A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence

A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence

by Ray Raphael


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Upon its first publication in 2001 as the inaugural volume in The New Press People’s History series, edited by the late Howard Zinn, Ray Raphael’s magisterial A People’s History of the American Revolution was hailed by Fresh Air as “relentlessly aggressive and unsentimental.” With impeccable skill, Raphael presented a wide array of fascinating scholarship within a single volume, employing a bottom-up approach that has served as a revelation to thousands of Americans.

A People’s History of the American Revolution draws upon diaries, personal letters, and other Revolutionary-era treasures, weaving a thrilling, “you are there” narrative—“a tapestry that uses individual experiences to illustrate the larger stories” (Los Angeles Times Book Review). In the trademark style of Howard Zinn, Raphael shifts the focus away from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to the slaves they owned, the Indians they displaced, and the men and boys who did the fighting.

This “remarkable perspective on a familiar part of American history” (Kirkus) helps us appreciate more fully the incredible diversity of the American Revolution by helping us see it through different sets of eyes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620971833
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 07/05/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 404,230
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.50(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Ray Raphael’s books include The First American Revolution, Founding Myths, Founders, Constitutional Myths, and The Spirit of 74 (co-authored with Marie Raphael), all published by The New Press. He lives in Northern California.

Read an Excerpt



Street Action ... A Shoemaker's Tale ... Country Rebellions ... Frontier Swagger ... Politics Out-of-Doors ... Yankees with Staves and Musick

Street Action

In November of 1747 the people of Boston rose up with great anger. The problem started when some fifty British sailors, seeking a better life in the New World, deserted from HMS Lark. Commodore Charles Knowles responded by ordering a predawn sweep of the waterfront to find the deserters and, failing that, to impress other warm bodies into service on the Lark. Later that morning, according to an eyewitness, a "body of men arose I believe with no other motive than to rescue if possible the captivated ... and to protest this form of like barberous abusage."

This was not the first time impressment gangs swept through the wharves and taverns of Boston, and every time they did, they met resistance. In 1741 a crowd beat up the sheriff and stoned a justice of the peace who supported impressment. In 1742 a crowd attacked the commanding officer of the Astrea and destroyed a barge belonging to the Royal Navy. In 1745 protestors beat up the commander of HMS Shirley and battered a deputy sheriff unconscious; later that year they rioted again when a press gang killed two seamen.

Already versed in the art of protesting, several thousand rioters against the Knowles impressment once again challenged authority. They placed a deputy sheriff in the stocks, seized officers of the Lark as hostages, broke the windows of the Council chamber, and confronted the royal governor with "very indecent, rude expressions." Governor Shirley, understandably frightened, abandoned his mansion and retreated to an island in the harbor.

On the mainland, the people reigned supreme. They literally shored the British Navy (or so they thought). Seizing a barge which they mistakenly thought belonged to the Crown, scores of burly laborers, brash apprentices, and hardened seamen "dragged it, with as much seeming ease through the streets as if it had been in the water," first to the governor's mansion and then to the Commons, where they set it ablaze.

Governor Shirley called out the militia, but only the officers showed up — the rest of the militiamen, it seems, were part of the crowd. Commodore Knowles then announced he would bombard Boston from his warships, but his threat was empty: the greatest damage would no doubt accrue to the property of the rich, not the rioters. The laboring classes of Boston remained firmly in control of their city for three days until Governor Shirley negotiated the release of most of the impressed seamen.

Throughout the eighteenth century, common people who could not even vote engaged in collective public actions concerning issues that directly affected their lives. In the absence of a civil police force, people came together to enforce community norms. They tore down bawdy houses. They kept people with smallpox from entering their towns. Women demonstrated against unfaithful husbands.

Rioters acted in various relationships with the law. Sometimes they became the law, organized into the posse comitatus, the power of the county, which enjoyed the official sanction of the state. At other times they were only the "mob," short for mobile vulgus, the rootless lower class of English society. The rich and powerful often tried to discredit crowd action by calling attention to the lowerclass status of rioters, but they could not always suppress the will of the people so forcefully expressed. Riots, with their direct objectives and moral urgency, effectively offset the arbitrary power or inattention of harsh rulers. Common people felt well within their rights to liberate impressed seamen or commandeer a few loaves of overpriced bread.

Following in this tradition, American colonists took to the streets to demonstrate their opposition to the British taxation which followed the French and Indian War. On August 14, 1765, in response to the imposition of a stamp tax on all legal documents, a Boston crowd numbering in the thousands beheaded an effigy of Andrew Oliver, the Massachusetts stamp distributor. After witnessing the destruction of his personal property, Oliver announced he would resign. Heartened by such quick and clear results, crowds in other cities and towns followed suit. In Charleston, South Carolina, angry protestors hung an effigy of the stamp collector along with a figure of the devil. "Whoever shall dare attempt to pull down these effigies," they announced, "had better been born with a stone about his neck, and cast into the sea." That evening, two thousand people carted the effigies around town, burned them, staged a mock funeral, and mourned the loss of "American Liberty." Similar demonstrations were held up and down the continent; in Connecticut, for example, crowds in New London, Norwich, Lebanon, Windham, West Haven, Fairfield, and Milford dramatized their discontent with the Stamp Act. By the end of 1765 the stamp distributors in all colonies except Georgia had resigned their posts.

Some of these Stamp Act rioters displayed feelings having little or nothing to do with the British Parliament. For many poor laborers and seamen, the riots afforded opportunities to demonstrate pent-up antagonisms toward rich merchants and officials who flaunted their wealth or abused their power. In Charleston, eighty sailors "armed with Cutlasses and Clubs" visited the home of Henry Laurens, a wealthy merchant, who claimed they "not only menaced very loudly but now & then handled me pretty uncouthly." In the words of historian Marcus Rediker, the sailors were "warm with drink and rage." Rioters in Newport moved from the usual hanging of effigies to the destruction of homes. In New York, hit hard by the postwar depression in the shipbuilding trade, hundreds of unemployed mariners raised the stakes of the protests. On the night the Stamp Act was to take effect they rampaged the city, breaking windows of British sympathizers and announcing to Governor Coldon that "you'll die a Martyr to your own Villainy ... and that every Man, that assists you, Shall be, surely, put to Death." After hanging Coldon's effigy, the crowd carted it around in the governor's own prize chariot, which they later burned. The rioters focused upon images of wealth and pretention. Breaking into the house of Major Thomas James, they chopped up furniture, threw china to the ground, ripped open featherbeds, vandalized the garden. In the end, they forced Colden to hand over all the stamps.

In Boston laborers and seamen leveled their sights on prominent royalists such as Thomas Hutchinson, the lieutenant governor and chief justice of Massachusetts, who justified poverty because it produced "industry and frugality." Twelve days after forcing Andrew Oliver's resignation, the crowd attacked three luxurious mansions, including Hutchinson's. Historian Gary Nash reconstructs that second wave of rioting in vivid detail:

Catching the chief justice and his family at the dinner table, the crowd smashed in the doors with axes, sent the family packing, and then systematically reduced the furniture to splinters, stripped the walls bare, chopped through inner partitions until the house was a hollow shell, destroyed the formal gardens in the rear of the mansion, drank the wine cellar dry, stole £900 sterling in coin, and carried off every movable object of value except some of Hutchinson's books and papers, which were left to scatter in the wind.

According to William Gordon, a contemporary of the rioters, "Gentlemen of the army, who have seen towns sacked by the enemy, declare they never before saw an instance of such fury."

Was Boston in the midst of class warfare? Not exactly, but the poor had definitely been getting poorer as the rich got richer. Since the late 1600s, the richest 5 percent of the population had increased their share of the taxable assets from 30 percent to 49 percent, while the wealth owned by the poorest half of the population had decreased from 9 percent to a mere 5 percent. Throughout New England, increasing numbers of people tried to scratch out a living from depleted farmland, leading to a rise in the number of "strolling poor" who wandered the countryside in search of work. Each village in turn "warned out" these migrants to keep them from the local relief rolls; seaport towns also warned them out, but to little avail. Faced with no other opportunities, the poor congregated in the larger ports such as Boston, Newport, and New York where they could work odd jobs or ship out to sea.

The mob was thereby on the increase, getting angrier as well as larger. "From your Labour and Industry," wrote a radical from Boston, "arises all that can be called Riches, and by your Hands it must be defended: Gentry, Clergy, Lawyers, and military Officers, do all support their Grandeur by your Sweat, and at your Hazard." A New Yorker wrote:

Some individuals ... by the Smiles of Providence, or some other means, are enabled to roll in their four whell'd Carriages, and can support the expense of good Houses, rich Furniture, and Luxurious Living. But is it equitable that 99, rather 999, should suffer for the Extravagance or Grandeur of one? Especially when it is considered that Men frequently owe their Wealth to the impoverishment of their Neighbors?

Not all Stamp Act protesters felt class antagonisms. Many merchants, lawyers, and other colonists of comfortable means objected only to the abuse of power by the British Parliament. These "Whigs," as they called themselves, talked about the rights of Englishmen, not violent social upheaval. (The "Whigs," who took their name from the liberal political party in Great Britain, labeled their opponents "Tories," after the conservative party that was pushing for stern measures in the colonies.) The issue, the Whigs believed, was simple and straightforward — no taxation without representation — and the wanton destruction of property only served to discredit their cause. Historians William Pencak and Pauline Maier have shown that the Sons of Liberty from Boston were at least as wealthy as Boston loyalists, while the Sons of Liberty from Newport, Charleston, and other areas came from the "respectable Populace" as well.

These prosperous patriots had more of an interest in protecting property than destroying it. In New York, leading Whigs such as Robert Livingston and several ship captains tried to tame the throngs. In Newport, patriot leaders supposedly tried to quell the riots by offering money, clothes and "everything he would have" to John Webber, a young transient who appeared to have influence with the mob. Whigs and lower-class rioters vied for control: Who would define the issues? Whose revolt was this, anyway?

In Boston, the leader of the Boston Stamp Act rioting was Ebenezer MacIntosh, a debt-ridden shoemaker from the South End whose father, one of the strolling poor, had been warned out of Boston when Ebenezer was in his teens. Appointed a fireman for Engine Company No. 9 in 1760, MacIntosh rose to prominence in the annual Pope's Day riots. Every year on November 5, to mark the anniversary of an aborted Catholic conspiracy to blow up Parliament in 1605, Boston's artisans and laborers staged dramatizations depicting the pope beside a giant effigy of the devil, suitably coated with tar and feathers. Early in the day, working-class youths solicited money for feasting and drinking from more prosperous inhabitants throughout Boston, who dared not refuse. As the day and the drinking progressed, competition between the North Enders and the South Enders turned violent, with paramilitary street gangs fighting for the honor of torching the stage sets in giant bonfires. On the surface, this fighting served no greater purpose — and yet, every November 5, lower-class Bostonians owned the town while genteel society huddled indoors.

Seventeen sixty-five was different. During the Stamp Act riots in August, North Enders and South Enders had worked side by side, destroying mansions in their wrath. Upper-class citizens nervously awaited the approach of November 1, the day the Stamp Act was supposed to take effect, with its close conjunction to November 5. What might happen if the mob ceased to expend its destructive energy upon itself? Boston's selectmen called out a military watch.

On November 5, 1765, Boston's working class marched en masse past the statehouse to display its power, with Ebenezer MacIntosh firmly in command. Refraining from the usual street brawls, the combined North Enders and South Enders, two thousand strong, appeared as a formidable political force. While royal authority quivered, however, affluent Whigs relaxed: MacIntosh and other leaders had been bought. With the avowed intention of uniting the North and South Ends, the Whigs had provided a feast for the street leaders at a popular tavern, carefully dividing the guests into five different classes according to rank. For the Pope's Day parade they furnished pompous military regalia and bestowed official-sounding titles on key men. When MacIntosh marched at the head, he wore a blue and gold uniform, gilded armor, and a hat laced with gold. There were no riots on Pope's Day in 1765.

Although the Whigs prevailed in this instance, their relationship with street leaders remained ambivalent. On the one hand, they issued official disclaimers to the destruction of property, and they even went so far as to forbid "Negroes," supposedly more prone to destructive acts, from marching in the Pope's Day parade. But they also needed to continue some sort of alliance with lower-class elements, and they did make it clear that British officials would receive no help whatsoever in identifying or punishing any of the August rioters. Street fighters needed this kind of protection; legally powerless and vulnerable, they could have suffered severely from sanctions for their actions. Prosperous leaders and lower-class activists each filled their roles, even if they evidenced different types of behavior and expressed different goals. They formed an alliance for their mutual benefit, although the alliance was not permanent, and it did not extend to personal loyalty: when Ebenezer MacIntosh was thrown into debtors' prison in 1770, not a single rich rebel offered to bail him out. And when Whig leaders celebrated the anniversary of the Stamp Act protests in subsequent years, they did so with expensive feasts to which the actual rioters were not invited.

Any effective challenge to British authority required a broad base of support, and class antagonisms helped motivate many who might not have responded to abstract legal issues. "Taxation without representation" was real for those who voted and paid taxes; for those who did neither, other symbols loomed larger. In Virginia the lower classes resented horse racing and gambling, customs of the plantation gentry. In New York theatrical productions were disrupted by "disorderly persons (in a Riotous Manner)." A play in the Chapel Street theater, according to newspaper accounts, was "interrupted by the multitude who broke open the doors and entered with noise and tumult," shouting "Liberty, Liberty." Patrons were driven into the street, "their Caps, Hats, Wigs, Cardinals, and Cloaks ... torn off (thro' Mistake) in the Hurray." The rioters "immediately demolished the House, and carried the pieces to the Common, where they consumed them in a Bonfire." Why was the theater so hated? Theatergoers dressed in high fashion, arrived in carriages, and spent their money on frivolities. A New Yorker writing under the name of "Philander" complained that season tickets sold for as much as fifty pounds, while poor people starved. Another writer felt "it highly improper that such Entertainments should be exhibited at this time of public distress, when great Numbers of poor people can scarcely find means of subsistence."

The boycott of tea, the most enduring component of American resistance, was imbued with class connotations. Historian Barbara Clark Smith describes the specific cultural milieu of teatime:

Tea parties in genteel parlors required an elaborate material culture — some if not all of the following items: teapots and their rests, teacups and saucers, tea canisters, teakettles or urns, teaspoons and spoon dishes, sugar bowls, sugar tongs, cream jugs, slop bowls, strainers, tea trays, and tea tables — plus plates and utensils for any food consumed with the tea.

Although some common folk might enjoy a sip now and again, the major consumers of tea participated in a ritual activity which was prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of colonists.

Abstinence from tea came easily to commoners, but those with a tea-drinking habit had a more difficult time. At issue was not merely the ritual but the tea itself — strong tea, invigorating tea, heavily caffeinated tea. For that morning or late afternoon rush, affluent colonists turned to Bohea and brewed it dark. (Lighter teas such as Souchong and Hyson accounted for only about 10 percent of American imports.) Patriot leaders and newspaper editors, hoping to convince confirmed tea drinkers to change their habits, circulated wild rumors: tea was bad for your health, tea bred fleas, tea was packed tightly into chests by the stomping of barefoot Chinese. They touted substitutes such as sassafras, sage, and "Labrador," widely hailed as superior to all imported varieties. But real tea drinkers knew the truth: none of the local imitations gave that buzz. Labrador, according to a convention of ladies from Worcester, Massachusetts, had a "debilitating" quality which led to social "frigidity." The only viable substitute for tea was coffee, and it is no mere coincidence that between 1770 and the 1790s per capita coffee consumption in the United States increased more than sevenfold. Although it too was imported, coffee did not carry the same social or political stigma as tea. Americans started brewing beans instead of leaves during the Revolution and never looked back.


Excerpted from "A People's History Of The American Revolution"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Ray Raphael.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
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Table of Contents

Series Preface by Howard Zinn,
1. Rank-and-File Rebels,
Street Action,
A Shoemaker's Tale,
Country Rebellions,
Frontier Swagger,
Politics Out-of-Doors,
Yankees with Staves and Musick,
2. Fighting Men and Boys,
The Spirit of '75,
An American Crusade,
Forging an Army,
In the Face of the Enemy,
Cannons Roaring, Muskets Cracking,
Death or Victory,
Beasts of Prey,
Winter Soldiers,
Summer Soldiers,
Giting Thair Rights,
3. Women,
A Duty We Owe,
Women and the Army,
Where God Can We Fly from Danger?,
What Was Done, Was Done by Myself,
4. Loyalists and Pacifists,
Choosing Sides,
The Dogs of Civil War,
Tests of Faith,
A Rock and a Hard Place,
A Lost Cause,
5. Native Americans,
Western Abenakis,
Delaware and Shawnee,
Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles,
6. African Americans,
The Promise and the Panic of '75,
Liberty to Slaves,
A Board Game,
Two Émigrés,
Patriots of Color,
Toward Freedom?,
7. The Body of the People,
People's History and the American Revolution,
Who's In and Who's Out,
The Human Face of Freedom,

What People are Saying About This

Howard Zinn

"I have found [Raphael's] book extraordinary, indeed the best single volume history of the Revolution I have seen.

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