Since you began studying the American Revolution, how has your perspective on it changed?
My perspective has become more complex. As I followed Ben Franklin to France, I saw the war become an international struggle. As I watched Washington think his way to the strategy that won the war in America, he emerged as an indispensable leader. When I wrote my novel, Liberty Tavern, I realized that in New Jersey and other states, it was really a civil war. I was especially fascinated to identify the illusions that distracted leaders on both sides. At first. the Americans thought they could win it all in one big battle, with a vast turnout of militia. The British thought if they could soundly defeat Washington’s army, patriot morale would collapse. The Continental Congress went from a collection of demigods to a mob of fumblers who almost lost the war in spite of Washington’s leadership.
Initially, I took a “bottom-up” approach, which led to my People’s History of the American Revolution. In researching popular protests, I discovered that what had been treated as a minor episode at best, and often not reported at all—“rural unrest” in Massachusetts—had in fact been a full-on revolution, a complete transfer of political and military authority during the year preceding Lexington and Concord. How could this critical revolution before the Revolution have been missed? Who’s the gatekeeper here? That led me to investigate all the stories we tell. I feel we cannot construct any narrative of the Revolution without simultaneously addressing faulty narratives we have inherited and embraced. Further, I now see history as neither bottom-up nor top-down. Influence always travels in both directions, and no history focused exclusively on either the upper or lower level can ever produce a credible rendition of what in fact transpired.
When I began studying the Revolution, Gordon Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992) stood astride the field like a colossus, daring all comers to either ally themselves with his narrative, or establish oneself in opposition to it (as Alfred F. Young, Gary Nash, Barbara Clark Smith, and others did). While Wood’s books are still essential reading, I have also tried to understand the Revolution from other directions as well: to look at the interplay between ideas and popular movements, to understand the broad array of actors in the Revolutionary drama, to look at the global connections that help explain American events, and to insist upon seeing the war as a vital part of a broader narrative.
–Benjamin L. Carp
I think the most important realization, which came most clearly from Pauline Maier’s From Resistance to Revolution, is that from the 1760s through the start of 1776 the American Whigs were striving for British rights. It wasn’t just that the colonists didn’t decide on independence until 1776. It’s that up to that point they still saw themselves as fighting within the British Empire to uphold the British political system in its proper form. Protesters marched under the British flag. They built arguments on their understanding of the British constitution. They sought relief from the British king. They were not seeking “natural rights” outside the British system; they thought that system protected those rights.
–J. L. Bell
Like many, I suppose, my college history studies centered on the what, when, and where of the Revolutionary War. Examination questions focused on how troops moved from place to place, campaign strategies, and spitting back dates and locations. The Revolutionary War was lifeless, dull. What I was missing, of course, was the who and the why of the times. It was not until I plunged into studying the people of the Valley Forge encampment that this period took on a new perspective. Through the letters, journals, diaries, and accounts of the Valley Forge officers and soldiers, I found that the encampment, and by extension the Revolutionary War, became alive. By reading the officers’ love letters to their wives, the private soldier’s poem to his father, the contemporary sources describing the nakedness, poverty, hunger, homesickness and —yes—patriotism at camp, my view of the war morphed from black-and-white to living technicolor.
–Nancy K. Loane
I’ve become much more sympathetic to the British and Loyalists, and much more aware of the roles of “outsiders” such as Indians and slaves. Having been raised on the typical textbook version of the Revolution as a fight between freedom-loving Americans against tyrannical Britons, it was enlightening to start reading British and Loyalist documents and begin to understand their side of the story. I was also surprised to learn how much Indians and African Americans were involved and what they did. It makes for a much more complex, and far more interesting view of the Revolution.
My views have come full circle. I began studying the Revolution during the heyday of the so-called Progressive historians, scholars who were economic determinists. By the time I completed grad school, the role of ideas was displacing economic motivations as the principal casual factor in shaping behavior, and I bought into that. (My doctoral dissertation dealt with the ideas of the Loyalists.) Now, living in the oligarchic United States, I have seen the error of my ways and have returned to my roots. I don’t think economic factors were the only thing motivating the Founders -– and among some, such as Thomas Paine and John Adams, I don’t think it was a factor at all – but as a general rule, I believe it is the best explanation for the behavior of those involved in the “Glorious Cause.”
I am continually amazed by the complexity of the war. The conventional wisdom casts it as a simple conflict between unified Americans and oppressive British. In reality there was a remarkable diversity of participants, opinions and sub-conflicts. It’s important to study this in it’s real detail, because it helps give perspective on the complex events of today; we often think of modern conflicts as being far more complex than those of the past, when in reality the world has always been a complicated, conflicted place.
–Don N. Hagist
Like everyone starting out in a new field, I went into my research with a lot of presumptions; it wasn’t long before those presuppositions were shattered. My understanding, for example, based predominantly on popular media, was that the militia had pretty much won the war for America. Boy, was I wrong.
I have a far greater appreciation now for the British perspective. Many of the American history books I read growing up paint a very one-sided picture. Americans are the good guys, British are the bad guys. In truth, both sides had their reasons, both sides are understandable, and both sides are filled with “patriots”: fighting for their country/colony/empire. The real story of the Revolutionary War is far more interesting when one embraces the shades of gray, and realizes that even the British are humans. This was my approach for my recent book, Igniting the American Revolution: 1773-1775, to portray this balanced approach to both sides.
–Derek W. Beck
At first an unleashing of democracy, but upon closer analysis over the years, the Revolution should be appreciated more as a seed bed of ideas that have nourished the rest of the American experience, making for a more open, equalitarian, and tolerant nation. No, the Revolution generation did not solve all society’s challenges, nor have passing generations of Americans. But the ideals won’t go away, and they continue to serve as a meaningful guide in our modern times. Most of all the Revolution was not devoted to defending the institution of slavery and oppressing women, as some agenda driven modern social commentators have declared. It was a movement that favored liberation rather than oppression, and the United States and its peoples have been the beneficiary ever since.
–James Kirby Martin
The biggest thing that I have come to change since I began to study the American Revolution is my perspective on the both the amount and validity of local legends. Before, I never realized how many of them actually existed. Interpretation of the war at the end of 18th and throughout the 19th century was not the same as today. So many local legends emerged that were not factual at all, as they were often heavily embellished and romanticized. At thetime, no one thought to challenge the teller or to back them up with reliable sources. Over the last 240 years, they have been so engrained in the American memory that attempts to debunk them or tell a story differently, even today as I discovered writing my book on the New London raid, can evoke very strong emotions.
Aside from blowing the lid off of the many American Revolution myths that I’d known growing up, I’ve found that digging into and interpreting primary source material has given me a more realistic view on how fluid some things were back then. The fact that more than a few colonists were rooting for the side that seemed to be winning at that moment. Or to whom they could sell their produce to and would be paid in hard currency, so that they could survive. Or militiamen who had to walk away from the battle and go home because their family’s farm was in tax arrears or bankruptcy. I also used to think that all American Revolution facts were pretty much known. So I’m also amazed that new research comes along all the time that changes my perspective, such as new details of young George Washington’s life in Barbados.
–John L. Smith, Jr.
My particular interest is in social and cultural interactions and societal disruptions. I am fascinated by the parallels between the rhetoric of our own generation and that of the Revolutionary era. In recent years, I have come to really appreciate John Adams’s assessment of the population as being divided into thirds; the third who are rabidly wanting change, the third who are vehemently opposed, and a third of the population who don’t care about all the blathering but just want to be left alone. Right wing, left wing, moderates–patriots, tories, pacifists–yeah.
Books written from a singularly Patriot point of view about the major battles formed my first understanding of the Revolution. Later, I became cognizant of additional points of view and contributions of other Revolutionary War participants including Canadians, Native Americans and Loyalists. Further, the Revolution’s global military conflict and diplomatic maneuvers had a larger impact on the war’s outcome than commonly reported in Patriot-centric military depictions.
In recent years, as someone doing a PhD in early American history, my perspective on the Revolution has perhaps been more enlarged than changed. There is a huge body of scholarship from the last forty years on Revolutionary America that has fundamentally changed how we think of the broader period of the American Revolution and the numerable social, cultural, and political developments that occurred both during and as a consequence of the Revolution. More specifically, I have become increasingly convinced that the onset of the Revolution was not nearly as spasmodic as much of the literature assumes. From the perspective of someone who has also worked on the 1740s-1760s, the fissures that contributed to both Britain’s project of imperial reform and the colonists’ resistance to it had been developing for decades. That is, I think I have become less and less satisfied over time with our understandings of the origins and causes of the Revolution and believe both are in desperate need of reconsideration.
Dick Brown published some about the reactions —and rural unrest —of Massachusetts towns in the early 1770s. See an example from W & M Quarterly here re: the Boston Pamphlet.
I know I am not one of your authors/writers, but I have been studying the Revolutionary War and its era for over 40 years.
But it’s been the last decade or so that I’ve really taken a different look – or perspective, as you say – at an angle rarely done: I try to see the war (and history in general) through the minds of those who were there, whether they be a founding father or mother or just an everyday farmer. By that I mean that I look at their everyday life: the food they ate, their daily chores, their languages, their clothing, the class system in which they lived, their homes, what they saw and heard (or didn’t hear)…you know what I mean – – the environment in which they were raised and lived in.
I do this by reading the different school books that were used back then, period cook books, old almanacs, literature of the times, letters and diaries of average folk, advertisements, broadsides/newspapers, etc. It is in this way I get a little deeper understanding of their whys and wherefores, and, to an extent, almost their thought process. This helps me not only to see the founding generation as real people, but to not be so quick to judge them for what we in our modern times see as their misdeeds. It also helps me to understand the realness of loyalists vs patriots.
One can study war, but to study the environment of those that fought as well will give a more complete and fair picture.
At least it does for me.
Thank you for a wonderful website and three excellent books.
All are welcome to comment, Ken! Thank you for your thoughts on this. I, too, am an advocate of relying as much as possible on primary sources; it’s essential for understanding people’s actions in the context of their own time and situation, rather than evaluating based on our present values and circumstances.
I was much intrigued perusing through this commentary. While not of the same renown as the names present, I have often delved in to the subject matter at hand. And like them, my perspective has changed with additional knowledge.
Most of all, by far, I have gone from seeing the American Revolution as a noble struggle against oppression, as a rebellion started without much justification at all. When I was far younger, for some reason, I thought the taxes inflicted upon the colonists were far more grievous. I was shocked to learn the British had hardly taxed the colonists at all.
I’ve almost painfully came to the conclusion that virtual representation provided a legal justification for taxation and legislation of the colonies. And, more than serving as an archaic justification for nefarious purposes, it was the established law of the land. More than 3 times as many people in Great Britain and Ireland were taxed without direct representation than there were people in British America. Americans never requested representation in parliament claiming it’d be impractical, but I honestly think they were aware such inclusion would necessitate the obviation of an objection to parliamentary taxation. And that they’d be taxed more extensively with such representation, than without it.
Some Patriots claimed they only allowed allegiance to the king, and not Parliament. This distinction is quite odd. Parliament had been legislating over the colonies since their formation.
The role of propagandizing certain events to inspire revolutionary fervor is truly disappointing. The Boston Massacre, Hutchinson’s letters, etc.
Some claims put forward by the Patriots are exceptionally saddening. That there was a grand conspiracy to enslave the colonists, I can’t believe the Continental Congress would ever utter such a thing. But, the Continental Congress, being illegal, alienated loyalists and the apathetic. So, it only ever attracted Patriots.
That a slippery slope fallacy could be perpetuated by Patriots for so long is also disappointing. The idea that a small tax requires violent opposition now because it may lead to exceptionally burdensome taxes later, is fallacious. It assumes devious intention, and also requires that a decision be made not based on present conditions, but on future conditions which may never actualize. This line of logic is most tied with resistance to the Stamp Act. Where general opposition was likely instigated by a few.
The Patriot perspective was likely never a majority. This is inconsistent with consent of the governed, claimed right to revolt, and their framework of Lockean ideology.
The American Revolution establishes an uncomfortable legacy if one assesses the justification given for such. But, I’ll get off my soap box.
Gabriel, given the premise of your commentary, you might enjoy reading the book The American Revolution – A Grand Mistake by Leland G. Strauber. The book’s premise is that if the US took the same route as Canada to independence that we would be a better society and more agreeable global citizen. For example, Canada outlawed slavery without a war and had a much more benevolent treatment of Native Americans.
What makes the Revolution so fascinating is the differing interpretations.
My thanks, I will look in to this book.
Most of the delegates to the First Continental Congress were firmly in the Whig tradition, but not radicalized until the arrival of the Suffolk Resolves. Many were fighting for a redress of their grievances, but were not thinking about independence until Common Sense came out in January of 1776. Nonetheless, only minority of the English colonies joined the rebellion, and only a minority of the colonists in those colonies supported the Patriot cause of independence. They sought support from London’s traditional Catholic foes and then signed a separate peace. This set a precedent for future revolutionaries who showed less restraint and greater lust for vengeance against their political opponents.
When we romanticize the suffering at Valley Forge, I think—-if Washington’s army had such widespread support—-why weren’t ordinary people bringing them food and blankets?
Some, like Joseph Galloway were able to see a “middle way” between total submission and open rebellion; but this faction was silenced. Almost everything the founders thought and wrote about liberty they learned from their fellow English thinkers and theorists. It is ironic that the freest, most lightly-taxed people in the Atlantic World would be the ones to complain of a conspiracy, at the highest levels of government, to enslave them.
It is difficult to determine when the Patriots decided upon independence. Almost assuredly they would have privately considered and endorsed such a decision before publicly declaring their support for such. I suppose one could say the first Continental Congress (1774) was seeking a redress of grievances, however this is probably incomplete. The congress’ primary grievance was that Parliament considered the colonies under their jurisdiction. One of the resolutions from the Congress being colonial exemption from Parliament, this effectively declared independence.
The Continental Congress was always far, far more radical than the people at large. Political bodies always have a hard time drawing from the apathetic, and the Congress was also illegal. And not only was the Congress illegal, it pulled its delegates from other illegal or perhaps euphemismistically extra-legal assemblies. If one were to look at the delegates to the first Continental Congress, they’d find the vast, vast majority of them ended up supporting the Independence movement. The first Congress produced maybe three loyalists, and a couple others who remained neutral.
Unsurprisingly, a congress formed in a time of civil unrest, was unrepresentative of the people.
I find it interesting you used the term “total submission,” and it is strange that it carries such a significant negative connotation. It is the relationship between any inferior legislature and any superior legislature. It is routine in almost any government to have ever existed. Parliament did not wish the colonies to be any more submissive than what the Federal Government today demands of the State of Georgia. A central government with a supreme legislature is present in any effective government. The Americans would find this out when they experimented with a government without it. Nevertheless, the term inspires great resentment of authority.
My study of the Revolutionary Period has caused me to conclude that one of the most basic reasons for the actual military conflict was the British misunderstanding of American colonial culture and society. The British ruling class simply did not understand that thousands of miles across the Atlantic ocean a different view had developed among the American colonials about their personal and social status, and political relations with govermental elements. America was not Britain and certainly not Ireland. What is often referred to as British arrogance regarding Americans was more likely British ignorance of the difference in cultures. Cultural ignorance is very dangerous, and continues to plague international affairs.
Excellent comment. I completely agree.