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A New Age Now Begins: History As Bunk

ISSUE:  Autumn 1976
A New Age Now Begins: A People’s History of the American Revolution. By Page Smith. McGraw-Hill. 2 vols. $24.95.

In the fuzzspeak idiom of our time, “people’s” is a code word signifying an ideological position somewhere between that of Ralph Nader and that of Chairman Mao. When one encounters it in the title of a history book, one can expect history through the visceral, anti-intellectual haze of the radical chic pot party, as opposed to the thick-tongued liberal cliches of the old-fashioned cocktail party. Women’s Lib, Gay Lib, Indian rights, communal living, back to nature, ecology, consumerism, and four-letter words are definitely “in”; Negroes are only marginally in; government, corporations, the army, bureaucracy, conventional morality, stability, and social order are instruments of repression and exploitation.

Forearmed with a comprehension of the party line, no thoughtful reader will have any difficulty following, nay even anticipating, the interpretive gist of this People s History of the American Revolution. America was, of course, settled largely by the oppressed classes of Europe, by transported convicts, and “the hippies and dropouts of 17th- and 18th-century English society, the men and women so alienated from the dominant culture that they had devised their own” (p. 39). In the 17th century, the Americans avidly read the pamphlets of Levelers and Diggers and other radicals, whose ideas fell in America “like seeds in a welcoming soil” and “became as familiar as the Bible” (p. 56). Trouble started in the 1760’s, when Britain’s decadent ruling class attempted to suppress American liberties, especially by levying a stamp tax. Spontaneously, the American masses rose in the world’s first “people’s liberation movement” (p. 1825). Americans were right to rebel: “The excluded or repressed are always right in their rebellion, for they stand for our future wholeness” (p. 269). The Boston Tea Party was “guerrilla theater” (p. 384). When the war came, American officers often blundered, but the enlisted men were brave, unflinching, and “willing to bear far greater physical hardship than the professional British soldier,” for “the Americans were fighting for their liberties and for their country, while the British soldiers were fighting, by and large, for their wretchedly low pay” (p. 1099).

Nor are there any surprises in the handling of specific subjects. The position of the Americans is seen as comparable to that of 20th-century Vietnamese fighting against the United States; though when Americans kill Indians, we are told it was in the nature of a My Lai massacre (pp. 1172, 1221), whereas when Indians capture and torture an American scouting party, their doings are described as a “dramatic success” (p. 1170). Parliament’s charter to the East India Company was “rather as though Congress had given General Motors a charter empowering it to take over the Continent of Africa” (p. 374). Predictably, women are dragged in at every opportunity: they draw more space in the account of colonial New England than is devoted to Calvinist ministers, and more in New York than the Hudson Valley patroons (pp. 72—77), and in the account of the war they are praised for doing their share of the fighting (pp. 1097—98, 1811—12) and for organizing consumer groups to combat inflation (pp. 1364—65). Toward the end, they get a special chapter, as do Negroes. A private in the American army, Joseph Martin, is given more space than the Continental Congress. And so on.

Grotesque though it: is, there is nothing actually criminal in such palpable pandering; after all, John Marshall catered to the biases of a particular socio-political set in writing his history of the Revolution, and so did Jared Sparks, George Bancroft, John Fiske, Carl Becker, and Charles A. Beard. But there was a crucial difference. These historians may have interpreted the facts to fit their prejudices, but at least they felt obliged to deal in facts. Professor Smith’s work, on the other hand, is not so encumbered: it is marked, first to last, by a mind-boggling panorama of errors, misstatements, distortions, and garbled accounts.

We may view these under seven broad heads. First there are simple, straightforward errors. The train of factual inaccuracies gets going midway through the first paragraph, when we are told that William and Mary were “monarchs of the German principality of Orange” (p. 1). From there to the end of the book, errors accumulate at a staggering rate. A few samples, randomly chosen: Baltimore was not Maryland’s “thriving seaport” in the 1750’s (p, 83); the English pound was not “the equivalent of one dollar” (p. 141); Surinam was not a “Dutch island” (p. 174); the Supreme Court is not “specifically charged” in the Constitution to check Congress when it contravenes “the natural law as incorporated in the first ten amendments” (p. 182); the Stamp Act did not tax newspapers at 25 cents a sheet (p. 191); Lord Camden was scarcely “the greatest legal figure of the day,” (p. 242), since Blackstone was his contemporary; the French Revolution did not begin with the Girondists, nor did the Russian Revolution begin with the Mensheviks (p. 257); the burning of the Gaspeé was by no means an “act of war” (p. 367). Skipping along to volume II, Brigadier General James Clinton was Governor George Clinton’s brother, not his father (p. 930); Lachlan Mclntosh was a Georgian, not a South Carolinian (p. 1178); Allan McLane did not spend a 115,000-pound fortune (about $600,000) on uniforms and pay for his men in one year (p. 1354), and incidentally he spelled his name consistently as Allan, not varying it to read Allen (p. 1344); Portuguese Johannes could not have been worth 27 dollars (p. 1604) if a double-joe was worth sixteen (p. 141). All told, there are clearly several thousand simple factual errors in the book.

A second, less tangible but equally pervasive kind of error is born of general, appalling, even embarrassing ignorance of history and of the way things worked. Smith’s handling of the Scots and Scotch-Irish and their Presbyterian faith is a case in point; he has frontiersmen converting to Presbyterianism and Methodism during the Great Awakening, for example, (p. 44), is surprised that the College of New Jersey sent to Scotland for a president, and regards that action as an indication that “as Presbyterianism grew stronger in the colonies, Scotland came to be regarded by many Americans as their true homeland” (p. 144). Or again, he asserts that in traditional European societies sons followed the same trade or calling as their fathers as an act of loyalty, lest the fathers feel rejected (p. 156), thus showing a stupefying lack of understanding of how those societies functioned. Yet again, Smith’s non-comprehension of matters having to do with money is astonishing; not only is the pound worth a dollar; it shifts capriciously between a dollar and a half, two-fifty, three dollars, and five as the narrative unfolds.

Third, there are judgments and generalizations that can properly be described only as bizarre. Indians led a “free and, indeed, capricious life” (p. 113); the incompetence of Charles Lee and Horatio Gates as generals “was the product of caste and class” in the world of their upbringing (p. 1417); “every great enterprise begins in love, not in political arrangements or legal definitions” (p. 1790). The significance of the pro-American Whigs in Parliament was that they “saved Britain from a social revolution more ferocious and destructive than the French Revolution, because they preserved that faint but persistent hope among the commonality of England that justice might finally be done them” (p. 872). The resistance of the Americans to the Stamp Act was “the first time in history” that a whole people rose in revolt against their oppressors (p. 270 and passim). (The reviewer had always thought that Judas Maccabeus came a little earlier.)

Fourth, the author contradicts himself repeatedly. Resistance to the Stamp Act, for instance, is spontaneous or carefully planned and directed, depending on the point the author is making at the moment (compare, for instance, pp. 211, 213, 218, 252, and 259). Foreign volunteers in the American cause are first described as young aristocrats, their resentment aroused by “tyranny and injustice” that stirs “every man and woman of conscience” and proves “the brotherhood of man”; they were motivated mainly by “genuine idealism, a devotion to what in their romantic minds seemed to be the principles of freedom and justice” (p. 972). A hundred and sixty pages later (p. 1138) they are an “endless flood of impecunious and arrogant soldiers of fortune, the castoffs or . . .unemployed veterans of a half-dozen European armies,” descending on America with “outmoded notions, exotic reminders of the Old World culture that Americans had rejected.” With Lafayette, Smith requires only two pages to reverse himself. On p, 974 Lafayette is “a rather odd-looking young man: inclined to stoutness, rather awkward, with a strangely “bent” face and sharp nose.” On p. 976 he has suddenly acquired all “those external advantages which a man born to command should have; tall stature, a noble face, gentleness in his glance . . . . [and] a calm, firm bearing.” No doubt the free American air and the association with hippies and dropouts accounts for Lafayette’s rapid transformation. Rather less explicable, however, is how Major Patrick Ferguson manages to change from an Englishman to a Scotsman in two lines (p. 1426).

The catalogue grows tedious, and the reviewer grows giddy. Let us therefore summarize the three remaining categories of flaws more succinctly. One is omissions: nobody in this book has any economic interests or does anything for a living, there is no social context, there are no state politics and few politicians, there is only cursory and garbled treatment of ideology and public finance. Another is that the author shows no evidence of having even sampled the treasure trove of significant works on the Revolution published in the last quarter-century. He explicitly disdains the monographs of Carl Bridenbaugh, Gordon Wood, and Arthur Schlesinger; that rejection might elicit something other than universal lamentation among historians, but Smith would have fallen into far fewer pitfalls had he bothered to consult the works of Michael Kammen, Bernard Bailyn, Merrill Jensen, Jack Greene, Lawrence Gipson, and a host of other scholars. Finally, there is distortion through selection: for example, eight of the 16 chapters in Parts II and III, covering the entire period from the passage of the Stamp Act to the convening of the First Continental Congress, are devoted to mob violence, mainly in Boston, and most of the rest are given to pointing out the corruption and blundering of the British Establishment. By virtue of such selection, a stirring but grossly misleading impression is created.

One might sum this up merely by saying this is the worst book I have ever reviewed, which is true enough. But one cannot let it go at that. The book contains some potent and persuasive narrative, and plays upon highly fashionable prejudices, and thus there is a likelihood that it might be taken seriously. Indeed, in some quarters it already has been; it was an April Book-of-the-Month Club selection. One must therefore be more explicit in repudiating it. Had such a work appeared anonymously in an underground newspaper, no one would have a right to be offended, but for it to appear under the imprint of a respectable publisher and a reputable historian is nothing less than prostitution.

The Supreme Court has defined an obscene book as one that is offensive to ordinary standards of decency and contains no redeeming social value. By that criterion, A New Age Now Begins is on a par with the movies of Linda Lovelace.


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