Plain folks made history, too

Monday Book Review

August 15, 1994|By John Goodspeed

The Price of Nationhood: the American Revolution in Charles County. W.W. Norton and Co. 388 pages. $17. THIS BOOK has already drawn praise -- and deserves it -- foits unusual angle on the American Revolution. It tells the story of that struggle from the standpoint of plain folks and their not very well-known leaders in a remote area, Charles County, Md., instead of from the standpoint of the immortal Minutemen in New England and our major forefathers in the big cities.

I think, though, an even more admirable characteristic of Jean Lee's little history is the quality of its prose. It's especially lively compared to the work of many history professors.

A professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, she uses a wealth of data to illustrate her story including, population charts, agricultural produce lists and similar scholarly paraphernalia associated with the countless dull dissertations on the Revolution. But Ms. Lee brings such items to life by inserting the reader into the daily lives of the people of Charles County as they lived through the British raids, their contempt for Tories, their conversion from tobacco cultivation to wheat and cattle to supply the Continental Army and their post-war decline to backwater status with the highest percentage of black slaves in the state. That was the "price of nationhood," as indicated in the book's title.

As part of a colony, Charles County was a prosperous outpost of the British Empire, complete with a fairly rigid class structure -- rich gentry (mostly planters) on top along with Anglican clergy and appointed overseers, middle-class planters and merchants next, then white indentured servants, then black slaves. There were dissidents, even in the 17th Century, including Eleanor (Irish Nell) Butler, a white woman who married a black slave against the advice of the Proprietor, Lord Baltimore. He asked her how would she like to go to bed with a black; she said she'd rather go to bed with her husband than with his lordship.

The not very well-known leaders in the county included, William Smallwood, who eventually commanded the Maryland Line in the Continental Army and later served as governor of Maryland; also Thomas Stone, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. John Hanson was a native of Charles County but moved to Frederick County before he was elected president of the Continental Congress.

Unlike the Eastern Shore, where there was a Tory uprising, very few people in Charles County stayed loyal to England, including members of the gentry who prospered as British subjects but went bankrupt as free Americans. At the beginning, recruiters had no trouble raising the county quota of volunteer soldiers for both the regular Army and the home-guard militia. But during the rest of the war, after casualties were posted, they never quite recruited the quota.

So what was the price of nationhood in Charles County? The Revolution "bequeathed a large measure of political freedom," Ms. Lee concludes -- meaning freedom to white men: women still couldn't vote, hold office or control their property if married; a large majority of blacks were still slaves; lots of people began moving west. "The price of nationhood came high in Charles County."

2& John Goodspeed writes from Easton.

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