• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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, by 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, by Charles F. Montgomery, by 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 of major and minor battles. At the end, two brief chapters deal with blacks in the Revolution and women in the Revolution. And at this point the author tells us that historians have mistakenly treated the Revolution as a war rather than a revolution!

By “historians” the author presumably means the professors from whom he has been rescuing the subject. What kind of a rescue is it that leaves the reader with over a thousand pages of battles and virtually nothing about the way in which the Revolution affected the people outside the army? This is a soldier’s history and a superb one, but a people’s history it is not, unless by a people’s history we mean simply a readable one.

It nevertheless raises the question of what a people’s history of the Revolution could be. Two possibilities come to mind at once. A people’s history might tell how Americans came to be a people, how the colonists coalesced to form that most potent social combination of modern times, a nation. Or it might equally well be a history of how the Revolution affected or was affected by the people, that is, the ordinary men and women of the time, the people who can be fooled some of the time but not all the time, the people who have risen over and over in the history of the world against the oppression of a ruling class.

In 1909 Carl Becker proclaimed that the American Revolution included that kind of rising, that it was a contest not merely about home rule but about who should rule at home; and historians ever since have concerned themselves with this second contest, the contest of the people with a local ruling elite. Indeed, for a good many years the internal contest overshadowed the contest with England in studies of the Revolution. In the 1940s and 1950s the focus shifted, as a new generation of scholars (sometimes labeled “consensus historians”) emphasized ideas and attitudes and experiences that Americans shared and that made a people of them. During the past decade or two, there has been a resurgence of interest in the people, and we shall have a look at some of the most recent results. But first consider the large number of recent books that shed some light on the creation of a people.

To begin with, it is only fair to acknowledge that Smith has not wholly neglected the subject. In his opening chapters he outlines some elements of common experience that made American nationality possible: abundant economic opportunity, common dangers, common grievances, and the prevalence everywhere of English institutions. And in the seventy-five pages devoted to the Stamp Act of 1765 and colonial reaction to it, he sees “one of the most striking popular movements in modern history,” a movement that “welded the people together.” In resistance to the Stamp Act the colonists “had become a people or, more properly, were capable of being almost instantly transformed into ‘a people.”

For Smith the transformation had already occurred by the time fighting started in 1775. Although he gives the Continental Army credit for clinching it, by virtue of its organization on a continental rather than a local basis, he sees the process as virtually complete by the time the first shots were fired. And when the last shots have been fired some 1,300 pages later, he assures us that the British, who won most of the battles, could never have won the war, because they had been faced from the beginning by a whole people.

Now the reviewer happens to agree with most of this interpretation, even with the crucial role assigned in it to the Stamp Act, but it does call for more demonstration than the author has offered. Historians of the Revolution, he tells us, “have given comparatively little attention to the most important phenomenon of all: the formation of a national consciousness between 1765 and 1774.” Yet his own account both slights those years, and in treating them focuses almost entirely on events in Boston, Massachusetts. Having prepared us for an instantaneous transformation, he does not feel obliged to explain how it occurred or even persuade us that it did occur.

That explanation and persuasion are needed about this most important phenomenon may be apparent from another book, which covers in more detail a small segment of the period on which Smith has concentrated. Thomas Fleming’s 1776, Year of Illusions gives us a narrative of only one year of the Revolution, beginning after the fighting started, with the fruitless American invasion of Canada, and closing with Washington’s triumph at Trenton and Princeton. Fleming, like Smith, is concerned primarily with the war, but his picture of it and of the people who fought it in 1776 is quite different from Smith’s. The Revolutionists, in Fleming’s account, appear to be a minority, and 1776 was a rough year for them. Fleming blames their tribulations on their illusions, the chief of which was that independence could be won by a few bold strokes. The success of untrained militia at Bunker Hill in 1775 had filled them with confidence that they could repeat the performance at will. A few more battles like that and the British would give up. But there were no more like that, and in the face of a succession of setbacks it looked as though the Revolutionists would be the ones to give up.

Fleming writes as persuasively as Smith, and the Americans he portrays are far from being one people. They are torn by conflicting loyalties and a divided leadership. Independence is a “premature child,” and the congressional Declaration of it the result of clever politicking, not of popular demand. Tories seem to be everywhere, and they are not transformed into patriots until the good judgment of a Washington gradually overcomes his own and others’ “Bunker Hillism” and gives his troops some victories. Only when the Revolution looks like succeeding do the people join it.

The picture may be overdrawn, but it cannot be dismissed. The author, like Smith, is a good storyteller. He does not trouble the reader with doubts or qualifications or “probablys.” George III has reduced Parliament to “an obedient servant”; the tenants of Livingston Manor live “like serfs”; Howe fails to destroy Washington on Long Island because he wants to make peace. The author knows that these statements are controversial, and he does not dismiss the controversies of academic historians as cavalierly as Smith does, but like Smith he has decided the controversies and gives his readers only the results of his decisions. It is, after all, his book. Anyone who wants another interpretation can get it elsewhere. There is much to be said for this procedure, but it may leave some readers in doubt whether a united people embraced the Revolution at the outset, as Smith assures us, or whether they had to be dragged into it by the heels, as Fleming seems to be saying.

The question of popular support for the Revolution is placed in a slightly different perspective by a book in which an English and an American historian trace in alternating chapters the course of events in England and the colonies from 1760 to 1776. Ian R. Christie and Benjamin W. Labaree, Empire or Independence: A British-American Dialogue on the Coming of the American Revolution, is notable less for any novelty of interpretation than for its juxtaposition of the two stories. The effect, as the authors note, is to call attention to the fact that the English decisions which brought on the Revolution were made by a handful of men at Whitehall and in Parliament, while in the colonies “major decisions were made at almost every point by large bodies of colonies assembled in local or provincial meetings and responsive to a far broader base of public opinion.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print