Gary B. Nash: Who Shall Write the History of the American Revolution?

Roundup: Talking About History

This article was the subject of a Cliopatria Symposium

Gary Nash, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (7-1-05) (subscribers only):

"Who shall write the history of the American Revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?" Thus wrote John Adams in 1815 to Thomas Jefferson. "Nobody," Jefferson replied from Monticello, "except merely its external facts. ... The life and soul of history must be forever unknown."

Not so. For more than two centuries, historians have written about the American Revolution, striving to capture the "life and soul" of which Jefferson spoke. We now possess a rich and multistranded tapestry of the Revolution, filled with engaging biographies, local narratives, weighty explorations of America's greatest explosion of political thinking, annals of military tactics and strategies, and discussions of the religious, economic, and diplomatic aspects of what was then called the "glorious cause."

Yet the great men -- the founding fathers -- of the revolutionary era still dominate the reigning narrative. Notwithstanding generations of prodigious scholarship, we have not appreciated the lives and labors, the sacrifices and struggles, the glorious messiness, the hopes and fears of the diverse groups that fought in the longest and most disruptive war in our history, with visions of launching a new age filling their heads.

Little is known, for example, of Thomas Peters, an African-born slave who made his personal declaration of independence in early 1776, fought for the freedom of African-Americans, led former slaves to Nova Scotia after the war, and completed a pilgrimage for unalienable rights by shepherding them back to Africa to participate in the founding of Sierra Leone. Why are the history books virtually silent on Dragging Canoe, the Cherokee warrior who made the American Revolution into a two-decade fight for his people's life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness? Can we capture the "life and soul" of the Revolution without paying close attention to the wartime experiences and agendas for change that engrossed backcountry farmers, urban craftsmen, deep-blue mariners, female camp followers, and food rioters -- those ordinary people who did most of the protesting, most of the fighting, most of the dying, and most of the dreaming about how a victorious America might satisfy the yearnings of all its peoples?

It is not hard today to understand that Americans in all their diversity entertain a variety of ideas about what they want their nation to be. Much the same was true two centuries ago. But from a distance, we don't think about our nation's birth that way. It is more comforting to think about united colonists rising up as a unified body to get the British lion's paw off the backs of their necks. That is a noble and inspiring story, but it is not what actually happened. It is assuredly not the story of radical democracy's work during the Revolution.

A people's revolution, an upheaval among the most heterogeneous people to be found anywhere along the Atlantic littoral in the 18th century, complicates the well-established narrative. It highlights the true radicalism of the American Revolution, an attitude that was indispensable to the origins, conduct, character, and outcome of the world-shaking event.

By "radicalism" I mean advocating wholesale change and sharp transformation, rooted in a dream of a better future imagined by those who felt most dissatisfied with the conditions they experienced as the quarrel with Britain unfolded. For a reformed America, they looked toward a redistribution of political, social, and religious power; the discarding of old institutions and the creation of new ones; the overthrowing of ingrained patterns of conservative, elitist thought; the leveling of society so that top and bottom were not widely separated; the end of the nightmare of slavery and the genocidal intentions of land-crazed frontiersmen; the hope of women to achieve a public voice. That radicalism was usually connected to a multifaceted campaign to democratize society, to put "power in the people," as the first articles of government in Quaker New Jersey expressed it a century before the American Revolution.

The iconic founding fathers are surely part of the story. But in reality, those in the nether strata of colonial society and those outside "respectable" society were most of the people of revolutionary America. Without their ideas, dreams, and blood sacrifices, the American Revolution would never have occurred, would never have followed the course that we can now comprehend, and would never have reverberated around the world among oppressed people down to the present day....

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