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Title: The politics of epithets in the American Revolution, 1763-87
Author: Bell-Romero, Nicolas
ISNI:       0000 0004 9354 2115
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2020
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This study considers the politics of epithets from the start of the imperial crisis in 1763 until the Constitutional Convention in 1787. More than mere insults, epithets were defined in this period as appellations or titles and were used to describe a person’s qualities or attributes. Despite the importance of these identity terms as the ideals that people most valued in their neighbours, early Americanists do not centre epithets. Historians focus on individual terms – “whig,” “American,” and “republican” – but these labels have not been brought together into a conceptual history of epithets. When these terms are examined together, this thesis argues that the partisans, the opponents of British rule, invented many of the words to discuss who they were, build bonds of belonging amongst their supporters, and identify their internal and external enemies in the Revolutionary period. In attempting to form a sense of themselves and others in the midst of such a divisive event, the partisans transformed the terms of their British colonial past, labels that emerged over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the colonists started to envision themselves as distinctive but equal to Britain, and reformed them into epithets that they used to demonstrate the virtues of the United States of America, and determine the ideals that inhabitants were meant to live by in a new nation. This process was far from uncontested though. Rather than emerging separately, the partisans developed their epithets in conversation and opposition to several rival terms that emerged in a war over words with their enemies, including Britons in the metropole, a significant number of native peoples in the Ohio river valley, and persons disaffected to the cause in Virginia. Since the partisans invented these terms in such a conflicted environment, they argued that only those people who showed merit were worthy of using epithets. The politics of epithets was the politics of merit. Since merit was a contested concept, America and Britain’s inhabitants struggled over who merited epithets and constantly changed the guidelines over who deserved to use these terms. This contest over words had Janus-faced outcomes. It allowed the “people out of doors,” including poorer whites, women, and black persons, to claim rights and belonging as meritorious “citizens.” Yet the political elites, those “within doors,” who were instrumental in manufacturing these fighting words, ensured that only the chosen few, especially white men, could call themselves “Americans.” The origins of much social inequality, over who had the same status, in the early United States was therefore partly born from a seemingly egalitarian ideal: a society where epithets were only given to those who deserved them.
Supervisor: Pearsall, Sarah Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: American History ; American Revolution