Editor’s note: This is the fourth post on the American Revolution Reborn Conference. You can read the complete series here.
Conference Omissions and Challenges
The conference also was important for the themes it didn’t include as was brought out in some of the questions and comments.
American Religious History
Originally the conference organizers had planned to have a session on religion. Due to the paucity of responses to the call for papers in this area, that session was dropped. Still religion did makes its presence felt at times. In the first session, Ned Landsman, Stony Brook University, noted in his paper, “British Union and American Revolution: Unions, Sovereignty, and the Multinational State,” the Church of Scotland was a supporter of the American effort since its status within the United Kingdom wasn’t heavy-handed and it hand been fairly independent since the political union in 1707. Furthermore, Scotland posed no potential challenge to British economic and political leadership while America did. Separating religion from the political and the economic sometimes is easier in faulty departments than it actually is in history.
Engel in her opening presentation commented that religious history was being ignored. In her commentator role, Christine Heyrman, University of Delaware, observed that an evangelical tsunami was overwhelming both England and the United States. It challenged church leaders who thereupon challenged political leaders to respond. She linked the revered George Whitefield and Tom Paine with his “secular” sermons to this movement. There certainly is no doubt about the importance of evangelicals after the Revolution during the time Fritz covered in the 1820s.
Fogelman, who later was a presenter, added as a comment that the American Revolution was non-religious event by a religious people. Countryman seemingly extended Puritan and/or elitist values onto the Revolution leaders suggesting that the operating belief was that the people who controlled the secular government had to be right ones. I am tempted to use quotation marks around “right ones” as if to signify the “elect” or “virtuous” ones, a government by one’s betters since as was made clear a few years ago with the claim that the people of Kansas lacked the mental necessities for self-government and to know what was in their own best interests. This topic of what qualifies a person to be in a leadership or representative role is one worth pursuing.
Matthew Boonshoft’s, Ohio State University, paper “‘Calculated to Awake their Boyish Emulation’: The Great Awakening, Academies, and the American Revolution,” specifically had responded to the call for papers on the religion theme. He observed a reticence to examine early factors like the Great Awakening in the historiography which would have included the aforementioned Whitefield, friend to Franklin under whose portrait Boonshoft spoke. He said the “I” word was avoided at the conference by which he meant “ideology.” This area of concern intensified as the discussion on the new grand narrative became more directed.
The true diversity of America in 1776 was not part of the conference. It limited itself to a politically-correct racial classification system of Europeans, Africans, and Indians/natives as if there was no diversity within each group. Despite the well-meaning intentions throughout the conference, the comments ignored the diversity that existed right from the start in the newly-formed political entity. All British folkways were not alike and the differences over there carried forward to differences over here which reverberate to this very day. Commentator Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard University, called for a debate on the doctrine of white supremacy asking, “What does white mean?” By coincidence an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2013, entitled “America’s Assimilating Hispanics: The evidence shows they are following the path of earlier immigrants” quoted Franklin’s famous 1751 diatribe on his precious Philadelphia being flooded with Germans (Palatines): for Franklin swarthy Germans and Swedes never could have the complexion of English whites. I used that and other Franklin quotations in my own article “Who Is an American? The Immigrant Experience in American History” (The American Interest). Franklin’s definition of who was white is far different than that of white people today and far different from that in the decades to come as Caucasian Asians and Caucasian Latin Americans become Americans. During the Revolution, Europeans in New York well knew that not all Indians were the same, not even all Iroquois and the Iroquois well knew that Dutch, Palatines, English, and French weren’t the same either. Think of the conflicted loyalty an American historian of Hessian-soldier descent writing about the American Revolution: what side does he take? Naturally he is going to blame the British for everything bad!
Again by coincidence, this topic was raised in the spring/summer issue of the TC Today from Teachers College (is it coincidence or is that after the American Revolution Reborn conference my eyes were opened and I noticed what I previously had not absorbed). Elizabeth Dworksin in an article with the subtitle “The United States is Becoming a Majority non-White Nation, To Truly Level the Playing Field, Non-Whites Will Need to Reclaim and Recast Their Own Narratives,” writes (and this is much shorter): “The idea of the melting pot has given way to that of the hyphenated American who draws strength from a sense of difference.” She then approvingly quotes George Bond, Teachers College Professor of Anthropology and Education, saying:
Social construction of local histories is crucial in the process of domination and subjugation by rulers of those they rule. Authority and legitimacy are conjoined through the fabrication, inscription and recitation of historical narratives and are an essential part of governance.
The corollary is that colonized people including blacks in the United States must revise societal narratives to assume their own identity. The question raised in the Q&A after Spooner’s paper, ironically from Columbia University History Department only a few blocks away, dealt with the active participation of blacks in the American Revolution on the patriot’s side even as slaves in the building of siege works. This diversity of response within the African community certainly is a topic for a future session, but the larger question raised by Dworksin and Bond needs to be addressed as well: why try to create a new national narrative when every hyphen should have its own story? Why even try to create a national narrative on the birth of the country that relates to Asians and Latin Americans?
Writing in the same issue of TC Today, Donna E. Shala, former Secretary of Health and Human Services, took an entirely different perspective. She had studied under Lawrence Cremin and “Larry” clearly left a lasting impressions. In her article, “Educating the Public about Public Education,” she wrote, “Our nation is dealing once again with waves of immigrants, and I believe, the way Larry Cremin did, that public schools are still the melting pots in our society. They are the places where most children spend most of their time their time, where they go to become Americans, and where, ultimately, we create character, citizenship, and patriots….If we don’t make public schools work, we’re all going to pay the price.” Two contrasting views of the American Revolution are expressed here: Dworksin’s and Bond’s sincere and heartfelt plea that hyphens are a colonized people who must fight to retain their identity through their own narratives versus Shala’s equally sincere and heartfelt plea that so far every hyphen group has become American celebrating July 4th as the birth of their country and that should continue. Anishanslin said the American Revolution is constantly with us, we all have it in common. Will that be true for the new Americans? The topic of “What should schools teach about the American Revolution?” should be part of the next conference.
E Pluribus Unum
A related theme not addressed in the American Revolution Reborn conference was e pluribus unum. How did diverse peoples constitute themselves as one people? How did diverse peoples, slowly, painfully, and not always successfully but still steadily, define themselves through the prism of the American Revolution. It’s not just a question of how the patriot minority won as Rediker wondered, but how they were able to become We the People. Nation building is difficult and Americans were not united by anything after the Revolution except that they no longer were ruled by England. Success in forging a nation out of disaffected, patriots and loyalists, Africans, Palatines, Dutch, Scotch-Irish, southerners, New Englanders, and others was by no means guaranteed. We are witness today to the often failed attempt to create a nation especially when born in violence. The story of how America succeeded to do would seem to be a fitting topic for a conference on the American Revolution Reborn.
Part of the story of the American Revolution is that Americans in subsequent generations including those with no biological connection to the war continued to identify July 4th as the birth of their country. It wasn’t just the next generation of native-born Americans who sought to prove its bonafides in the War of 1812, it was immigrant Thomas Cole who painted America’s glory just afterwards. When Lincoln linked his war to the one four score and seven years earlier, he brought with him not just a new generation of native-born American but immigrants from northern Europe with no blood ties to the American Revolution who became baptized by blood into the American covenant community. Methodists who had not supported the first war became, at least in the north, leading advocates of the Union in the second one. They contributed the music to the New-England based words to what became the Battle Hymn of the Republic. In the war to end all wars, Irish George M. Cohan later portrayed by James Cagney during another war, signified that the Irish were Yankee Doodle Dandies born on the Fourth of July. In the last good war, Irving Berlin wrote the song that baptized another generation of native born Americans and Ellis Island immigrants into the American covenant community. It is the song of July 4th celebrations soon to be heard again, the song Congress sang on the footsteps of the Capital after 9/11 and the song still sung at the seventh inning stretch at Yankee Stadium. Peoples after people with no biological connection to the American Revolution have accepted it as the birth of their country. Based on the American Revolution Reborn conference, one wonders why they should. Perhaps the Constitution should be amended so it reads “We the Peoples” with every hyphen having their own story and nothing holding us together as a people.
There has been no new national anthem since World War II. The sequence from Yankee Doodle Dandy to the Star Spangled Banner to the Battle Hymn of the Republic to Over There/You’re a Grand Old Flag/Yankee Doodle Boy to God Bless America seems to have ended with Vietnam. There are no new songs to sing; no songs to herald one’s becoming an American. The closest possible song perhaps is Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Its powerful music is worthy of an anthem and some of its words resonate well even with simple-minded American exceptionalist presidents…but some of the words do not thereby reflecting the division of the Vietnam generation. As more and more peoples from around the world pour into this country, there is no new song to connect them to America’s heritage.