My recent visit to the Museum of the American Revolution led me to Gordon S. Wood‘s brief The American Revolution: A History, one of the volumes in the Modern Library Chronicles series. It’s impossible to cover such a complex period of American history in 166 pages of text, but it’s better than nothing and, for those of us bored to tears by the evocation of the period in our elementary school history classes, necessary. It helps that Wood is one of the foremost scholars of the Revolutionary period and possessed of a felicitous prose style besides (he’s won the Bancroft, John H. Dunning, and Pulitzer prizes). There’s no harm in this refresher course of our origins.
I unconditionally love this country, but a blind unconditional love is a stupid love, and to overlook America’s obvious flaws and dark periods helps nobody. “The history of the American Revolution, like the history of the nation as a whole, ought not to be viewed as a story of right and wrong or good and evil from which moral lessons are to be drawn,” Wood writes. “The Revolution … is not a simple morality play; it is a complicated and often ironic story that needs to be explained and understood, not celebrated or condemned.” Among the ironies that Wood emphasizes is that Washington was a rather mediocre battlefield general; that most of the “Founding Fathers” had personal, pecuniary self-interests in devising the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; and, most obviously, that insisting on freedom and human rights in a country in which slavery flourished and women were relegated to second-class status is hypocritical, to say the least, and the legacies of this hypocrisy stain this country to the present day. But we must file this under “bathwater, throwing babies out with.” The American Revolution and its leading actors also nobly struggled against monarchical tyranny, and out of their thinking, debating and writing came one of the most inspiring examples of republican and democratic government the world has ever seen. To say that the revolutionaries failed to fully live up to many of their ideals (many of which I share, like the separation of powers, separation of church and state, freedom of speech and religion, private property, and a means of chucking the bastards out when we need to), and that they failed to foresee some of the unintended consequences of their decisions (such as the recent failure of the Electoral College system), is only to say that they were as human as the rest of us, despite the genius of many of them. A man’s reach, though, should exceed his grasp, even if we never get to heaven. I may not be able to agree with the musical Hamilton‘s suggestion that “New York is the greatest city in the world,” but the United States is certainly the greatest country, even if it’s great in spite of its current leadership, as Donald Trump, his cronies in the GOP, and those who support them destroy and mock the ideals upon which Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, and the others founded this land. Talk about self-interest.
Slamming the revolutionary generation has become rather the thing these days, and some read Howard Zinn and think they’re the first to find the Holy Grail of Historical Truth. But it’s no surprise that the early Americans failed to solve the issues of race and equality. We don’t seem much closer to solving them ourselves, and this ambivalence has never been far from the surface of the ways we look at early American history. Christ, Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone even wrote a song about it, for the Broadway musical 1776. In “Molasses to Rum to Slaves,” John Cullum as Edward Rutledge, the South Carolina delegate to the Second Continental Congress, offers a savage appraisal of the slave trade that implicates all of the Americans gathered at the Congress. It continues to implicate us. Below, the song as it appeared in the 1972 film version of the musical.