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Mark Noll

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Times

The moral complexity of the American Revolution.

George III, by Christopher Hibbert, Basic Books, 1998, 464 pp.; $28

Sweet Land of Liberty: The Ordeal of the American Revolution in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, by Francis S. Fox, Penn State University Press, 2000, 211 pp.; $29.95

A lot of ordinary people were caught up in the American War for Independence, and a surprising number of them were of German extraction. Some, like the King of England, who conversed with his wife in German all their days, have been the subject of many books. Others, like the residents of Northampton County, Pennsylvania, where 85 percent of the county's 15,000 residents came from Germany, have not. To come once again at the question of the morality of the American Revolution but from an unfamiliar perspective—through the experiences of George III, who is deftly portrayed in Christopher Hibbert's personal biography, and of the Northampton residents, whose story Francis Fox opens up for the first time in his pathbreaking book—is to be reminded of the moral complexities that extraordinary times brought to the lives of ordinary people.

The German angle shared by these books is no more than an intriguing sidelight. George III kept self-consciously loyal to the German principality of Hanover, whose Elector he remained during his years as Britain's monarch, and he dispatched all but one of his sons to Hanover for part of their education, but he never paid a visit to these German lands. The German background of the settlers in Northampton County functioned usually as a negative reference point. Dissatisfaction with the Old World had propelled them to the New. Once having left behind the economic, religious, domestic, or political circumstances that made Germany unattractive, these migrants valued most about their new life in North America the chance to be left alone while they started a new life. When the War for Independence forced the German migrants of Northampton County to think directly about their political tie to the German-descended ...

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