A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence

by Ray Raphael

Paperback, 2002




Harper Perennial (2002), Edition: Reprint, 528 pages


A sweeping narrative of the wartime experience, A People's History of the American Revolution is the first book to view the Revolution through the eyes of common folk. Their stories have long been overlooked in the mythic telling of America's founding but are crucial to a comprehensive understanding of the fight for independence. Now, the experience of farmers, laborers, rank-and-file soldiers, women, Native Americans, and African Americans-found in diaries, letters, memoirs, and other revelatory primary sources-create a gritty account of rebellion, filled with ideals and outrage, loss, sacrifice, and sometimes scurrilous acts . . . but always ringing with truth.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Othemts
Sometimes books that purport to tell the “whole story” or “the real history” turn out to be nothing but debunking books, snidely stating that what everyone knows to be is true is in fact false. Well, thankfully this isn’t one of those books. Researched as thoroughly as possible from the
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limited resources, Raphael tells the interesting stories of the common people in the war for independence. From hungry and underpaid soldiers, to women, to Indians caught up in the middle of a civil war, to loyalists and many who switched sides numerous times to gain the best advantage. Everyone who participated in the war had their own reasons beyond mere “taxation without representation.” In fact, in some ways the revolution became more tyrannical than the parliament they sought to replace.

“’The Rascally Stupidity which now prevails in the Country at large is beyond all description … I despise my Countrymen, I wish I could say I was not born in America, I once gloried in it but am now ashamed of it…’” Lieutenant Colonel Ebenezer Huntington after suffering from economic collapse and war profiteering while in the Continental Army (p. 91)

“By treating all residents as American rebels, the occupying army made a false assumption come true. “Instead of destroying the Revolution,” states historian Joseph Tiedemann, “the British army became one of its agents.” (p. 174)

“The harsh treatment of loyalists during the Revolutionary period was never formally repudiated, but at least some Americans tried to prevent it from happening again. Freedom of speech, trial by jury, the right of cross-examination, prohibition against bills of attainder – these and other civil liberties, once denied to people called Tories, were guaranteed to everyone under the new federal government. American schoolchildren have always been taught that the Bill of Rights was meant to insure against the tyrannical abuses of Old World governments, but the new American states had also been abusive to basic civil liberties. Many of the Revolutionaries, once the war had ended, recoiled at the consequence of popular fury, the ‘tyranny of the majority’ they had witnessed firsthand. The War for Independence had proven that Americans needed protection – not just from kings, but from themselves.” (p. 185)

“But is not our modern vision skewed as well as we rewrite our texts to include the ‘contributions’ which African Americans made to the Revolutionary cause? This too reveals and egocentric orientation. Black patriots were not fighting in support of national independence or opposition to Parliament, and black loyalists were not endangering their lives on behalf of the king. First and foremost, African Americans of the Revolutionary era ‘contributed’ to their own quests for freedom. Everything else pales by comparison.” (p. 298).
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LibraryThing member empress8411
Written in easy-to-understand prose, with moderate vocabulary and captivating historic vignettes, this is a the perfect book for an introduction to the how the American Revolution affected the common people. This includes the more marginalized groups, like Women, Native Americans and African
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Americans. An excellent starting point for delving deeper into the struggles of the masses during the war. The book includes a plethora of quotes from first and secondary sources, and facts abound. Sometimes, the prose gets bogged down in those facts and quotes, but they help assure the reader of the through research Raphael did for this work. It is important to remember that even this is, again, only part of the story. Granted it is a side not often told, and that alone makes it worth reading, but often the choices made by those in charge make no sense to those following order. This doesn't excuse the out-come, but it behooves us to remember to read and study all sides while forming an opinion. That being said, this book is an excellent addition to a library about the American Revolution.
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LibraryThing member drsabs
This history of the role of the common people in the American Revolution is a necessary complement to any general political history of the period. One might expect it to be full of statistics and generalizations that would lack the drama and significance provided by the best political histories.
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However, this is decidedly not the case. This book portrays the reality of the American Revolution better than any political history could and does so in a way that keeps the reader’s interest from the get go.

The secret to its success is that the author divides the book into several groups of the “common people” and then within each group explains the role it played in the revolution. Each chapter is made up of five or six different subsections which relate the experience of individuals or groups. The groupings are as follows: participants in rebellion, the people who fought in the Army, women, Loyalists, Native Americans and African-Americans.

The reader gets a real understanding not only of the hardships that the revolution brought to so many people but also the complexity and contradictions in the positions adopted by different people in different circumstances. While many individuals in each of the groups managed to survive the revolution, very few were better off. Most of the soldiers were poor people who had no other options. They suffered privations, delays in pay, and uncertain pensions. Other than ladies in the upper class, women suffered in the war and gained nothing in terms of their own rights and liberties. The loyalists, pacifists and others who wanted to remain neutral suffered deprivation of property, tarring and feathering and exile. Most Native Americans were unable to remain neutral (which was probably the course of action that was most in their interest where possible), suffered heavy losses in battle and in the decade following the war lost most of their lands east of the Mississippi River. A few African Americans obtain their freedom, but in the South many who sought to escape were returned to their masters or died in seeking freedom.

The author concludes by summarizing one of the key contradictions in the American Revolution: by seeking liberty for patriots (primarily white males) the revolution also denied liberty to many groups of ordinary people including the loyalists, women, Native Americans and African-Americans.

The author also addresses Gordon Wood’s theme that the American Revolution was radical because it made equality and democracy the main principles of American life. As many critics have noted, this was not true for many of the common people. Raphael recognizes that Wood’s theme can be seen as setting out the future path for American development and that it is a fallacy of insight to judge the revolution solely by how certain groups were treated at the time. But he does point out that the reality is undeniable that equality as a goal simply was not available to many of the residents of the new nation.
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