Three distinguished scholars commission 22 essays about historical characters for whom the American Revolution was insufficiently revolutionary.
The Revolution was dangerous, not simply because it pitted the colonies against the world’s foremost military power. It also unleashed thoughts and inflamed passions among ordinary people inspired by notions of democracy, ideas of liberty and equality that often went far beyond what the famous Founders were calling for. Indeed, to maintain control of their movement, the Founders found themselves marginalizing, suppressing or even crushing the likes of Dragging Canoe, the Chickamauga warrior; James Cleveland, the tenant farmer and opponent of Virginia’s regressive poll tax; Mary Perth, the slave preacher and a founder of Sierra Leone; “Swearing John” Waller, the campaigner for religious freedom; and Timothy Bigelow, the Worcester blacksmith whose town championed a break with Britain almost two years before the Declaration of Independence. In this uniformly strong collection, an impressive array of historians—among them, T.H. Breen, Eric Foner, Jill Lepore and Alan Taylor—tells these and many other stories. Only Abigail Adams, slave poet Phillis Wheatley, pamphleteer and rabble rouser Tom Paine and perhaps George Wythe (best remembered as Jefferson’s mentor, treated here as teacher to emancipator Richard Randolph) and Daniel Shays (the eponym for a rural Massachusetts rebellion that, in fact, had many leaders) qualify as characters readily known to the general reader. The remaining protagonists were simply common people—mostly overlooked in the traditional narrative of the nation’s founding—convinced that the Revolution’s ideals applied not only to the rich and powerful, but to them as well. Editors Young (Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier, 2004, etc.), Nash (The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution, 2006, etc.) and Raphael (Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation, 2009, etc.) have solicited wisely, with each contributor adding an important dimension to the controlling theme: “We cannot have too much liberty.”
Adds immeasurably to our understanding of the Revolution’s full meaning.