The American Revolution: Was There “A People”?

A New Age Now Begins: A People's History of the American Revolution

by Page Smith
McGraw-Hill, 2 volumes, 1,899 pp., $24.95

1776, Year of Illusions

by Thomas Fleming
Norton, 525 pp., $12.50

Empire or Independence, 1770-1776: A British-American Dialogue on the Coming of the American Revolution

by Ian R. Christie and Benjamin W. Labaree
Norton, 332 pp., $12.50

A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence

by John Shy
Oxford University Press, 304 pp., $12.95

The Politics of Command in the American Revolution

by Jonathan G. Rossie
Syracuse University Press, 300 pp., $12.50

The Spirit of '76: The Growth of American Patriotism Before Independence

by Carl Bridenbaugh
Oxford University Press, 162 pp., $8.95

A Cultural History of the American Revolution

by Kenneth Silverman
Thomas Y. Crowell, 736 pp., $17.50

American Art 1750-1800: Towards Independence

Yale University Art Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum and Charles F. Montgomery and Patricia E. Kane general editors
New York Graphic Society, 320 pp., $22.50

The Enlightenment in America

by Henry May
Oxford University Press, 448 pp., $15.00

On page 1815 of A New Age Now Begins Page Smith tells his readers that his purpose has been to take the American Revolution “away from the academic historians, the professors, and return it to you.” In keeping with that purpose, he has given his work the subtitle “A People’s History of the American Revolution.” This is certainly the most ambitious historical effort to come out of the Bicentennial, and it raises for a professor the questions of what has been taken from him and to whom has it been given. Who are the people? And how does a people’s history of the Revolution differ from a professor’s history?

This professor found A New Age Now Begins enthralling. Although the work is hard to pick up—the two volumes weigh almost seven pounds—it is harder to put down. The author is a master storyteller and never fails to make the most of the drama inherent in the episodes that he parades before us. What is more important, he knows his subject. Although he is no longer himself a professor (as he was until recently), he is still a professional; and he brings to his narrative not only a thorough knowledge of the sources but a maturity acquired in a lifelong study of history and a familiarity with warfare gained as a field officer in the Second World War.

When he hands out praise or blame to the combatants in the Revolutionary War, it is with an evenhanded judgment and with the soldier’s understanding of the role that chance and accident play on the battlefield. Although he does not hesitate to call General Burgoyne an ass, he does not blame the gentleman’s failure entirely on his asininity and takes care to point out that he was also “courteous to his opponents, thoughtful and considerate of his officers and men, courageous in battle, a basically decent man far out of his depth.” Even General Howe, whose strategy as British commander in chief defies rational explanation, gets good marks as a field commander. The author is able to enlist our sympathies with the American side in every engagement without denigrating the British. One could not ask for a fairer guide through the battlefields of the War for Independence.

But what does all this have to do with the people and their history in the American Revolution? One answer, namely not much, is powerfully suggested by the way in which the author has apportioned his space. The work begins with the founding of the colonies and does not reach the beginnings of the quarrel with England in 1764 until page 165. It then takes only 313 more pages to arrive at the outbreak of hostilities in Lexington on April 19, 1775. From that date to the end of the war (and of the book) in 1783 requires 1,354 pages. A few chapters are devoted to what went on in Parliament and in the Continental Congress, but these are only interludes in a gigantic narrative…

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