Seeing class warfare in our revolution

July 03, 2005|By Ray Raphael | Ray Raphael,Special to the Sun

American History

The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America

By Gary Nash. Viking. 544 pages.

Much as classes divide society, so does the very notion of "class" divide historians of the American Revolution. Almost a century ago, Progressives like Carl Becker argued that the Revolution addressed not only "home rule," but also "who should rule at home." Other historians, and the public at large, winced at the insinuation that the sacred story of our nation's founding might be clouded by class warfare.

Gary Nash's latest book, The Unknown American Revolution, brings the Progressive argument up to date. Social historians in the past few decades have uncovered a wealth of information about historical actors who had been left out of the traditional story -- white males of the "lesser sort," as they were called at the times, as well as Indians and blacks and women. Nash undertakes the overwhelming task of weaving the diverse strands of this new research into a single narrative. "The book's thrust," he writes, "is to complicate the well-established core narrative by putting before the reader bold figures, ideas, and movements, highlighting the true radicalism of the American Revolution that was indispensable to the origins, conduct, character, and outcome of the world-shaking event."

Nash's tapestry is necessarily large and complex, held together more by theme than by plot. His protagonists -- an unruly lot, indeed -- push forward a wide array of radical agendas. Evangelical Christians challenge ecclesiastical authority. Tenant farmers threaten their landlords. Urban laborers riot to achieve economic and political ends. Men without property claim the right to vote. Abolitionists seek to end slavery, while slaves themselves find their own paths to freedom. Indians seek to preserve their sovereignty, while Indian-hating whites, whom Nash admits are radical in their own way, resist governmental authority and take matters into their own hands. Absent are the traditional Founders, who can provide us with a narrative anchor and an easy summer read. We meet instead a cast of thousands, all with serious business.

How these various sub-plots relate to the dominant narrative of the Revolution -- colonials seeking political independence from Great Britain -- is open to question. Some episodes, like the Stamp Act riots or the toppling of British authority by Massachusetts farmers the year before Lexington and Concord, are certainly linked to the central story. Nash argues that an overarching climate of unrest contributed both to American independence ("home rule") and the attempt to reshape American society ("who should rule at home"). In any case, this encyclopedic compendium of strident discontent -- economic, social, political, racial, and religious -- establishes convincingly that during the American Revolution, the dispossessed fought to claim their share. No longer will polite portraits of men in wigs suffice to define the era.

The contention that our founding moment was this "unruly" is sure to unleash some rancor and, in fact, it already has. Gordon Wood writes in the New Republic, "Nash is so bound up in the modern Marxian categories of class warfare that he can make little sense of what happened." Red baiting aside, Wood raises an appropriate question: what about the "middling sorts," all those patriots of modest means "who used the egalitarian rhetoric of the Revolution to justify their cause"? Perhaps the "core narrative" should be complicated even more. The lesser, middling, and better sorts all figured prominently in the founding of our nation. Often they clashed, as Nash chronicles in such detail, but they also formed sufficient alliances to forge a new nation. To tell all this would take us well beyond the boundaries that traditionally contain a narrative. The sprawling story of the American Revolution is becoming harder, not easier, to tell.

Ray Raphael is the author of 12 books, including People's History of the American Revolution. His Web site is rayraphael.com.

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