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?
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.”
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.
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 Sense before? 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
Federalist essays as the grand source of authority on the
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.
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. 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
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
So as a new professor my first impulse was: Darn!
I forgot the facts and dates.
[laughter] I got it wrong.
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
So sitting here in this room,
by our standards, democracy is a good thing.
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.”
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?
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.”
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,”
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. 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.
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
What’s this constitution supposed to look like?
How are we going to figure that
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.
Just–Even English is a problem.
That’s a statement.
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 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.
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?” 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
That’s the entire founding I think in our minds sort of.
I’ll say that right.
So that’s not the Revolution.
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
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.”
[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
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.”
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.
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.
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