What’s So Great about the American Revolution?

Recently I attended a planning meeting for New York’s commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution. National, state, and local organizations are planning events. Although I am all for public engagement with history and its consequences, discussions like these sometimes fill me with dread.

New York’s state historian Devin Lander convened this meeting at the Ganondagan State Historic Site, where French forces attacked and destroyed a Seneca town late in the seventeenth century. His goal is to create a commemoration that is inclusive and that incorporates the state’s history in all of its complexity and diversity. Hence the meeting at Ganondagan: the state historian agrees whole-heartedly that Native American history is New York State history. That’s a laudable and important goal, but it is going to be enormously challenging to pull it off. When it comes to commemorations, sometimes the desire to celebrate can cast out those who look at events with a critical eye.

Shawn McBurney, from the United States Semiquincentennial Commission, laid out his vision for the commemoration at the national level. America has never been perfect, McBurney said, but the commemoration effort should remind Americans that the nation has always tried to do better. McBurney emphasized “contributions” made by different groups to the American story. He spoke of emphasizing “the continued vitality of American institutions,” and the “shared ideals and values” embraced by Americans. The tone struck me as celebratory, as in “we” have accomplished something special, unique, and valuable in world history over the course of the past two and a half centuries. I am not always sure that “we” have worked to make things better: some us, to be sure, but hardly all of us. And that part of McBurney’s job is to raise funds from corporate donors makes me wonder how critical a reassessment of our shared past might result from these efforts. McBurney, too, has a difficult job.

Other speakers pointed out that the American Revolution is the source of ideals that we as a nation have not completely realized. They spoke of the Revolution as something that is “continuing” and “unfinished.” So Whiggish, I thought. Onward and upward. Always progressing. Always getting better. Our failures are not failures because we have not completely had a chance to fail yet.

The American Revolution, no doubt, is an important event. Obviously it led to the creation of the United States. Like a child, however unlovable it becomes as it matures, this birth of a new nation we view almost automatically as cause for celebration.

But was the Revolution a good thing? I asked the question at this meeting. The answers, to me, seemed fumbling. It is not the job of historians to describe events as good or bad, I was told. But we do that all the time. Hitler? He was bad. Penicillin? That was a good thing. See? It’s easy. So I ask again, was the Revolution a good thing? Did it make the world a better place? Seriously. We assume so, but was it objectively, demonstrably so?

Was it something more than a chapter in the long story of vicious frontier warfare that began fifteen years before the Revolution and continued for another fifteen afterwards? It was a nightmare for many native peoples in the eastern half of the continent. For enslaved peoples? A handful found freedom as a result of the Revolution, but the vast, vast majority remained enslaved and confronted hardening racial attitudes in the new republic. Women? Nope. The Revolution did nothing for them, and the Founders made no effort to “remember the ladies.” Revolution, war, and the economic dislocation that accompanied these ruined many people.

Well, of course, the promoters of commemoration might reply. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. You have overlooked the liberating forces set free, the “transforming hand of Revolution.” Those “self-evident truths” described by Thomas Jefferson in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence included the “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Revolution was about freedom, liberty, and maybe a bit of equality. We began a journey in 1776, and we are getting closer to completing it every day.

Never mind that Jefferson never came close to living up to those ideals in his own life. If after the passage of two and a half centuries we have not yet fully lived up to those revolutionary ideals, isn’t it possible that we really do not value them much at all? America’s commitment to liberty and equality has been ambivalent at best. Great Britain, America’s opponent during (and after) the Revolution, abolished slavery before the United States without five years of fratricidal warfare, and it recognized the rights of women to cast ballots earlier as well. Certainly it is true that revolutionary movements in other parts of the world have borrowed the language of the American Revolution, but they seem more into its rhetoric than its substance. If after two-and-a-half centuries we continue to live in communities where inequality is so readily apparent, perhaps it is not unreasonable to ask whether we really do cherish liberty, freedom, equality, and democracy.

Perhaps we claim too much for the Revolution. Though historians have produced important scholarship, my students are shocked by revolutionary violence, saddened by the disruptions it caused, disappointed by its promises unfulfilled. Changes–at the local, continental, and global level–that are sometimes attributed to the Revolution may have occurred without it.

So what do we do, then, as part of a commemoration of the 250th Anniversary of the American Revolution? I hope we can leave behind uncritical stories of patriotism and heroism, of great leaders and Founders’ Chic. I hope we can avoid a repeat of the orgy of self-congratulatory nonsense that accompanied the bicentennial celebration forty-three years ago. When the American Battlefield Trust, for instance, states that the semiquincentennial “provides us with an unparalleled opportunity to celebrate the democratic ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence – principles that continue to guide us as a country and inspire people throughout the world,” I am skeptical. Can anyone honestly look at the conduct of our Bronze Creon, or Moscow Mitch McConnell, or the Republican party generally, and see any semblance of “democratic ideals” at all?

I hope that this commemoration looks instead at the different revolutionary experiences of people living on this continent to assess what the Revolution was, what it changed, and why it mattered. It is the sort of work that historians like Kathleen DuVal and Maya Jasanoff are doing, both in books my students are reading this semester in their course on the American Revolution. Different people experienced different Revolutions, and for many there was little in their story to celebrate.

Perhaps it is a function of commemorations to invoke patriotism, but that is not the job of historians. If commemorations there shall be, whether at the local, state, or national level, we historians must cast a critical eye on the troubling events of these violent years. History can be a brutal business. We historians tolerate myths poorly. We hold nothing sacred, save the critical methods we have learned over years of training. It is not our responsibility to help Americans feel good about their past. It is our job to point out to Americans their inattention and lack of interest in values and ideals for which their attachment to is hardly self-evident.

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