The American Revolution has a fair claim to being the single most important episode in American history; given this fact, the prospective student faces a strange neglect of the period by historians. It is hard to find any part of this nation’s past which is not the subject of an eminent historian’s general treatment at least once a decade. The Civil War, for example, has received at least half a dozen synthetic works in the past generation. If anything, the field is plagued by an overabundance of broad, introductory works. But to find a comprehensive history of the Revolutionary era, one must search back to the work of the English liberal George Otto Trevelyan, who published his four-volume series at the turn of the century. The absence of synthetic works is all the more surprising in this case, for the seventy years since Trevelyan’s contribution have witnessed a remarkable series of monographs and interpretive essays which have dramatically altered our understanding of the Revolution and its causes. The subject has provoked profound disagreement among scholars, but their debates have been fought in skirmishes which have steadily avoided the main field. As a result, many new layers of historical insight have failed to break out of the academic environment and penetrate the traditional textbook accounts of the Revolutionary War.
Page Smith’s massive account of the period is clearly an attempt to fill this gap. Although much of his work is interpretive, he is largely concerned with dispelling the myths about persons, battles, and events that have accumulated over the years. An enormous part of his writing is based on “eyewitness accounts” and other primary materials which have only become available in recent years. The scholarship of his volumes, combined with their scope, provide us with a view of the Revolution we have not been able to see before.
Such is the function of general histories; but Professor Smith has not permitted his work to be so typical or so easy to classify. He has experimented with history, and his work shows both the complexities and the ambiguities of an uncertain act of creation. These are immediately implied in the subtitle: A People’s History of the American Revolution. One wonders at the use of the word “People’s”; does this mean it is addressed to a broad reading audience, or is Smith implying that he views the Revolution as a populist phenomenon? The reader quickly perceives that Smith is implying both meanings.
One of the ongoing debates about the Revolution revolves around the issue of whether the break with England was genuinely a mass phenomenon, or a movement initiated and carried off by a wealthy and educated elite. In the twentieth century, the pendulum of consensus has tended to swing toward the latter view. Some historians have gone so far as to insist that the shift in power does not even merit the name of revolution, but resembled more closely the modern coup d’etat. Although the era was a profoundly important one for every stratum of society, and though the war had many bloody and uncontrolled moments, the episode as a whole was far more stable and coherent than most later revolutions. True, British authority was overthrown, and new governments were created in the colonies, but American society retained its old social structure, its religious diversity, and its distribution of wealth; most important, the colonial elite remained, for the most part, intact. Confiscation of property and violence against Loyalists were not extensive in comparison with the French Revolution or the English Civil War. These and other characteristics have made it quite plausible for scholars to argue that the Revolution was staged by a small and clever group of colonial leaders who had lost their patience with British meddling and regulation, and who used the weapon of mob violence to formalize their power in America, thus becoming the Founding Fathers. More recent studies have dampened the credibility of the position that patriot leaders cynically manipulated men and ideals for economic convenience, but continue to emphasize the critical role these leaders played in provoking and consummating the Revolution.
Though there is a competing tradition which assigns greater importance to the artisans and farmers of the colonies, the populist view has perhaps never been so aggressively stated as in Page Smith’s volumes. Throughout his work, the pulse of popular feeling and movement is never far below the surface. Rather than making vague references to the “people” in this or that action, he attempts to define the actual groups involved in resistance, and often focuses on specific individuals, previously lost in historical oblivion. Though the leader of a particular Stamp Act mob may be relatively unimportant in himself, what he tells us about the nature and motivation of such groups makes him a fascinating personality. Smith does devote a great deal of attention to the more traditional heroes of the Revolution (most notably John Adams, the subject of an exhaustive biography by Smith). Yet still the reader feels that the age was greater than the individual persons, and that the Founding Fathers were...
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