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Will of the People, Essay Example

Pages: 1

Words: 1126

Essay

Introduction

It seems that Americans very much enjoy declaring that their democracy is an active, living, substantial government, and one in which they play a huge role. There is a good deal of valid reasoning behind this national pride, since the American revolution was, in many ways, the introduction of a new kind of society. Then, the great success of the United States in becoming the world’s foremost power must certainly encourage this pride in the republic. However, it also seems that U.S. citizens have gradually evolved into a state of mind not unlike historical models, in that the nation’s leadership is viewed with too much reverence. This is particularly true of the founding fathers, who have largely become legendary figures in American tradition and history.

In his analysis of the Revolution, Alfred Young makes a determined and careful effort to “get inside” the being of George Robert Twelve Hewes, a Boston shoemaker who was an active participant in the early struggles for independence. More importantly, Young recreates a world in which men were not actually driven to create a new nation, bot more forced into the process through resisting what was an intolerable level of oppression. This appears to be the authentic base of the American Revolution, and Young reminds the country that it was not merely the will of a few men, but the reactions of many ordinary men, that actually went to shaping the new country.

Young’s Approach and Perspective

The most interesting aspect of historian Young’s work is that he takes a unique and unexpected approach to the history in question. Having identified Hewes as a pivotal, if not widely celebrated, player in the Boston of the period, Young combines historical examination with something like psychology.   He establishes as a reliable fact that Hewes had an excellent memory, even as he realizes that some of Hewes’s comment or memories could not be completely accurate. Consequently, Young employs the recollections of Hewes almost as an analyst probes the mind of a patient: “To make sense of his remembering, I had to peel his biographers away from him…his memory itself became my subject” (Young, 2000, xii). Young uses Hewes as a lens through which to see the era, even as he carefully checks this perspective against known facts and other, reliable accounts.

What emerges from this process is both a portrait of a man and a valuable glimpse into how something as momentous as a national revolution can arise through the reactions of common people. As Young makes very clear, there was nothing brilliant or exceptional to note about Hewes. He was not very educated, nor was he especially interested in the political issues of his day. This very lack of distinction, however, is what makes him so crucial for Young’s purposes, because Hewes represented the sort of individual most found in the nation then, and today as well. He was a shoemaker in an Eastern city, trying to make a living and conduct his life peacefully. He was not exactly poor, and his family had never been poor either, as he recalled to Benjamin Thatcher, his biographer, an occasion when his mother purchased a slave girl (Gutman, Bell  6). Nonetheless, he had to struggle to survive as a tradesman in the Boston of the 18th century, and he was, according to Young’s research, a deferential man who knew his social place. As a young man, he was not successful enough to vote, and he belonged to no civic organizations of any kind.

It is all the more striking, then, that this ordinary man was transformed by the changes occurring around him, and became part of a force for change himself.  Much of this was not of vast, historical importance; as Young relates it, Hewes experienced, as many of his fellow citizens must have, a growing sense of oppression. Thousands of British soldiers occupied a city made up of fewer than twenty thousand people itself, and they harassed men like Hewes for being out on the streets after curfew.  Then, as unrest occurred and British reaction became violent, Hewes was eventually mobilized into action:  “He seems to have been politicized, not  by  the Stamp Act, but by the coming of the troops after I768, and then by things that happened to  him, that he saw, or that happened to people he knew” (Young, 1981, 597). This was political motivation arising from daily, unacceptable treatment. Thanks to George Hewes, Alfred Young was able to obtain a firsthand account of how a single man, moving through the days of his life, could be compelled to take action because of a series of events, large and small, that sparked him into political response.

This is the radical element of Young’s view, for he focuses strictly on this shoemaker, and it must change how the average American sees the true process of the American Revolution. As is evident from Young’s research, Hewes was not an exceptional man, either in terms of abilities associated with greatness and/or leadership, or in his role as a common citizen. What he was, however, was a part of the force that would actually bring the Revolution into being and help it succeed. In presenting a detailed analysis of the impact of George Hewes, Young reminds modern America that American rule was not set in place by a select few leaders, but by the men and women who were driven to resist British oppression.

Conclusion

If it is a natural process that people come to idolize the historical figures of the past, it is also a dangerous one for a republic, because it enables a relaxing of the average person’s vigilance and responsibilities. As must be obvious, even the greatest leaders are ineffectual if they do not have a potent population to lead and, in the case of the American Revolution, it is reasonable to assert that the leaders came into being because the actions of the people allowed for it, even as they came to require it. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson did not create American independence; they assisted a process already in place and helped to move it forward. As Alfred Young reminds the nation,  it was not the will and talent of a few men, but the reactions of many ordinary men like George Hewes, that actually went to creating the new country.

Works Cited

Gutman, H. D., & Bell, G. H., Eds.   The New England Working Class and the New Labor History.  Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987.  Print.

Young, A. “George Robert Twelves Hewes (1742-1840):  A Boston Shoemaker and the Memory of the American Revolution” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Oct., 1981),   pp. 561-623.

Young, A. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2000.  Print.

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