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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 326-332

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Book Review

American Plebeian:
Ordinary People in the Age of the American Revolution

Antonio T. Bly,
College of William and Mary

Woody Holton. Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999). Pp.vii + 231. $15.95 paper.

Ray Raphael. A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight For Independence (New York: New Press, 2001). Pp. xi + 386. $25.95 paper.

Robert A. Gross.The Minutemen and Their World. Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001). Maps. Pp. vii + 242. $13.00 paper.

In the nineteen seventies, American Broadcasting Company, Incorporated (ABC) aired the four volume animated series: "School House Rock." In three-minute segments shown between ABC's normal lineup of Saturday morning cartoons, the series provided lessons on the rules of grammar, American history and government, science, and the multiplication tables. As it challenged the popularity of the Public Broadcasting Station's (PBS) "Sesame Street," ABC's "School House Rock" taught American children the valuable lesson that "KNOWLEDGE IS POWER!"

In the volume "American Rock," the history of the early American Republic, from the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock to the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the American Revolution to the development of the Constitution, was retold. From that animated series, I--like most children during the seventies--grew up believing that America was once a vast wilderness, inhabited by two bewildered natives perched behind a rock with 1620 engraved on its surface. Initially, the Pilgrims of the Mayflower pledged themselves faithful subjects to the king, who in the video is depicted as a pompous, overweight, rosy-cheeked man who often laughed at them and their efforts to establish a colony. In time, though, thirteen colonies were established. Mindful of their growing prosperity, the king began to tax the colonists and even "had the nerve to tax their cup of tea." As taxes mounted, the colonists decided to defy the king by declaring themselves free. So began the American Revolution which started with the famous shot at Lexington that was "heard around the world."

Interestingly enough, for a number of Americans, history by ABC's "School House Rock" represents a fair account of the past. In 1620, the Pilgrims of the Mayflower did land in Plymouth, Massachusetts. (Although it is still debatable whether or not that rock, now enclosed in a pavilion, is the one that the original Pilgrims stepped on; the inscription "1620" was made over two hundred years later.) Thomas Jefferson and others did pen the Declaration of Independence. Mary Hays McCauly (perhaps best known as Molly Pitcher)--the unidentified woman who in the cartoon is shown loading a cannon--did serve in the Continental Army.

Contemporary history, however, suggests that the Revolution was more complex. Woody Holton's Forced Founders, Ray Raphael's A People's History, and Robert A. Gross's Minutemen revisit the War. The sterile, simplistic images of ABC's School House are shattered as the role that everyday people played in the [End Page 326] fight for Independence is examined. "Americans tend to think of the Virginia gentry, the colonial elite that gave us Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, as a proud and optimistic ruling class," according to Woody Holton. They do not imagine gentlemen resorting to desperate measures such as crashing down the gates of prisons or placing weapons in the hands of slaves. But Jacob Hite, one of the wealthiest men in Berkeley County, Virginia, did both of those things, and more (xiii).

In Forced Founders, the War is depicted as being something other than a Revolution, as despondent elites like Hite--and likewise Jefferson, Washington, and others--attempted to counter the efforts of Indians, debtors, and African slaves. Missing from this narrative are those FOUNDING FATHERS who inspired others with impassioned words and deeds. Instead, in this history of the Revolution in Virginia, they are characterized as a covetous band of land speculators and...


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