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The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America

by Gary B. Nash

Pub Date: June 27th, 2005
ISBN: 0-670-03420-7
Publisher: Viking

The American Revolution, writes Nash (History/UCLA; History on Trial, 1997), was messy, deadly, and radical through and through—far from the sanitized, mythical version of the textbooks.

Call this an alternate textbook, one that pauses to mention Thomas Peters, who took freed slaves to Canada and helped found Sierra Leone, and Dragging Canoe, a Cherokee who took the occasion of the Revolution to press for his own people’s rights. There were many revolutions in play, says Nash, some with long antecedents, not least in the Great Awakening that, having ignited civil war in England a century earlier, brought religious fervor to the class struggle of smallholder vs. gentry up and down the seaboard. (Matters were not helped when the Crown passed the Quebec Act, which guaranteed religious freedom to Catholics.) The struggle also had a strong economic component, as a British general, Thomas Gage, observed; once the “people of property” whipped up the lower class to protest the Stamp Act, they were amazed to find the crowd turning against them and “began to be filled with terrors for their own safety.” Nash reminds us that the Revolution was a civil war, fought against other Americans as much as English troops, and that the burden of the fight was borne by “those with pinched lives, often fresh from Ireland or Germany, recently released from jail or downright desperate”; the valiant minutemen, it seems, preferred to stay home and duck paying taxes, prompting one French volunteer to observe that there was more enthusiasm for the cause of American freedom in the average Paris café than in the colonies. Tantalizingly, Nash evokes a secret history by Continental Congress secretary Charles Thomson, who amassed a thousand pages of notes, buried them, then dug them up and burned the lot. “I could not tell the truth without giving great offense,” he later remarked. “Let the world admire our patriots and heroes.”

This complex, subtle work leaves room for admiration, but also for less exalted thoughts. A fine corrective to the usual hagiographies.