The American Revolution: Who Were ‘The People’?

America Confronts a Revolutionary World, 1776-1976

by William Appleman Williams
Morrow, 224 pp., $8.95

The American Revolution Within America

by Merrill Jensen
New York University Press, 232 pp., $9.50

The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism

edited by Alfred F. Young
Northern Illinois University Press, 481 pp., $5.00 (paper)

Artisans for Independence: Philadelphia Mechanics and the American Revolution

by Charles S. Olton
Syracuse University Press, 182 pp., $9.95

Tom Paine and Revolutionary America

by Eric Foner
Oxford University Press, 326 pp., $13.95

The Minutemen and Their World

by Robert A. Gross
Hill and Wang, 242 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Four hundred years ago it was a commonplace that government rested on the will of God. Three hundred years ago a good many people still thought so. But by two hundred years ago, in England and in England’s American colonies government was supposed to rest on the will of the people. The American Revolution was carried out in the name of the people, and it was supposedly “We, the people,” who created the government that Americans still live under. In the course of American history doubts have arisen from time to time about whether that government has not escaped from the people, and the doubts have more than once led historians to ask whether the people ever had control over the Revolution or over the national government that resulted from it.

As early as 1909 Carl Becker suggested that the Revolution was a struggle not only about home rule but about who should rule at home. And subsequent historians have searched for an internal revolution, a rising of the people (not necessarily successful) against a local ruling elite. In the burst of books that celebrate the Bicentennial several probe the question. They are for the most part the work of scholars associated with the New (and not-so-new) Left, and some of them furnish new insights, based on new research, into who and what the people were in 1776, and into how they affected the Revolution and how the Revolution affected them.

At the outset one must regretfully dismiss a book by one of the most revered of the group, a prolific scholar whose work has always been imaginative and original. William Appleman Williams, in America Confronts a Revolutionary World, 1776-1976, has written a study for which the most charitable word is eccentric. In it the people appear to be victims of a “Weltanschauung” imposed on them by the “Revolutionary Fathers.” Williams describes the ingredients of this Weltanschauung and then proceeds to rewrite the rest of American history as the product of it. His description of how it operated leaves one longing for the concreteness, say, of Kant or Hegel. For example:

They [the Revolutionary Fathers] killed Time (and History) in the name of uniqueness. They concluded that the Past was Bad and that the Future would very likely be Bad, and hence all that remained was the Here and Now. If you have a philosophical turn of mind you see the point immediately: Americans were the first existentialists—to live now is all, over and over and over again. Forever, as it were, without any Amen. Perhaps, indeed, America is best defined by an existential sense of omnipotence. Our purpose is to preserve the Present forever.

In spite of the exuberance of this statement, it is not intended to convey approval. The commitment to the Present, though not specified as an ingredient in the Weltanschauung (it comes in as an adjunct of a sense of uniqueness) seems to have become a malevolent force in American history. Williams sees…

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