Reviews in American History 29.4 (2001) 502-509
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A People's Revolution? Towards a New History of the Revolutionary Era
Michael A. McDonnell
Susan Branson. These Fiery Frenchified Dames: Women and Political Culture in Early National Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. ix + 210 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $47.50 (cloth); $17.50 (paper).
Ray Raphael. A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence. New York: The New Press, 2001. xix + 361 pp. Notes. $25.95.
As Ray Raphael so vividly reminds us, the American War of Independence was one of the costliest, bloodiest conflicts in American history. Few Americans today, reared on films and documentary accounts of World War II and the conflict in Vietnam, know that only during the Civil War did a greater percentage of the population perish in any one conflict. As John Shy has calculated, the twenty-five thousand service-related deaths alone in the eight-year-long war is the per capita equivalent of about two million deaths in the United States today. Two million. 1 Moreover, on an unprecedented scale, hundreds of thousands of men and women, black, white and Native American, were dragged into a war, most often not of their making, and forced to choose sides, act, and suffer usually miserable consequences. The outcome of the Revolutionary War, of course, has always overshadowed the event itself. Indeed, beginning with the Founding Fathers themselves, most notably Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress, Americans have too often whitewashed the true nature of the conflict. Yet judged from the perspective of thousands of ordinary Americans, we can only conclude that the Revolutionary War was nothing less than a divisive, damaging, and confusing civil war. Was it also a transforming experience?
As his title suggests, Raphael's book is an attempt to retell the stories of the many and varied people who got caught up in the Revolutionary War. With considerable passion, Raphael aims to put an end to the sanitized versions of the Revolution that have prevailed in the public mind. Published by The New Press, a not-for-profit press established in 1992 to disseminate ideas and [End Page 502] viewpoints that may not be commercially viable or that are under-represented in the mass media, Raphael's work is the first in a new "People's History" series edited by Howard Zinn. As such, Raphael's book is clearly aimed at a more general audience. Following the lead of the series editor, Raphael wants to "deconstruct" and then "reconstruct" the story of the American Revolution (defined here as the War for Independence), replacing all too familiar and popular iconographic images of Bunker Hill, George Washington, and Benedict Arnold with accessible and meaningful stories of the experiences of Jeremiah Greenman, Sarah Hodgkins, Joseph Louis Gill, and Emanuel de Antonio. By shifting the lens of history away from men like Thomas Jefferson to the enslaved people he owned, the Native Americans he helped displace, and the men and women who actually fought in the war, Raphael breathes life into the stories of many hundreds of thousands of ordinary people. For the average reader who picks up this book, it will be an eye-opening experience. This is not to say that students and scholars alike will not also benefit from the book. As the list of names above suggest, not all these people will be familiar, even to scholars of the American Revolution. For Raphael, a non-specialist, has done a remarkable job of synthesising the best of the last twenty-five years of scholarship on the social history of the American Revolution. As such, it is a palpable reminder of just how much has been done.
Each chapter--on political mobilization in the prewar period, military mobilization, women, loyalists and pacifists, Native Americans and African Americans--is thorough and detailed. A long chapter on Native Americans is typical and particularly welcome, not just because of the very inclusion of this often-neglected group, but also because...