Who Owns the Revolution?

Fred Anderson is the author of "Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766." He teaches history at the University of Colorado, Boulder

The American Revolution has never lacked interpreters. Many groups--Federalists, Anti-Federalists, Republicans, Democrats, slaveholders, abolitionists, Populists, Progressives, labor unionists, Supreme Court justices, militarists, pacifists, historians--have tried to specify the meaning of this formative event. None of them has ever won the debate, of course; but that does not keep them from trying to define what it means to be an American.

"The American Revolution: Writings From the War of Independence" and "A People's History of the American Revolution"--one by inference, the other explicitly--join in this venerable enterprise. Both identify the story of the revolution closely with the story of the War for Independence. This puts them at odds with the currently predominant academic view, which emphasizes ideas over military events and stresses the ways in which republican ideology first empowered a movement to resist British imperial authority and then structured the constitutional system within which American political culture would flourish. Unsurprisingly, this essentially intellectual understanding of the revolution enjoys more popularity among history professors than among general readers, who prefer a tale packed with conflict and colorful characters.

John Rhodehamel's superb collection of documents from the period 1775 to 1783 will appeal to those general readers. Its 120 documentary excerpts, drawn from the writings of 70 or so participants, follow the chronology of the struggle from Paul Revere's ride and the battles of Lexington and Concord through George Washington's resignation after the Peace of Paris. Every major event of the war makes an appearance, and the lengthy excerpts convey a marvelous sense of the human dimensions of a great military struggle. The documents illuminate not only battles but also less familiar topics--the effects of inflation on the war effort, the sufferings of Loyalists, mutinies in the Army, debates over the arming of slaves--and dramatic episodes that include Benedict Arnold's treason and Washington's finest hour, when he shamed his restive officers out of attempting a coup d'etat.

All of these splendid sources permit the reader to understand the circumstances of little-known figures as well as the character of famous ones. Thus, the diary of Albigence Waldo, an obscure Continental Army surgeon at Valley Forge, conveys how it felt to live with malnutrition, lice, chronic diarrhea and eyes that never ceased to smart from the smoke that filled the soldiers' huts. We also sense something of Martha Washington's self-effacing charm when we read a December 1775 letter from Cambridge, Mass., in which she still marveled at her departure from Philadelphia, where Congress had sent her off "in as great pomp as if I had been a very great somebody." And we glimpse something very human indeed when we find Nathanael Greene, the greatest guerrilla strategist of the war, suffering from fainting spells and despairing of ever being able to describe "the cruelties and devastations which prevail" in South Carolina to his wife, whom he begs to "be particular in giving an account of the Children." "These little anecdotes," he wrote her, "afford the most agreeable family feelings," helping him endure the otherwise unrelieved strain and privation of his campaign against the British general Charles Cornwallis.

Rhodehamel's documents support an essentially conventional narrative of the war and its significance. They favor male perspectives over female ones by a factor of about 10 to 1; privilege the writings of the American patriots (about 70% of the documents) over British (20%) and American Tory informants (10%); and offer the views of observers from educated and elite backgrounds much more frequently (between 80% and 90% of the documents) than those of non-elite writers. This selection, of course, reflects the weight of the surviving documentation for elite figures wrote far more than any other group, yet it also inevitably inflects the book's picture of the war. Though Rhodehamel's sources by no means exclude ordinary people--women, Indians, Loyalists and slaves--these remain incidental to the story, more acted upon than acting. The actors are the familiar military and political leaders, and the story remains a chronicle of campaigns and battles.

This is not the case with Ray Raphael's "A People's History of the American Revolution," the first in a series edited by Howard Zinn intended to offer a narrative grounded not in the thoughts and actions of leaders but in all human endeavor. Raphael's book builds on the large number of works published by practitioners of the "new social history" since the late 1960s. These historians have tried to understand America's story "from the bottom up," examining the lives and experiences of common people, women and social groups marginal to the mainstream narrative. Although Raphael is not an academic, he uses his considerable gifts as a writer to synthesize the findings of these historians by weaving them together with the stories of ordinary men and women--black, red and white, slave and free--whose lives intersected with the great events of the revolutionary era. The result is a tapestry that uses individual experiences to illustrate the larger stories of social groups.

Thus the story of Sarah Hodgkins, a young woman married to a Continental Army captain, shows us something of how farm wives struggled to secure the labor necessary for planting and harvest and to hold families together in the absence of their husbands. The adventures and sufferings of Jeremiah Greenman and Joseph Plumb Martin, common soldiers in the Continental Army who seldom have enough to eat, never have decent uniforms to wear and always have more than enough backbreaking work to do, seem to prefigure those of Bill Mauldin's World War II Everyman GIs, Willy and Joe. The narrative of Boston King, a slave who fled his master for the British army and ultimately made a new life for himself as a preacher among the black Loyalist refugees of Nova Scotia, illustrates some of the contradictory effects of a war the Patriots fought to defend liberty on the people whom they systematically deprived of it. The fate of the Delaware chief White Eyes, who tried to persuade Congress to create a 14th state in the Ohio country as a refuge for Indians and was murdered by white settlers who feared he might succeed, demonstrates an aspect of the complicated, tragic effect of the revolution on native peoples. And the tale of Filer Dibblee, a Connecticut lawyer who suffered terribly at Patriot hands, illuminates the grimmest experiences of exile. Depressed and unable to adjust to life on the Nova Scotia frontier in 1784, "unobserved he took a Razor from the Closet" while his family sat at the table, "threw himself on the bed, drew the Curtains, and cut his own throat."

The only underrepresented group here is the revolution's leadership, elite figures whose writings most clearly express the republican political principles central to academic interpretations. The index shows, for example, that Benjamin Franklin appears three times in the book, John Adams 10 and the author of the Declaration of Independence 10, four of which come under the heading "Thomas Jefferson--African Americans and." Greenman, by contrast, comes in for discussion on 24 pages; Capt. Joseph Hodgkins and his wife, Sarah, on 29; and Martin on 36. At least at the level of narration, this shift in emphasis is a revolution indeed.

Fascinating sketches fill the book, related by means of extended quotation from primary sources. The benefit is that the many personal stories convey a vivid impression of life under circumstances that ranged from the trying to the impossible, demonstrating the resourcefulness, dignity, limitations, triumphs and tragedies of common people's lives. The danger of this approach is its tendency to become mere pastiche. To preserve the distinctive appeal of individual stories without losing all sense of their larger significance, the writer must demonstrate their underlying consistency with a larger argument or narrative. Raphael does his best to provide such an argument, showing how class, gender, region, culture and race influenced the actions of ordinary people and how those actions in turn shifted the course of revolutionary events.

People, he maintains, "participate in the historical process" on seven commonplace levels and one extraordinary one. Each day they shape the world by doing the world's work, suffering the consequences of their own and others' acts, "manipulating the system" to increase their chances of success, serving in armed forces, consenting to their leaders' desires (or withholding that consent), testing the limits of authority and compelling would-be leaders to pay attention to them, lest they lose followers. It is the eighth level, however, on which common people act to restructure their societies, that concerns him most. But what exactly did they do to restructure 18th-century America and why? Because Raphael ends his story in 1783, we cannot know how he would characterize the influence of common folk on the federal Constitution. Nor--with the exception of the radical Pennsylvania constitution of 1776, directly influenced by the plebeian rank and file of Philadelphia's militia--does he comment systematically on their influence in shaping the state constitutions written before 1783. Rather he speaks in general terms about the broadening of political participation, the weakening of deferential behavior and the ways in which popular bodies used their newfound power to liberate themselves from British control and to oppress the women, loyalists, slaves, pacifists and Indians who fell outside their ranks.

Raphael avoids discussing the specifics of social and political reconstruction because to do so would require an assessment of how common folk responded to republican ideology. He cannot do that because he believes that ordinary people were driven not by formal ideas but by self-interest, self-preservation and the desire for autonomy. Ideas, for Raphael, are epiphenomena, products of the material interests and social circumstances of the people who hold them. What ultimately distinguishes "A People's History of the American Revolution" from a work like Gordon Wood's great synthesis, "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" (1993), is that the academic historian Wood is willing to admit that ideas can move people to action, and the people's historian Raphael is not.

Raphael is a materialist, but whether he subscribes to Marx's theory of causation, dialectical materialism, is impossible to say. In his view, life is complex; people's motives are as various as their self-interestedness; local circumstances color loyalties; and issues of causation, per se, are uninteresting. "A people's history," he writes, "goes beyond this question of causality to focus on how this [revolution] happened. When we investigate the ways in which people experience history, we must do as they did: deal with the situation as it was .... They did not ask why they wanted liberty; they simply tried to achieve it."

Most garden-variety historians may find this the sticking-point in an otherwise admirable synthesis. Historians are trained, above all, to seek out causes, to gauge effects and--in light of both--to assess the significance of past events. Understanding how can never be an end in itself, for that would blur the distinction between antiquarianism and a fascination with the details of the past simply because they are old, on the one hand, and history as a disciplined means of understanding the world on the other.

But even more problematic, for general readers as well as historians, is what happens to any story when the teller omits, or even places in brackets, the question of why. It would be an unsatisfying detective novel that revealed the identity of the murderer but stopped short of explaining why he or she pulled the trigger. Similarly, history that stops short of a full and self-consistent explanation leaves any reader rummaging through whatever odds and ends of information are at hand trying to fill in the blank, wishing for more.

Admirable as Raphael's effort to reconfigure the revolutionary narrative is, he cannot simply claim an exemption from explaining the causes of events. The dominant academic interpretation, with its overtones of elitism, may be deeply unsatisfactory to those who would (as Zinn says in his preface) understand "the masses of people who did the work that made society tick." Complicated as it may have to be in explaining cause-and-effect relationships, a people's history must have a unifying argument, or a plot, of its own for the reader to measure against the argument of the dominant narrative. Failing that, no matter how fascinating and revealing its components may be, a "people's history" will risk becoming nothing more than a series of footnotes to a hegemonic story that it cannot supersede.

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