HIST 116: The American Revolution

Lecture 1

 - Introduction: Freeman's Top Five Tips for Studying the Revolution


Professor Freeman offers an introduction to the course, summarizing the readings and discussing the course’s main goals. She also offers five tips for studying the Revolution: 1) Avoid thinking about the Revolution as a story about facts and dates; 2) Remember that words we take for granted today, like “democracy,” had very different meanings; 3) Think of the “Founders” as real people rather than mythic historic figures; 4) Remember that the “Founders” aren’t the only people who count in the Revolution; 5) Remember the importance of historical contingency: that anything could have happened during the Revolution.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

The American Revolution

HIST 116 - Lecture 1 - Introduction: Freeman's Top Five Tips for Studying the Revolution

Chapter 1. Introduction: Is the War Part of the American Revolution? [00:00:00]

Professor Joanne Freeman: Now, I’m looking out at all of these faces and I’m assuming that many of you have probably arrived here with some preconceived notions about the American Revolution. I’m assuming that at least some of you are sitting there and in the back of your mind you’re thinking — Declaration of Independence, a bunch of battles, George Washington, a little bit of Paul Revere thrown in — and all of those things are going to appear in the course but obviously the real American Revolution is a lot more complex than that. It’s more than a string of names and documents and battles, and as a matter of fact in many ways the American Revolution wasn’t just a war. If you went back to the mid-eighteenth century, went back to the period of the Revolution or maybe just after it, and you asked people how they understood what was happening, many of them would tell you that the war was actually only a minor part of the American Revolution. Some would tell you the war actually wasn’t the American Revolution at all and you’ll see the — I should mention that the syllabus is finally up online so it’s there for you, but you will see when you look at the syllabus that at the very start of it there are two quotes and I want to read them here because they make this point really well.

So the first quote is from a letter by John Adams and he’s writing to Thomas Jefferson in 1815 and he’s heard about an attempt to write the history of the American Revolution so this is what Adams has to say about that. “As to the history of the Revolution, my ideas may be peculiar, perhaps singular, but what do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution.” There is the moment where you go “Huh?” “It was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington.”

Okay. So there we have John Adams saying that the war was actually no part of the Revolution. It’s a pretty famous quote but it’s a pretty interesting statement. Now I want to mention here, and it’s very early in the course for me to have worked you in to liking John Adams and I’m going to talk more about John Adams in a few minutes, but I will mention here since I’ve just read that quote if partway through the semester you decide you’re just dying to read dead people’s mail, which is basically what historians do for a living, a great volume to read is actually the letters that Jefferson and Adams sent back and forth to each other over the course of their lives. They’ve all been pulled together into one volume and the best part of that volume is the end section, the letters in which these guys were writing to each other in their old age. So you have these two Founder figures, former presidents, and they’re just basically letting it rip in these letters. They’re talking about everything. They’re talking about all the things actually you probably wouldn’t talk about normally: religion, politics, who they hate, who they like, what they thought of the Revolution, what they thought of their own presidency, what they thought of the other guy’s presidency, the top ten Founder funerals. Actually, there’s a little section, although I think it’s the top three Founder funerals, but it’s a weird, really interesting range of stuff and it’s just these two people really excited about the fact that they’ve retired and all they need to do now is write to each other and really get to know each other better. So it’s a great volume. It’s edited by Lester Cappon. The last name is C-a-p-p-o-n if you’re interested.

Okay. So that quote I just read you is actually from that series of letters, Adams saying that the war was no part of the Revolution. Adams does say, “Well, maybe my ideas are a little bit peculiar” but he’s not the only one spouting that kind of thought. So here is Benjamin Rush, who I guess in a way you could say was doctor to the stars. He was actually this renowned doctor from the revolutionary and early national period and he had a lot of high-placed political friends. So here’s Benjamin Rush writing in 1787: “There is nothing more common than to confound the terms of the American Revolution with those of the late American war. The American war is over but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of this great drama is closed.” So there you have Benjamin Rush saying that boy, this is a common problem. A lot of people mix up American Revolution with American war and they’re not just one and the same thing. The war is over. The Revolution goes on, and Rush is saying this even as late as 1787. It’s four years after the treaty that ended the war, we’re heading in to Constitution territory, and to Rush, the Revolution is continuing.

So what do these people mean? Well, in part, they are expressing part of what this class is going to be exploring. They’re basically suggesting that the American Revolution represented an enormous change of mindset as loyal British colonists — right? — long-standing loyal British colonists, were transformed gradually into angry revolutionaries and ultimately into Americans. Like John Adams suggests, the beginnings of this transformation predate the actual fighting, and like Benjamin Rush suggests, it doesn’t just come to a close when you sign a peace treaty. So when you look at things from this broad view, the Revolution actually becomes the beginning of a period in which the American nation was really inventing itself, and this is a really dramatic kind of invention. You have — In a sense we’re just little pipsqueaks at this point, and so you have these little pipsqueaks and they are actually saying, “Okay. We reject monarchy. We’re going to turn towards a democratic republic.” They’re saying, “Yeah. Well, we know the power’s been at the imperial center forever. We’re going to turn our backs on that and pull power in to what’s basically the margins of the British empire.” They’re turning away from an assumption that the few are in power and they’re saying, “Well, what if we try putting the many in power?”

Those are pretty dramatic changes and they aren’t of course the only changes. People — Colonists began to think about themselves differently. It’s really easy to underestimate the degree to which individual colonies at that time were really like little independent nation-state colonies. They were not united in any sense of the term. There wasn’t any tradition of colonies being able to communicate between each other. It was actually in some ways easier to communicate with the mother country than to get some kind of news up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Colonists often knew more about the mother country than they knew about people from other colonies. They — When you look at correspondence from this period, people often refer — Northerners will refer to Southerners as though they’re people from a strange, alien country who have weird accents. It’s hard to know what they are saying; they dress so strangely. It’s amazing to think about the differences, the degree to which colonies really stood alone in this time period. And this idea, that there really is pretty much no reason to assume that these colonies would have been able to join together, that’s pretty much going to be in the first two or three lectures of the course. What we talk about is we try and get a sense of who these colonists are, and how they’re ending up moving their way into a revolution. So this scattered group of independent colonists gradually came together to form one united nation, not the goal but the outcome.

Given everything that I just said, you can see why this idea that there might be a united nation is actually a pretty big surprise. You can see why a lot of people assumed that it could never work. You can actually also assume why a lot of people might not even have liked it as an idea, and you can even see why after the Constitution goes into effect and the government is getting under way, even then people were really just not sure this thing was going to work. They really — They referred to it as an experiment, which is really how they viewed it. And it’s amazing when you look at letters from the 1790s you’ll see these little throwaway comments like “If this government lasts more than five years, here’s what I think we should do.” Okay, there — It’s a completely weird mindset and it’s not something that we would assume is there, but this is pretty much a high-stakes experiment.

Chapter 2. Reading Materials for the Course [00:08:25]

So this class is going to explore this big shift in mindset, and the war will be at the center of this shift, and it’s going to do this from a participant’s point of view. It’s going to really grapple with how things made sense at the time to the people who were there. And I’m going to go more in to that in a minute or two.

I want to talk for just a second about how the course is organized and just for a minute or two about some of the readings for the course. The course is partly chronological and partly thematic so we do proceed along, we follow the narrative of events of how things evolved, all those nasty acts, people protesting, have a war, try to figure out what to do after the war. We do follow that sort of trajectory, but we’re also going to once in a while step back and look at the big picture, so that we’re not just following events; we’re going to be always putting events in context.

And the readings for the course go in that same direction. We’re going to read Gordon Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution, which is a really great overview of this time period and also presents an argument, obviously as you could tell from the title, that the Revolution was really radical. Some people agree with that and some disagree, and actually one of the discussion sections is geared around discussing that very idea, and by the end of the course you’ll probably have some pretty strong ideas not necessarily agreeing with mine but, based on what you’ve read and what I’ve said and what you’ve thought, you’ll probably have some strong ideas about how radical was the American Revolution.

We’re going to be reading Robert Gross’s The Minutemen and Their World, which you can hear is right along the lines of what I was just saying. It really gives you a sense of what it was like at the time for people who ended up doing things like fighting at Lexington and Concord.

We’re going to read Bernard Bailyn’s Faces of Revolution, which includes an array of chapters on different people who played a major role in the Revolution as well as chapters on the ideals and the ideology or basically the logic of American independence, and Bailyn is really well known as sort of — He wrote this amazing book on the ideology of the American Revolution, and what you’re going to be reading; he basically took a big, meaty chunk from that book, the part that everybody really focuses on, and put it in this book, Faces of Revolution, so we will be reading that as well as part of the readings for the course.

We’re also going to be reading Ray Raphael’s A People’s History of the American Revolution, which does just what the title would suggest. It does — It looks at how different kinds of people, Native Americans, average rebels, African Americans, Loyalists, women, how all of these different people of different types experienced the Revolution.

And then in addition to reading historical scholarship, we’re going to be reading some of the literature of the period. We’re going to be reading Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which I love. How many of you have read Common Sensebefore? A good number of you, not — yeah, some of you. I love Common Sense. I think it’s an amazing piece of writing, and I think when you read it for this course you’ll get a sense of why it had such a huge influence at the time.

We’re going to read some essays from The Federalist written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison and John Jay, but we are not going to read them as — You may have read them before. You may have encountered The Federalistessays as the grand source of authority on the Constitution. Right? How could it not be that when you have Founder-type guys talking about the Constitution and they were the guys who were at the convention? Well, the fact of the matter is The Federalist essays weren’t intended to be an objective document. They’re actually really subjective, and we’re going to look at them in this course as what they were written to be, which is a really big commercial advertisement for this new experimental Constitution. They were actually trying to sell people on an idea, and because of that, as we’ll see when we read that for this course, there are things in there that maybe are a little bit exaggerated and things in there that maybe aren’t talked about in great detail and one or two things that probably aren’t really true but it was in a good cause. Right? These guys are saying, “I really think this Constitution is the way to go. Let me say something that’s going to really calm you so that we can go ahead with this experiment.”

And of course we’re going to be reading the Declaration of Independence. We’re going to be reading the Constitution. We’re going to be reading a lot of documents and letters and other kinds of assorted items to really give us a sense of the period, and at one point I’m even going to bring in a newspaper from the period so that we can actually look at it and get a sense of how people are getting news of the war at that moment. A lot of these documents we’re going to pull from a book called Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, and it’s a nice collection of primary documents and essays about sort of related themes. It always makes me laugh when I say that title because it’s part of a series of books and the books are Major Problems in the Revolution, Major Problems in the Early National Period, Major Problems in the Civil War, so basically all of American history appears to be a major problem, [laughter] which — It kind of gives me pause, but despite that, it’s a nice collection of things and we’ll be using that for the class.

Chapter 3. Freeman’s Tips One and Two: Facts and Meanings [00:13:45]

So that gives you a sense of how the course is going to flow and what these readings are going to do, which brings me to the portion of the lecture that I’m going to call Freeman’s Top Five Tips for Studying the American Revolution, and I want to explain before I launch into them what the heck I mean. Basically, when I was preparing this lecture and thinking to myself what do I want you to know about right at the outset before we even start talking about the Revolution itself. And I ended up with a list of things that as I talk about them here may seem obvious, but the more I talk about them I think the less obvious they’ll appear, and they’re actually really important to consider in a course that deals with something like America’s founding. There’s a lot wrapped up in that. Just that phrase. Just think about the phrase — right? — the ‘Founding Fathers,’ the ‘Founding Period.’ You just can see the capital letters. [laughs] You don’t even need to see it in writing. In your mind it’s always capitalized. We assume a lot of things about this time period, and it’s sort of an iconic period when you think about American history.

To us, a lot of the people and events of this time period and the documents of this time period are kind of what America is all about, which is understandable, but to think about the founding period as historians, we need to think differently. We need to be aware of all of those assumptions, all of that cultural baggage that we bring when we’re looking at something like the American Revolution, we need to be aware of them, and then we need to get past them so that we can really begin to understand the people and events of the Revolution for what they were. And that’s how I got to Freeman’s Top Five Tips for Studying the American Revolution; five things that you should bear in mind when studying this period, five things obviously that will be useful to remember throughout the course, basically all of them aimed at just shaking the assumptions right out of us. And the first tip is actually really related to that point.

The first tip is: Avoid the dreaded Revolutionary War fact bubble. And what I mean by that is you’re going to be sitting here and over the course of the semester you’re going to hear a lot of familiar names and events, Boston Tea Party, George Washington, the greatest hits of the Revolution, the things you know and love and learned in high school. They’re all going to be here and hearing all of these beloved greatest hits you may be tempted to sort of sit back in your seat and drift along with the happy, familiar events. Aaah, the story of the American Revolution; I love the story of the American Revolution. Well, I love the story of the American Revolution but there’s a different story of the American Revolution besides all these names, facts, and dates that you probably have arrived here with in your head. It’s a really good dramatic story but it’s not a string of facts, so thus the fact bubble. It’s not a fact bubble. The Revolution obviously is a lot more than that and you need to sort of almost be aware of the fact and then allow yourself to step back and look at the big picture. And John Adams and Benjamin Rush and others like them would have been the first to tell you the facts in a sense are the least of it.

So that’s — Tip number one is don’t get lost in the dreaded Revolutionary War fact bubble, which I have to say it makes me think of the first time that I taught this course. I was actually a brand new professor and I had just come to Yale and it was my first course and it was my first lecture in my first course and I’m [sound cuts out] It actually was in Connecticut Hall, which, for those of you who don’t know, dates back to the period when this course is talking about and was Nathan Hale’s — essentially his dorm. So there I am. I’m a brand new professor to Yale and I’m teaching a course about the Revolution and it’s in a building that dates to the Revolution, so I’m having sort of a “wow” Yale moment as it is, and I’m off, I’m giving my lectures, and I’m really excited. I give about three of them and someone raises their hand after about three lectures and they have kind of a puzzled expression on their face. I said, “Yes?” And he says, “Excuse me, Professor Freeman. What are we supposed to be memorizing? Where are the facts and dates?” [laughs] So as a new professor my first impulse was: Darn! I forgot the facts and dates. [laughter] I got it wrong. [laughs] But actually, the fact of the matter is, they’re not the star of the show. Certainly, dates are not the star of the show. There are dates you’re going to have to remember so don’t think Easy Street; there’s not a date I have to know. There will be some dates, but this isn’t a story about dates. It’s obviously something a lot more interesting and a lot broader than that. Okay. Avoid fact bubble.

Tip number two: Think about the meaning of words. Now on the one hand, this may seem really obvious and you may be sitting here thinking oh, great, this is going to be a semester of Freeman saying: “What does revolution mean? What does war mean?”, which would be a really, really, really long semester, and that’s actually maybe — There might even be a point where I’ll say, “What does revolution mean?” I even kind of, sort of said it already, but that’s not what I mean when I say think about the meaning of words. What I really mean here is be careful what you assume about words because what seems obvious in meaning to you now probably meant something really different in 1776 or 1787, and I want to look at one example because it’s a really striking one and that’s the word “democracy.” Okay. So sitting here in this room, by our standards, democracy is a good thing. Right? Democracy is a good thing. Every once in a while as a professor you say something and then you think with horror about how it’s going to look in your notes. So you’ll have all these notes, and then it will say “democracy is a good thing,” [laughs] — a really sophisticated class we’re teaching here at Yale. But to us it’s good, and to people in the founding generation, not so much. They weren’t so sure about it. To them the word “democracy” signaled a kind of government in which every single person participated personally, not a government based on representation. We’re talking mass politics, in the minds of most people in the founding generation just the definition of what chaos was.

So just listen to a sentence in one of the last letters written by Alexander Hamilton, 1804, the night before his duel with Aaron Burr. So he’s sort of speaking to posterity in case he should die and this is what he writes in this letter. “I will here express but one sentiment, which is that the dismemberment of our empire” — I love the fact that America’s an empire in 1804 — “will be a clear sacrifice of great positive advantages without any counterbalancing good, administering no relief to our real disease, which is democracy.” Okay. Our real disease is democracy, Alexander Hamilton.

Now admittedly, Hamilton might not be the shining example of the point I’m trying to make here because he’s not exactly Mr. Democracy so you wouldn’t really expect him to be clapping his hands for it. But now listen to Thomas Jefferson, who maybe you would brand Mr. Democracy. So Jefferson in 1816 is chatting away with someone in a letter about what America’s trying to do and whether America’s actually achieving it, and he says, ‘Actually, democracy is pretty impractical.’ He can imagine it in a town but outside of one town it just won’t work; again, really clear. Their sense of what that word means is really different from our sense of what that word means. Now Jefferson immediately goes on to add that democratical — a democratical but representative government is a good thing. Right? A democracy, not so much, but democratical, which is a great — In the eighteenth century they were always adding “ical” on to the end of things, which could end perfectly happily with a “c.” [laughs] This is a great eighteenth-century-sounding word, “democratical.” A democratical representative government is a good thing, but democracy not.

So the moral of this story is don’t fall in to what I call ‘democraspeak.’ Don’t write papers where you toss around terms like “democracy,” “liberty,” “freedom,” without really thinking about what you mean and what they meant. As Americans we’re used to tossing those words around, but to early Americans, if you think about it, to early American slave holders, words like “liberty,” other such words, have a much more complicated meaning.

Chapter 4. Freeman’s Tip Three: The Founders Were Human, Too [00:22:14]

So tip number two: Think about the meaning of words. Which brings us to tip number three: Remember that Founders were people. Now as I was writing this I thought oh, that’s another one of those things I don’t want to see in people’s notes: [laughs] Democracy is good, Founders are people. [laughs] Such a highfalutin’ course I’m teaching here. Again it sounds really obvious, but what I really mean here is we tend to forget this pretty simple fact.

We forget that the Founders were people. We assume that they were these all-knowing demigods who were sort of calmly walking their way through the creation of a new model nation. We kind of deify them. We put them up on this sort of — aah — founder mountaintop of American history, and it’s — really it’s easy to do. Sometimes just listening to their words or reading their words would inspire you to want to do that. Here is a random phrase. I thought what could I write here that would be sort of inspiring Founder talk and this was the one — two sentences that I came up with just because they always stick in my mind because they sound kind of amazing. This is actually Thomas Paine, Common Sense. In the middle of it he writes, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. The birthday of a new world is at hand.”

Okay. That’s really — That’s inspiring stuff. That’s fine writing, but that’s inspiring talk and it’s supposed to be obviously because Paine’s trying to convince people that independence is a really good idea, but these kinds of words, this sort of glorious rhetoric, shouldn’t block out the simple fact that the Founders were people. They were regular human beings. They were well educated, they were thoughtful, they were sometimes well-meaning, they were sometimes hard-working, maybe sometimes not so much, they were people aiming high, they were people who did feel responsible to posterity, but still they were people.

And to me this is one of the really exciting things about history generally and about this time period specifically. We’re talking about people trying to figure things out. We’re talking about the most basic things about America — right? — its existence, [laughs] that it is a nation, that it has a constitution, and we’re looking at people trying to figure out how all that stuff is going to be created and how it’s going to work. These are people who are scared. These are people who make dumb mistakes on occasion. They’re figuring it out as they go.

The history of this period is a history of decisions of various kinds, and these were hard decisions and they were being made by people who did not know the answers. They’re making it up as they go along. I think that’s just fascinating when you just read their correspondence and get a sense of how much they’re really in the dark. There’s — Actually, when you read letters from the period, a lot of them say the same thing right when the government launches. I think George Washington and James Madison and a Pennsylvania senator almost say the exact same thing. It’s almost like they went in to a room and said, “So how will we express being scared at this moment? Aah, here’s a good sentence.” They all say basically, “I feel like I’m walking on hollow ground. I feel like the ground’s going to break beneath my feet.” They’ve just launched this Constitution and they all are sort of standing there on the national stage thinking, what if this all explodes? Do we actually know what we’re doing? That’s a really fascinating part of this period to me.

Now of course sometimes people did try to figure out the answers in a wonderful sort of Enlightenment way, and my favorite example of this is James Madison who prepared himself ultimately for the Constitutional Convention by studying all governments across all time. [laughs] Can you imagine? Well, I’d better go study all of government ever [laughter] to get ready for this convention, but he does. It’s a great sort of Enlightenment thing to do. He’s thinking I will now discover the eternal pattern of politics and he’s thinking if I can do that then I can reach for the best, I can avoid the worst, and whatever we’re going to do when we make a new government maybe we’re going to actually do something better than what’s come before. So there’s a logic to it; as ambitious as it is there’s a logic. And he was serious about it so it wasn’t even just I wonder what happens if I read a lot about government. He actually was serious about it. He even made a kind of a little chart in which he listed the governments and then listed pros and cons. You know, like what did I think of Sparta? He’s sort of [laughter] amazing, across all time, so I love the fact that he did that Founder-like thing to do, but there you see a person, a really intellectually ambitious person, trying to figure things out like how do we know what to make? [laughs] What’s this constitution supposed to look like? How are we going to figure that out? Okay. I’ll just study all of government and let you know.

So when we talk about the American Revolution we’re talking about people and this course takes this idea really seriously. Part of what we’re going to be doing over the course of the semester is looking at the Revolution from the vantage point of participants, trying to see how people at the time understood the events unfolding around them. How did the colonists understand themselves as British subjects? How did they feel about the British empire or about the King or about Parliament? How did they come to put American-ness in the foreground? How did rebelling against their own country make sense?

And that’s something I think we also tend to forget about the Revolution. We think of it as our war; it’s us against them and them equals the British, but of course we were the British. So it’s something that you don’t think about but people at the time, certainly in the 1790s, people referred to this as “the Civil War” because that’s what it was. It’s just not the way we happen to think about it because in our mind we’ve already traveled down the road and we’re already “us” but in their mind it was in a sense brother against brother; it was us against us. So we’re going to try to keep that sort of thing in mind as we explore how the events of this time made sense at that time. And I will say here we are not going to forget about the British so we’re not going to have a patriot-centric course. The British have a logic to what they’re doing, whether they’re making policy or whether they’re fighting battles, and we will definitely look at the logic of what the British are doing as well as what the colonists are doing.

Now I will admit right here up front that I will be offering you a sampling of really arrogant British quotes about crude colonists, and I’m doing that partly because there’s just so many good, really arrogant quotes about [laughs] American colonists that I can’t resist sprinkling them through my lectures and I can’t resist that so much that I have two here that I just randomly added in because I have a reason to and so I will. But it’s just — it gives you a sense of how at least some of the British were thinking and looking at really these little upstarts on the margins of empire. So random arrogant British quote number one, and this is from a customs official: “American colonists are a most rude, depraved, degenerate race, and it is a mortification to us that they speak English and can trace themselves from that stock.” [laughter] Wow. [laughter] Just — Even English is a problem. That’s a statement.

Okay. Arrogant quote number two, and this one I picked just because it’s about George Washington, and it’s hard to imagine people saying something arrogant about George Washington who seems to be Mr. Symbol of Authority, but here’s another British official who met with George Washington and then wrote back home about what he thought. And he says, “Somehow, and I can’t imagine how, he’s learned the basics of how to behave in a court society.” It’s like, ‘ooh.’ [laughter] That must have been a really fun interview, too, if that’s the attitude this guy had. So there’ll be a sprinkling of that because at dramatic moments in the war there’s always someone who steps forward and offers that point of view.

That said, we are going to do justice to the British side of the dispute, to the logic behind the policy that they were making, because it’s not as though they make a bunch of dumb policies that make absolutely no sense and we’re righteously outraged and then there’s a war. Their policies made sense to them. They didn’t happen to always make sense to the colonists but they made sense to them, and the same thing goes with British battle plans which, looking back in the long view of time when we start talking about them, might seem a little goofy but there’s actually a lot of logic for what they were trying to do when they were attacking the colonies.

Oh, and I will also mention — I guess I probably don’t have time to talk about it now. When I was preparing this lecture, casting around, trying to figure out what will I put in the lecture, I don’t know how I came across it but I discovered the Battle of New Haven. Did anyone know about the Battle of New Haven? Because I did not know. And I know there’s hostilities around — and I don’t know if there’s Yale lore that of course you’re all sitting there saying, “Well, of course we all know about the Battle of New Haven,” [laughter] but I — [laughter] I’m the only one who doesn’t know about the Battle of New Haven, but it’s — actually it’s a good story. I’m not going to tell it now. I’m going to leave you in suspense. It will appear when we start getting in to the fighting of the Revolution, but let me just give you the sneak preview, which is it does involve the president [correction: a professor] of Yale College with a gun in his hand running to fight the British, so it’s [laughter] a Yale moment that we have, so I will talk about the Battle of New Haven.

Okay. So we aren’t going to be looking at a story of good guys versus bad guys. We will be reconstructing opposing points of view, trying to figure out how those points of view made sense and then obviously we’ll be able to step back and say, “What happens when you put those two opposing points of view in contact with each other?”

Chapter 5. Freeman’s Tip Four: The Other Revolutionaries [00:31:44]

So tip three: Founders are people. Which brings us to tip four: We’re not just talking about Founders. The Revolution was not just a quiet conversation between a bunch of guys wearing wigs and knee britches. Right? We sort of have this image that the Revolution is guys in short pants with wigs in a room doing this. [poses] No. [laughter] That’s the entire founding I think in our minds sort of. I’ll say that right. So that’s not the Revolution. Right? That’s not what happened. We’re talking about a revolution, a popular uprising by vast numbers of colonists fought on American ground by Americans of all kinds, and it meant different things to different kinds of people. This is not to say that the Founders aren’t important, far from it, and as you will gather very quickly in this course I love these guys. Right? I love talking about these guys, I love writing about these guys, so I’m certainly not saying, “Who cares about Founders?”

But what I am saying is that they’re not the only ones who mattered. They didn’t have their own revolution while everybody else watched. We’re talking about a popular revolution grounded on the ideas and actions of people throughout many different levels of society. Now somewhat conversely this brings us to John Adams. As I promised at the beginning, John Adams is coming and here’s John Adams. You’ll be hearing from him more than once this semester and actually you already heard from him once so I can promise that that’s true. This isn’t because I think that John Adams is the most important figure from the period. It’s not because I think that he’s always right. In fact, the reason I quote him a lot is he’s a brilliant, blunt, really direct commentator with — and this is all-important; you almost need a drum roll here — he has a sense of humor. John Adams has a sense of humor. It’s not every day that you find a Founder with a sense of humor. [laughs] I can vouch. There aren’t a lot of chuckling Founders. Certainly on paper there’s not a lot of chuckling going on among the Founders. Probably in person there was, but on paper not a lot of them commit humor to paper and John Adams does. He’s even self-deprecating sometimes, which — Nobody wants to be self-deprecating on paper when they know that they’re going to be a Founder, but John Adams sometimes is, and I’m going to offer one little, tiny dumb example, the first thing that popped in to my mind when I thought, ‘well, what am I going to say to show John Adams’ sense of humor?’

So this is actually from that same series of letters in their old age when they’re writing back and forth to each other. So Adams is writing to Jefferson and he signs his letter with this: “John Adams in the eighty-ninth year of his age, too fat to last much longer,” [laughter] which is not typical Founder talk. [laughs] George Washington is not signing his letters that way but Adams commits that sort of stuff to paper. What that means is not only is he blunt, direct, and intelligent but he also even gets to be humorous as well. So in Adams we have this sort of cantankerous, sometimes bemused, more often irritated, occasionally self-aware, sometimes really not, stubborn, book-steeped, event-experiencing, action-taking tour guide. He’s not going to be there all the time. There are going to be long stretches of the course where we don’t find John Adams but he’s definitely going to make repeat appearances, and in the middle of the course he’ll even get to tell a really good story which he actually basically wrote down and said, “Let me tell you this story.” So that’s — As a historian, what’s better than historical characters doing exactly what you want them to do? ‘Here’s a cool story on the Revolution. You can quote it in your lecture courses.’ [laughter]

Oh, and this actually makes me think of another John Adams-related thing before I get to tip number five, which I will get to. Partly I’m curious about this and partly I want to mention something. How many of you saw the HBO mini-series on John Adams? Okay, a goodly number of you. I mention that for a specific reason. Now I will say I of course watched it and the period when it was airing was a really interesting period for me because as an eighteenth-century historian this may be the only time I’ve ever been culturally relevant to popular culture. [laughter] I was like: it’s my moment. Right? People are coming up to me and saying, “I’ve got a question about John Adams.” Wow. [laughter] This is great. So it was an interesting moment when people actually were thinking about John Adams, and I will say also I watched it with a few historians and we were prepared to throw popcorn at the screen and we ended up pretty much liking it and we were surprised. About halfway through we all looked at each other and said, “It’s actually pretty good.” So I don’t — I mean, of course there are always things that any kind of TV or movie production about history gets wrong, so I won’t say that there’s nothing wrong in it.

However, there is one thing that is wrong and I’m going to mention it because if you have pictures in your mind from the mini-series as you sit here in this course it could be a bad thing to think that they are accurate, and what I’m talking about is actually the — I think it’s the first episode. It is of course the first episode, and that’s the episode where the Revolution is beginning and you see people milling about sort of with fists. Right? That represents the Revolution. You see the beginning of the Revolution. The bizarre thing about the way that they depict it is apparently according to the producers of this mini-series, if there was something happening in the early stages of the Revolution, John Adams apparently was there. Boy, they’re shooting at Lexington and Concord. Adams races across the countryside [laughter] to get to Lexington and Concord. Boston Massacre — John Adams staring at the — [laughter] Well, the idea is really that John Adams somehow is never off his horse, riding around Massachusetts trying to be an eyewitness to every [laughter] historical event. Now I understand that probably the people who made this thought: how the heck are we going to communicate Boston Massacre, Lexington and Concord? This is a film about Adams and we can’t say, “Put Adams over here while we now turn to random people on a field shooting.” [laughter] So I understand narrative-wise why they needed to do this, but Adams was not at every historical event [laughs] in the Revolutionary War. He was at many and he definitely had an insider’s view of the Boston Massacre, but he was not everywhere in Massachusetts.

Chapter 6. Freeman’s Tip Five and Conclusion [00:37:48]

Okay. That oddly enough brings me to tip number five in the Freeman Guide, and tip number five is: remember contingency. Again, an obvious thing but something we don’t think about. People at the time didn’t know what was going to happen, so Adams could not race to places where he didn’t know the things that happened yet: “Something might be happening at Lexington.” People didn’t know what was going to happen.

Think for a moment about all of the things that we assume about the Revolution. We assume that the colonists were right and that the British were wrong. We assume that a Revolution was inevitable. We assume that there was broad agreement at any one time about what should be done. Right? Of course we need to declare independence. Of course the colonists are going to win the war. Of course there should be a national union. Those are all the sorts of things that I think we do assume and that’s a lot of assumptions; that’s a lot of “of courses,” but in fact it’s important to remember that people didn’t know what was going to happen.

You really need to allow for contingency because literally what they assumed was: anything can happen. Anything can happen. Again one of the things that I love about this time period is that the emotions are so heightened. If you’re in an atmosphere where everything’s up in the air and you’re in the middle of a revolution or you’re trying to create a government and you literally don’t know what’s coming next and anything can happen, ‘maybe I’ll get hanged by the king, maybe I’ll get shot going home, maybe America will hate the Constitution so much they will throw rocks at my head.’ I mean, I don’t know what they were thinking — ‘maybe the Constitution will last four days and then collapse.’ Whatever they’re thinking, the fact is because they literally think anything can happen, anything could fall apart at any second, the emotions are really raised and it’s why a lot of the rhetoric in this period is so extreme. It’s not that these guys are trying to be dramatic. They actually are dramatic; they’re feeling that this is a dramatic kind of a moment, and I don’t think you get that sense, I don’t think you get that idea unless you remind yourself about contingency, about the fact that there are no predetermined outcomes and that anything can happen. I think particularly when you’re studying a revolution it’s really important to remember contingency, and we will discover what contingency means in this time period over the course of the semester. And I will end there. I will see many of you perhaps on Thursday. I will probably know next week better about the reality of when we’ll be meeting for discussion sections.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]