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Revisiting, Revising, and Reviving America's Founding Era

by James H. Merrell

"Who shall write the history of the American Revolution?
Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?"

"Nobody; except merely its external facts....
The life and soul of [its] history must for ever be unknown."

--Exchange between John Adams & Thomas Jefferson, 1815

Most Americans nowadays like to think that they have the American Revolution pretty well figured out. Conventional wisdom starts the saga in 1763 when Britain, saddled with debt at the close of the Seven Years' War, levied new taxes that prompted her American colonists to resist, and then to reject, imperial rule. Having declared independence and defeated the British, American patriots then drafted the constitution that remains the law of the land to this day. With George Washington's inauguration as president in 1789, the story has a happy ending and the curtain comes down. This time-honored script renders the road from colonies to nation clear, smooth, and straight, with familiar landmarks along the way, from Boston's Massacre and Tea Party through Lexington and Concord, then on to Bunker Hill and Yorktown before reaching its destination: Philadelphia in 1787, where the Founders invented a government worthy of America's greatness. Those Founders are equally familiar. Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, Sam and John Adams, Patrick Henry and Alexander Hamilton: in the popular mind this band of worthies, more marble monuments than mere mortals, guides America towards its grand destiny with a sure and steady hand. "[F]or the vast majority of contemporary Americans," writes historian Joseph Ellis, the birth of this nation is shrouded by "a golden haze or halo."(1)
So easy, so tame, so much "a land of foregone conclusions" does America's Revolution appear that we tend to honor and ignore it rather than study it. In 1976, the 200th birthday of the Declaration of Independence, "every sidewalk survey show[ed] the great majority of Americans unwilling to sign [the] Declaration if it [was] presented to them without its identifying label." During the Constitution's bicentennial eleven years later, American ignorance of the nation’s other sacred text proved equally profound. Almost two thirds of those asked thought that the document made English the country's official language, while half believed it contained the phrase "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need." Karl Marx would doubtless be pleased by this news; it is less certain that the Founders would be. Nor have the years since done much to shake the sense of knowing, too well, the American Revolution. Except for an occasional media event such as Mel Gibson's film "The Patriot," the Revolution has not come close to matching the fascination with the Civil War, as a visit to the history section of any bookstore will attest.(2)
The Founding Fathers would be surprised by our certainty, for they themselves were confused about the "course of human events" they had engineered, the very drama in which they starred. The glum, somewhat plaintive exchange quoted at the outset of this essay between John Adams and his friend Jefferson, written in the twilight of their lives, suggests how hard they thought it was to make sense of their Revolution.
(3) Adams, Jefferson, and their contemporaries knew what generations since have largely forgotten: America's birth was a convoluted, unlikely, even far-fetched event. That a scattered, squabbling collection of loyal British subjects could, in a decade's span, turn into proud Americans bent upon independence; that they could then go on to defeat the greatest military power of the age; and that, having somehow managed this much, they could avoid falling out with one another in wrack and ruin--on the face of it the whole thing seemed, to many at the time, improbable, even impossible. "As Adams remembered it," writes Ellis, "'all the great critical questions about men and measures from 1774 to 1778' were desperately contested and highly problematic occasions, usually 'decided by the vote of a single state, and that vote was often decided by a single individual....It was patched and piebald policy then, as it is now, ever was, and ever will be.'"(4)
Surprised by our certainty and "our" Revolution's simplicity, the Founders would also be dismayed by our ignorance and our amnesia. They believed that these years were the most important in American history, indeed the most important in the history of the world. "'Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent--of at least one eighth part of the habitable globe," insisted Thomas Paine in January 1776, urging Americans toward independence. "'Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected, even to the end of time, by the proceedings now." Fifty years later Jefferson, reflecting on the meaning of July 4, 1776, echoed Paine on that moment's significance. "May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and assume the blessings of self-government." Thanks to the Revolution, Jefferson concluded, "All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man."
Paine and Jefferson were right. The world still looks to 1776 as a touchstone, and America today continues to operate largely within the paradigm hammered out some two centuries ago. Our governmental architecture would be instantly recognizable to the men who drew up the blueprint at Philadelphia in 1787. Familiar, too, would be many of our ongoing national arguments, for that epoch also witnessed the first real discussion of race relations in America, heard the first debates about women's rights and roles, and offered the first glimpse of America’s future as an imperial power. To the Founding era, too, properly considered, can be traced the very ethos of modern American life, the egalitarian imperative that has been a hallmark of American culture from Alexis de Tocqueville's day to our own. Surely this event, so long taken for granted, merits another, closer look.
During the past generation, historians have begun to take that closer look, to tell new stories of the Revolution that, broadening and deepening our knowledge of those days, overturn the time-honored pieties and verities. This new body of scholarship has recovered what Adams and Jefferson knew: America's beginnings were more complicated and contentious, more furious and fragile, more mysterious and surprising--and more radical and important--than we tend to think.
That re-vision has gone in two directions at once. One has been to add substantially to the cast of characters on the Revolutionary stage. Inspired by the social and political currents of the 1960s calling for fuller attention to the dispossessed and disenfranchised in America's past and present, historians began peering past the Washingtons and Franklins in order to examine the obscure--and, for so long, silent--people who were important players in the unfolding drama. The poor shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hewes, who faced the redcoats during the Boston Massacre and dumped tea in the Boston harbor; Joseph Plumb Martin, a common soldier who was with Washington's army from before Valley Forge to beyond Yorktown--these and other forgotten men have come vividly to life and their Revolution given its due.
Pushing still farther past the Founding Fathers, scholars have begun to see just how central a role white women played during these years. By law and custom--and, tradition had it, by her very biological and spiritual make-up--a woman in colonial times was essentially a private being subject to her father or husband, her natural domain the hearth and home. Opposition to British policies began to change that. Since resistance so often involved imported goods (tea was only the most famous of them), consumers became political creatures, wares turned into political symbols, and shopping was now a political activity. As the line between the domestic or private and the political or public blurred, women slipped easily across it. In Boston, Charleston, Philadelphia, and other cities, they organized to draw up agreements and collect hundreds of signatures from "Mistresses of Families" pledging never to drink “foreign TEA.” Others, calling themselves "The Daughters of Liberty," gathered in public for spinning or sewing bees that produced homespun clothing which in itself became a badge of resistance. Still others took to the streets--in one instance, five hundred strong--to hound merchants who failed to abide by new rules governing the sale of goods.
Once resistance became revolution and men serving in Congress or the army left wives alone to run the farm or business, women's importance grew. Mary Bartlett, whose husband Josiah was a New Hampshire congressman, captured the changes that such independence brought. At first, when Josiah wrote to her from Philadelphia about "my farming Business," Mary went along, replying with news of "Your farming business." By 1778, however, she was reporting on "our farming business," a subtle but telling shift in her thinking. Nor was Mary Bartlett alone. "I have Don as much to Carrey on the warr as meney that Sett Now at ye healm of goverment," wrote Rachel Wells, concluding indignantly: "& No Notice taken of me."
Proud of their contributions to the cause, at war's end women did not always go quietly back to the fireside. "The men say we have no business with [politics]," wrote South Carolinian Eliza Wilkinson to a friend, "it is not our sphere! I won't have it thought that because we are the weaker sex as to bodily strength, my dear, we are capable of nothing more than minding the dairy, visiting the poultry-house, and all such domestic concerns....They won't even allow us the liberty of thought, and that is all I want. Surely," Wilkinson concluded, "we may have sense enough to give our opinions." With women like Wilkinson calling themselves "perfect statesmen" and "great Politician[s]," no wonder in 1798 Judith Sargent Murray, surveying the events of the past generation, "confidently predicted the dawn of 'a new era of female history.'"
Making homespun, signing petitions, commanding the home front, talking politics--white women played a vital supporting role in the independence movement. African Americans, meanwhile, took the language of liberty colonial American leaders were fashioning to oppose Britain in directions that often terrified those leaders. In 1765, shortly after white men blacked their faces with soot and marched through the streets of Charleston chanting "Liberty, Liberty" to protest British taxes, slaves took to those same streets and chanted that same word. Just as colonial assemblies, strenuously arguing that Parliamentary acts were intended to enslave them, petitioned Britain for a redress of grievances, so African Americans petitioned those assemblies. "We expect great things from men who made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them," wrote several African Americans to the Massachusetts legislature in 1773. "We cannot but wish and hope...that you will have the same grand object, we mean civil and religious liberty [for slaves], in view in your next session." Other slaves picked up a musket rather than a pen. In Virginia, African Americans who had joined the British went into one battle against rebel forces "wearing sashes emblazoned with the words 'Liberty to Negroes.'" Many more, unable to write and unable or unwilling to make it to British lines, declared their independence by absconding. A South Carolina slave, Limus, explained his views before leaving. "Though he is my Property," his irate master later reported, "he has the audacity to tell me, he will be free, that he will serve no Man, and that he will be conquered or governed by no man." But most, believing with Limus—and George Washington's slaves—that liberty is "sweet," simply took off. Washington, Jefferson, and many other slaveowners off battling the British found that back home their slaves were disappearing by the score.
Writing, fighting, and fleeing, African Americans shedding the shackles of slavery helped to open a new chapter in race relations. For the first time, slavery was a topic of widespread debate in America. For the first time, large numbers of African Americans were free. (In New York City, the free black population grew fourfold.) For the first time, legislators were outlawing slavery--ending it gradually, to be sure, and only in northern states, but there was widespread hope that southerners would follow suit. St. George Tucker, a Virginia judge and law professor at the College of William and Mary, wanted his state to take the lead. "Whilst America hath been the land of promise to Europeans..., it hath been the vale of death to millions of the wretched sons of Africa," he wrote in the preamble of a 1796 abolition plan he hoped the Virginia state legislature would pass. "Whilst we were offering up vows at the Shrine of Liberty" during the Revolution, Tucker went on, "we were imposing upon our fellow men, who differ in complexion from us, a slavery, ten thousand times more cruel than the utmost extremity of those grievances and oppressions, of which we complained." If Tucker had his way, emancipation laws would eventually wipe slavery off the face of the American land.
While African Americans struggled to acquire freedom in this era, native Americans worked desperately to sustain it. This was a time of crisis in Indian country. Britain's expulsion of the French from North America at the close of the Seven Years' War eliminated a crucial ally for Indians, an ally they had used with great finesse to play one European empire off against the other. With the French gone, after 1763 British policymakers, to reduce costs, felt they could get away with cutting back on the customary gifts to native peoples. Guns and coats, pots and pipes--these and other items had long been a tangible sign of favor and friendship. To an Indian, their reduction seemed tantamount to a declaration of war. Worst of all, colonial encroachment onto Indian lands continued apace. Squatters simply moved in without asking, while speculators--including Washington, Jefferson, Henry, and Franklin—lobbied imperial officials and Indian leaders alike to grant more territory. The Creek Indian word for Georgians--Ecunnaunuxulgee, "people greedily grasping after the lands of the red people"--captures the growing sense of colonial power and relentless pressure felt not only by Creeks and their Cherokee neighbors in the south but also among the Six Nations Iroquois in the northeast, the Shawnees and Delawares in Ohio, and indeed throughout the eighty-five Indian nations still east of the Mississippi River.
Dependent on dwindling supplies of foreign goods, alarmed at the hordes of Ecunnaunuxulgee invading their homelands, concerned that the blandishments of Christian missionaries and the rivers of rum unleashed by traders were destroying their culture, native Americans fought back. In some respects, their campaign bears a striking resemblance to the actions of their colonial counterparts who were organizing opposition to Britain at the same time. Like Adams, Jefferson, and the rest, Indian leaders worked to overcome a traditional, deeply-rooted localism (to colony in one case, tribe in the other) in order to forge a "general Union" of disparate peoples. Just as Georgians, Virginians, Pennsylvanians, and New Yorkers were becoming American, so Shawnees and Cherokees, Iroquois and Creeks were becoming Indian. “Have only the same mind, all of you who inhabit the same Continent, and are of the same Colour,” one Shawnee advised neighboring native nations. The tactics colonial and native resistance leaders developed were also similar. Indians, too, met in congresses, gave eloquent speeches in defense of their rights, and sent protests to colonial and European capitals. Indians, too, called on their people to boycott foreign goods, to shed fancy imported clothes and don home-made items (deerskins and furs rather than colonists’ homespun), to stand firmly united against tyrannical efforts to subvert traditional liberties.
For Indians, too, words ultimately gave way to weapons. In their war for independence, however, most natives fought for the Crown because the king promised to protect their land from colonial trespassers. When that king made peace without them in 1783 and the American land rush resumed, natives went right on declaring and defending their independence. We Iroquois are “a free People subject to no Power upon Earth,” the Six Nations spokesman Aaron Hill (Kanonraron) proclaimed. Hill was not alone; throughout Indian country, one native headman after another insisted on his people’s abiding “Independence and natural Rights.”
Listening to Indian declarations of independence and African American cries of Liberty, watching women run farms and shops, following the fortunes of men like Joseph Martin and George Hewes--all of this helps to complicate the Revolutionary story in important ways. Expanding the definition of American makes it plain that there were many declarations of independence, many forms of resistance, indeed many "revolutions"--some successful, some not. Moreover, the light shed on these other revolutions reflects back upon the Founders, enabling us to look at them in new ways. Some of that reflected light is not very flattering: in the name of liberty and progress, they kept women and slaves in subjection while trying to swipe Indian lands. But ironically and paradoxically, awareness of these other forms of resistance makes what the Founding Fathers accomplished that much more remarkable. Men like Adams and Washington, it turns out, were fighting on many fronts--not just their own doubts and differences, not just the British and Hessians, but also the poor men in their streets, the women in their parlors, the slaves on their plantations, and the Indians at their backs. Shifting the line of sight away from legislative chambers and battlefields to those streets, parlors, slave quarters, and Indian villages opens up new vistas on the entire Revolutionary era.
Even as recent scholars have charted a course of inquiry that carries us deeper into the forgotten corners of American life from 1763 to 1789, they are also going in a second, different direction that stretches the Revolution’s chronological boundaries. John Howe, Gordon Wood, and other historians have objected that no proper history of the American Revolution can conclude in 1789, as so many books do.
(14) Truly understanding the Revolution requires tracing its unfolding implications well past President Washington's inauguration. From our perch it appears that, with the Constitution ratified and Washington in charge, the story is over. In fact, however, Washington and his contemporaries knew that the American experiment remained in great peril. After all, the new nation's first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, had lasted just six years. Why should a second try at getting it right last longer, especially when history and political theory alike taught that republics much smaller and simpler than this one were extraordinarily fragile, short-lived creatures? Then there was “the specter of recolonization” by either Britain or France, which “relentlessly haunted” the young republic until the close of the Second War for Independence (also known as the War of 1812) some twenty-five years later. Certainly Benjamin Rush, the Pennsylvania physician and radical leader, friend of Franklin, Paine, and Adams, would have been astonished to hear that the Revolutionary era was over by the late 1780s. "The American War is over," Rush wrote in 1787, "but this is far from being the case with American Revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed."(15) Historians, agreeing with Rush, have erased the traditional boundary line between "the Revolutionary Period" and "the Early National Period," with startling results.
Some of those results are grim, as hopes of many people for fundamental change in American racial and gender relations went unrealized. Indians' success in not only declaring their independence but backing up those declarations by force had come to an end by 1815. When Andrew Jackson's army destroyed the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend and the great pan-Indian leader Tecumseh fell on a Canadian battlefield, the frontier wars of the East were all but over and the road to Indian Removal lay dead ahead. African Americans, too, felt freedom's tide ebb. Even as northern states gradually freed their slaves, a virulent strain of racism reached epidemic proportions there, its symptoms draconian laws curtailing African American liberties and everyday abuses, punctuated by an occasional race riot that sent whites rampaging through black neighborhoods. In the South, meanwhile, St. George Tucker’s emancipation scheme went nowhere, and the cotton gin's invention breathed new life into the slave regime, all but ending talk of its demise. Equally chimerical was that "new era of female history" Judith Sargent Murray had anticipated. True, the ideology historians term "republican motherhood" gave white women, for the first time, a political role: raising virtuous sons who would run the new nation. Nonetheless, that public duty kept women confined to the private realm of home and children.
But if doors were closing for many Americans after 1790, for white men they were opening wider than ever before. Indeed, as several scholars—Daniel Boorstin, Robert Wiebe, and particularly Gordon Wood—have brilliantly argued, these years saw a shift in the very core of American culture, a shift so profound that it is difficult for us, its heirs, to understand or appreciate: the world on the far side of that divide--the world in which Washington, Jefferson, and the rest of the Founding generation grew up--is so different from our own as to be a foreign country.
The best way to grasp this seismic shift is to return briefly, with Gordon Wood as guide, to that strange land of pre-Revolutionary America. The very foundation of that world was the notion of hierarchy. From God and the angels on through the king to the aristocracy and gentry all the way down to the lowliest peasant, the underlying assumption--so fundamental, so enduring as to be thought natural by some, divinely ordained by the rest--was that each person had a particular rank and place. "God hath in great wisdom," wrote Thomas Craddock, a Maryland minister, offering what amounted then to a platitude, "given variety of abilities to men, suitable to the several stations in life, for which he hath design'd them, that everyone keeping his station, and employing his respective abilities in doing his own work, all might receive advantage."
In everyday terms this meant, among colonists, a fault line between "the better sort," the gentry, and the "lower sort" or "simple folk." A gentleman was easy to spot: he wore fine clothes, complete with lace cuffs and wig which, white as newfallen snow, announced that he did not work with his hands; he sported a sword and perhaps also a military or other title (even "Mr." carried weight and was restricted to gentry); he lived in a magnificent stone house rather than a rude wooden hut, sat on a fine upholstered chair rather than a crude wooden bench, and ate with a fork rather than a spoon (or his hands); in polite company he could quote the right books, and often in the original Latin or Greek.
So powerful was this social code, so great the divide between plebeian and patrician, that a gentleman's very presence intimidated those below him on the social ladder. “A periwig, in those days,” recalled Devereux Jarret, who grew up poor in colonial Virginia, "was a distinguishing badge of gentle folk—and when I saw a man riding the road, near our house, with a wig on, it would so alarm my fears…that, I dare say, I would run off, as for my life.” Even those who managed to stand their ground might tremble. The Boston shoemaker George Hewes, some seventy years later, admitted "being 'scared almost to death' during a visit he the home of Squire John Hancock" in the 1760s. Throughout colonial America, whenever a Hewes or a Jarret crossed paths with a Hancock, "the lower sort" customarily deferred to "the better sort," staring "like sheep" or bowing low, offering only a "down look" or a mumbled, red-faced reply.
This was the world in which America’s Founders came of age, and they shared its assumptions. "George Washington," reports Wood, "called ordinary farmers 'the grazing multitude,'" young John Adams "referred to them as the 'common Herd of Mankind'" who, with "'no Idea [of] Learning, Eloquence, and Genius,'" were locked within "'vulgar, rustic Imaginations.'" Even Thomas Jefferson, since considered the apostle of democracy, felt that common folk "must never be considered when we calculate the national character."
Acutely aware of the boundary between patrician and plebeian, these men worked diligently at playing the part of a gentleman. In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin cultivated connections with the governor and other prominent men. Similarly, Jefferson was rarely happier than in the early 1760s when, a student at William and Mary, he dined with Francis Fauquier, the royal governor, and other gentlemen. There, he contentedly recalled, I heard “more good sense, more rational and philosophical conversations than in all my life besides.” Up in Massachusetts, meanwhile, John Adams knew that the way to get ahead was "to be seen by more People, and those of more Weight and Consequence." None were more assiduous in mastering this art than young George Washington. The first writings in his hand to survive are "Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation," more than one hundred maxims for young men that Washington, then fifteen, painstakingly copied out by hand from an etiquette book so that he would remember precisely how to "give to every Person his due title According to his Degree."
Despite the ringing phrases about "All Men are Created Equal," neither opposition to Britain nor a long war demolished the hierarchical assumptions undergirding American life. In 1790 the notion that one's betters should rule still prevailed in many corners of the land. Men who worked with their hands, wrote Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, “will always be inclined…to give their votes to merchants”—and, he added, “land-holders…and men of the learned professions”—“in preference to persons of their own professions or trades….They know that the merchant is their natural patron and friend.” Why? Because the lower orders “are sensible that their habits in life have not been such as to give them those acquired endowments [required to rule wisely and well]." They simply lack "the influence and weight and superior acquirements” a gentleman possessed.
(22) Acting on this notion, virtually every state constitution drafted in the 1770s limited the vote to white men who owned property—in New York, it was land worth £20--and many decreed that to be eligible for office a man had to have substantially more than that.
A generation later, all this was a memory, in its place an egalitarian attitude akin to our own. The sources of this tectonic shift in core values remain elusive, but several factors came into play. One was that the American elite's opposition to British measures in the name of the people, its claim to embody the popular will, and its egalitarian rhetoric began to take hold in American soil. "The lower sort"--who, after all, were the ones marching in the streets and, ultimately, marching off to war--began to believe the rhetoric, to demand more of their betters, even to wonder if those "betters" were truly any better. At the same time, rapid westward expansion helped tear people loose from the local moorings that had fixed their place in life. Confined for almost two hundred years, by mountains and Indians, to a beachhead along the Atlantic coast, in just one generation Americans pushed past the mountains and shouldered aside the Indians in a pell-mell rush that divorced them from the restraints and expectations of the old order. Men on the move "make a very different mass from one which is composed of men born and raised on the same spot...," mused a Kentuckian in 1792. "They see none about them to whom or to whose families they have been accustomed to think themselves inferior." Men on the move were also men on the make: rapid economic growth inspired so many hopes, and changed so many lives, that the “self-made man” became the era’s icon.
Ordinary men busily remaking themselves found support in a religious revival sweeping the land after 1800, for it gave spiritual sanction to notions of equality, often by marrying Christian to revolutionary rhetoric. Questioning the ancient chasm between “gentlemen” and “peasants,” the popular preacher Lorenzo Dow went on to ask: “By what rule of right can one man exercise authority with a command over others? Either it must be the gift of God, or, secondly, it must be delegated by the people—or less, thirdly, it must be ASSUMED!…But," Dow thundered, "if all men are ‘BORN EQUAL,’ and endowed with unalienable RIGHTS by their CREATOR, in the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—then there can be no just reason…why he may or should not think, and judge, and act for himself in matters of religion, opinion, or private judgment.”
If the causes of this sea change in American values are not entirely clear, the effects certainly are. They can be found throughout American life in the early nineteenth century, a world so transformed that the hierarchical notions the Founders grew up with seemed as antiquated as their periwigs, lace cuffs, and knee breeches—all of which, by 1830, had been replaced by fashions not so unlike our own. Political culture was the obvious place to see the transformation. From a world where gentlemen (and only gentlemen) "stood" (never ran) for office, where voting was restricted to property owners and political parties were considered scandalous if not treasonous--"if I could go not go to heaven but with a party," proclaimed Jefferson, "I would not go at all"--politics had entered a world where any white man could vote, where candidates flaunting their humble roots and waving a party banner ran, and ran hard, for public office. Once elected, an astounded Alexis de Tocqueville reported during his visit in 1831, these men remain "absolutely on the same footing as the rest of the citizens. They are dressed the same..., are accessible at every moment, and shake everybody by the hand."
Politics drew the most attention, but it was only the expression of the new egalitarian current running through American culture. "A most surprising revolution has taken place in the whole structure of society," wrote one observer in 1823. “The idea and feeling that the world was made, and life given, for the happiness of all, and not for the ambition, or pride, or luxury, of one, or of a few,” agreed another, “are pouring in, like a resistless tide, upon the minds of men, and are effecting a universal revolution in human affairs.” With equality reigning supreme, any hint of hierarchy became downright un-American. Hired help refused to answer to "servant" any longer, or to call their employer "master" and "mistress." The title "Mr.," so long confined to gentlemen, now belonged to any adult white man, even as the meaning of "gentleman" itself changed so profoundly that it seemed "everybody that has a decent coat is a gentleman." A man's lack of learning, once hidden or held against him, was now celebrated. Thus Parson Weems, in his best-selling 1800 biography of George Washington, assured Americans that their hero “never learned a syllable of Latin.” Weems’s Washington, a common sort bearing little resemblance to that ambitious youth copying out a gentleman’s code, fit right into the new order. “The critical grammarian may find enough to feed his spleen upon if he peruses the following pages,” wrote Joseph Plumb Martin in the beginning of his 1830 memoir of the Revolutionary War; “but I can inform him beforehand, I do not regard his sneers; if I cannot write grammatically, I can think, talk, and feel like other men. Besides, if the common readers can understand it, it is all I desire.” At around the same time, George Hewes was recalling how, having once been terrified even of meeting the lordly John Hancock, the Revolution brought him to a place where he could refuse to doff his cap to a ship’s captain because he had come to see that “I am as good as any man regardless of rank or wealth.”
No wonder those Founders who lived long enough to see the Revolution's egalitarian implications play out came, as Gordon Wood has noted, to "express anxiety over what they had wrought" and "were bewildered, uneasy, and in many cases deeply disillusioned." Benjamin Rush, full of "deep regret" over his role in the Revolution, predicted that the grand experiment "will certainly fail. It has already disappointed the expectations of its most sanguine and ardent friends." "Where is now," wailed John Adams, "the progress of the Human Mind?...When? Where? and How? is the present Chaos to be arranged into Order?" Adams, of course, was famously gloomy. But not even the sunnier Jefferson could escape a profound sense of loss and disappointment; not even he could resist carping about the failings of "the rising generation, of which I once had such sanguine hopes."
But if the Revolution's heroes felt let down by their heirs, Wood argues, we need not share that disappointment. The new world they bequeathed to us certainly had its start in the 1770s, but its promise was realized only in the generation after 1790, when white men worked out the pattern of American life, a pattern that has seen few alterations even now, almost two centuries later. As Wood puts it: "Equality...came to mean that everyone was really the same as everyone else, not just at birth, not in talent or property or wealth, and not just in some transcendental religious sense of the equality of all souls. Ordinary Americans came to believe that no one in a basic down-to-earth and day-in-and-day-out manner was really better than anyone else."
(28) That the pursuits and passions and preoccupations of ordinary folk came to dominate American life is, Wood concludes, more worth celebrating than mourning.
Still, there is reason to mourn, and it can be found in Wood's very celebration of equality. In fact, not "everyone was really the same as everyone else" in America, not in 1760, not in 1790, not in1830. For even as the pursuits, passions, and preoccupations of ordinary Americans came to the fore, so, too, did their prejudices, prejudices that kept white women, African Americans, and Indians beyond equality's pale.
Even so, America's Revolution unintentionally gave those left out the weapons to continue the struggle; it turned out that "the contagion of liberty" unleashed during these tumultuous times, which had spread so quickly among white men, could not be checked. In 1800, Virginia freedom fighters led by a slave named Gabriel nearly pulled off a revolt that would have taken Richmond, the state capital. At his trial, one of the plot's leaders proved that he had learned the lessons of 1776 very well indeed. "I have nothing more to offer [the court] than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial. I have adventured my life in endeavouring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice in their cause." A generation later, Mashpee Indians on Cape Cod insisted that "[w]e, as a tribe, will rule ourselves, and have the right to do so; for all men are born free and equal, says the Constitution of the country." If Mashpees had the wrong document, they had the right idea, and little more than a decade afterwards, a band of people gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, matched idea to document, proclaiming that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”
Mashpees wrote their “Indian Declaration of Independence” in 1833, the women of Seneca Falls in 1848. Clearly, the American Revolution did not stop even in 1830; some would say that Rush's "great drama" continues even today. If scholars have demolished the 1790 boundary, why erect one at 1830? In fact, there are compelling reasons that make this no arbitrary terminus, for within a few years on either side of that date a constellation of developments ushered in another age. Just as Andrew Jackson's 1828 election inaugurated a new political era, so the development of the railroad (1830) and telegraph (1837) marked a transformation in Americans' ability to conquer space. Equally powerful engines reshaping the face of the land were the onset of massive immigration and industrialization during the decades after 1830. Meanwhile race relations were entering a new, darker phase. In 1830 the Indian Removal Act swept native Americans off the national stage by rounding them up and herding them west. A year later, Nat Turner’s bloody slave revolt combined with the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison's inflammatory abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, to bring to the American scene unprecedented levels of violence in word and deed. Add to all this the deaths of the last signers of the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson and John Adams on the same glorious day, July 4, 1826, Charles Carroll six years later), and it becomes clear now--as indeed it did to many people then--that the passing of America's founding era was at hand. Abraham Lincoln's America would be very different from Andrew Jackson's--much less George Washington's.

* * *

The Vassar College Library's exhibition, "Treasures of Americana, 1760-1830," offers a glimpse of this mesmerizing, tumultuous era in all its richness and complexity. Conventions and constitutions, protests and battles, Washingtons and Jeffersons--the well-known chapters of that history (what Joseph Ellis correctly calls its "central events and achievements") are on display in abundance.(31) Here can be found many of the core texts of the Revolutionary conversation and many of the lead actors on the Revolutionary stage. Here are documents bearing the signatures of Jefferson and Washington, of Hamilton and Madison, of Sam Adams and--surely the most famous signature of all--John Hancock. Here a colonial governor, Thomas Pownall, discusses Britain's imperial policy, while the Town of Boston explains its stiff resistance to that policy. Here, too, are the proceedings of the first Continental Congress, along with Thomas Paine's Common Sense, the political tract that did so much to push Congress toward a final break with the mother country. And here is the pinnacle of American nation building: Secret Proceedings of the Convention Assembled at Philadelphia, in the Year 1787 (so secret indeed that it was not published until a generation later), the Federalist Papers, and--most exciting of all--an original and exceedingly rare final draft of the Constitution.
Even as it gives due weight and attention to the classic chronicle of America's Founders and Founding, the exhibit also runs against that grain, incorporating the recent paradigm shift in scholarly understanding. While the drafting, ratifying, and publishing of the Constitution looms large, the exhibit does not stop there but pursues, with Gordon Wood and others, the revolution's progress in the generation beyond 1790. It also brings to our attention the chorus--or perhaps cacophony?--of voices to be heard from those days. Here can be found not just Washington's Political Legacies but also Phyllis Wheatley's poems, not just a scientific pamphlet by Benjamin Franklin but a cookbook by Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell, not just an 1824 Illinois anti-slavery tract but another written by Ann Tuke Alexander two decades earlier. To the pantheon of heroic figures from that age, the exhibit adds Revolutionary historian Mercy Otis Warren, educational pioneer Emma Willard, Iroquois diplomat Jasper Parrish, and radical reformer Frances Wright. Amid the famous signatures of Hancock and the rest are the marks of Red Jacket and Twenty Canoes, Big Kettle and Caughneetaan, Indian headmen negotiating with the new nation to keep their political independence and cultural integrity. In short, "Treasures of Americana" offers an abundance of riches, inviting us to ponder their meaning, their place, in the variegated tapestry of those times.

* * *

Though John Adams and Thomas Jefferson agreed that the "life and soul" of the Revolution would prove elusive, they never stopped trying, to the very end of their long lives, to understand and explain it, to one another, to their many admirers--and to us. For more than a century now, Vassar College students have been following in the footsteps of Adams and Jefferson in an effort to make sense of the Revolution. Ever since the Vassar History Department's own Founder, Lucy Maynard Salmon, arrived on campus in 1887, one generation of students after another has been entering the library and combing the stacks in search of the Revolutionary era. Salmon's emphasis on rigorous research in original sources (many documents in this exhibit are from materials she collected) has remained a guiding principle of the History Department to this day. Enduring, too, is the principle first set forth in the Vassar Catalogue in 1890: History "students have free access to all works in the library and are required to do independent work." Even as this exhibition is inaugurated and this library rededicated, students in History 275, "Revolutionary America, 1750-1830," are busy finishing up term papers on everything from the Stamp Act riots to early federal tax policy, from the art of Charles Willson Peale to the slave conspiracy of Denmark Vesey, from Abigail Adams to Emma Willard, from the infancy of Washington, D.C., to the abiding power of Iroquois independence. As always, these apprentice historians have "free access to all works in the library," including those on display here. Indeed, Vassar's treasures for doing research in this period of American history stretch beyond these texts, beyond even the wealth of materials in Special Collections, to the farthest corners and remotest shelves of the entire library. Mining these riches, Vassar students will continue the pursuit that so engaged and entranced Jefferson, Adams, and their contemporaries: seeking to recapture the Revolution's "life and soul."

1) Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2000), 12.
2) Ibid., 4; Michael Zuckerman, "The Irrelevant Revolution: 1776 and Since," American Quarterly, 30 (1978), 241; Poughkeepsie Journal, April 30, 1987, 16A.
3) Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, 2 vols. (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), II, 451-452.
4) Ellis, Founding Brothers, 216.
5) Thomas Paine, Common Sense, ed. Isaac Kramnick (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 82; Ellis, Founding Brothers, 246.
6) Alfred F. Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999); James Kirby Martin, ed., Ordinary Courage: The Revolutionary War Adventures of Joseph Plumb Martin (St. James, N.Y.: Brandywine Press, 1993).
7) Mary Beth Norton, Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980), ch. 6; Barbara Clark Smith, “Food Rioters and the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser., 51 (1994), 3-38.
8) Norton, Liberty's Daughters, 219, 225-226.
9) Ibid., 171-172, 188-189, 295.
10) Peter H. Wood, "'Liberty is Sweet': African-American Freedom Struggles in the Years Before Independence," in Alfred F. Young, ed., Beyond the American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 1993), 157-159; Gary B. Nash, Race and Revolution (Madison, Wis.: Madison House Publishers, Inc., 1990), 173; Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), 257-259, 291, 294, 304.
11) Nash, Race and Revolution, 152. It should be noted that Tucker’s scheme hardly called for racial harmony: he proposed very gradual emancipation of blacks, opposed black equality, and hoped for their removal from the United States.
12) Gregory Evans Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 44; Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, & the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 20.
13) James H. Merrell, “Declarations of Independence: Indian-White Relations in the New Nation,” in Jack P. Greene, ed., The American Revolution: Its Character and Limits (New York: New York University Press, 1987), 197. See Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
14) John R. Howe, From the Revolution Through the Age of Jackson: Innocence and Empire in the Young Republic (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973); Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1992).
15) Robert H. Wiebe, The Opening of American Society: From the Adoption of the Constitution to the Eve of Disunion (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 19; Michael Kammen, A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 38 (emphasis added).
16) Norton, Liberty's Daughters; Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1980); Carol Berkin, First Generations: Women in Colonial America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996), Epilogue.
17) Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The National Experience (New York: Vintage Books, 1965); Wiebe, Opening of American Society; Wood, Radicalism.
18) Wood, Radicalism, 20. See, generally, Part I of this excellent book.
19) Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1983), 43; Young, Shoemaker, 3-4; Wood, Radicalism, 29-30.
20) Wood, Radicalism, 27-28.
21) Anthony F. C. Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), 51; Wood, Radicalism, 21, 59-60, 198. Wood (236-238) also points out, however, that these men had more positive views of common folk.
22) John P. Kaminski and Richard Leffler, eds., Federalists and Antifederalists: The Debate over the Ratification of the Constitution (Madison, Wis.: Madison House Publishers, 1989), 48-49. See Wiebe, Opening of American Society, Part I.
23) Wood, Radicalism, 77, 341-342.
24) Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 37.
25) Wood, "The Significance of the Early Republic," Journal of the Early Republic, 6 (1988), 12; Ellis, Founding Brothers, 210; Wood, Radicalism, 304.
26) Wiebe, Opening of American Society, 165; Wood, Radicalism, 184, 232, 233, 343, 345; Mason L. Weems, The Life of Washington, ed. Marcus Cunliffe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962), 20; Martin, ed., Ordinary Courage, 2; Young, Shoemaker, 56.
27) Wood, Radicalism, 365-368.
28) Ibid., 234.
29) Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), ch. VI; Douglas R. Egerton, Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 & 1802 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 102; Barry O’Connell, ed., On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), xxxvi; Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, ed., One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement (Troutdale, Ore.: New Sage Press, 1995), 40 (emphasis added).
30) Louis P. Masur, 1831: Year of Eclipse (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001).
31) Ellis, Founding Brothers, 13.

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