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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 it as a sort of temporal complacency, a fear of change, a determination to keep everything as it is: “the effort to preserve the Present inexorably drives one into an embrace with the status quo.” It is not clear just how Americans acquired this infatuation with the Present, but Williams finds it dominating their history throughout the past two centuries, directing the energies of national leaders, who keep killing the Past and Future whenever they raise their heads. Seldom has a historian attributed such power to an ideological attitude. Theodore Roosevelt “charged San Juan Hill to help bring Cuba into the American Present.” Woodrow Wilson “defined good people as those who accepted the American Present.”

The author defines people as bad or good according to whether he thinks they insisted on the American Present or showed concern for the Past or the Future (always in capitals). Southern secessionists are good and so is Herbert Hoover, because they accepted the Past. Lincoln is bad, “the bloodied Saviour of the American Present,” etc., etc. In the end we are quite ready to believe the author’s revelation that when he speaks of understanding the past he means “the knowing in the soul that tells us of our primary nature as a culture.” It is only in the soul, not in factual records, that this kind of history can be found.

The book closes with a moving appeal for abandonment of the Federal Constitution and a return to the Articles of Confederation. The Articles, Williams insists, embodied the best part of the Revolutionary Weltanschauung, an insistence on the right of selfdetermination, before the Fathers somehow or other killed the Past and committed us to the Present. In this conclusion the author brings his bizarre rendering of American history back to earth by attaching it to the views of an older historian of the people, Merrill Jensen, whose classic study, The Articles of Confederation (1940), however controversial, is a work to be taken seriously.

Jensen argued that the Articles embodied the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence, while the Constitution of 1787 was the product of a conservative, Thermidorean reaction. Jensen has reaffirmed his views in a new book, The American Revolution Within America. Here, as before, he finds the people in the vanguard of the Revolution and the colonial elite either loyalist or reluctant revolutionaries. The people identify popular government with local government and hence favor the ineffective national government provided for in the Articles of Confederation, while the elite yearn for a higher authority to hold the masses in check. Having lost the one furnished them by the British, they strive continually for a national government capable of doing the job. With the adoption of the Constitution of 1787 they finally succeed. The basic difficulty with this interpretation is, as it always has been, to demonstrate that national government is intrinsically less popular than state government and that it was so perceived by the people of the time.

Anyone who was not persuaded by the author’s earlier books is unlikely to be swayed by the new one, even though it does offer some additional evidence and does take note of the argument presented in the past thirty years that the majority of colonists, by owning property, were qualified to vote and presumably, therefore, gave the government a popular base. Jensen acknowledges that “Property was indeed distributed more equally than in Europe, and there was more opportunity to rise to the top.” “However,” he goes on,

Americans in 1776 were not concerned with “comparative history” but with political and economic realities within America. The reality was that while a multitude of men owned small farms, many of them owned money for the land they had bought. Still others were tenants, many of whom had no hope of becoming landowners. Beneath them were tens of thousands of indentured servants who would eventually work their way to freedom, and at the bottom was nearly twenty per cent of the whole population of the colonies, the Negro slaves, few of whom could ever hope to be free. In the cities, for every apprentice bookbinder like Thomas Hancock who became one of Boston’s wealthiest merchants, there were hundreds of people who owned no property at all.

That a fifth of the population was enslaved is a fact of fundamental importance. If the same number of people had been both free and without property, the internal history of the Revolution might have been quite different. But they were not free and the Revolution did not make them free. If there was an internal revolution, they were not part of it. And if we eliminate them from the catalogue that Jensen gives us and consider that on the eve of the Revolution city dwellers (man, woman, and child) amounted to only 5 percent of the total population (or about 7 percent if we count cities with fewer than 6,000 inhabitants) and that a large proportion of the tens of thousands of indentured servants were apprentices not yet of age, then the depressed segment of the population is going to be much smaller than Jensen seems to imply. It will not render oppression any less oppressive if it affects a minority rather than a majority, but if we are talking about “political and economic realities within America,” the probability remains that a majority of adult males in the colonies owned the property on which they supported their families and were qualified to participate in the political process, that the national government, in other words, did have a popular base.

It does not follow that American society was egalitarian or that an elite did not hold dominant positions in government. But it does follow that a people’s history of the Revolution will have to take account not merely of a struggling, discontented minority but of a landowning majority (of adult males). That majority must surely be counted as part of the people rather than of the elite. A history dealing with ordinary men cannot proceed on the assumption that they are a minority and the elite a majority. This fact has been something of an embarrassment to historians who seek in the Revolution a radical tradition that can be carried forward to a time when the masses were indeed without property.

The problem is evident in the most important book on the Revolution yet produced by the historians of the New Left. This is a collection of articles by eleven scholars, edited by Alfred Young, The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism. The authors are all professional historians, and their work, brought together here, forms an impressive testimony to the intellectual vigor and scholarly standards of the New Left. In spite of occasional lapses into the doctrinaire, encouraged perhaps by a consciousness of being in the company of friends, most of the papers offer solid information about those Americans (exclusive of the loyalists) who challenged a local elite and who may not have shared in the Whig ideology of the Revolution. I say “may not” because I think the evidence offered, though impressive, leaves the matter in doubt.

There is no doubt, however, that the authors are eager to repudiate the “consensus historians” (the improbable firm of Bailyn, Boorstin, Brown, Morgan, Rossiter, and Wood) who have expounded what they consider to be the common ideas and ideals and goals of the struggle both for home rule and for popular rule at home. The ĂŠminence grise of Young’s collection is none of the authors nor even Young himself, but E.P. Thompson, whose 1971 article in Past and Present on “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” has served as a model for several of the articles.

Thompson argued that food riots in England were not spasmodic reactions of the hungry to a scarcity of bread, but disciplined affairs, aimed not at destroying property but at controlling prices. They represented a conflict between the regulated economy of mercantilism and the advancing unregulated economy of Adam Smith and the classical economists. Similar riots occurred during the American Revolution, when the fiscal policies of the Continental Congress combined with the demands of the Continental Army, and the profiteering activities of those who supplied it, to create scarcities and inflate prices.

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