Title Reviewed:
A New Age Now Begins: A People's History of the American Revolution

Author Reviewed:
Page Smith

Donald B. Scheick


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 72, Issue 4, pp 364-366

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

A New Age Now Begins: A People's History of the American Revolution. By Page Smith. Two volumes. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1976. Pp. x, ix, 1899. Maps, bibliographical note, index. Set, $24.95.)

These handsome volumes are fresh and unpretentious in style and monumental in scope. One hundred twenty nine chapters, though not so designated, travel the "long journey," as Smith calls it, from Jamestown through the Revolution. Some fifty-five of these chapters are not specifically military in content; rather they maintain and sharpen the reader's awareness of Revolution related events. In keeping with his "ingrained prejudice against footnotes" (p. 1833), Smith provides none—the absence of which the professional may oft times regret, though there is never any doubt about the author's command of the literature. A brief bibliographical note reviews the primary sources used in the work. Twenty-four maps of major military campaigns, compiled and drawn by an unidentified Colonel Carrington, provide limited usefulness. Proofreading errors are few.

There is much more than just historical narrative to entertain and instruct. Smith chides, even scores, fellow historians for advancing traditional interpretations with which he disagrees. He often, almost as an aside, moralizes with the reader. Occasionally he adds a touch of psychohistory as illustrated by comments about Generals Gates and Charles Lee (p. 1417). Colorful vignettes of many personalities, among them Francis Marion (p. 1437), provide an intimate flavor to the discourse. Smith admits that "Monday-morning generaling like Monday-morning quarterbacking is a tempting exercise" (p. 795), and proceeds to yield on numerous occasions to the temptation. In studied fashion he engages in probables; he sometimes indulges in "second-guessing," and "what-ifs." These "extras" develop a lively, thoughtful, and provocative mix.

Of course, all the differences of opinion existing among historians about the Revolutionary era are not here laid to rest. George III continues to be a villain "though a very decent villain as villains go" (p. 1823). The British, at least parliament and the ministry, manage to be arrogant and inefficient and to blunder consistently and misjudge reality—not exactly a Gipsonian interpretation. To announce simply that Robert Morris, the so called financier of the Revolution, "made a great fortune in that role" (p. 1366), ignores and discredits his total contributions to the Revolutionary effort. Those who thought Francis Vigo was Italian might be surprised to read about "a Spaniard named Vigo" (p. 1200). Loyalists are given rather short shrift and fare rather badly—suggesting that here at least historians tend to follow victorious armies.

Smith shows how "a loyal British subject [had] been changed into a furious rebel" (p. 14). He further seeks to explain "how this collection of astonishingly diverse individuals, from a dozen countries and twice as many religious sects and denominations, spread out over a vast territory and coalesced into a nation and eventually into a united people" (p. 46), and he adheres to and persuasively develops that subject. Finally he fulfills his promise "to listen carefully and to reflect upon the meaning" (p. 1838) of the words and actions of the men and women involved in the events.

Since Smith contends that "it was the rising of the people … that was probably the most striking fact of the American Revolution" (pp. 270–71), one is not surprised to find him writing: "it has been my purpose to take it [the Revolution] away from the academic historians, the professors and return it to you [the people]" (p. 1815). Well, the people have it, but the professors, too, will find this "long journey" a profitable, at times exciting, and often a novel experience.

Indiana State University, Terre Haute Donald B. Scheick

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.