Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A People's History of the American Revolution

A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence
© 2001 Ray Ralphael
386 pages

I look for some books, and some books happen to find me. This is one of the latter, as I spotted its title while meandering aimlessly through my library's shelves. (I do this a lot because it's a good way to bump into unexpected books.) As you might guess by the title, it's associated with Howard Zinn's A People's History series, although not written by him. The book reads as less politically controversial than Zinn's books, meaning that even bellowing BillO' would have to work at growing truly angry. Although this is a history of the American Revolution, it is not a military history. The course of the war is discussed, but only in relation to the declining or -- very rarely -- increasing fortunes of the common people that the book takes its title from. Separate sections concern the growing civil unrest among colonials in the pre-Revolution years, the plight of the common soldier, the changing and increasing demands on women*, native Americans, the "ideologically unsound" loyalists and pacifists, and finally freed and enslaved involuntary African emigrants, also known primly in the book as "people of color". (The section title is "African Americans", but I found the repeated "of color" reference humorously anachronistic.)

The book is written very neatly: author Ray Raphael ends every chapter with a summary to die every he's said so far together, and the final chapter of the book is a summary of the whole, with conclusions being drawn from said summary. Each section aside from the final one examines the role of its specific group within the context of the Anglo-American conflict, beginning shortly after the end of the Seven Years' War. What develops, as you might imagine, is a history of the conflict told from the "rabble's" point of view. What I didn't realize was that they're already in the history books -- they just aren't mentioned. The attendees at the Boston Tea Party were not John Adams and Thomas Paine, but roughneck cobblers and the like. Raphael gives the American Revolution a depth I've never seen before, beyond the occasional paragraph in a school textbook that might mention spinning bees or Crispus Attucks. The first section of the book, which deals with civil unrest (by which I mean "pandemonium"), was especially interesting reading for me. The history I've read depicts riots that led to the Boston Massacre as accidental and oddly consequential, but according to Raphael, it was just one in a series of confrontations between put-upon people and whoever got in their way. His section on Native Americans is similarly strong.

What I like about the book is that Raphael doesn't get very romantic -- and I wonder if he could, what with some of the people had to deal with, men who burned down people's homes to make a political point. Even George Washington, he who is more legend than man, is shown losing his cool and taking a random Loyalist citizen hostage if the murderers of rebel/patriot sympathizer do not step forward. (He is then shown to regret what he did. Bound by a code of honor, Washington can't kill the boy and can't let him go of his own accord: fortunately, Congress "officially" orders the hostage's release.) This is not a "times were tough, but the good common folk prevailed and everyone lived comfortably well off" story: times were miserable, they got a lot worse, and then they went back to miserable -- only this time with war-related poverty and death.

The glorious fourth -- again appears
A Day of Days -- and year of years,
The sum of sad disasters,
Where all the mighty gains we see
With all their boasted liberty
Is only a Change of Masters.


The above appears in the diary of a woman named Hannah Griffitts, writing in 1785. That's not the only piece of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" observation made by people writing at the time, but it is the shortest. I think the book has enough meat in it to give anyone room for thought. It's nicely written, has convenient summaries, and adds a great deal of context to a pivotal moment in western history. This book reminds me that important moments in history like this -- and I consider them important just for the Constitution, while making the way easier for those of us who follow, did nothing for the people who made them happen. That good fortune often has to be created by misery is another indicator to me that the laws of the universe were not created with us in mind.

Related Reading:
  • Jeff Shaara's Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause, historical "fiction" novels that tell the story of the political divide and war from the viewpoint of soldiers and generals. I mention it here because Shaara seems to draw from some of the same sources as Raphael. What they both agree on is that the generals of the Continental Army liked to complain about the militia's uselessness as a fighting force.

*There's one thing every woman's missed in Massachusetts Bay/ Don't smirk at me, you egotist; pay Heed to what I say / We've gone from Framingham to Boston /And we cannot find a pin / "Don't you know there's a war on?" / Say the tradesmen with a grin / Well, we will not make saltpeter Until you send us pins!"

On a final note -- and solely for your and my amusement -- when I was a kid and had only heard of the "Boston Tea Party" as having something to do with the Revolution, my mental image was of the Founding Fathers sitting at a table with British officals drinking tea and yelling at one another, leaving at some point to go start the revolution. When I saw a picture of Indians throwing tea chests off of a ship in my history book, I was confused.

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