So this past weekend I attended this thing: the 3rd Annual Conference on the American Revolution, held in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia and sponsored by the touring company America’s History LLC.
It was great fun hearing some of the biggest names in the field like Edward Lengel (Inventing George Washington), Glenn Williams (Year of the Hangman: Geroge Washington’s War Against the Iroquois) and James Kirby Martin (Forgotten Allies:The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution), who push new scholarship and interpretations. This year, the latter two focused on relationships between the Early American Government and the Six Nations of Upstate New York, aka the Iroquois Confederacy. In doing so, they move beyond both the archaic nationalist view of the Native peoples being an undifferentiated force against America and all freedom ever, as well as the more modern (or is it?) view as the Natives as purely victims of an equally un-nuanced US. Both Williams and Martin’s books focus on how the Revolution ultimately destroyed the long-dominant Itoquois Confederacy by splitting the loyalties of the Six Nations between the British and Americans.
Also amongst the big names were Todd Andrlink (Reporting the Revolution), Professor Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy (The Men who Lost America – Andrew Sullivan gives his take here) and Don Hagist (British Soldiers, American War). The three of them have produced highly successful work. Todd’s “Reporting the Revolutionary War” turns the traditional history book on its head: while most works offer analysis and provide their sources, “Reporting” has its sources–Revolutionary-Era Newspapers–actively displayed and leaves analysis up to the reader. In his talk to the Conference, Andrlink compares the burgeoning, ideologically-charged newspapers to modern social media, fueling the passions of people during this volatile age.
O’Shaugnessey and Hagist turn things on their heads, too, giving life and agency to the oft-seen enemies of the Revolution: the British Army. These two men approach the topic from opposite angles-O’Shaugnessey from the direction of the generals and politicians and Hagist from the common soldiers. Both of these works show the “Redcoats” as more than simply aristocratic dunderheads commanding a tea-drinking horde.
The Men who Lost America–which recently won the New York Historical Society’s book prize—shows how the British was faced with a task that they simply were unable to handle. King George III, though initially standoffish to Parliament’s tax policies, came to view their enforcement and, ultimately, the defeat of the Americans as the culmination of his role is Britain’s first truly patriot king in decades. Likewise, British Generals faced a far more challenging task than they realized. No matter how well trained, there was only so much the British Army could do so far away–conquering America would be like conquering Russia; many of the generals, while opposing the war in the first place, worked under the mistaken assumption that their army and government had more popular support than it really had.
British Soldiers, American War, on the other hand, focuses on the individual lives of the regular British Soldier through various first-person accounts. Mr. Hagist shows just how diverse the Army really was, made up of people from all over the British Isles and beyond, who volunteered for service for various reasons, coming from numerous professions. Hagist debunks numerous similar myths about punishment (the relative lack of ubiquity of the cat-o’nine tails) and the supposed wealth of the soldiers (often as short on supplies as their American counterparts) while showing just how brutal, tough and draining 18th Century War could be.
The work these historians do is absolutely critical! Of course, every historian thinks their work is the most important EVER! I certainly feel that way, which is what I’ve tried to do with my work on PLAYING AT WAR. Every historical period certainly has its fans, but the American Revolution has a certain place in our culture. After all, it is the time of the birth of America and therefore all human freedom ever!!!!
Thus, most depictions of the Revolution have had this….I don’t want to say fascist quality. I can’t. Isn’t fascism the opposite of freedom? Of course it is. But the narrative of the Revolution has been so set in stone, so sanctified, so damn cliche that it is no surprise that many who are not in the know find it either boring or baldly affirming their simplified view of history.
But what the works of historians like these show is that there is actual complexity here! Native peoples were not simply haters of Freedom, nor simply passive victims of The White Man–they had their own goals and interests! The British Army weren’t all church-burners led by stupid fops. And printers were businessmen and media manipulators like have existed for all time. The real story of the American Revolution, beyond the Hollywood movies, video games–I’m looking at you Assassins’ Creed III (mainly the marketing, though)–popular novels and, heck, even classrooms, is far more interesting complicated and multifaceted. There is so much more here than just the Founding Fathers making prophetic speeches about Liberty. There’s more than flapping American Flags. There’s more than mass actions of people screaming about Freedom. There’s more than documents sanctified higher than any monarch. There’s more than the dull, bland cliches bandied about by conservatives and liberals alike seeking to justify their political opinions. I love this historical period not because of all the ossified patriotism. I love it because there is a whole real world outside of it that has been left silent for too damn long.
Hopefully these books here will show you a whole new picture.
The question is: will this TV show?
Hear my thought next week.