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Who Owns the Revolution?

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION Writings from the War of Independence Eited by John Rhodehamel; The Library of America: 950 pp., $40

A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence By Ray Raphael; The New Press: 386 pp., $25.95

July 01, 2001|FRED ANDERSON | Fred Anderson is the author of "Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766." He teaches history at the University of Colorado, Boulder

The American Revolution has never lacked interpreters. Many groups--Federalists, Anti-Federalists, Republicans, Democrats, slaveholders, abolitionists, Populists, Progressives, labor unionists, Supreme Court justices, militarists, pacifists, historians--have tried to specify the meaning of this formative event. None of them has ever won the debate, of course; but that does not keep them from trying to define what it means to be an American.

"The American Revolution: Writings From the War of Independence" and "A People's History of the American Revolution"--one by inference, the other explicitly--join in this venerable enterprise. Both identify the story of the revolution closely with the story of the War for Independence. This puts them at odds with the currently predominant academic view, which emphasizes ideas over military events and stresses the ways in which republican ideology first empowered a movement to resist British imperial authority and then structured the constitutional system within which American political culture would flourish. Unsurprisingly, this essentially intellectual understanding of the revolution enjoys more popularity among history professors than among general readers, who prefer a tale packed with conflict and colorful characters.

John Rhodehamel's superb collection of documents from the period 1775 to 1783 will appeal to those general readers. Its 120 documentary excerpts, drawn from the writings of 70 or so participants, follow the chronology of the struggle from Paul Revere's ride and the battles of Lexington and Concord through George Washington's resignation after the Peace of Paris. Every major event of the war makes an appearance, and the lengthy excerpts convey a marvelous sense of the human dimensions of a great military struggle. The documents illuminate not only battles but also less familiar topics--the effects of inflation on the war effort, the sufferings of Loyalists, mutinies in the Army, debates over the arming of slaves--and dramatic episodes that include Benedict Arnold's treason and Washington's finest hour, when he shamed his restive officers out of attempting a coup d'etat.

All of these splendid sources permit the reader to understand the circumstances of little-known figures as well as the character of famous ones. Thus, the diary of Albigence Waldo, an obscure Continental Army surgeon at Valley Forge, conveys how it felt to live with malnutrition, lice, chronic diarrhea and eyes that never ceased to smart from the smoke that filled the soldiers' huts. We also sense something of Martha Washington's self-effacing charm when we read a December 1775 letter from Cambridge, Mass., in which she still marveled at her departure from Philadelphia, where Congress had sent her off "in as great pomp as if I had been a very great somebody." And we glimpse something very human indeed when we find Nathanael Greene, the greatest guerrilla strategist of the war, suffering from fainting spells and despairing of ever being able to describe "the cruelties and devastations which prevail" in South Carolina to his wife, whom he begs to "be particular in giving an account of the Children." "These little anecdotes," he wrote her, "afford the most agreeable family feelings," helping him endure the otherwise unrelieved strain and privation of his campaign against the British general Charles Cornwallis.

Rhodehamel's documents support an essentially conventional narrative of the war and its significance. They favor male perspectives over female ones by a factor of about 10 to 1; privilege the writings of the American patriots (about 70% of the documents) over British (20%) and American Tory informants (10%); and offer the views of observers from educated and elite backgrounds much more frequently (between 80% and 90% of the documents) than those of non-elite writers. This selection, of course, reflects the weight of the surviving documentation for elite figures wrote far more than any other group, yet it also inevitably inflects the book's picture of the war. Though Rhodehamel's sources by no means exclude ordinary people--women, Indians, Loyalists and slaves--these remain incidental to the story, more acted upon than acting. The actors are the familiar military and political leaders, and the story remains a chronicle of campaigns and battles.

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