People, he maintains, "participate in the historical process" on seven commonplace levels and one extraordinary one. Each day they shape the world by doing the world's work, suffering the consequences of their own and others' acts, "manipulating the system" to increase their chances of success, serving in armed forces, consenting to their leaders' desires (or withholding that consent), testing the limits of authority and compelling would-be leaders to pay attention to them, lest they lose followers. It is the eighth level, however, on which common people act to restructure their societies, that concerns him most. But what exactly did they do to restructure 18th-century America and why? Because Raphael ends his story in 1783, we cannot know how he would characterize the influence of common folk on the federal Constitution. Nor--with the exception of the radical Pennsylvania constitution of 1776, directly influenced by the plebeian rank and file of Philadelphia's militia--does he comment systematically on their influence in shaping the state constitutions written before 1783. Rather he speaks in general terms about the broadening of political participation, the weakening of deferential behavior and the ways in which popular bodies used their newfound power to liberate themselves from British control and to oppress the women, loyalists, slaves, pacifists and Indians who fell outside their ranks.
Raphael avoids discussing the specifics of social and political reconstruction because to do so would require an assessment of how common folk responded to republican ideology. He cannot do that because he believes that ordinary people were driven not by formal ideas but by self-interest, self-preservation and the desire for autonomy. Ideas, for Raphael, are epiphenomena, products of the material interests and social circumstances of the people who hold them. What ultimately distinguishes "A People's History of the American Revolution" from a work like Gordon Wood's great synthesis, "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" (1993), is that the academic historian Wood is willing to admit that ideas can move people to action, and the people's historian Raphael is not.
Raphael is a materialist, but whether he subscribes to Marx's theory of causation, dialectical materialism, is impossible to say. In his view, life is complex; people's motives are as various as their self-interestedness; local circumstances color loyalties; and issues of causation, per se, are uninteresting. "A people's history," he writes, "goes beyond this question of causality to focus on how this [revolution] happened. When we investigate the ways in which people experience history, we must do as they did: deal with the situation as it was .... They did not ask why they wanted liberty; they simply tried to achieve it."
Most garden-variety historians may find this the sticking-point in an otherwise admirable synthesis. Historians are trained, above all, to seek out causes, to gauge effects and--in light of both--to assess the significance of past events. Understanding how can never be an end in itself, for that would blur the distinction between antiquarianism and a fascination with the details of the past simply because they are old, on the one hand, and history as a disciplined means of understanding the world on the other.
But even more problematic, for general readers as well as historians, is what happens to any story when the teller omits, or even places in brackets, the question of why. It would be an unsatisfying detective novel that revealed the identity of the murderer but stopped short of explaining why he or she pulled the trigger. Similarly, history that stops short of a full and self-consistent explanation leaves any reader rummaging through whatever odds and ends of information are at hand trying to fill in the blank, wishing for more.
Admirable as Raphael's effort to reconfigure the revolutionary narrative is, he cannot simply claim an exemption from explaining the causes of events. The dominant academic interpretation, with its overtones of elitism, may be deeply unsatisfactory to those who would (as Zinn says in his preface) understand "the masses of people who did the work that made society tick." Complicated as it may have to be in explaining cause-and-effect relationships, a people's history must have a unifying argument, or a plot, of its own for the reader to measure against the argument of the dominant narrative. Failing that, no matter how fascinating and revealing its components may be, a "people's history" will risk becoming nothing more than a series of footnotes to a hegemonic story that it cannot supersede.