Friday, April 11, 2008

A People's Army

I'm taking a quick break from reading Fred Anderson's A People's Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years' War (1984) to jot down some first impressions.

I've only read the first of three parts, but I am very impressed so far. Anderson writes clearly and insightfully, and his topic is of the utmost importance for the history of 18th-century America: How did provincial soldiers experience the Seven Years' War and how did that experience inform their actions during the Imperial Crisis of the 1760s and 1770s?

Anderson argues that the provincial army and its soldiers did not conform to British regulars' expectations of military order and professionalism because it was a manifestly different type of organization. Rather than the class divide that separated regular officers from enlisted men, the provincial troops were recruited in a way that guaranteed that officers and men were drawn from the same communities, occupations, and families. An officer might deserve the respect of his men, but that respect derived from his position as an older, more established member of the community (often an older brother or uncle of his soldiers), rather than from his hereditary privilege.

The British found this system incomprehensible and concluded that provincial troops were hopelessly undisciplined and degraded. In return, the Massachusetts men thought that the British were arrogant, controlling, and unjust. Their experiences during the war led the young provincials to distrust the regulars. In the 1760s and 1770s, these experiences would color their understanding of imperial policies and make it possible for them to break with Britain, which is something their fathers never would have done.

Beyond this book's fascinating topic and excellent research, it is engaging and accessible. A recipient of the VPI Grad Student Seal of Approval, A People's Army is written in a plain style that opens its scholarly arguments to a wide audience. Anderson is a solid writer, making good use of topic sentences and spicing up his prose with colorful turns of phrase.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in 18th-century America. It is not merely a narrow history of one colony's troops, but an enlightening exploration of the interactions between provincials and metropolitans that made the Revolution possible.

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