Contributor Close-Up: Timothy Symington

Timothy Symington and his son, the "Mighty Quinn."

What inspired you to start researching and writing about the Revolution?

I have always had a desire to learn about history.  I was the only second grader who dressed up as John Adams for Halloween (the musical 1776 was big when I was growing up in my house). The focus of college was mainly European history, and then I focused on Latin American history. Of course, I put my history degree to good use in my first job: dolphin trainer! After accomplishing that goal, I went back to school and received my certification as a teacher.

Although I have taught the Revolution in middle school classrooms for more than two decades, I was never truly passionate about it until I took the Master of Arts program with the Gilder-Lehrman Institute in 2016. I took one course about the Revolution and learning about that topic at the graduate level opened my eyes. I decided to do my thesis on the Revolutionary era, which immersed me in the world of all things having to do with the American Revolution. I have been happily pursuing the events, people and politics of the Revolution ever since.

What historians or books have most influenced your work?

I have been fortunate to have read books by the “greats”:  Joseph J. Ellis, Pauline Maier, Gordon Wood, Bernard Bailyn, Mary Beth Norton, David McCulloch, Edmund Morgan, David Hackett Fischer, and Colin Calloway. My most recent research has been on social history, so I have been reading books by Ray Raphael, Rosemarie Zagarri, David Waldstreicher, Len Travers, and Simon P. Newman. So far, my favorite book about the Revolutionary period has been Paul Revere’s Ride, by David Hackett Fischer. Not only is it rich with details and sources, but the narrative is intense.

What are your go-to research resources?

I almost always go to the Notes section of whatever book I am reading to mine it for valuable gems. I find a great deal of information searching here, which inevitably leads me to more pathways to additional sources. Recently I have been using digital archives of newspapers. Geneaology.com is superb!

Which of your own JAR articles is your favorite or most rewarding?  Why?

The first book review I wrote for the JAR was for “The Only Avoidable Subject of Regret”:  George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon, by Mary V. Thompson.  I have a personal connection to the book because I spent one of the most rewarding weeks of my life living on the grounds of Mount Vernon during the summer of 2014. I was lucky to be part of the Summer Teachers Seminar, and I learned about Mount Vernon in detail. So, reading and reviewing Thompson’s book felt like being back on the grounds of Washington’s home.

What books about the American Revolution do you most often recommend?

I am most interested in books about what is referred to as the “Imperial Crisis,” which is the period and events leading up to the beginning of the Revolution in April 1775. Being a lifelong Massachusetts resident, I tend to gravitate towards regional history as a result: The Sons of Liberty, Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, Intolerable Acts, and of course the fighting at Lexington and Concord. I think I am drawn towards books about these events because of the increasing tension between the colonies and London.

I am also extremely interested in biographies, which always allow for different perspectives on the Revolution. Books about the Adams, George Washington, and Joseph Warren, but books about Charles Lee, Ethan Allen, and Benedict Arnold have been remarkably interesting.

My favorites include:

Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer

John Adams by David McCulloch

His Excellency and Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis

Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick

The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson by Bernard Bailyn

What new research/writing projects are you currently working on?

I thought that I would end up doing my thesis about Reconstruction, which had been my primary interest for years. However, one of my graduate professors read off a list of Revolutionary era drinking toasts from a Virginia newspaper. I found myself completely taken with the many lists of toasts that were available for me to read through. So, I focused on the toasts of Massachusetts that were given at the end of the eighteenth century for my dissertation.

I have been trying to expand my research about toasts for a future book, collecting lists from all the colonies and states that were a part of the United States between the French and Indian War to the War of 1812. Who was toasted in different regions? How were toasts given in these regions? What/who never received toasts? I want to really see what can learned about popular culture during the nation’s founding through looking at drinking toasts. They were the very first “tweets,” as my wife Bonnie has told me.

What other hobbies/interests do you enjoy?

I used to be a runner, but years of road abuse took its toll on my knee. So, now I walk daily with my dog Lucy. My time at home is spent with Bonnie and our son, the “Mighty Quinn.” I enjoy cooking, reading constantly, wearing Hawaiian shirts, and being a world-class Beatlemaniac and Monty Python devotee. My bucket list includes learning the entire Beatles catalog on the guitar and taking up scuba diving again.

Why is the Journal of the American Revolution important to you?

I have thoroughly enjoyed the resources that are available through the JAR. The best thing about the JAR is that it is always kept up to date with the latest publications and events concerning the American Revolution. The topics and people the articles cover are wide indeed.

My experience as a reviewer has been great. I have been at times inundated with several books at once, which has been joyous! And seeing the latest issue of the JAR with my latest review has been a cause for celebration, and of course I sent it to all my family members.

Is there an article, or subject area, that you would like to see appear in JAR?

I would be interested in learning more about the Quebec Act and how that influenced the colonies and their relationship with the Crown. I think that most people are unaware about how much of a danger that colonists considered it to be.

I would also want to see more articles written by educators about what lesson plans they are creating about the Revolution. How is it being taught? What ideas do other teachers have that can be shared?

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