- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

THE UNKNOWN AMERICAN REVOLUTION: THE UNRULY BIRTH OF DEMOCRACY AND THE STRUGGLE TO CREATE AMERICA

By Gary B. Nash

Viking, $27.95, 544 pages

REVIEWED BY PETER HANNAFORD

Historians, like many other groups, are subject to trends, even fads. A while back it was teachers with the “look-say” method of teaching reading, which produced a generation of young people who cannot spell. Then it was social workers and “recovered memory,” which produced many spurious claim against pre-school operators.

With historians, it has been “bottoms-up” history in which leaders are debunked and major events are attributed to “common people.” The results of this trend/fad aren’t as perverse as those described above, though they can seriously distort students’ understanding of history.

For example, one widely used textbook published a few years ago described George Washington as “one of 16 who mattered” in the American Revolution. This is the man whom the late historian James Flexner described as “the indispensable man.” Anyone who has spent time studying the American Revolution would almost certainly agree.

Historian Gary B. Nash does not attempt to marginalize Washington and the other founders of the nation. His main mission in this book, however, is to show that many generated events by “common people,” such as tax riots and slave uprisings, contributed to building steam behind the movement for independence from the English crown.

Here and there he strains to pull some events under the tent in order to buttress his assertion. Nevertheless, he makes it clear it was more than speeches by Patrick Henry and tracts by Thomas Paine that provided the fuel for the revolution.

Mr. Nash notes that “All revolutions are filled with idealistic hopes, millennial yearnings, desires to redress old grievances, dreams of both individual and societal betterment.” He proceeds to examine seven events of the late Colonial period to validate his observation.

He cites the case of George Whitfield, recently arrived from England, who “set ablaze Virginia’s western frontier counties with the new doctrine of spiritual rebirth.” Established institutions were aghast because his message was one of social leveling.

A 1764 Pennsylvania election was to decide whether that colony would continue under the proprietorship of William Penn’s heirs or be turned over to a royal governor. Benjamin Franklin joined the latter side, to his regret. For negativity and dirty politics this campaign makes today’s look tame. It was historically significant because both sides recruited petition-signers and voters from the lower economic classes.

The 1765 passage by Parliament of the Stamp Tax brought much the Massachusetts colony into the streets. Tradesmen, laborers and other landless people hung stamp tax collectors in effigy, trashed their houses and forced many to resign. The Stamp Act came on the heels of the Revenue Act of 1764 (which added several colonial products to the list of taxable commodities) and the Currency Act which prohibited the issuance of paper money — widely used in New England commerce. The crown overplayed its hand.

The Stamp Act riots, however, alarmed some of the Sons of Liberty who had been campaigning for colonial freedom. They had mixed feelings about what they considered to be mob rule. The tide, however, swept on to New York where the mob tossed the governor’s coach into a bonfire.

The author details a number of slave revolts throughout the colonies. He notes that although most slaves could not read or write, they had a strong oral communication system. They had heard of the white orators thundering for freedom and against being “enslaved” by the crown. The slaves wondered why they, too, could not be free. The abolition movement’s seeds were planted in New England during two decades leading up to the Revolution. The author gives us a vivid picture of the movement’s growth.

At times Mr. Nash’s dot-connecting is strained. For example, the revolt of tenant farmers in the Hudson River Valley was against the unfairness of the great landholders, patroon holdovers from Dutch Colonial days.

What of the Founding Fathers in all this? He says that Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason and George Washington were among those who “speculated avidly in Indian lands across the Appalachians.” Although he does not assert their fame was undeserved, he wants us to know that they were not lacking in self-interest.

The underlying theme of “The Unknown American Revolution” is that the rumblings and uprisings by common people gradually fused with the articulations of leaders to provide the impetus for concerted action that would that would begin the forging of a middle-class nation.

Peter Hannaford is the author of “The Essential George Washington.”

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