A People’s History of the American Revolution
⁃ How Common People Shaped and Fought for Independence by Ray Raphael - 2001
"The Best Single-Volume history of the American Revolution I have read" - Howard Zinn
An Autodidact Corner Selection
July 4, 1776 - The Declaration of Independence Signed, authored by Thomas Jefferson, second president of the USA
October 11, 1781 - The British Surrender at Yorktown, ending combat
September 3, 1783 - Treaty of Paris Signed in which England ratified American Independence. The USA was granted all land east of the Mississippi River but for Florida. The American negotiators and signers were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Henry Laurens.
Most books on the American Revolution Era focus on the famous men of the period. Recently I read biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and a work on Benjamin Franklin's time as America's minister plenipotentiary to France by Stacey Schiff. American school children, or at least they were decades ago, were told about how the founding fathers won the war. As to why Americans wanted to break away from England, we were told about the tea party. The leaders, called the Founding Fathers, had and still do have an almost mythological status.
There was no mention of slavery or the American Indians. In fact virtually nothing was said about the life of common people.
Ray Raphael's A People's History of the American Revolution tells the story of ordinary Americans. We learn who signed up to fight. It was largely young men from poor families, often lured in by a bonus and a promise of more after the war. People married young in those days and started bigger than now families. Most soldiers were farmers or agriculture workers. No one signed up for more than a year. Raphael shows us how the families of soldiers coped. Many women became camp followers. There were no provisions for widows and orphans.
Raphael tells us a lot about particular people, lots of details on rank and file soldiers. There are sections on the impact of the war on women from non-elite families, on the lives of Americans loyal to England. Both sides recruited Indian tribes to join their side. Most tribal groups aided the British, often being paid for scalps. Indeginous people saw the Americans as invading enemies and the British played on this. After the war I learned from Raphael that this turned most Americans against Indians.
The original sin of America was slavery. The British told enslaved persons to join them and fight for their freedom. They were also told in large numbers that if they fought for the revolution they would be freed and given land after the war. Of course these were mostly lies on both sides.
All teachers of American history need to read this book.
Over the last two decades Ray Raphael has emerged as one of our leading writers on the birth of the United States. In 2001 his acclaimed People’s History of the American Revolution widened history’s lens to include those not generally present in tales of our nation’s founding. In 2002 The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord led to marked rethinking about the Revolution’s beginnings in academic circles. In 2004 Founding Myths: Stories that Hide Our Patriotic Past established new standards for future renderings of our nation’s birth. In 2009 he incorporated his work into an original synthesis featuring seven diverse characters, Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation, and in 2011 he was asked to create another broad synthesis for a different audience: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Founding Fathers and the Birth of Our Nation. Also in 2011, with Gary B. Nash and Alfred F. Young, he co-edited a book of biographical essays from 22 noted scholars, Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation. Recently he has focused on the historical context of the Constitution. Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive was published in 2012 and Constitutional Myths: What We Get Wrong and How to Get It Right in 2013. In 2015, with his wife Marie, he coauthored The Spirit of ’74: How the American Revolution Began. In 2017, spurred by the hit musical Hamilton!, Barnes & Noble asked Ray and Marie to provide a biography of Alexander Hamilton for a general readership: Hamilton: Founding Father. Also in 2017, Vintage (Penguin/Random House) asked Ray to provide an updated annotation of the Constitution: The U. S. Constitution: Explained—Clause-by-Clause—For Every American Today.
I hope to read more of his work.