Contributor Close-Up: Richard J. Werther


June 17, 2019
by Editors Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

What inspired you to start researching and writing about the Revolution?
I’ve always had an interest in writing, but with the demanding jobs I’ve had over my career I haven’t had the chance to do much, except writing in the course of my work responsibilities. My interest in the Revolution started in my mid-30s based on reading a couple of books recommended to me—Benson Bobrick’s Angel in the Whirlwind and American Aurora by Richard Rosenfeld. These books made me realize how much complexity there was to the Revolution compared to the relatively simplistic descriptions I had been spoon-fed in high school. I have an inquisitive mind and always want to know more, so one thing led to another and my shelves now groan with books and have expanded my scope to include from the first British settlement of North America through the early 1800s.

What historians or books have most influenced your work? Why?
David McCullough has had a great influence. As a writer of popular histories, he is sometimes sneered at by the academic purists, but having majored in accounting and not history, I could relate!  His style is accessible, and he really knows how to tell a great story. I met him at a book signing for John Adams, and one of the things I asked him was how to get started in writing. He told me “take time every day and just write. Write about what you like.” Sounds elementary, but it’s been a good guide for me. Once I got started writing, one topic almost inevitably led to another.

You majored in Accounting and had a career as a CPA. What was the most difficult part of transitioning into writing about history?
Well, there was never a question of my interest in and knowledge of the topic, though that interest bloomed later in life. My interest in history in college was such, that I didn’t take a single course in it. In my opinion, everyone who graduates college should be required to take history, but that’s a debate for another time. The biggest hurdle for me in getting started at writing history was that I didn’t really know how to do academic research. It’s a skill at which I’m self-taught, so I’m sure I do a few things that would make seasoned researchers cringe. But I like to think that I’ve gotten better at it with each article I’ve written. I’ve picked up a lot of hints from people along the way. One of the main things I’ve learned is to not be afraid to enlist the help of the experts out there—librarians, museum employees, etc. People love when you have an interest in areas in which they have expertise and are usually more than willing to help you track down some relatively obscure stuff. I’ve had some great interactions with those people.

What are your go-to research resources?
I have written several articles about naval affairs, so Naval Documents of the American Revolution (NDAR) has been a great help. Founders On-Line is another excellent source, and WorldCat and Hathitrust for finding books on-line. JSTOR is a source on which I’ve relied for many helpful articles. In general, it’s amazing what can be found online if you search hard enough. I have a disability that limits my ability to get out and around, so this has been of great benefit to me. For some of the overseas diplomatic and naval topics I wrote about, a great source was Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives Relating to America, 1773–1783, with Descriptions, References and Translations by Benjamin Franklin Stevens, which includes 25 volumes of handwritten copies of documents related to that period. Most can be found on-line in text versions if you search hard enough. I looked at some there and some at the library.

I have the privilege of living 30 minutes away from the University of Michigan’s Clements Library, which has an outstanding collection on the Revolution, so when I am able to get out it’s usually there and they generally have what I’m looking for or can help me get it. It was here I looked at some of the original letters published by Stevens. For those who have attended college, their alma mater may also offer access to its library databases free of charge. Through mine, Bucknell University, I was able to access many research databases that I’d otherwise have to be pay for to subscribe.

Which of your own JAR articles is your favorite or most rewarding? Why?
There are probably two, and while I have had a few articles make it to the JAR Annual Volume, neither of these did. The first is the piece about Roger Sherman. Telling his story was great because I think he is super-underrated among the founders, and the way he out-maneuvered “The Father of the Constitution,” James Madison, on many issues during the Constitutional Convention was an eye-opener for me. The second was my article on the signers of the different founding documents, mainly because that one allowed me to flex my old CPA muscles and do various types of statistical breakdowns. I produced lots of tables depicting different numbers surrounding those signers. I constructed a database of all the signers of the various founding documents including their birthdates, occupations, religions, etc.

Other than your own contributions, what are some of your favorite JAR articles?
I guess because it reflects the type of subjects I love to write about, I like the character sketches of the lesser known bit players. Much of popular history focuses on the “great men”—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, etc. I’m happy to let the professional historians take care of covering them; not much I can add, but I find the contribution of that second- or even third-tier of players just as interesting if not more. They present so many angles for looking at the war. I also loved the Top 100 Books on the Revolution article. It gave me a goal to shoot for: try to read all 100!  With the research and writing I am now doing it is even harder to carve out the time to read as much as I want, though.

What books about the American Revolution do you most often recommend?
American Aurora by Richard Rosenfeld is one of my favorites, and one I’d like to read again. It’s a revisionist history, weaving history of the Revolution with that of the post-revolutionary period. It calls into question what type of government won out in the Revolution, the one envisioned by the Federalists or the Anti-Federalists, the Constitution or the Declaration. It’s a conflict in vision that still echoes today. Although it covers the period after the Revolution, another favorite is The Age of Federalism by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, a fascinating study of the aftermath of the Revolution. It illustrates that we were hardly out of the woods when the Revolution was over and the Constitution put in place. Our survival was many times in jeopardy during that period, a fact many people tend to overlook. It also describes a political period that was every bit as bruising as the one in which we are currently.

What new research/writing projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on a compendium of all the proposals that were made to settle the Revolution before and during the war. My inspiration for this was the research I did about the Pennsylvania Loyalist Joseph Galloway, who produced several plans of his own, all of which (obviously) failed. It turns out the production of such plans was a virtual cottage industry, with proposals coming from all types of people—politicians on both sides, freelancers, loyalists, etc. These plans had many things in common, but a few had some interesting twists, often reflecting the biases and preferences of the writer.

What other hobbies/interests do you enjoy?
Until my disability hit, most of my hobbies aside from reading history involved athletics, especially playing hockey (ice and roller), and bicycling (mountain and road). As to the latter, I completed a coast-to-coast bicycle trip in my early 20s, starting in New Jersey and ending in California. Now my pursuits are necessarily more sedentary: reading, listening to audiobooks, and writing when I can. I love to write, but I need to be reading to generate ideas for topics to write about, so there’s a constant trade-off between those two activities. Contemporary politics is also a major area of interest.

Why is Journal of the American Revolution important to you?
On a personal level, I’m forever grateful to the JAR for having given this retired CPA from Michigan a chance to write about history and have it published. I carried into this endeavor not a jot of formal training as an historian or as a writer, but I did have years of reading and thinking about early America and the Revolution. I thank the Editors for gently correcting my miscues and helping me up the learning curve that I continue to climb today (though hopefully it’s flattening a bit!). I’ve had articles appear in the annual volumes, been interviewed for the JAR podcast and even done a live interview on Sirius Radio.

So, the JAR is important to me for these selfish reasons—I’ve had a blast writing for it. However, it’s also important as a high quality and freely available source for people out there who have similar interest in this topic. The Editors have done a great job maintaining high standards and the JAR is about the best thing of its kind out there.

Is there an article, or subject area, that you would like to see appear in JAR?
The Revolution itself is far from an exhausted topic, so there’s plenty still to be covered by our inventive writers. History has many fine layers to delve into, and those stories about the lesser known aspects, those you won’t find in a book in your local library, are what I love about it.

I’ve learned in life that things are constantly changing, and you must change too in order to remain relevant. One thought I had along those lines was increasing our scope somewhat. Although we are The Journal of the American Revolution, we could branch out into the periods preceding and subsequent to that event. Once you open these areas, you run the risk of scope getting away from you, so it would have to be tightly circumscribed. I think putting the Revolution in its context is important. We won the military part, but did we get the outcome we wanted?  Was armed revolution even a good idea at that point in time? The books I described as my favorites get into that subsequent period. It was kind of “alright, you got your country, now what are you going to do with it?”  Granted, that story is still being written today, and we don’t want to stretch anywhere near that far, but the period following the French and Indian War and the election of 1800 might be a good range in which to work.

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