The Institute for Advanced Study’s plan to build additional faculty housing at the Rev War battlefield has hit a snag. A state regulatory commission has blocked the proposal because of its proximity to a local stream.
Tag Archives: American Revolution
While bemoaning the lack of historical knowledge in the U.S., Andrea Tantaros of Fox News claimed that Americans “don’t even know why some guy in Boston got his head blown off because he tried to secretly raise the tax on tea. Most people don’t know that.” Asked to comment, historians of the American Revolution responded, “Wait, what?”
It’s a draft of a letter by Robert Livingston to the people of Great Britain. Pretty cool!
A few items worthy of note as we ring in 2014.
- This list of New Year resolutions for Kentuckians includes a few history-related things to do, including some sites that every citizen of the Bluegrass State should visit. I’ll add one more assignment for Kentuckians in 2014: If you haven’t already, read either Thomas Clark’s classic history of the state or the more recent volume by Lowell Harrison and James Klotter.
- Speaking of knowing your local history, all you folks in Winston-Salem should get acquainted with your town’s Rev War namesake.
- We’re getting a new statue of Sam Houston here in Tennessee, where he made a name for himself before heading off to Texas. There’s also a new Civil War Trails marker going up in Maynardville, just down the road from my neck of the woods.
- Zachary Keck argues that Americans’ fondness for revolutions is misplaced, and stems partly from our own revolutionary beginnings. But he also claims that the American Revolution wasn’t all that revolutionary, because it didn’t upset the status quo. Keck notes that most revolutions don’t create stable, free societies; real progress is due more to evolution than revolution. But should we consider the democratization of the nineteenth century to be an effect of the American Revolution or an example of gradual evolution? Gordon Wood took the long view of the Revolution as a process that turned America away from the hierarchical, colonial past and toward the democratic, egalitarian nineteenth century. Taken as a discrete event which ended in the 1780s, though, the Revolution seems more limited in scope. I guess it all depends on your perspective.
- By far the year’s most popular post here at Past in the Present was a 2012 item about an off-color anecdote told by Abraham Lincoln which made its way into Spielberg’s film.
- I’d like to pick a best American history book of 2013, but most of the books I read this year had already been in circulation for a while. People have been writing history books for a lot longer than I’ve been reading them, so I spend most of my reading time trying to catch up with backlisted titles. As for the best American history book I read in 2013, I’d probably go with Rachel Klein’s Unification of a Slave State: The Rise of the Planter Class in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1760-1808.
- High point of 2013 for me? Under any other circumstances, visiting the Freedom Trail, Lexington and Concord would be impossible to top, but…
As many of you probably know, Michael Kammen passed away a couple of weeks ago, ending a distinguished career marked by several important books and a term as president of the Organization of American Historians.
Coincidentally, when I found out about Kammen’s death I was about to start re-reading his book A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination. In this work, he argued that a common theme in fiction about the American Revolution was the notion of the founding as a rite of passage. Novelists have portrayed the War for Independence as a national coming-of-age story, and many have amplified this theme by populating their stories with characters on the verge of adulthood. For these characters, participation in the Revolution marks a transition to maturity, so that their own life stories reflect the larger story of their country. Many of these novelists have also employed generational conflict as a narrative device, with their young characters chafing under parental control just as America sought independence of a different kind from the mother country.
Kammen’s book deals primarily with novels, plays, and imagery. He relegated films about the Revolution a short sub-section of one chapter, due to a scarcity of original material. In the three decades since the publication of A Season of Youth, we’ve seen a few more (but not that many) theatrical and TV movies about the Revolution, and for the most part I think his thesis still holds up.
In fact, the most successful recent movie about the Revolution fits Kammen’s argument to a T. The Patriot is a story of generational conflict between Benjamin Martin and his oldest sons. Martin knows what sort of devastation the war with England will bring and is reluctant to get involved, while the two boys are eager to enlist. The protagonist gets dragged into the war by his children, one of whom is burning with patriotic idealism, and one of whom seems more fascinated by the trappings of war than anything, playing with toy soldiers and trying on his father’s old uniform coat.
The movie also portrays the war as a transition of a different sort for Martin’s younger children. For them, the war is not so much a step into maturity as a loss of innocence. Just as Martin predicts in an early speech, the Revolutionary War is fought on their doorstep. The family farm is an idyllic sanctuary in the movie’s opening sequence, but when the shooting starts, Martin’s attempts to shield his children from all the death and destruction prove futile. Check out this deleted scene:
There’s another way in which The Patriot supports Kammen’s thesis. He argued that by pitching the Revolution as a coming-of-age, Americans have also domesticated their own history. We’re a nation born in revolution, but we value order and stability. If the founding was a passage into adulthood, it was a one-time event that doesn’t need to be repeated. The notion of the Revolution as a rite of passage is thus a way of celebrating our violent and radical beginning without endorsing the overthrow of the status quo.
The Patriot’s closing scene shows us the Martin family returning to the site of their burned home at the war’s end. When they arrive, they find white and black veterans of Martin’s command working together to build them a new dwelling. The implication is that the destructive work of war and revolution is over, and it’s time to move on to the constructive work of building on a foundation. The movie thus emphasizes the possibilities the American Revolution opened and passes over the issues it left unresolved. And it would take another such violent upheaval to resolve some of them.
Every Christmas there’s a reenactment of the Continental Army’s crossing of the Delaware River on the way to attack the Hessians at Trenton, and one lucky guy gets to portray George Washington. I’d always assumed the organizers got their Washington the same way other museums and historic sites find people who do first-person portrayals—just flip through the Rolodex and make a phone call. Back when I was in the Lincoln museum business, we had a couple of go-to guys we used for this sort of thing. (There is, in fact, an Association of Lincoln Presenters in case you need somebody to show up at an event and deliver the Gettysburg Address.)
But it turns out the organizers of the Delaware crossing reenactment pick their Washington through a formal audition process every few years. Think American Idol, except with middle-aged men in tricorn hats. It’s the subject of a short documentary produced by The Star-Ledger.
I recommend watching the film, not just because it’s a fascinating glimpse into the commemoration of the Revolution but also because it’s surprising to see how fierce the competition is and how passionately these guys want the role. There are Rev War reenactors for whom this is the holy grail of living history, but of course only one guy is chosen, and there are some bitter feelings when the winner is announced. Of the competitors featured in the documentary, I think the guy who bore the strongest resemblance to Washington was the winner, but the film doesn’t really show any of them in character except for a few brief speech excerpts.
Portraying Washington at an event seems like it would be pretty tough, at least if you were really trying to get it right. Doing first-person interpretation to a crowd requires you to be engaging, but Washington was famously reserved. He was also a rather bland public speaker, at least when using a prepared text. I’d imagine that playing somebody more personable, like Franklin or Lincoln, would be a lot more fun.
A columnist at WND seems to be suggesting that the Framers are the ones who screwed up this whole America thing:
It is high time Americans celebrate the Anti-Federalists, for they were correct in predicting the fate of freedom after Philadelphia.
To deny that the Anti-Federalists were right is to deny reality.
Having prophesied that Philadelphia was the beginning of the end of the freedoms won in the American Revolution, our Anti-Federalist philosophical fathers fought to forestall the inevitable. They failed.
Now you know who got us into this mess. It was these guys: