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The Paxton pamphlet war showcases a debate that is powerfully resonate with today’s zero-sum racial politics.
In A Spirited Existence, historian Gregory Evans Dowd argues that the late-eighteenth century saw “The Indian’s Great Awakening,” during which pan-nativist revivals brought Delaware, Shawnee, and other tribes toward monotheism. As tribes fused their beliefs with settlers’ theology and commerce, rural farmers created their own fused counter-culture. In The Backcountry and the City, Ed White writes, “As Indians begin to…adopt fusion as their response, some farmers, already inclined by racism to perceive Indians as an undifferentiated collective, come to see Indians as fused in a life-or-death-struggle to eliminate white settlers” (103).
This was a fiction, but a redolent one for a minority that felt besieged by outside forces, ignored by their government, and left behind in an increasingly cosmopolitan age. In the 1764, that aggrieved minority largely won the day: none of the Paxton Boys faced trial; anti-Paxton leaders were punished at the polls (including Benjamin Franklin, who lost his Assembly seat); and the pamphlet war validated the Paxtonian policy of state-sponsored frontier war, as exercised in the Wyoming Valley. In the context of a proliferation of right-wing populist movements across the West, high school students on the cusp of enfranchisement would do well to study this incident and to critically engage pamphleteers’ zero-sum views of race, class, and cosmopolitanism.
To support such critical inquiry, Digital Paxton features six lessons designed for both high school and higher education classrooms. Select the relevant path below to begin your journey.
All lessons are available as rich web pages as well as downloadable, printer-friendly PDFs. We take this extra step with the understanding that while Digital Paxton is digital humanities project, it exists in analog conditions. Whether by choice or necessity, many educators rely upon printouts, and we don’t want to create barriers to bringing the Paxton crisis into classrooms.
If you would like to share your own lessons, connect with the editor using the Contact page.
This page is tagged with relevant contextual essays available for free in Digital Paxton. To continue your research, consider the following books and articles:
- Dixon, David. Never Come to Peace Again: Pontiac's Uprising and the Fate of the British Empire in North America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.
- Dowd, Gregory. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
- Goode, Michael. "Dangerous Spirits: How the Indian Critique of Alcohol Shaped Eighteenth-Century Quaker Revivalism." Early American Studies 14.2 (Spring 2016): 258-283.
- Gordon, Scott Paul. "The Paxton Boys and Edward Shippen: Defiance and Deference on a Collapsing Frontier." Early American Studies 14.2 (Spring 2016): 319-347.
- Eustace, Nicole. Passion is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
- Griffin, Patrick. American Leviathan: Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008.
- Kenny, Kevin. Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- McConnell, Michael. A Country Between: The Upper Ohio Valley and Its Peoples, 1724-1774. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
- Merrill, James. Into the American Woods: Negotiations on the Pennsylvania Frontier. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.
- Merritt, Jane. At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
- Middleton, Richard. Pontiac's War: Its Causes, Course, and Consequences. New York: Routledge, 2008.
- Olson, Alison. "The Pamphlet War Over the Paxton Boys." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 123.1/2 (January - April 1999): 31-56.
- Richter, Daniel. Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.
- Ridner, Judith. "Unmasking the Paxton Boys: The Material Culture of the Pamphlet War." Early American Studies 14.2 (Spring 2016): 348-376.
- Silver, Peter. Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.
- Smolenski, John. "Embodied Politics: The Paxton Uprising and the Gendering of Civic Culture in Colonial Pennsylvania." Early American Studies 14.2 (Spring 2016): 377-407.
- Spero, Patrick. "1763: Pontiac and Paxton." Early American Studies 14.2 (Spring 2016): 199-202.
- Spero, Patrick. Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
- Ward, Matthew. Breaking the Backcountry: The Seven Years’ War in Virginia and Pennsylvania, 1754-1765. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004.
- White, Edward. The Backcountry and the City: Colonization and Conflict in Early America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
- White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.