Debate over the American Revolution

In one of her essays, one of my favorite historians, Barbara Tuchman, defined history as “emotion plus action recollected or, in the case of latter-day historians, reflected on in tranquility after a close and honest examination of the records.”  That is certainly one way to define it.  But I would go further.  To me, history is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

History I think tries to at least give us a framework for that question: who are we and how did we get to be this way?  And that is why I think that the story, the history of the American Revolution is (and will continue to be) such a contentious topic.  The American Revolution—whether it was primarily a physical war fought on the soil of the thirteen colonies who did not yet quite conceive of themselves as part of a country called the United States of America—or a revolution of the mind as many argued then and continue to do so now was a founding event.  The Revolution (however defined) created the United States of America.  Thus, to understand who we are today, it is important to go back and try to understand how we got here.

That is why the arguments about what the American Revolution “really was” are unlikely to end anytime soon.  To take but two examples you need look no further than Ray Raphael’s A People’s History of the American Revolution and Gordon Woods’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution.  According to Gordon Wood, the American Revolution was how the Americans transformed themselves from “monarchical subjects” to “the most liberal, the most democratic, the most commercially minded, and the most modern people in the entire world.”  To Ray Raphael, by contrast, the Revolution was mostly about each group (defined in mostly modern terms) fighting to preserve its socio-economic interests.  At one point he says, “Southern planters had waged war to preserve a basic Lockean principle: the protection of property as a prerequisite to liberty.”  Put crudely, to Woods the Revolution was about ideas while to Raphael it was about taxes.

I have to admit, I like Woods’ story far more than Raphael’s.  That may help explain why I find Woods’ account more persuasive.  But I think there is more to it than that.  Raphael, it seems to me, is animated by anger, disgust and a sense of injustice.  And there is certainly quite a lot to rail about: rape, slavery, extermination of Native Americans were terrible crimes.  And yet that sense of injustice leads Raphael astray.  Too often he goes beyond the evidence and simply speculates what his subjects thought and did.  The words “probably” and “possibly” appear with, it seems to me, disturbing regularity.  Gordon Woods, by contrast, takes great care to substantiate his assertions with quotes lengthy and short.  I get the feeling that Gordon Woods found research quite pleasant and writing difficult while Ray Raphael is more writer than researcher.

Be that as it may, I expect the debate over the American Revolution to continue.  The Revolution is, after all, the beginning of it all.  It is our Genesis.  And just as controversial.

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