Review: A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for American Independence
by Ray Raphael
New York: New Press, 2001, 386 pp.
Published in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 2002
Not so long ago, in the mid-1980s, historians endlessly discussed among themselves the desperate need for synthesis - broad new interpretive accounts of the American past that would pull together the rich but often local and particular social histories that were the glory of historical work in the late 1960s, the1970s, and early 1980s. Herbert G. Gutman in particular called repeatedly and urgently for such works, to unify and disseminate to a broader public the many discoveries of "history from below" - about workers, women, Native and African Americans, those traditionally excluded from the dominant narrative of American history based on the narrow, elitist assumptions of Cold War liberalism.
For the era of the American Revolution, Ray Raphael has answered the call, in a belated but spirited way. Pulling together the work of scholars such as Edward Countryman, Sylvia R. Frey, Linda K. Kerber, Jesse Lemisch, Gary B. Nash, Mary Beth Norton, Benjamin Quarles, Peter H. Wood, Alfred F. Young, and a great many others, and drawing upon a broad array of published primary sources, Raphael has written a vivid and insightful narrative history of the revolutionary era. He does an especially good job with what has been called "social biography," using the life stories of commoners to reveal the main themes of his book. Block quotations from first-person accounts give new life and voice to people such as the revolutionary war private Joseph Plumb Martin, the parson's wife Temperance Smith, or the African-American preacher David George, whose words in turn give immediacy and new meaning to our understanding of the American Revolution.
Raphael explains the central purpose of his "people's history" thusly: "By uncovering the stories of farmers, artisans, and laborers, we discern how plain folk helped create a revolution strong enough to evict the British Empire from the thirteen colonies. And by digging deeper still, we learn how people with no political standing - women, Native Americans, African Americans - altered the shape of a war conceived by others." (9) After carefully reconstructing the histories of all these groups, he concludes: "The story of our nation's founding, told so often from the perspective of the 'founding fathers,' will never ring true unless it can take some account of the Massachusetts farmers who closed the courts, the poor men and boys who fought the battles, the women who followed the troops, the loyalists who viewed themselves as rebels, the pacifists who refused to sign oaths of allegiance, the Native Americans who struggled for their own independence, the southern slaves who fled to the British, the northern slaves who negotiated their freedom by joining the Continental Army" (306). Raphael's account rings true: these people made the American Revolution.
Although specialists will not find this book to be original in its materials or interpretations, teachers of both surveys and upper-level courses in early American history will find it to be a most useful text, a well-wrought summary of much often most important research of the last generation of scholars. A necessary corrective to Gordon Wood's top-down synthesis of the same era, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1993), and a healthy antidote to the recent resurgence in American politics and culture of a reactionary worship of the Founding Fathers, A Peoples' History of the American Revolution deserves a broad readership, inside the academy and out. The "whitewashed mythology" (5) of the nation's founding will not do, and now we have a new synthesis to prove it.
University of Pittsburgh