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The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America Paperback – May 30, 2006
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"You will never think about the Revolution in the same way." —Alfred F. Young, author of Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier
"What Nash does in The Unknown American Revolution is dislodge the founding fathers to give the dynamism of urban craftsmen, slaves, ‘dockside tars,' and ‘club-wielding farmers' a more prominent place in the history of the movement." —The Boston Globe
From the Back Cover
"What Nash does in The Unknown American Revolution is dislodge the founding fathers to give the dynamism of urban craftsmen, slaves, dockside tars, and club-wielding farmers a more prominent place in the history of the movement."
The Boston Globe
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Who? Revolutionary patriots, some of the high officers in the Continental Army, every one of whom might as easily be revered as a Founding Father as the wealthy silvermaker Paul Revere, whose role would be totally forgotten but for Longfellow's poem. Go look in the indices of general histories of the Revolution, the sort used as school texts; if any of them are listed, I'll gulp with surprise. Run a search for them on Wikipedia; there you'll find brief articles on all of them except Prince Hall, but none of the articles attribute any `founding' role to them. Why are they so little celebrated? That's one of the themes of Gary B Nash's "The Unknown History of the American Revolution," that it was the work of a good many more ardent patriots than those who eventually signed either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of 1789.
Some of the eleven patriots listed above were too radical in their democratic aspirations for the wealthy gents who sought independence without upsetting the hierarchy. Some of them were backcountry farmers or propertyless urban artisans. Some of them were "freemen" -- former slaves -- whose understanding of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" was so-selfishly focused on their own. Then there were the slaves, roughly 12% of the whole population of the thirteen colonies, the Indians both praying and preying, and WOMEN! In the patriarchal society of the 18th C, all these were `children', expected to pay due respect and obedience to their `betters' as humbly as childern to parents. Hence the title of this review, Founding Children. It's worth noting that the Lords of Trade and Parliament applied the same language of proper familial subordination to the colonies, explicitly calling them `selfish, ungrateful children.'
In an oft-quoted letter of 1818, John Adams, a firm believer in deference, especially to himself, wrote: ""The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people; a change in their religious sentiments and their duties and obligations ... This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution."" Historian Gary Nash would certainly agree. His first 150 pages, half the book, concentrate entirely on those `hearts and minds' of ordinary, mostly now nameless people who became radicalized and unruly enough to nudge their `betters' toward independence and social upheaval. Their goal was not an autonomous Britain in America, but rather a new kind of social contract. They were the first founders of the Sons of Liberty, the first to boycott and disrupt the colonial administrations -- especially the courts -- and they were the first to take up arms, as `regulators' and as rebellious militia, well before the Continental Congress authorized a regular army. Nash writes: ""For those in the lower echelons of colonial society, elementary rights and social justice, rather than the protection of property and constitutional liberties, were the promises of the revolution.""
The lowest echelons, of course, were slaves, former slaves, and the fairly large number of indigenous peoples who lived amid the colonists of Anglo-European heritage. Their participation in the Revolution was divided, rightfully contingent upon which side seemed most likely to share some of benefits of victory. Both the British and the Americans knew as much. Indians and people of African ancestry fought on both sides and their portions of the struggle were not insignificant. That's a pair of stories which Nash interpolates semi-chronologically in the `unknown' history of the Revolution.
""Who shall write the history of the American Revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?"" wrote Adams to his old rival Thomas Jefferson in 1815. Ironically, among the most influential historians of the Revolution would be Adams's own grandson, who perceived the whole shebang from aloft, from an abiding sense that only the Great make History. In fact, nearly all the most influential historians of the 19th C perceived the Revolution from the perspective of Beacon Hill in Boston. It's taken a major revision of scholarship in recent decades to reveal what sort of motives drove people to be either rebels or loyalists in all the other states, from upper New York to Georgia, with the two most populous states - Pennsylvania and Virginia - experiencing altogether different Revolutions from Massachusetts. That's at the core of Nash's analysis, that there wasn't just one overarching Revolution but rather at least thirteen distinct Revolutions, one in each colonial society, and in most cases a welter of sub-Revolutions, community by community, class by class. And the success of the Big-Story Revolution was perilously contingent on the outcomes of all the more local ones.
In Virginia and in all the states south of Virginia, the paramount consideration of War and Independence was slavery, even though many of the rebel gentry rhetorically denounced the peculiar institution. In his seventh chapter, Nash writes: ""In one of the greatest ironies of the American Revolution, Virginians decided that maintaining their slave property was more important tha fighting the British for independence in the seventh year of the war. If necessary, they would make terms with the British, at least temporarily, rather than see themselves stripped of slaves."" But the bloodiest violence of the Revolution, which had taken place in the South, had always been internecine, colonists against colonists, most often the wealthy Tidewater planters against the slave-poor Piedmont small farmers, who were almost as `underrepresented' in the colonial legislatures as the Colonies were in Parliament. Land hunger -- the desire to seize Ohio Valley and other western lands from the Indians, either as homesteads or for speculation -- was also a stimulus to the desire for Independence.
In Pennsylvania and the other `middle' colonies, Nash reveals, "" the yeoman farmer of revolutionary lore, shouldering his weapon and bidding his family goodbye, was mostly a myth. Mostly landless, drawn from unskilled laborers or lower artisans... and overwhelmingly drawn in service bu bounties provided by those wanting to avoid Continental service ... the majority were foreign-born, and most of them had only recently arrived in North America. ... about 127,000 immigrants had poured into the colonies between 1760 and 1775 . Most hailed from Scotland, Ireland, and England, but about 20,000 came from Germany." At times, in fact, Washington's army barely spoke English. Much of the frontline fighting of the American Revolution was not between the settled Americans and the British, but rather Britons against the refugees from Britain, King George's Hessian mercenaries against German Pennsylvanians. Do I need to say that landless immigrants with minimal English probably had different aspirations for the country taht would emerge from the Revolution? But for John Adams, Robert Morris, the Lees of Virginia and other patriots of the `better' classes, they were all `children' who would need to be disciplined once the fighting ceased.
What Nash aims to express, above all, is that the Revolution wasn't the brainchild merely of a corps of brilliant elite 'founders' but rather a ferment of radicalism among people of many different economic situations and social classes, beginning from disaffections in various sites and generating its own local leadership first. Nash's own research on such popular unrest in rural New England in the decade before the 'shot heard round the world' gives the first half of his book considerable authority. If the book has an obvious flaw, it's that Nash tries to keep too many 'balls' in the air, to juggle accounts of quite disparate movements, especially in the second half of his book dealing with the years from 1774 to 1789 and later.
No single book, nor any single historian, can elaborate the whole history of the American Revolution, though Gordon Wood has come closer than most. Nash is completely candid and forthright in acknowledging that he is `supplementing' the history more than revising it, and certainly not replacing it. There's hardly a word in this long, thoroughly fact-bound book about the meetings of the Continental Congresses in Philadelphia. There's even less about the supposedly major battles. If you check the index, you'll find that Thomas Young is mentioned as often as Benjamin Franklin, and more often than all the Lees together. But this is an important book, a text chock full of information and insights that have been ignored far too widely and too long. What Nash reveals, though he makes no reference at all to current events, has the utmost relevance to the polarized politics of the USA today. Do you think you know who the Founding Fathers were, and what they intended with their Indpendence? Well, don't BELIEVE everything you THINK, not at least until you've digested Gary Nash's account of "the Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America."
I'd suggest buying it if you like American history (or just history) OR human rights (and people's stories).
You'll be stunned by how little our society has changed if your not a landed, educated, white male. Totally believable yet astounding.