The Unrevolution

A People’s History of the American Revolution:

Through the type of persistence known only to post-Eisenhower Marxists, a young cadre of radical history professors surprised even themselves when, in the late 1960s, they pulled off a scholarly coup of unprecedented impact. Granted, this would be one of the era’s more reserved revolutions, failing as it did to kick the dead white men from history’s canonical pedestal. But now, at the very least, that same pedestal would teeter under the strain of those teeming masses so long ignored by the American historical profession’s stodgy patricians. In the midst of campus protests and escalation in Vietnam, inspired graduate students rushed to give ” a voice to the voiceless” while monographs on factory workers, tenant farmers, migrant laborers, and African American sharecroppers poured off the academic presses and into undergraduate seminars. History “from the bottom up” became a buzzword on college campuses, echoing through the halls of academe loudly enough for even a latter-day historian such as myself to absorb it from one of its graying advocates in the early 1990s. And today, if one stands outside the academy and listens very carefully, she just might hear the distant roar of Howard Zinn, alone in the wilderness, chanting the virtues of the working class as if it were still 1969.

It was, after all, Howard Zinn who originally ensured that one need not have been anywhere near a college campus to have heeded social history’s liberating call. Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States embraced the title’s dual reference, not only lavishing historical attention on common people, but also targeting his book toward a common readership. Published in 1974, Zinn’s bestseller crowned the social history movement with a gracefully written, jargon-free synthesis of an extensive trove of books and articles written by professional historians. With more than 400,000 copies in circulation, A People’s History not only continues to serve as the layman’s guide to “revisionist” history, but its sales have allowed the ex-Boston University professor to tour the country as a sort of freelance preacher, espousing the secular gospel of the oppressed to whomever might care to listen.

As the editor of the book series in which Ray Raphael’s A People’s History of the American Revolution appears, Zinn continues to target a non-academic audience. Raphael, through what he calls a “simple shift of the lens,” picks up Zinn’s cause by peering into “forgotten corners” and exploring “what the Revolution meant for the common people of the times, the men and women who did not enjoy the special privileges afforded by wealth, prestige, or political authority.” Unlike Zinn, Raphael is not a professional historian, but a generalist/writer-at-large, who has written on topics ranging from human ecology, education, and the timber industry to male rites of passage in America. Even more significantly, Raphael differs from Zinn in his overall take on the Revolution. Where Zinn saw the Revolution as the work of manipulative landholders seeking further property–with “the people” as passive victims–Raphael explores the revolutionary implications of “the people” managing the mundane details of the Revolution. To him, their mere participation lent the Revolution a radical quality. The implications of Raphael’s “shift” turn out to be far more problematic than he claims. Throughout the book the Founding Fathers are indeed about as visible as deadbeat dads; their ignored and neglected children wander somewhat aimlessly onto the center stage of the Revolution’s drama. Still, the chance to catch them in action, as Raphael’s compelling but flawed book reveals, provides a more realistic perspective on an event traditionally shrouded in laudatory myth.

Throughout seven readable chapters, Raphael’s ear remains sensitive to the pleas of the downtrodden, and the voices he presents accomplish what academic history so often fails to do: allow historical agents to tell their own stories. For example, instead of polishing a hackneyed pearl of wisdom like Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death,” Raphael legitimizes Ethan Allen’s shrill insistence that the New York Governor take his loyalist sympathy and “stick it in his ars.” Tom Paine might have made his historical mark with the noble assertion that “these are the times that try men’s souls,” but Raphael dismisses such a claim as rhetorical drivel, replacing it with the less histrionic recollections of a young man whose soul was tried with decidedly less glamorous and, one assumes, typical results. “Amongst other things,” this chastened teenage patriot recalled after facing the redcoats for the first time, “I confess that I was amongst the first that fled.” Raphael moves African Americans beyond the traditional image of the inert slave passively awaiting Lord Dunmore’s declaration of freedom (in exchange for their loyalty to the British), to a situation in which they directly articulate–in terms as simple and pure as any abolitionist tract ever published–why their shackles should fall. As a group of slaves explained to the Massachusetts council in 1775: “we have in common with all other men a naturel right to our freedoms without Being depriv’d of them by our fellowmen… we are a freedom Pepel.” In such compelling ways, the hidden voices of the Revolution emerge, and through their insistence that the Revolution was more than a proving ground for the future Founding Fathers, they collectively caution us against the whiggish tendency to indulge the idea that America “was conceived in an epiphany of republican glory.”

Meanwhile, Abigail Adams’s plea that her rising star of a husband “remember the ladies” for their supporting roles as spinning bee participants falls prey to what comes to seem more like Raphael’s leveling cudgel than his shifting lens. “The most significant contribution” of Revolutionary women, he writes, came from “farm and lower-class women.” Their role? “They toiled.” But back to that seemingly “simple shift.” Raphael fattens his book with hundreds of examples like those mentioned above, and for this accomplishment alone his book merits at least a cursory reading. However, when he gets to the more difficult business of shaping this cacophony of oppression into something resembling a discrete historical argument–a task he unfortunately attempts to accomplish through haphazard bursts of awkward analysis rather than sustained interpretation–Raphael stretches his conclusions well beyond the frame of his evidence. Like many historians hoping to highlight history’s more radical sub-plots, Raphael desperately wants the humble jangle of voices discovered through his simple shift to crescendo harmoniously into “a revolution within the Revolution.” “Sometimes in the course of history,” he writes in the concluding chapter, “[common people] strive to redefine existing hierarchies, working collectively to challenge those who would keep them down. Occasionally, they rise up and rebel.” “The American Revolution,” he asserts, “was one of these times.”

Wouldn’t it have been nice. But in the end, this claim turns out to be nothing more than a hopeful reach. Put aside such inconvenient facts that, after the war for independence, slavery revived with renewed vengeance, women huddled into a suffocating “separate sphere,” and American dependence on British credit and consumer goods not only immediately resumed, but intensified. Put aside the fact that Raphael fails to mention these post-Revolutionary developments, choosing instead to hide behind the protective caveat that his book is only about “the war itself.” Put these issues aside and still, Raphael’s evidence–considered by itself and on its own terms–does little to convince us that the varied roles that common people played in the Revolution cohered into a revolutionary answer to the question that Carl Becker, America’s first radical historian, asked about the Revolution more than eighty years ago: “Who would rule at home?” As much as we might want it to have been, it wasn’t–as far as we now know–The People. Raphael certainly succeeds in showing that young boys fought in the colonial militia, that African American slaves made appeals for their freedom under Revolutionary ideals, and that women “toiled” for the Revolutionary cause, but in no way does his book blend these workaday and clearly significant expressions into anything resembling a meaningful political response.

But, to be fair, he’s fighting an uphill battle. Not incidentally, Raphael’s failure to deduce revolutionary consequences from the common people who bore the brunt of the Revolution’s more mundane responsibilities–that is, his inability to prove that they would be the rulers at home–is partially due to the current conservative state of early American scholarship. Ever since colonial historians decided to curb their collective ahistorical tendency to interpret every colonial disturbance as a discrete prelude to July 4, 1776, they have promoted some strikingly counterintuitive arguments regarding the development of colonial British America. Contrary to the familiar story of mounting social and economic discontent bringing Americans to the inevitable boiling point of revolution, historians–perhaps because they lacked the fuel of a single contemporary political crisis–have more recently sketched a rather placid picture of a colonial system that was becoming more stable, more integrated into the Atlantic world, and, dare we entertain the thought, more British. Oh sure, one can still identify Revolutionary roots extending as far back as the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but, as the bulk of the scholarly “conventional wisdom” now argues, the overwhelming cultural, political, and social tendencies among colonial British Americans before 1765 gravitated toward an enduring love of all things British. Hints of the Revolution’s revolutionary implications abound, but the current intellectual frameworks are indeed quite conservative, thus directing the questions that historians ask into less radical channels.

Which brings us to the core of the problem with Raphael’s otherwise useful book. Howard Zinn ultimately struck such a resonant chord with the American people because he translated the scattered bits and pieces of a prolifically cutting-edge historiography into a smoothly synthesized package. Raphael, in contrast, is forced to bypass an entrenched scholarly trend towards conservatism and rummage through a historiographical dustbin in order to dig up a mere handful of anomalous secondary sources that only indirectly support the argument that so many of us want him to make. In other words, given the shoulders he has to stand on–and this, after all, is what most professional historians do–the future of a truly radical interpretation of the American Revolution seems pretty bleak. In the end, unless a new batch of young radicals suddenly materializes out of the smugly apolitical generation, makes their way into history departments, experiences an intellectual epiphany, and uses Raphael’s book as a guide to write “history from the top down,” A People’s History of the American Revolution’s most substantial impact will be–Gordon Wood notwithstanding–as an inadvertent reminder of just how un-revolutionary the American Revolution actually was.

James McWilliams is an instructor of history at Southwest Texas State University.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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Published at 12:00 am CST