that start revolutions) and the King of England. As Parliament passed one new tax and duty after another, these factions grew – and sought new allies and new leaders. As indignities like the Stamp Act “reached directly and deeply into the lives of every colonist and made them pay, again and again, for their daily activities,” they also created new opportunities for lawyers, writers, and merchant princes to grow into revolutionaries. Sankovitch here does a skillful job of capturing the sometimes halting and contradictory progress of that transformation.

Some of the book’s portraits are more effective than others. For such vibrant individuals, John and Abigail Adams come off strangely muted in these pages, whereas Josiah Quincy, far less known to the general American reader of 2020, is drawn with knowing affection for his bookish ways. “Whereas his older brother Samuel, along with Sam’s friend John Hancock, had been punished in college for excessive drinking and partying,” Sankovitch writes, “the only discipline Josiah might have incurred would have been excessive library fines.”

It’s an appealing core cast of characters, although Revolution buffs might pine for the addition of one more name. Sankovitch mentions Samuel Adams often in the course of the book, but the centrality of his role in bringing things to a boil sometimes feels slighted in favor of the exploits of his more famous cousin. Even as late as 1775, Josiah Quincy was still wondering if reconciliation with England was even desirable anymore; for years, Samuel Adams had seen more clearly than anybody else that it wasn’t.

Even so, “American Rebels” succeeds marvelously in putting human faces on the American Revolution and showing readers how seismic events rippled outward from door-to-door intimacy.

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