Exploring the changing meaning and significance of the American Revolution during the 18th and 19th Centuries.
Did people in the late eighteenth century understand the events of the American Revolution as we understand them now? How did people write the history of the Revolution as the war was occurring? Did people write that history differently in the century that followed? Does the identity of the person writing—or telling—the history make a difference? Do we receive different accounts of the same events from shoemakers or gentlemen or slaves?
Recent historians and literary critics have called attention to the evidence that Revolutionary events and documents that we take to be iconic were often considered minor, or entirely ignored, by people who lived during and immediately after the war. Alfred F. Young shows in The Shoemaker and the Tea Party that the event we know as the Boston Tea Party—a major political event at the start of the Revolution—received scant attention for about 50 years following the close of the war. Indeed, it was not even described in print by the name Boston Tea Party until the 1830s. Similarly, most people today take the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence to contain its most important passage: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Yet, Eric Slauter and David Armitage have demonstrated that, in 1776, most Americans overlooked these words to focus instead on the charges against the king and the matter of national independence. There was only “one set of people,” Slauter argues, who “saw this sentence as [the Declaration’s] most important statement: opponents of slavery.” Through abolitionists’ efforts in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Declaration’s support of egalitarianism would become one of the most important elements in its overall meaning.
Why does it matter that the meaning of the Revolution changed over time or that the Revolution held—and holds—multiple meanings for people at any given time? By examining different interpretations of historical events, we develop a deeper, more complicated understanding of the events themselves. We also position ourselves to think critically about the process of writing history and about the different uses that history serves. As historian Jill Lepore recently observed, “Beginning even before it was over, the American Revolution has been put to wildly varying political ends. Federalists claimed its legacy; so did anti-Federalists. Jacksonian Democrats said they were the true sons of the Revolution. No, Whigs said, we are. The Union claimed the Revolution; so did the Confederacy.” And certainly recent history, from the Civil Rights movement to today’s Tea Party, bears out Lepore’s claim.
The following collection of documents explores representations of the American Revolution from its earliest moments through the 125 years that followed. The documents include visual representations—maps, illustrations—as well as a variety of written texts—political, literary, musical—created by people of different social status for different audiences. Taken together, these documents encourage us to think in new ways about the history and meaning of the Revolution.
Writing a Revolution in Progress
“The Liberty Song” and the Boston, December 17, 1773 broadside shed light on the ways that eighteenth-century Americans represented the Revolution as it unfolded. John Dickinson’s “Liberty Song” is considered America’s first significant political song. It was inspired by the Massachusetts Legislature’s “Circular Letter,” published in February 1768. This letter was written by Samuel Adams to protest the Townshend Acts, laws passed by the British Parliament that taxed colonists for goods such as paper, paint, glass, and tea. The taxes were part of a series of laws, including the Stamp Act and the Sugar Act, designed both to raise revenue and to assert tighter political control over the colonies. When Boston residents resisted paying the taxes, the British government sent troops to occupy the city. The conflict led to the Boston Massacre of 1770.
The broadside, Boston, December 17, 1773, portrays negotiations leading up to the event now known as the Boston Tea Party. The British Parliament had passed the tea tax in May of that year in order to raise funds for the financially strapped East India Company. In late November and early December, three ships arrived in Boston Harbor. As with the earlier Townshend Acts, colonists objected to being taxed by a government in which they did not have representation.
The broadside below gives an account of a meeting held between the captain of the ship Dartmouth and residents of Boston on the night of December 16. Around 5,000 people attended. The Bostonians had resolved to prevent the captain, Francis Rotch, from unloading his shipment of East India Company tea. Rotch met to hear the colonists’ demands at four o’clock, departed to consult with the colony’s governor, who had been appointed by the king. He returned at six o’clock to report that the governor would not let his ship pass until its tea was unloaded. The meeting was quickly adjourned. The crowd gave a war whoop and rushed to the waterfront. There, about 30 designated leaders (socially distinguished men who were carefully disguised as Indians to avoid recognition) joined another 50–100 men (mostly young and unknown tradesmen in hastily improvised disguises). Before the eyes of one to two thousand silent spectators, they boarded three ships, smashed open the ships’ chests of tea, and dumped the contents into Boston Harbor. As was the custom with important meetings, an account was immediately printed in broadside form and posted in public places.
Two points are worth noting: First, both of these texts present the perspectives of people who resisted British rule. Tories, colonists who were loyal to the Crown, would offer very different accounts of the Townshend Acts and the tea tax. Second, the events to which these writers respond occurred in the years before the military conflict actually began in 1775. It is only in retrospect, knowing the Revolution would soon begin, that historians can look to these sources for evidence of the cultural and political climate that would soon lead many colonists to take up arms against British rule.
Imagining the Revolution from Across the Atlantic
The map and the engravings here are two of the first European representations of Revolutionary America. A Plan of the Town and Harbour of Boston is the first published map of the Revolutionary War. It portrays the battles of Lexington and Concord, which had occurred earlier that year. The battles were prompted by the decision of General Thomas Gage, the commander in chief of British forces in North America, to confiscate stores of gunpowder and weapons kept in Concord by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Gage authorized troops, led by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, to set out on the night of April 18. Members of the local militia, known as minutemen, gathered to intercept the British forces. They succeeded in stalling and harassing the British troops, who soon retreated back to Boston. This map was published in London in July 1775, just a few months after the battles occurred.
“John Malcolm” appears in the first French book on the United States. Its title translates as “Collection of Engravings Representing the Different Events of the War That Brought Independence to the United States of America.” The collection presents an illustrated history of the Revolution that pays particular attention to France’s assistance in the war and the benefits to France of Britain’s defeat. It was initially published in Paris in 1783, the same year that the Peace of Paris officially brought the war to a close.
This engraving portrays the tarring and feathering of John Malcolm in January 1774. According to historian Alfred Young, Malcolm was an employee of the customs service and a fervent Tory who was notorious among Boston’s patriot tradesmen for his fierce temper and apparent hostility toward people of lower rank. The shoemaker, George Hewes, came upon Malcolm in the street threatening a young boy with a large cane that had a heavy iron head. Hewes approached Malcolm, saying, “I hope you are not going to strike this boy with that stick.” The two men exchanged words and Malcolm struck Hewes on the head with the cane, almost penetrating his skull. Hewes received medical attention and eventually recovered. But that evening, a crowd carried Malcolm out of his house, down the street, to the Liberty Tree (an elm near Boston Common that had been the site of the first Stamp Act protest in 1765). While some gentlemen urged the crowd to leave Malcolm to the courts, the crowd did not trust Tory judges to bring justice. It sought an extralegal form of punishment: Malcolm was stripped to his breeches, smeared with pine tar, coated in feathers, threatened with hanging, and beaten with a rope, until he promised “never again to hold [a position] inconsistent with the liberties of his country.” He was then returned to his house without further injury. As Young explains, Malcolm’s tarring and feathering was an “electrifying event, … part of the upsurge in spontaneous action in the wake of the Tea Party” that demonstrated the strength of public sentiment in Boston against loyalists and “confirmed the British ministry in its punitive effort to bring rebellious Boston to heel.”
Remembering the Tea Party: Commemorating the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century
These documents allow us to explore the ways that nineteenth-century Americans wrote the history of the Revolution through representations of one, specific event: the dumping of the tea in Boston Harbor. Historian Alfred F. Young recently discovered that the event we know as the Boston Tea Party largely disappeared from official histories of the Revolution from about 1780–1830. Young suggests several reasons for this neglect: One, participants had been sworn to secrecy and likely feared being prosecuted for the destruction of property if their identities became known. Two, the event prompted a rapid escalation of the conflict. Its significance was soon overcome by the beginning of the war, the declaration of independence, and other important events. Finally, few Revolutionary events were being commemorated during this period, and certainly not the more popular and volatile ones. These events—Young mentions the Stamp Act riots and the numerous tarrings and featherings of Tory customs officers as examples—might conflict with the ideas of national stability and social order that many political leaders sought to convey.
In the 1820s and ‘30s, Americans’ relationship to Revolutionary history began to change as people started to look more closely to the Revolution as a source of national identity. Writers such as B. B. Thatcher noticed that Revolutionary War veterans, such as George Hewes, were quite old (if they were still alive at all) and would not be able to provide first-person histories of the war for much longer. Indeed, two biographies of Hewes were published within a year. The excerpt below includes Hewes’ account of that night in Boston Harbor.
By 1873, the 100th anniversary, the tea event had fully entered official histories of the Revolution. It was widely commemorated with at least three major celebrations occurring in Boston alone. The page from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, reproduced below, describes the celebration sponsored by Boston’s Young Women’s Christian Temperance Association (YWCA). At that celebration, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., read his “Ballad of the Boston Tea Party,” excerpted here. Holmes was a celebrated writer and doctor throughout much of the nineteenth century (He was also the father of the Supreme Court justice who shares his name). The ballad was later included in a collection of poems published in tribute to his grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s generations and their experience of the Revolution.
“What To the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”: African American Responses to the Revolution
Historians as well as students today continue to struggle with the question of how the Revolution’s leaders made such forceful arguments for freedom and self-government while perpetuating the enslavement of roughly one-fifth of the American population. A number of African American writers, some of them former slaves, raised this question themselves in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The documents here were written by three African American abolitionists and published in the 1850s.
William Cooper Nell was a journalist and historian who campaigned to end school segregation in Boston. In Services of Colored Americans, he recovers the history of African American participation in the Revolution. In subsequent years, he successfully petitioned the City of Boston to recognize Crispus Attucks, an African American who died in the Boston Massacre. Frederick Douglass was a celebrated writer and speaker on behalf of abolition and civil rights as well as a former slave. He delivered this speech in Rochester, New York, in 1852 and included it in this edition of his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom. James Theodore Holly was an ordained Episcopalian priest, originally from Washington DC, who spent much of his life in Haiti and urged other African Americans to emigrate there to establish a stable, independent, black nation in the Western Hemisphere. (From 1791 to 1804, Haitians had successfully overthrown both slavery and French colonial rule in a revolution that had deployed the principles of the American and French Revolutions against the institution of slavery.) Holly delivered this lecture to the Literary Society of Colored Young Men in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1855.
Taken together, these writers, who knew one another and worked on behalf of the cause of equality, offer three distinct responses to the problem of race, slavery, and the American Revolution.
- Armitage, David. The Declaration of Independence: A Global History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.
- Breen, T.H. “Whose Revolution Is This?” Washington Post March 31, 2010. www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/30/AR2010033003252.html
- Johnson, Richard Colles and Cynthia H. Peters, compilers. A Princely Gift: The Rudy Lamont Ruggles Collection of the Newberry Library. 1986.
- Lepore, Jill. “Tea and Sympathy: Who Owns the American Revolution.” The New Yorker May 3, 2010. www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/05/03/100503fa_fact_lepore?currentPage=all
- Newberry Library. “Political and Military History: Map 13: A British Plan of Revolutionary Boston, 1775.” In Historic Maps in K-12 Classrooms. publications.newberry.org/k12maps/module_13/9-12.html
- Slauter, Eric. “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness–How did these words become the most important in the Declaration of Independence? The answer starts with a small band of motivated Americans.” Boston Globe July 3, 2011. www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/07/03/life_liberty_and_the_pursuit_of_happiness.
- Slauter, Eric. The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
- Young, Alfred F. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.