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The American Revolution: A People's History by Ray Raphael

The American Revolution: A People’s History
Ray Raphael

The American Revolution: A People’s History
Ray Raphael
Profile Books
London 2001

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Ray Raphael is an antiquarian of some value. The original antiquarian was a collector and organiser of Fact, a scholar who believed in the primacy of evidence over opinion. As such, Raphael has gathered some of the most interesting evidence in American historical research — the history of the American Revolution conveyed through the very words of those ‘commoners’ who took part. That this has been hailed as a leap in history is surprising; a reviewer in a Sunday Broadsheet claimed the History of political events would never be the same again: Raphael has begun a new trend of looking at the everyday man and woman, rather than the elite ‘heroes and villains’ commonly studied. It seems no one has ever had the idea before. This is rot—Ancient historians and archaeologists for one, leap for joy when they find the merest trace of the average man or woman: the writings of the Jewish mercenary garrison at Elephantine in Egypt is one of the most studied and valued sources in Achaemenid history; from these papyri, we can glean something of what life was like for a small, un-extraordinary group of people in the Ancient World. Ancient historical writers such as Amélie Kuhrt and Pierre Briant try to include what little evidence there is of the full workings of empire, from top to bottom, so Raphael’s method is hardly new. Perhaps American historians are behind the times, one hundred years behind; has no-one heard of Social Historians? The period of the American Revolution was one in which literacy was on the rise—we therefore have more primary evidence written by the everyday person than any other period in Western History, and it is surprising that Raphael should be the first ‘major’ historian to write a history of this most mythic period.

The tendency to mythologise, even among historians, is sickening: Washington was a hero, Jefferson another, the American militias rose together to vanquish the evil empire, and established freedom for all. Raphael, through his lucid and intelligent use of source-material, finally and irreversibly deflates the myth. We are shown the full power of mob rule, the humiliation (including tarring and feathering) of loyalists and crooked merchants, the notion of the greatest good for the greatest number taken to its often devastating consequences, and those individuals who recorded their experiences, attempting to make sense of their circumstances. The American Revolution was less a communal act, than a collective one: the ‘mob’ was the disenfranchised poor, the disaffected farmers and tradesmen and those who became their ‘leaders’, the elite ‘Whigs’, all individually and uniquely affected by their circumstances. They came together out of necessity, a need to offer real resistance against the crown or their landlords, or merchants, and the results were often tumultuous.

The war was not fought or won by the free militias, but by those too poor to support themselves, when the army was their only hope. The militia was undisciplined and its members refused to take orders, believing themselves, in one general’s view, ‘all generals’. They came and went as they pleased. Raphael usefully quotes many of the accounts at length, and leads us through the thoughts and actions of these people. He does not stop with the American ‘patriot’ soldiers, but includes loyalists and pacifists, women, American Indians and African Americans. These first two groups experienced hardships in their communities; the pacifists, persecuted merely for non-involvement, showed a suffering based on principal rather than self-interest. Poor women had to take on all the household responsibilities, when husbands were away at war, because they had to, not, largely, because of principals: and these poor, not the rich women, suffered degradations from both British and patriot soldiers. The American Indians played into the wrong hands—either supporting the British, who coldly used them, or the Americans, who couldn’t distinguish friend from foe, or fighting each other, or giving in to alcoholism. They ended up losing their lands, even if they were on the winning side. Most African Americans did not gain their freedom, and here their own accounts are sparse, but it is clear the British abused them, and often resold them into slavery, and the punishment for captured runaways was severe. The American Revolution involved freedom for whites — not for all, and we cannot believe Raphael that it sowed the seeds of freedom for all: African Americans and American Indians are still facing discrimination and iniquity.

The sources are so interesting I could continue ad infinitum; this, sadly, is the problem with Raphael’s account. Although the basic account is well-handled, his style is full of eccentric quirks and real bias. For example, his description of the siege of fort Mifflin by the British runs:

“Having failed to capture the fort by manpower, they [the British] mustered fire power instead: British artillery unleashed a continuous barrage of projectiles from the best warships in the world upon a sixteen-year-old lad from Connecticut and a nineteen-year-old from Rhode island.”

Two boys defending a fort on their own? Of course not, these are the two who left us their accounts of the battle. Raphael takes sides: against the British when discussing the patriot involvement, largely the British when discussing rape on women, and only when the patriots were undeniably at fault, he will take sides against them. This is bad history — too personal, much too enthusiastic about the fact that common people played a real, definable, and documented role in a war for once. His ‘dry’ humour often misfires too, especially in his account of farmers expressing their disappointment with the government’s inaction concerning hostile Indians by slaughtering a friendly tribe. I have a full ten pages of qualms, major and minor; and each of these qualms is with Raphael the Historian, not Raphael the Antiquarian. This would fare better as a sourcebook, Raphael disappoints as analyst.

No Spartacusian revolution, A People’s History has shown how the American Revolution was a war of myriad microcosmic interests, less against Britain and the King, than local authority. Raphael has done well to attempt a rounded account of American experiences: it would have been nice to have the views of British soldiers, although it might not be fitting to show these sorts as human beings in a book aimed at an American audience. The great premise and wonderful choice of sources by Raphael the Antiquarian, which brings this war alive to the reader, is sadly, though not entirely, let down by the piss-poor Raphael, the Historian.

Reviewed by Gregor Milne


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