Revolution I Yesterday we

October 03, 2003


Revolution I

Yesterday we had our class on the Revolution. As I usually do, I focused on George Washington for this. Washington is so very important for 1775-1796 that I make sure that we do a good biographical thang on him.

Washington holds an unusual position in the national pantheon. On the one hand, he is the indispensible man - not for the war itself as Nathaniel Green and some of the other generals were also quite capable, but for the aftermath. If he were not there, the guys in Philadelphia in 1787 would have written a very different document with a much weaker chief executive. If GW had not put his prestige behind the Constitution it would not have been ratified. Everyone knows that GW is very important. But, very few people really know much about him. So, I decided a couple of years ago when planning the survey that it would be a very good idea to focus on GW the whole man.

I opened by asking the kids what they knew about GW. We had just read a mess of his letters and documents:


  • George Washington to Bryan Fairfax, Aug 24, 1774 (why resist),
  • Thomas Jefferson and the Continental Congress: Declaration of Independence (adopted version) July 4, 1776,
  • Washington to John Hancock, Dec 5, 1776 (militia),

  • Washington to John Hancock, Sept 11, 1777 (Battle of Brandywine),
  • Washington, General Orders, Dec 17,1777 (Valley Forge),
  • Washington, General Orders, May 5, 1778 (Celebrate French alliance),
  • Alexander Hamilton to Philip Schuyler, Feb 18 1781 (AH quarrels with GW),
  • Washington to Charles Cornwallis, Oct 17, 1783 (Yorktown),
  • Washington to Congress, Dec 23, 1783 (resigns).

I had really hoped that the kids would be able to tease something out of those letters. The morning section caught Washington's prickly disposition from his quarrel with Hamilton - they called it arrogance, I called it temper. The morning section also talked about the cherry tree, which gave me a chance to deliver a canned 5 minute spiel on mythmaking and the founders, and on the differences between the real guys and the Mason Weems plaster saints. The afternoon class wanted to talk more about GW as a general, they did not realize where they got the idea, but they repeated Hamilton's critique of GW as a battlefield general.

From there I went into my canned GW bio. I tried doing a stand-up thing with a student 6'2", a student 5'8", a student 5'6" and a student 5'4" standing side by side to illustrate the heights of Washington, the average continental regular, the average British regular, and the average British marine. I then went into the short spiel on heights in history. This was a bad idea, not the best use of time. I need to remember to drop the bit on heights.

We talked about GW the land speculator, GW the planter, GW the highly effective businessman - I included the distillery, GW the slaveholder, GW the local elite, and GW the moderate enlightenment man. I pointed out that GW always talks about Providence rather than about God, and that he insisted that the Continental army attend Divine services regularly. I made what I thought was a nice contrast between Franklin's self-improvement where he teaches himself how to write in style and Washington's self-improvement focusing on manners. Next time I use GW letters I will need to include the list of rules to live by. It will be useful here and I will be able to refer back to them when I talk about the transition from genteel to democratic society in the early 19th century.

Once we had GW down I recapped the tail end of the imperial crisis. I really should have done this Tuesday, but did not because I spent Tuesday catching up on the British Empire. We spent too long on Franklin on Thursday of last week and it has me about half an hour off sync. I focused on Adams' argument that the "real revolution took place in the hearts of the American people long before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord" and used that as a kickoff point to talk about creating shadow governments, committees of correspondence, sons of liberty, and the like. This was important stuff and I presented it badly. It really did belong with the rest of the Imperial Crisis and I do need to think about how best to present the story of shadow government - I started with Sons of Liberty and Committees of Correspondence and what I should have done was start with Maier's point about hue and cry, posse comitas, militia, and all the other instances where the people police themselves. Then I could have shown how the Imperial Crisis simply changed the norms and direction that the people used, how the Sons of Liberty and the Committees of Correspondence took up administrative competancy from the local governments that were dissolved or paralyzed by the Crisis, and how the radicals seized legitimacy from the Crown through these shadow governments long before the crisis turned violent. It all comes back to getting through Franklin more quickly.

From there we dug into GW's letters. I really like that letter from GW to Fairfax: it contains a precis of almost every colonial argument for independece, it shows the writing style of the Republic of Letters, and it brings up the oddity of slave holders terrified that, if they did not stand up to the British, they would be reduced to the same condition as the black Slaves that they "govern with such Arbitrary power." This is always a good talking point and it let me re-emphasize the Virginian approach to liberty with a binary black-white, slave-free, dependent-independent mentality co-existing with an awareness of status, gradations, and patron-client relations within the white community.

Finally, with half an hour left, we declared independence. I gave a close reading of the Dec, emphasizing the preamble and the penultimate paragraph, emphasizing Jefferson's genius for taking the commonplace ideas and wrapping them in compelling prose, emphasizing the way the document is rooted in enlightenment social thought, and pointing out the differences between Jefferson's accusation against the British people and the final document's appeal for them to join the Colonists in defending British liberties.

I never did get to the war, to 18th century armies, to war goals, or any of that good stuff. I will need to fight the war in the first half hour on Tuesday, then jump into state constitution making. We had about 5 minutes left at the end of each section and we used that to start talking about the homework for this week: "Was the conflict of 1775-1783 a Revolution or a Civil War?" They agreed that it was a hard question - harder with this textbook than with Norton's A People and a Nation because Norton uses that question to frame the chapter while Boyer Enduring Vision never brings it up. I did not collect homework but told them that we would be talking about that question on Tuesday.

So, for Tuesday, it will be:

Fight the War
Was it a Revoluton or a Civil War?
State Constitutions
The Contagion of Liberty
The Northwest Territory

I think I am going to have to cut out my long section on Shays' rebellion to make it all fit. I can do that.

And so to finish planning my day.

Posted by Red Ted at October 3, 2003 09:19 AM | TrackBack