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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.