Sunday, January 30, 2011

Easy but important reading: "Founding Myths" by Ray Raphael

Who was Sam Adams? According to Ray Raphael, "Sam" Adams is only a myth, loosely based on a man named Samuel Adams who was one of many activists involved in organizing resistance to British rule in Boston. Raphael traces the development of this myth, including the origins of the name "Sam", and how Adams came to be credited with masterminding the resistance to British rule. Throughout, he evaluates the ideological basis of the myth, and how it contrasts with the reality of Massachusetts politics at the time.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in American history, the American Revolution, or political revolutions in general. The book is interesting for a couple of reasons, yet still an easier read than most history books. Raphael revisits several familiar stories from the American Revolution, but uniquely emphasizes the role of "regular people", which is often overlooked in mainstream histories that focus on the men who held high offices in the government. Aside from providing a different perspective on the Revolution, Raphael uses these stories as case studies to illustrate how history is written -- or perhaps, how myths are made. For each of these stories, Raphael starts off by describing the oft-repeated myth, and then describing how it is wrong, why he believes that it is wrong, and how other historians got it wrong in the first place.

While the scholarship is impressive, this is not a dry academic work; as the subtitle makes clear, Raphael has an ideological agenda. He clearly states that he is interested in emphasizing the hyper-democracy of the revolutionary era, and tearing down the elitist stories concocted by later writers. While I happen to sympathize with his ideological aims, I often feel that his ideological assertions are heavy handed and that he is being unfair to the people that he disagrees with. While this could get irritating, I don't think that it detracts from the serious scholarship.

Despite being a serious book, it is still easy to read. In part this is due to Raphael's writing style, but moreso to the structure of the book. Each chapter discusses a different "myth", so it is easy to put it down for a week, and then resume with the next chapter. Also, most Americans are familiar with the basic stories, and should not have any trouble remembering the context for the issues being discussed.

My only qualification to recommending this book is that this is not an introduction to American history or the Revolutionary war. It assumes that the reader is familiar with the basic geography and politics of the Revolutionary era.

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