A New Age Now Begins: a people’s history of the American revolution – book review

Book Review:

Page Smith, A New Age Now Begins: a people’s history of the American revolution. 2 vols., 1896pp. Index. Bibliographic note.(New York: Penguin Books, 1976.)

This huge work on the American Revolution covers everything from the politics of the war in England to obscure interactions with Indian tribes in Ohio. As a “people’s history” there is a very real focus on not just what George Washington did but also how ordinary citizens reacted and participated. And, its very size allows Smith to provide lots of discussion of naval engagements and a myriad of other aspects that never made it to high school history. A key organizing element in the book is the continuing appearance of people who played roles throughout the revolution. For instance, an American foot soldier wrote a lengthy diary whose descriptions appear throughout and provide a unifying motif to the narrative.

An early chapter describes the origins of the peoples who inhabited the colonies. This is a real eye-opener. The population was very diverse across the whole country north to south, though somewhat more homogeneous at the local level.

A key question is what motivated the ordinary soldiers of the state militias, the continental army (this is George Washington’s outfit) and the numerous armed bands to suffer the trials of military life for so many years. This remains somewhat of a mystery to me. In recent centuries governments have devised various compulsions to fill their militaries. But, in the case of the American revolution, it was extremely easy to avoid direct participation, though not encounters with the war.

Throughout the revolution the perceptions and attitudes of the British leadership, both in the Americas and in England, play a crucial role in the conduct and ultimate outcome of the struggle. British arrogance towards Americans and even towards their own hired troops, the Hessians, and their almost complete failure to understand the Americans.

I recommend this history. It is currently out of print, but available in libraries and used at Amazon.com