This post is part of a series in which I’m dedicating a month to learning about periods in history this year. The full schedule can be found here. This is month three. (tl;dr at the bottom of this post)
One of the things I’ve learned as I’ve grown and led a more public life is that the people in charge, and the people who are famous, really aren’t that different from you and me. They’re not always smarter. They don’t have this great understanding of things that we lack. They’re often not nicer, or wiser, or more educated. Sometimes they are – and those people are amazing – but too often, they’re just making it up as they go along, just like the rest of us.
When I read history as I kid, I was still a kid. I thought leaders were like gods in myths. Untouchable. Brilliant. It’s still how we talk about the Founding Fathers, as if they were so much better than the Average American today. I used to believe that, too.
If there’s one thing this month did – and I’m glad for it – it disabused me of that notion. These were people. They were sometimes remarkable people, who accomplished amazing things. But I know people like that in my everyday life, too, and just because they won’t be in the history books doesn’t mean they aren’t special.
My knowledge of the history of the American Revolution before this month was still centered on battles, or dates, and on a few key people in a few specific moments. The Boston Massacre. The Boston Tea Party. The Declaration of Independence. Valley Forge in winter. The battle of Yorktown.
But – pardon my French here – shit went down before, during, and after these events. People fucked up. They were driven by passion, by greed, by anger, by justice, by love, by politics. It wasn’t just some noble cry of freedom like we’re often taught.
I’m also struck by how unbelievably brave the colonists were. This was a huge risk. It cost them. You rarely see that kind of bravery, especially in masses of people. Stunning.
Side story here. I don’t really care for musicals. I’m partial to plays. Aimee is the opposite. She LOVES Broadway. Because I love her, I go to shows with her when we are in NYC. There are a few that break through my general misgivings. I loved Once, but that was arguably a very non-traditional show. I liked Wicked, but that was a cultural phenomenon. I could rattle off a list of shows I really didn’t care for.
A few years ago, I stunned Aimee by telling her that I wanted to see Hamilton. Not only that, but I wanted to see it with the original cast. The tickets cost A FORTUNE. Aimee balked, and we had a rare fight, because I really, really wanted to go and she thought it was ridiculous. Because she loves me, she relented. On our way to AcademyHealth ARM in Boston we stopped in NYC, and we saw Hamilton on June 24, 2016. We sat behind and to the left of Amy Schumer. Partick Rothfuss was in the gallery. It cost more than I want to say.
I don’t care. It was – hands down – the single best thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I have literally no regrets (and neither does Aimee, who has to admit I WAS RIGHT).
Part of that is because the show is genius. The music, the choreography, the talent – insane. I’m not equipped to say why, but I know it is, and you will not dispute me. When all other Broadway is long forgotten, people will be still be singing songs from Hamilton. Someday it will be performed on other planets. Deal with it.
Another part is that is humanized the historical characters in ways I hadn’t seen before. Hamilton was flawed. So were Jefferson, Madison, and Washington. So were Eliza and Angelica Schuyler. People made this country, and they weren’t much different from you and me.
The great writers know this and share it, as do the great historians. Lin Manuel-Miranda brought it to the masses, and put it to music with words that bore directly into your brain. And so, to this day, I remain a rabid fan, even if I never see another Broadway show again.
That’s what I’m hoping for with this year. Back to the revolution. I read four books. Let’s discuss.
The first was 1776 by David McCullough. It was good. But it’s basically a synopsis of what happened in, well, 1776. This was mid-war, a very important year, and one in which Washington and his army saw defeat and victory. But you’re dropped in media res, and I would have appreciated some context.
The second book I read – perhaps the best – was Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution by A.J. Langguth. The framing of this book is to construct each chapter, from pre-revolution through the war and beyond, around a specific person. This way, you get to know each of the many people you’ve learned about in history through a more personal lens. Sam Adams, for instance, was frugal beyond measure, likely to let people slide on their taxes, and much more than a brewer. I also really enjoyed the chapter on Benedict Arnold, who was a total ass, personally as well as treasonously. This was the type of book I’d been looking for, and it really humanized many of the people you get to read about in history. Whichever twitter user who told me to read it, I thank you.
Third was Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution by Benson Bobrick. Also a good read. By this point, I had most of the history down, so following the flow of the war didn’t interest me as much. It was in this book that I started to realize how amazing historians are. Take this vignette about Paul Revere’s ride:
Well before the lanterns flashed, Revere set off on his famous ride. Leaving his house accompanied by his dog, he had linked up with two colleagues who had agreed to row him across the river. En route to a sequestered mooring, however, he suddenly realized he had forgotten his spurs and some cloth with which to quiet the oarlocks of the boat. They detoured to where the girlfriend of one of them lived, and at a whistle she came to the window. They told her they needed some cloth. She wiggled and shook a little, this way and that, then tossed down her flannel underwear, “still warm from her body”
How… how do they know that? I don’t have this much detail down on things that have happened to ME. How can they learn such details about things centuries ago? Unreal. Also, it was full of fascinating facts, such as:
- Pre-revolution Americans were amazingly literate. Almost everyone in America read a newspaper. In 1725, there were only two or three in the country, including one founded by James Franklin, Benjamin’s older brother.
- Americans liked their provincial drinks. My favorite was the “Creaming Flip”, which was made from strong beer, New England rum, dried pumpkin, and sugar or molasses. Then you put a red-hot poker or loggerhead into it to make it bubble and foam. A citation said it was the “joy of connoisseurs”. Tell me that’s not just like a “Flaming Moe”.
- Before the war, almost all clothing was imported from England. This made the war very, very uncomfortable.
- I’d always learned that the British lined up to get shot and the revolutionaries hid behind trees. It wasn’t that simple. We had better guns, and were often better at using them. But it took longer to load them. Things got much better once we imported Friedrich Willhelm von Steuben who retrained the army into a fighting force at Valley Forge.
I could do this all day. Fourth was Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It by John Ferling. Also good, same complaint. But it had this one fact that stuck with me: by conservative estimates, one in sixteen free American males of military age died in the Revolutionary War. One in ten died in the Civil War and one in 75 in WWII. Think about that. It kept me up one night. This war, and the Civil War, were devastating. So many died. It’s so different than war today.
These people were braver than I can imagine. They were willing to fight and die in ways we take for granted. They were just people, not that different from us today. I’m so glad I took the time to get to know some of them better.
I note, for the record, that all these books are male-centric, and white male-centric at that. I will make serious efforts to avoid that in the future.
I didn’t get to read John Adams by David McCullough. I ran out of time. But as I have some extra space in the schedule this summer, I plan to do it then. On to the Civil War!
tl;dr: It was so worth my time to get to know these historical figures as people. If you have time to read two books, go with Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution by A.J. Langguth and Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution by Benson Bobrick. You’ll be glad you did.