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 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.”

The difference is perhaps exaggerated by differing styles of historiography. British historians, under the influence of Sir Lewis Namier, have tended to discount the force of public opinion in eighteenth-century Britain and to concentrate on parliamentary politics. Since there was no central parliament in the colonies until the meeting of the Continental Congress in 1774, American historians have necessarily dealt with local politics. And the character of local politics in the colonies as well as the historical pursuit of Carl Becker’s contest over who should rule at home have resulted in far more attention being given to public opinion and popular pressures in American than in British political history of the period.

In America the voting franchise was so wide that all politics depended heavily on public opinion. As colonial political leaders prepared to challenge English political authority in the Revolution, they had to depend even more on popular support. Although English politicians could not ignore the public, they enjoyed a degree of autonomy that their American counterparts could not afford. The contrast behind the dialogue between Labaree and Christie rests not only on different styles in British and American historiography but on different styles in British and American politics of the time.

That the Revolutionists gained popular support, not only for resistance to England but for national union, scarcely admits of doubt. The Revolution did, after all, succeed, and the union still survives; it would be difficult to argue that either could have happened without wide popular support. The questions remain of how wide that support was and of how and when it was achieved, questions that will continue to demand investigation. No answers to them can be certain or simple, but some exciting suggestions may be found in a thoughtful collection of essays by John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed. Shy is interested in the intersection of military and social history, and his most significant contribution is to reassess the social implications of military service.

During the colonial period the organization of citizens into a militia system proved effective only in New England; and during the greatest military conflict before the Revolution, the French and Indian War of 1754-1763, the militia played a minor role even in New England. The troops contributed by the colonies in that war consisted for the most part (like the troops in English and European armies) not of militia but of recruits from the lowest classes of the population, men whom local communities were glad to be rid of. A few years later when the British army had to fight the Americans, British officers assumed that they would be facing the same sort of men. But the Revolutionary War began in New England, and the New England militia system was by no means defunct. It embraced most of the adult male population, who were fully armed and proved a formidable foe at Concord and Bunker Hill.

With the beginning of the war the colonists revived the militia system everywhere, and it became, in Shy’s view, a principal means of drawing men into the Revolution. The Continental Army, which Smith sees as a unifying force, was recruited, like the armies of the French and Indian War, from the lowest classes, from men to whom the small pay was attractive, men who carried little weight in the politics of the day. The militia, on the other hand, drew on a much broader spectrum of the population. Service in the militia during the Revolution was generally for a few weeks or months only, and most of the men in a community had to serve at one time or another. When the call came, the indifferent and the skeptical had to make up their minds and either shoulder a musket in the cause or else head for the British lines. The militia thus became a prime element in revolutionizing Americans and forming them into a people. This is only one of the perceptions that make Shy’s book valuable for anyone interested in the social implications of warfare. The book tells little about battles, but it suggests how much the history of the Revolutionary War may yet tell us about the making of an American people.

Several other new books contain useful insights into the political obstacles encountered and overcome in that process. David Ammerman’s In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774 emphasizes the initial unanimity of the American response to the punitive measures adopted by the British Parliament in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Previous accounts of the First Continental Congress, which was called to protest the British measures, have concentrated on the division between the moderates from the middle colonies, led by Joseph Galloway, and the radicals from New England and Virginia, led by Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry. Ammerman argues convincingly that former accounts have been unduly influenced by Galloway’s self-serving narrative of what happened and by John Adams’s notoriously faulty memory of it.

Much was made in those accounts of the rejection by a single vote of Galloway’s proposed plan for an American Parliament subordinate to the British Parliament. But the narrow vote, Ammerman shows, was not on a motion to accept or reject Galloway’s plan but on a motion to table discussion of it. It was later taken from the table, discussed, and rejected, but by how large a majority the records do not say. The Congress, Ammerman contends, was far more solidly behind the so-called radicals than has previously been allowed. Ammerman’s findings thus tend to support Smith’s picture of a people already united in 1774, in so far at least as the delegates to Congress reflected the views of their constituents.

But if harmony in the Continental Congress is taken as an index of nationality, the history of that body after 1774 testifies to the fragility of the bonds that linked Americans. The coming of independence meant the withdrawal of delegates who were unwilling to be part of a new people, and it should thus have resulted in greater subsequent solidarity. But those who remained found plenty to quarrel about, the Continental Army for one thing. While military service may have raised the national consciousness of the soldiers who served in the ranks, the rivalry of commanding officers spilled over into Congress and caused enough division there to make the subject of a lively, if depressing, volume by J. G. Rossie, The Politics of Command in the American Revolution. Philip Schuyler, the favorite general of New Yorkers, was anathema to New Englanders, who backed Horatio Gates. Benedict Arnold’s treachery came after Congress failed to recognize his obvious merits. It seems to be now agreed that the so-called Conway Cabal, a movement to replace Washington as commander in chief, never had extensive backing in Congress, but for a time the conduct of the members was enough to make Washington think that it did.

The divisions produced in Congress by military rivalries were frequently sectional, and they served to exacerbate sectional divisions that developed over other issues. H. James Henderson stresses these sectional divisions in Party Politics in the Continental Congress, a thorough study of all the issues that divided Congress from its first meeting in 1774 to its demise in 1789. In 1777 Congress began recording the votes on every measure that came before it, and the resulting record, unique in legislative history up to that time, has made possible a computerized analysis of voting blocs. In the first Congresses members frequently divided along ideological lines that transcended state boundaries. But even from the beginning a Southern bloc, a middle-states bloc, and a New England bloc can be discerned on many issues. National feeling, a willingness to make local interests give way to national welfare, became less and less evident, until by the end of the Confederation period an ominous polarization appeared on almost every issue, with North arrayed against South.

The situation reached a danger point when the secretary for foreign affairs, John Jay, proposed, with Northern support, to forgo American navigation of the Mississippi in return for commercial privileges in Spain. The commercial privileges would have benefited Northern merchants, but the abandonment of the Mississippi threatened to alienate tens of thousands of farmers who had moved into Kentucky and Tennessee after the Revolutionary War. They had come mostly from the South Atlantic states, and the South felt betrayed by the North’s seeming indifference to their interests. In this issue the alarming crescendo of sectional antagonisms reached a climax that propelled the most ardent nationalists of both North and South toward the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Henderson’s analysis of the voting in Congress shows, more concretely than any previous study, how early the sectional division appeared and how seriously it threatened the continuation of the union in the last years of the Confederation.

What Henderson’s computer cannot reveal is the nature or source of the national consciousness that triumphed over sectional differences. National consciousness does not readily lend itself to measurement. Although a valiant effort was made some years ago by Richard Meritt to subject early American nationality to “content analysis,” the topic has generally remained in the hands of social and intellectual historians, and principally in the hands of those labeled “consensus historians,” a mixed bag of scholars that has been taken to include Daniel Boorstin, Louis Hartz, Clinton Rossiter, Bernard Bailyn, and Gordon Wood, not to mention the reviewer.

The consensus historians have earned the label by emphasizing the matters on which Americans were agreed, and have explained the development of an American nation in terms of attachment to a common set of ideas and ideals. In particular they have emphasized the insistence of the colonists on British constitutional principles that the British seemed to be violating in the effort to tax the colonies; and they have demonstrated American devotion to the ideology of the radical British Whigs (or “Common-wealthmen”), an ideology which centered on the need to keep government responsible to the people. The Bicentennial has brought no significant addition to the literature on this subject, but several books focus on other aspects of the national consciousness.

Carl Bridenbaugh in The Spirit of ‘76 reminds us that the Revolution stands not at the beginning of American history but more nearly at the midpoint between the present and the founding of the first permanent English settlement. National consciousness was the product of more than a century and a half of growth, and growth itself was an element in it. American population grew, from immigration and from an extraordinary fertility, at rates unknown in Europe. And though the colonists did their growing under thirteen separate governments, they shared from the beginning common characteristics that set them off from the rest of the world: not only their rapid rate of growth but the conflicts with Indians that growth induced, the absence of a titled nobility, the wide distribution of property, the presence of a multitude of religious sects and denominations, not to mention the discontents (religious or economic or political) that had moved them or their ancestors to depart from the Old World. Bridenbaugh sketches the rise of national pride in American differentness, especially in the years after 1740, but he himself suggests that a full treatment of the subject would require several volumes.

One such volume (limited, however, to the period 1763-1789) might be Kenneth Silverman’s A Cultural History of the American Revolution, which encompasses the achievements of Americans in art, music, literature, and the theater. The study is organized chronologically into three books, covering the years 1763-1770, 1770-1783, and 1783-1789. Each book begins with a survey of the state of the arts and then proceeds to a chronological account of political events and of the cultural doings that accompanied and reflected them: broadside and newspaper verses, historical painting and prints, epic poetry, theatrical performances, the first American plays, and the songs of William Billings and Francis Hopkinson. Although the book will doubtless become a standard reference work, it is not a mere catalogue or encyclopedia. The author comments perceptively on the aesthetic values of the works he discusses, displaying an extraordinary virtuosity in the range of his critical appreciation. He makes a good case for his major thesis, that this period saw the first burst of creative energy directed toward high culture in America.

He is not concerned with culture in the anthropological sense, but he does seek to relate the achievements he describes to the political revolution that accompanied them. He finds a sentimental literary and artistic counterpart of Whig political thought in the cartoons and verses lamenting Britannia’s cruelty to her American children. And he shows how colonial boycotts of British goods spurred American printers not only to reprint British works popular in America (such as Blackstone), but also to sponsor the publication of native American substitutes for British works, particularly song-books.

But the book does not attribute all the cultural achievements of the period to national need or Revolutionary ardor. It would be difficult to do so when the greatest American painters, West, Copley, and Stuart, sat out the Revolution in England. The author therefore admits that “some kinds of cultural growth occurred in spite of the strife.” The connection between culture and politics that Silverman does argue for is the familiar parent-child analogy that pervades (and sometimes directs) so many studies of the Revolution. The cultural achievements, he maintains, may be perceived as symptoms of the same national maturity—or adolescence—that lay behind the political discontents.

This analogy has served a great many historians, and it fits particularly well with a current psycho-historical fad in which the Declaration of Independence is seen as a collective Oedipal patricide (both Fleming and Smith indulge in this). Unfortunately no one has yet demonstrated that nations have a life cycle comparable to that of individuals, and those who resort to adolescence or maturity as a way of explaining the Revolution have not got beyond the figure of speech. There is no established morphology of collective or national growth by which one can determine the signs of national maturity. The analogy has thus become a substitute for thought, a concept that inhibits understanding instead of advancing it. Silverman’s resort to it does not detract from the substance of his survey of American cultural achievements, but it enables him to escape from the more extended analysis we should have liked of the relationship of those achievements to the growth of national consciousness.

The complexity of the relationship is apparent in a book growing out of an ambitious art exhibition. The exhibition, which opened at the Yale University Art Gallery and will be at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in July, includes American prints, painting, silverware, brass, glass, ceramics, textiles, and furniture. The book, entitled American Art 1750-1800: Towards Independence, begins with a stimulating essay in which J.H. Plumb argues for the Englishness of American culture, both high culture and political culture. The exhibition bears out the claim, as do the other essays in the book. Frank Summer shows how the American iconography of the figure of “Libertas” developed from the figure of Britannia. Neil Harris, in “The Making of an American Culture,” has difficulty finding any physical evidence of a national impulse in high culture. Jules Prown, writing on “Style in American Art,” discovers “the most complete and dramatic stylistic change in the entire history of American art” occurring during the Revolution; but the change, from rococo to neoclassical, was not so much a product of national independence as a reflection of a similar change that had already occurred in England and France. Indeed, Charles Montgomery in treating the same change in the decorative arts finds the new national style “more English than any for the previous forty years.”

The ambiguous relationship of high culture to national consciousness emerges also from Henry May’s study of The Enlightenment in America. May is not directly concerned with the formation of an American people or with the role of the Enlightenment in American independence. His focus is on the conflict of Enlightenment ideas with the Calvinist Christianity that figured so largely in the American religious heritage. In order to follow the development of that conflict he distinguishes four phases of the Enlightenment: a moderate phase, in which the ideas of Locke and Newton were accommodated by traditional Christianity; a skeptical phase, represented in Europe by Hume and Voltaire; a revolutionary phase, reaching its culmination in the “secular millenarianism” of Revolutionary France; and finally a didactic phase, in which American intellectuals, who had been little affected by the second and third phases, tried to rescue some remnants of reason (by way of Scottish Common Sense philosophy) from the religious revival and reaction of the early nineteenth century.

As May sees it, the Enlightenment in America had always been primarily of the early moderate variety. The radical Whigs whom the American Revolutionists valued so highly may have been precursors of the Revolutionary Enlightenment, but they were not a part of it and would not have subscribed to its elevation of human nature. In the 1790s the American Federalists, in attacking the Revolutionary Enlightenment that led to the French Revolution, gave the whole Enlightenment a bad name. They thus, unintentionally perhaps, discredited even the moderate Enlightenment in which they themselves believed.

The reader may find May’s classifications cumbersome. But they do help to illuminate the conflicts and compromises between reason and religion in the New World during and after the American Revolution. And in his brief conclusion May offers some trenchant observations that lead us back to the role of the people in American public life. The religious revival that began about 1800 was undoubtedly a popular movement, and it left the Enlightenment, so far as Americans were concerned, in ruins. In commenting on this fact, May notes that even in Europe the Enlightenment did not survive the rising of the people in the French Revolution or the proletarian movements that grew out of the industrial revolution, and that it never had a following among the farming population either in Europe or America. Although some of its exponents believed vaguely in democracy, none of them “had a program with a real place in it for most people. This is true of those who looked forward to democracy and believed in it theoretically, as well as of those who did not: of Rousseau and Jefferson as well as of Voltaire and Hume.”

There is plenty of room for disagreement with this conclusion. Jefferson (and the radical English Whigs whose ideas he adopted) assigned a crucial place in the preservation of liberty to the independent, landowning yeoman farmer. And in America landowning farm families probably constituted a majority of the population. Historians who have concerned themselves with the creation of an American people in the Revolution have given their attention to this majority. Those who first posited an internal American revolution, the contest over who should rule at home, assumed that the landowners were a small minority. The people were accordingly the propertyless masses who struggled against the privileged minority of merchants, planters, and landlords.

As subsequent historians have accumulated evidence of widespread landownership, the propertyless masses have shrunk to a small minority of adult males; but the supposed internal revolution, the rising of some kind of masses against their oppressors, retains its fascination. The disillusionment of many Americans with the government that thrust its people into the Vietnam War has begotten disillusionment with the men who founded the government and has sent a number of historians of the Revolutionary period in search of a radical, anti-establishment tradition that can be identified with the people, landowners as well as landless.

The scholarship growing out of that search has considerably refined historical understanding of the social structure of the American colonies. Because of it the materials have been taking shape for a “people’s history” of the Revolution, in the sense of a history devoted to the role of common men and women. That history has not yet been written, but the Bicentennial has spurred the publication of enough preliminary efforts to afford a critical appraisal of some of the findings, some of the assumptions, perhaps some of the illusions, of the historians working in this vein. These I will discuss in a second article.