Jill Lepore: Who Owns the American Revolution?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University where she is also chair of the History and Literature Program. She received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale in 1995.]

...Beginning even before it was over, the American Revolution has been put to wildly varying political ends. Federalists claimed its legacy; so did anti-Federalists. Jacksonian Democrats said they were the true sons of the Revolution. No, Whigs said, we are. The Union claimed the Revolution; so did the Confederacy.

Today’s Tea Party has roots in a battle over the Revolution that dates to the Bicentennial, when no one could agree on what story a country torn apart by the war in Vietnam and by civil-rights strife at home ought to tell about its unruly beginnings. Congress established an American Revolution Bicentennial Commission in 1966. “My view is that the Bicentennial should be a vehicle for social change,” Richard Barrett, who was a director of the commission under Lyndon Johnson, said. After Richard Nixon took office, in 1969, Barrett left. The new Administration, he said, “is not prepared to deal with the kinds of problems I’d like to see dealt with.”

On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State students protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, killing four. This caused a lot of people to think about the Boston Massacre; almost exactly two hundred years earlier, British soldiers had fired into a crowd, killing five. In those years, Bostonians had opposed the military, insisting that a standing army was inconsistent with a free government. To a generation dodging the draft, that argument looked pretty interesting. The week after the shooting, a Kent State student said to the Times, “They told King George or whoever that guy was, ‘Look, leave us alone.’ And he said no. And they said, ‘Come on, leave us alone or there’s going to be trouble.’ And he still said no. So they said, ‘All right, mother,’ and they picked up a gun and started killing a bunch of British and tossing tea in the Boston harbor. And that’s what’s happening here.”

The debate about sovereignty and liberty that took place between 1764 and 1791 contains an ocean of ideas. You can fish almost anything out of it. Today’s Tea Partiers like to describe their movement as a catchall—Hess identifies himself as a libertarian, Varley describes herself as a social and fiscal conservative—but it doesn’t catch everything. “All the government does is take my money and give it to other people,” Hess told me. Hess’s own salary is paid by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security; he works for M.I.T.’s Lincoln Laboratory, studying chemical and biological warfare. “I’m not an anarchist,” he said. “It’s not that I think all government is bad.” Opposition to military power doesn’t have a place in Hess’s Tea Party.

It had a place in Howard Zinn’s. In May of 1970, Zinn was arrested for blocking the road to a Boston Army base; he said that he was acting “in the grand tradition of the Boston Tea Party.” The next year, an antiwar activist named Jeremy Rifkin established a Peoples Bicentennial Commission. (Zinn’s “People’s History” is a product of the Bicentennial, too.) In a protest staged by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, more than a hundred veterans marched, or wheeled their wheelchairs, from Concord to Lexington—as if undertaking a piece of Paul Revere’s ride, in reverse—in an effort to “secure the liberty and peace upon which the country was founded.” The National Park Service took a different view; one of its men in Lexington was sure that the “Minutemen would be appalled.” On Lexington Green, the crowd swelled, and riot police arrested nearly five hundred people, including John Kerry, who, like all the arrested veterans, had been instructed to give 1775 as his date of birth.

“What ails the American spirit?” Newsweek asked six historians for its 1970 Fourth of July issue. Richard Hofstadter’s answer was bleakest: “Part of our trouble is that our sense of ourselves hasn’t diminished as much as it ought to.” Nixon thought Americans’ sense of themselves had fallen too far. “Our children have been taught to be ashamed of their country,” Nixon said in his second inaugural, in January of 1973. “At every turn, we have been beset by those who find everything wrong with America and little that is right.” The Bicentennial could help fix that: “Let us pledge together to make these next four years the best four years in America’s history, so that on its two-hundredth birthday America will be as young and as vital as when it began.”

That summer, on the Fourth of July, at an event sponsored by another rival to Nixon’s commission, the Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation, James Earl Jones read an 1852 speech of Frederick Douglass’s, asking, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”: “I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity.” This was just the kind of fault-finding that Nixon was talking about. Nixon’s Bicentennial Commission wanted to offer a different history, one at considerable variance with the best emerging scholarship (including the work of David Brion Davis, whose “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution” won the National Book Award in 1976, while Edmund S. Morgan’s “American Slavery, American Freedom” was a runner-up).

Removing slavery from the Revolution takes some doing. In 1764, Otis insisted, in the same pamphlet in which he denounced taxation without representation, “The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black.” The Boston Town Meeting instructed delegates to the legislature to propose a law prohibiting the purchase of slaves. Worcester’s Town Meeting urged emancipation. “The years 1765 and 1766 will be ever memorable for the glorious stand which America has made for her liberties,” one Boston merchant wrote. “How much glory will it add . . . if at the same time we are establishing Liberty for ourselves and children, we show the same regard to all mankind that came among us?”

This meant a choice. Massachusetts could either abolish slavery (in 1772, the landmark Somerset case would effectively end slavery in England) or it could lead the colonies in the effort to resist parliamentary rule. It could not do both. When the anti-slavery bill finally came up for a vote, a friend warned John Adams, “If passed into an act, it should have a bad effect on the union of the colonies.” It failed. In 1773, Boston’s blacks petitioned the Assembly, “We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them.” That summer, the question at Harvard’s graduation debate was “the Legality of Enslaving the Africans.” By then, though, everyone was concerned about tea.

Parliament passed the Tea Act, in May of 1773, in order to bail out the East India Company, which, with a surplus of tea and stiff competition from smugglers, was facing bankruptcy. In the fall of 1773, ships loaded with tea were sent to four cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. In late November and early December of 1773, the Beaver, the Eleanor, and the Dartmouth arrived in Boston Harbor. (A fourth ship ran aground off Cape Cod.) They had twenty days to unload their cargo. At ten o’clock on the morning of December 16th, five thousand people showed up at Boston’s Old South Meeting House to decide what to do. They debated for hours. Today, that debate is restaged at Old South most weekdays, by kids from the city’s public schools, who research real people, and play parts. One Wednesday last month, I watched a class of fifth graders from Dorchester duke it out. Zerah Jakub works for Old South’s education program. “Mr. Samuel Adams, where are you?” she called. Up to the front stepped a dark-skinned boy with glasses, to denounce the Tea Act. A tiny, willful girl played a shoemaker named George Robert Twelves Hewes: “Gentlemen, we cannot let the King and Parliament treat us like this.” “Fie!” the little Loyalists cried. “King George treats us well,” another girl whispered, from behind brown bangs. (The kids are always surprised to discover that, by eliminating duties on tea in England and lowering the import tax to just three pence, the Tea Act actually reduced the price of tea in the colonies.) “But we did not get to vote on it,” a kid with dimples pointed out. Finally, the small Samuel Adams shouted, “This meeting can do nothing more to save our country!” Thirty-seven fifth graders nearly blew the roof off: “Huzzah!”

Adams’s shout may have been the signal for three groups of men, about fifty altogether, to head to prearranged spots, including the print shop of Benjamin Edes’s Boston Gazette and possibly the Green Dragon, where they disguised themselves as Mohawks, smearing their faces with soot. Then, while townspeople watched and joined in, they marched to Griffin’s Wharf, boarded the three ships, and dumped into the harbor three hundred and forty chests of tea....

Read entire article at New Yorker

comments powered by Disqus