In these blogposts, I discuss questions and issues that students have raised in my classrooms during the previous semester. They are good springboards to classroom discussions/debates about the Revolution, American history, and history itself.
The New York Time’s controversial “1619 Project” and the historians’ war it has sparked illustrate how this country’s founding – the American Revolution – is the cornerstone of our collective understanding of this country’s present. The “1619 Project” gives readers a race-themed narrative of the Revolution in an effort to help them see racism as pervasive in American life today. Such efforts to enlist the Revolution for a cause are not new – attempts to shape public opinion and public policy in the present often begin with a retelling of the country’s birth.
When, in 1861, Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln delivered their inaugural speeches – Davis as president of the Confederate States of America, Lincoln as president of the United States of America – both included a narration of the Revolution. Davis’s history lesson supported his claim that secession was peaceful and constitutional, that Northerners should accept it as such, and that the upper South should feel free to follow the lower South into secession. Lincoln’s history lesson supported his own claim that secession was unlawful and insurrectionary, that Americans in the North and upper South should reject it as such, and that the deep South should return to the Union. During that deadly war, both sides continued to retell Southern and Northern audiences about the Revolution, connecting the cause of the Civil War to the cause of the Revolution. These were efforts to inspire Americans to recommit themselves to the spirit of 1776, endure the hardships of war, and sacrifice more for victory. Most famously, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address began with a particular framing of the Revolution and ended with a challenge to his generation of Americans to vindicate – with military victory – what his history lesson asserted as the core cause of the Revolutionary generation.
Proponents and opponents of future major national projects – from foreign wars to various domestic initiatives and Constitutional reforms – have likewise used the Revolution as a springboard for their public-relations campaigns. Public-policy advocates have thus introduced Americans to various reinterpretations of the Revolution, as correctives to the traditional explanation of what had animated Americans to rebel in 1775. In place of the original explanation offered by the colonists themselves (about a lawless British government that violated its colonists’ ancient English liberties), Americans have been introduced to alternative interpretations that claim to identify the rebels’ true agenda – class conflict, national self-determination, lower taxes, white supremacy, slavery, commercial expansion, anti-Catholicism, or hunger for land on the western frontiers.
The Revolution’s military history is notably missing in these in new narratives. This is because the Revolution’s battlefields (and Lexington and Concord in particular) are where these reinterpretations of the Revolution are tested against common sense. When an average reasonable person contemplates the 70 American farmers and shopkeepers who ventured to stop 700 redcoats on the Lexington Green 245 years ago today, s/he has a hard time reconciling that scene with the narratives listed above. This reasonable reader cannot see how those 70 militiamen, with guns suicidally drawn against a vastly larger force of professional soldiers, were advancing their economic self-interest, suppressing class tensions, claiming land out West, promoting commerce, or defending slavery.
The Revolution was, first and foremost, a war. The Revolution’s battles and campaigns thus offer sound insights as to the rebels’ motivation and aims; the Battle of Lexington and Concord more so than any other. The Revolution’s military history offers a prosaic, simple, and traditional narrative about what spurred Anglo-Americans to take up arms against Britain in 1775-76. It paints the Revolution as a mass movement of common people, both on the home-front (where innumerable Americans offered military service through local militias) and on the front lines. There is no need to seek hidden motives for this rebellion when the rebels’ stated rationale is utterly believable. Colonists believed that their benign imperial government had suddenly turned against them, becoming lawless in curtailing longstanding English practices of self-government in American courts, towns, and legislatures. Lawless governments are genuinely scary – in the 18th century as in the 21st – and Americans’ alarm was plainly on display in countless public addresses and private letters, pamphlets and editorials, petitions and remonstrances, street demonstrations, and election returns.
When they were punished for this resistance, they left their homes and their daily lives to fight against their government. Many of them never to return. And while we know that the Patriots were eventually victorious (and that the United States went from strength to strength thereafter), they did not know they would succeed. In fact, they had good reason to fear that they would fail. It’s an extraordinary story. For many, it is too extraordinary to be true, which is why they gravitate to those alternative Revolutionary narratives that claim to identify Patriots’ unspoken motives and designs. To judge whether these are more credible than the rebels’ own narrative, put them to the Lexington and Concord test.