American Revolution

I was in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago with AB and we went to the brand-new Museum of the American Revolution.  It’s a great work of public history.  Every American, and everybody else who cares about America, should see it.

The museum scrapes away the layer of inevitability and myth around our founding.  Its Revolution is something that might easily not have succeeded.  Or that might have succeeded but with different aims.  There were deep contemporary disagreements about what kind of nation we should be.  The museum puts you face to face with them.

E Pluribus Unum was an aspiration, not a fact.  There was a lot of pluribus.  The gentility in Massachusetts and the Oneida and frontierspeople in Maryland and the French and the enslaved Africans and their American slavemasters were different people with different interests and each had their own revolution in mind.

Somehow it came together.  George Washington gets his due.  The museum presents him as a real person, not just a face on the money.  A person who knew that the decisions he made, in a hurry and under duress, would reverberate through the lifespan of the new country.  We were lucky to have him.  And yes, I choked up, seeing his tent, fragile and beaten-up and confined to a climate-controlled chamber, but somehow still here and standing.

The Haggadah tells us that every generation of Jews has to read the story of Exodus as if we, ourselves, personally, were among those brought out from Egypt.  The museum reminded me of that commandment.  It demands that we find the General Washington in ourselves.  In each generation we have to tell the story of the American Revolution as if we, ourselves, personally, are fighting for our freedom, and are responsible for what America will be.

Because we are!  We are still in the course of human events.  The American Revolution isn’t over.  It won’t ever be over.  It’s right that we call it a “revolution” and not an “overthrow” or a “liberation.”  We’re still revolving, still turning this place over, we’re still plural, we’re still arguing.  We still have the chance, and so we still have the obligation, to make the lives of our children more free than our own.

Happy Independence Day.

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3 thoughts on “American Revolution

  1. Jon Awbrey says:


  2. Richard Séguin says:

    Random thoughts.

    We didn’t actually overthrow a government, as the monarchy and aristocracy in England remained in place. So, I’ve always thought of the war as a war of independence, but a war that took place within the context of a wider and profound revolution of thought, partly home grown and partly influenced by French intellectuals of the time.

    Like you said, success of the war was not at all guaranteed. There were still many monarchists among the colonists, and we needed and got a considerable amount of aid from Louis XVI of France (whose real interest in the matter I’m sure did not go beyond merely humiliating the English and maintaining influence on the continent). Complexities snowballed as is usual in history, and the large amount of money Louis XVI was spending to support the colonists against the English combined with the onerous taxation of non-aristocrats and non-clergy in France needed to pay for it, bad crop years, and other problems, as a factor in precipitating the French revolution and ultimately Louis’ own demise. In turn, many French aristocrats found themselves in exile in America (in addition to England, Switzerland, etc.), and particularly in the Philadelphia area.

    The remarkable thing about the American Revolution was that it was a lot less messy than other revolutions. The French “revolution” was actually a series of revolutions and restorations taking place over about 80 (?) years from the first revolution to the end of Napoleon III (Napoleon le Petit, as Hugo called him), and included huge spikes of radicalism, which is probably fairly typical of revolutions. Revolutions evolve and never really do end.

    I agree that we should not treat Washington, Jefferson, etc., as something other than humans with flaws in addition to positive attributes. To do otherwise is a profound distortion of history. When I was in grade school in the 1950s and 1960s, they were largely sugar coated.

    I found these “gems” of quotes from Jefferson while reading history surrounding the French revolution.

    From Marie Antoinette, by Antonia Fraser:

    “Another foreigner, Jefferson, had a slightly different view of the situation. All this talk about politics, he grumbled, was ruining the gaiety and the insouciance of French society – ‘The tender breasts of the ladies were not formed for political convulsion’ — so that French women were miscalculating their own happiness when they wandered ‘from the true field of their own influence into politics.’”

    “A scapegoat was in fact what Marie Antoinette became. Among other things, she would be blamed for the whole French Revolution, by those who optimistically looked to one “guilty” individual as a way of explaining the complex horrors of the past. This view is epitomized by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in his autobiography that if the Queen had been shut up in a convent*, the whole Revolution would never have happened, an astonishing draconian way of brushing aside the desperate need for reform in French society and government.”

    *The time honored way of getting rid of inconvenient women.

    From Dancing to the Precipice, an excellent biography of Lucie de la Tour du Pin, by Caroline Moorehead:

    “Even Jefferson, however, did not personally consider the blacks inherently equal, saying that though as brave and indeed more adventurous than whites, ‘in the imagination they are dull, tasteless and anomalous.’”

    I’m sure the American Revolution needs to be studied from many different viewpoints in order to understand what was really going on, just as I’ve found that the French Revolution does, and that would include straight history, biographies of principle actors and others from the period, and well written fiction that enhances your feel for the period and helps make it come alive.

  3. Richard Séguin says:

    “Or that might have succeeded but with different aims. There were deep contemporary disagreements about what kind of nation we should be.”

    Revolutions have often happened with a few general principles in mind and with the expectation that the details would be thought out later. Later is when things can get really messy.

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