A RESTLESS PEOPLE: Americans in Rebellion, 1770-1787 by Handlin Oscar & Lilian Handlin

A RESTLESS PEOPLE: Americans in Rebellion, 1770-1787

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Another effort to exorcise the demons of revisionist doubt and dissent from American historical writing--with a partial claim to success. Even before the Revolution, the Handlins contend, colonial Americans had become a new people with a new identity, forged in ""the unremitting insecurity of freedom."" On the one hand, circumstance and necessity had made them enterprising, innovative, pragmatic, violent, crude, individualistic, impatient, nomadic; on the other hand, the virtual collapse of traditional social rank and restraint had left them hungry for status, absurdly conscious of fashion, deeply sentimental about love and marriage and the family, anxious about their health, and fearful of the future. No matter that this is all pretty familiar fare--equal parts of Crèvecoeur, Tocqueville, and Turner, with a dash of Boorstin and Lasch for flavor; the Handlins manage to serve it up with gusto. Their chapters on country life, on childhood and families, and on the psychological burdens of constant vulnerability to misfortune and disease are in fact outstanding in their own right; and it is always important to be reminded that Revolutionary Americans had more on their minds than ideological abstractions and theories of government. But everything falls apart in the last couple of chapters, when the Handlins try to explain the connection between what they have observed and what actually happened between 1770 and 1787. It suddenly becomes clear that they aren't primarily interested in writing history (this isn't a book about the American Revolution, despite the subtitle); rather, they want to mount an attack on those historians who, in the last ten years or so, have argued that the Revolution must be seen in the context of an increasingly rigid, ""Europeanized"" colonial class structure. And instead of grappling with their own evidence and the arguments of their colleagues, the Handlins take refuge behind platitudes about how the Revolution somehow ""hastened"" the ""process of separation"" between Europe and America, and how the Union (""differences counterpoised by common purposes and common destiny"") had somehow become perpetual long before the Constitution was drafted. In case the point of this is lost on anyone--Americans were all pretty much alike and the Revolution wasn't revolutionary--the bibliography offers some gratuitous and irresponsible slurs on the work of respected historians and writers in the field who think otherwise (among them Gary Nash, James Henretta, and Garry Wills). It's a poor, mean-spirited way to end a promising investigation of early American life.

Pub Date: Feb. 12th, 1982
Publisher: Anchor/Doubleday