We’re slogging our way through the American Revolution in class this week.
This is my favorite part of US1. Not the military part so much – I spend about half an hour on the various battles, during most of which I focus on the experience of the soldiers more than the course of the war. The book does a very nice job of outlining the victories and losses and I see no reason to repeat that information in class. But you can deduce pretty much all of the tactics of the Revolutionary-era armies from the simple fact that they were armed with muskets, and that is something the book doesn’t pay much attention to.
No, what I like is the general course of the whole unit, which stretches from 1763 to 1815 or so. I try to organize it around the theme of “What were they fighting for?” This is a question that has several different meanings, depending on when you seek to apply it.
From 1763 to 1775, the question more or less translates as “Why so upset?” Looked at from a distance, the things that sparked the colonists’ outrage in the 1760s and early 1770s – the Stamp Act, the Townshend Duties and so on – were nothing special and it is hard not to sympathize with the British government, who only wanted the skinflint colonists to chip in a bit toward their own defense. Why such a big deal?
From 1775 to 1783, during the war itself, this question boils down to “Who is on what side for what reason?” Because it’s hard enough to get five unarmed friends to agree on what to put on a pizza, let alone get thousands of strangers with guns to fight for a single cause. And the simple fact is that the Revolutionaries didn’t fight for a single cause. They fought for a lot of different causes that happened to line them up in mostly the same direction most of the time, with the pointy end of the bayonet facing the redcoats.
And that is why the period from 1783 (or 1776, depending on how you figure it) to around 1815 translates that question as “What did we hope to achieve by fighting, and how should the new country be arranged to reflect that?” Because without the redcoats to focus their bayonets on, the differing motives for fighting the Revolution led to a fair amount of conflict between those who fought to achieve Result A and those who fought to achieve Result B. If you want to understand why the politics of the early republic were so vitriolic, start here. Our politics today are fairly polite by comparison.
When you try to answer these questions, it gets very interesting very quickly. Seriously, I don’t know why my students aren’t all history majors. This is great stuff.
Every once in a while, though, as I’m standing up there spooling through these stories, it strikes me just how bittersweet this all is.
All of these people had goals, things they wanted to achieve for themselves and their new country. They went about their days working on these things – some days harder than others, granted, as most days are devoted to just getting through them rather than larger goals, but this doesn’t mean you don’t have the goals at all.
And now they’re gone.
Most of them are long forgotten, even by historians. We remember the ones who found themselves in the middle of stories, who distinguished themselves in some way. Sometimes we remember the ones who simply got their names written down somewhere. But that’s a pretty scanty record for most people. We can’t all be Thomas Jefferson.
It’s my job to explore whether these people succeeded or not in their various goals, on their own terms rather than mine, and I’ve got over two centuries of hindsight to let me do that. They didn’t have that luxury. These were daily events to them – surprises, challenges, victories, heartbreaks, joy and rage. Sometimes you wonder what they made of it all on a day in, day out basis.
History happens to people, and if you lose sight of that the life drains right out of it.
Someday it will be you that will be history.