From International Socialism 2:92, Autumn 2001.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The American Revolution: A People’s History
Profile Books 2001, £20
People make history, complex human beings from varying circumstances who pull together, drive apart, and interact in countless ways. Not just a few people, but all of them. 
In the first of a new series of books concerned with people’s history edited by Howard Zinn, oral historian Ray Raphael uses contemporary diaries and letters to paint a vivid picture of the changes wrought by revolution on its participants, and the crucial role that ordinary people play in driving seismic events forward.
It is standard practice for mainstream historians to expunge the actions of ordinary men and women from history. This is certainly the case in any discussion of the American Revolution, which is often presented as the painless breaking of relations between American colonies and Britain in the interests of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. Raphael provides a gripping corrective – returning the class conflict, the horrible reality of civil war, the oppression of slaves, women and Native Americans, and the power of farmers, artisans and poor soldiers to turn the world upside down to the heart of his account. Such a challenge to the orthodox view is encouraging and is to be welcomed.
The American Revolution presented an unprecedented assault on the hitherto unquestioned rule of the British monarchy and its right to exercise total control over its colonies. The might of Britain – already a wealthy trading nation and the world’s strongest naval power in the 1770s – was taken on and beaten by the population of its own colonies. A devastating blow to privilege, the revolution of the colonists inspired generations of revolutionaries and those fighting oppression. The ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 had a profound influence in the French Revolution, and became the clarion call of the new emerging bourgeois class internationally but, as Raphael stresses, the impetus for the revolution was provided by those at the bottom of society in the 13 colonies who created alternative centres of power in the committees which ousted the rule of British governors.
The revolution began with the organised boycotting of British goods in protest at repressive taxation, exploding into direct action with the Boston Tea Party – the dumping of £10,000 of tea from British ships in Boston harbour by colonists disguised as Mohawk Indians. The determination of the British to crush the rebellion led to the widening of the boycotts on British goods, with elected committees of colonists preventing local judges and governors from imposing British law by closing court sessions and forcing councillors to resign their commissions. The committees represented new revolutionary institutions, and British rule was shattered. As Raphael describes:
In the late summer of 1774, the people of rural Massachussetts forcibly overthrew the established government. This was the first major shift of political authority from the British to the Americans. One government was overthrown, another quickly took its place. A new state was born, and eventually a new country. 
The British response was to attempt to militarily subdue the colonists, and the War of Independence which lasted until 1783 is the central focus of Raphael’s attention. The key strength of Raphael’s book is in his insistence that the war was a civil war in which, though not as bloody as that of 1861–1865, there were serious casualties. Deaths per capita for the American side exceeded those of the First World War, the Second World War and the Vietnam War. Only the American Civil War killed more. Over 25,000 soldiers died on the American side – one out of every eight who fought. These statistics give the lie to the standard image of the revolution as one in which ‘so much was gained at so little lasting cost, either in lives snuffed out, or in a heritage of hatred’. 
Viewing the American Revolution through the lens of civil war, Raphael highlights the class tensions within revolutionary American society. Beneath the picture of plucky colonists uniting across class and privilege against the British lies a more complex pattern of class loyalties. The revolution was led by a coalition of Northern merchants and Southern planters, backed by farmers and artisans in the towns. Yet roughly a third of the population fought on the side of the British – including some poor farmers, the majority of black slaves and most Native Americans. Often loyalties were local. Where hated wealthy landowners were patriots against the British, many of their tenant farmers were Tories (identifying with the king). Catholic indentured servants were most often loyalists, ostracised by Protestant colonists and afraid of oppression should the Americans win.
Although to varying degrees within tribes, the overwhelming majority of Native Americans sided with the British, either directly as soldiers or as spies, as they were subject to hostile treatment by the colonists, and the greatest threat to their land seemed to be American victory. Their fears were of course justified when the fragile deal with the British to protect Native American land rights from American colonisation was betrayed at the Treaty of Paris which ended the war in 1783.
Similarly, most slaves – especially in the South – supported the British. Encouraged by the declaration in November 1775 by Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, that slaves who fought for the British would be freed, many understandably saw the British army as their road to freedom. Thomas Jefferson, one of the architects of the Declaration of Independence and a slave holder himself, estimated that 30,000 slaves escaped from Virginia alone in the course of 1781. Raphael points out that the dream of freedom was seldom realised – slaves who were not caught escaping and brutally tortured were often enslaved anew by the British. Every private in the British army on American soil had one slave. Officers were ‘entitled’ to three or four. Slaves were returned to their owners as bounty in return for the freedom of imprisoned British soldiers, and very few ever reached the shores of Britain. Many who did were enslaved in the West Indies.
In the North, where slavery had less of a hold, slaves were allowed to fight in place of their masters after 1777 on the American side, and slavery in the North was somewhat weakened by the process of the revolution. In the South it was considerably strengthened, and protected by Congress, so that 500,000 slaves in 1770 had increased in number to over 700,000 only 20 years later. Slavery was the unresolved issue of the American Revolution that would see that society torn apart again less than a century later.
Civil warfare was especially vicious in South Carolina, where war descended into terror and vigilantism. Even where the British were supported in the South, however, Raphael makes the interesting point that the army officers often didn’t differentiate between loyalists and ‘rebels’. British army actions such as requisitioning food and livestock, and taking property over to house soldiers often created rebels where they had initially been welcomed. In fact, the British army disrupted life wherever it went – so many people fled from military rule as the British occupied the key towns of New York and Boston that the population of New York City dropped from 21,000 to 5,000 and that of Boston from 15,000 to only 3,500 when the British arrived. Thousands of refugees, often women and children, were still without homes or means of support after the war. It is little surprise that Americans who supported the British were often hated more than the British themselves – over 80,000 American Tories were evacuated with the British army at the end of the war.
Class lines were drawn most starkly when it came down to who did the fighting. Initially an army of ‘minutemen’ – armed citizens – who returned to their farms to tend crops in autumn and winter, the reduced number of volunteers by the second year of the war necessitated the establishment of a regular standing army. Washington, the commander of the Continental Army, argued this was not least due to the fact that many citizens were too ‘accustomed to unbounded freedom’ to accept the ‘proper degree of subordination’ required of soldiers. General Montgomery complained that his men showed such a ‘levelling spirit, such equality between them, that the officers have no authority – the privates are all generals’. 
The introduction of conscription and payment meant that the poor enlisted, and the rich sent apprentices, slaves or servants to fight instead of themselves while proclaiming the virtues of independence. Raphael illustrates the point with the case of Ebenezer Fox, a young apprentice from Boston, who, after fighting for three years as a substitute for the barber he was apprenticed to, was also legally obliged to hand over to the barber any wages he received. The practice of the rich buying their way out of service exacerbated class tensions – in Anson County, North Carolina, when militiamen were instructed to select five men to fight in the Continental Army, they ‘elected’ a judge, a justice of the peace, a deputy sheriff and a planter. The elections were, unsurprisingly, ruled invalid. The people who had made the revolution were not going to be allowed to see its egalitarian principles applied to their class.
In addition, the war precipitated an economic collapse which made continental currency virtually worthless, driving soldiers into deeper poverty and often literally meaning starvation for the army. At the same time economic crisis triggered a huge increase in profiteers. Merchants and farmers sold their produce to the highest bidder, which most often meant the British, while the army froze and marched in bare feet. As one soldier wrote bitterly, ‘As affairs are now going, the common soldiers have nothing to expect, but that if America maintains her independence, they must become slaves to the rich.’  In May 1779 in Philadelphia militiamen were so incensed with profiteers shirking their military duty and pushing up prices to take advantage of war shortages that they seized and jailed 20 of the wealthiest.
Between 1779 and 1783 there were dozens of minor mutinies in the Continental Army, mainly associated with lack of pay. Even after the war pay for past services was in depreciated currency or titles to land at the frontier. Since the currency was worthless, many were forced to sell their deeds for a pittance just to eat or get home. Most of the 10 million acres given to veterans wound up in the hands of speculators.
The revolution and the war broke down the division between the private world of the home and the public world of economics and politics, and transformed women’s roles. When fighting started in 1775, women had to do the work of men as well as their own. Wealthier women were encouraged to boycott British goods for households, leading to more women entering the political arena. Eliza Wilkinson insisted on the ability of women to be caught up with revolutionary ideals: ‘I won’t have it thought, that because we are the weaker sex as to bodily strength, we are capable of nothing more than minding the dairy, visiting the poultry house, and all such domestic concerns; our thoughts can soar aloft, we can form conceptions of things of higher nature; we have as just a sense of honour, glory, and great actions, as these "Lords of the Creation".’ 
Some women drew the logical conclusion from their newfound political consciousness. Should not equality and independence apply to them? As Abigail Adams argued to her husband, ‘If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation’. 
The majority of women in America during the revolution have left little evidence of their political positions, as most farming or poor women were not literate. But for the same reason, we can assume that most of the petitioning and boycotting of luxury British goods was carried out by those who could read and write, and afford luxury goods in the first place. What working women did was more direct. In July 1778 Abigail Adams recorded one incident of women taking the law into their own hands:
An eminent, wealthy, stingy merchant had a hogshead of coffee in his store, which he refused to sell to the committee under six shillings per pound. A number of females, some say a hundred, some say more, assembled with a cart and trunks, marched down to the warehouse and demanded the keys, which he refused to deliver. Upon which one of them seized him by the neck and tossed him into the cart. Upon his finding no quarter, he delivered the keys when they tipped up the cart and discharged him; then opened the warehouse, hoisted out the coffee themselves, put it into trunks and drove off. A large concourse of men stood amazed, silent spectators. 
Women participated in every aspect of the revolution, even direct fighting – Deborah Sampson was only the most famous woman who fought for the Continental Army, disguised as a man. For many more women left widowed or homeless by the war, following the army was the only way to survive – cooking, washing, and nursing soldiers. Yet the end of the war meant for many an often unsuccessful battle for war widows’ pensions, increased poverty, and no more political or legal rights than before. As one woman complained to the Continental Congress, ‘I have done as much to carry on the war as many that sit now at the helm of government and no notice taken of me! Now gentlemen, is this Liberty?’ 
Raphael has written a thoughtful and fascinating account of the revolution from the point of view of real participants. He brings to life the conflicts and complexities, and continually emphasises the political action of those whom most histories would write out of the revolutionary process. However, there is a central weakness to the approach he takes. There is no account of the interconnection of events – the impact of growing economic and social tensions in leading to the break with Britain, and the powerful ideological arguments which won over the majority of the population are ignored.
His oral history enriches the story of the revolution immeasurably, but it is almost entirely one-sided, so that the words of Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Sam Adams do not feature. This leads to a dismissal of the power of ideas to drive people forwards, as well as a lack of clarity about the wider social forces which have placed such ideas on the agenda. Ordinary people fought, according to Raphael, because of bread and butter issues, not out of any lofty ideals about independence. Yet if we consider the pamphlet Common Sense, written by Tom Paine, we cannot explain the fact that 150,000 copies were sold, that sections of it which denounced the absolute right of kings to rule and posed the question of independence in its most inspirational form were read out in place of sermons, and that virtually everyone in the 13 colonies had read or heard it read to them by the end of the war. While it is undoubtedly true that material concerns affected people’s decisions and loyalties in the revolution, it was also true that the majority of soldiers continued to fight even when they were unpaid, hungry and freezing – in no small measure driven by the ideas of freedom. The committees which impelled the revolution forward also tied people firmly to the cause of independence, a cause they identified with their own democratic political gains.
Raphael’s argument is that we must resist generalisation, that each individual’s story must be taken separately to re-evaluate the revolution. But although it is true that the vast majority of ordinary people – women and slaves – did not see their dreams realised, that is different to claiming that they did not dream them.
Without a wider grasp of the process of the bourgeois revolution – the huge steps taken forwards, the way the world looked prior to the revolution, and the total transformation of that world and its certainties by the end of the war – Raphael’s correct analysis that the revolution both ‘empowered and deprived’ emphasises only the latter. To see the importance of the American Revolution it is necessary to understand the sense of economic expansion that the break with Britain made possible, as well as the suffering caused by increased exploitation as a new class is born. Both aspects are true – the revolutions carried out by the new capitalist class, whether in England, the American colonies or France, held out great promise in creating the potential for vast wealth, and raised ideals of equality, at the same time as the aspirations of the majority to share in such wealth were crushed under the weight of capitalist class rule. The contradiction between promise and reality was the impetus behind the birth of the modern socialist movement, rooted in the real material conditions created by capitalism for further change.
The American Revolution was an unfinished revolution in two senses. For the new ruling class in America, a further battle – the civil war – was needed to ensure the victory of Northern industrial capitalism over Southern planter slavery. And today the huge gulf between the promise of the American Dream and the vicious reality of naked corporate capitalism means that it will take a further revolution to bring the ideal of equality into the lives of millions of ordinary Americans. Despite its flaws Raphael’s account is infused with confidence and excitement about the potential of ‘common people’ to be part of the historical process and to change their world, both in the past and today.
1. R. Raphael, The American Revolution: A People’s History (Profile Books 2001), p. 301.
2. Ibid., p. 46.
3. Quoted ibid., p. 6.
4. Quoted ibid., p. 94.
5. Quoted ibid., p. 92.
6. Quoted ibid., p. 115.
7. Quoted ibid..
8. Quoted ibid., pp. 118–119.
9. Quoted ibid., p. 139.
Last updated on 11.6.2012