I took advantage of the holiday to take my two oldest boys to the new Museum of the American Revolution today. It is visually very impressive. I’m less able to judge its interpretive lens because of my general ignorance of the revolution and because I had a four-year-old with me who wasn’t down for reading everything. Understandable! But the boys had fun.
With the caveat that my stroll through the museum was far from comprehensive, I got the impression that African Americans and Native Americans figure fairly prominently in the story, but loyalists are slighted. Does this ring true to others who have visited? I saw one small section that superficially discussed loyalist motivations but I don’t get the sense that visitors would come away from the museum seriously grappling with loyalism as a viable choice in colonial America.
It seemed to me the museum has a heavy teleological bent, encouraging the viewer to understand past events in light of futures the historical actors could not and did not imagine. Seen from this perspective, the revolution was great because growing numbers of people would claim its fruits in the centuries to come. The focus on futures makes African Americans a natural part of the story but comes with a cost. It can obscure the actual decisions people at the time had to make without the benefit of foreknowledge.
Without the light of foreknowledge, was the patriot cause just? It’s a question patriotic sense tells us we shouldn’t even be asking. But it’s a historically and morally useful question.
I asked my son John if he thinks he would have been a patriot or a loyalist. He said neither because he would have been afraid to fight. In that answer he demonstrated more serious historical reflection and honest evaluation of human behavior than most of us. And he’s seven!
I just finished reading Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions, where the loyalists appear as real people making understandable decisions. The patriot leaders often appear acquisitive, suspicious of the common people, and jealous in the defense of their prerogatives. Taylor joins the historiographical trend of seeing the Constitution as an attempt to tamp down democracy in the states and preserve the advantages of creditors, landowners, and enslavers.
In such a narrative, the genius of the United States is found in successive generations of Americans who had the audacity to claim that the rhetorical flights of fancy of a wartime messaging tool (the Declaration of Independence) should be made real in society. In other words, the founders accidentally set in motion the emergence of a society that most of them would have found repugnant.
Was the Revolution worth it? The freedoms won for ordinary white men pale in comparison to the other fruits of the Revolution: the intensification of conquest and enslavement in the west. At the Museum of the American Revolution, the patriot cause is vindicated because of the abolition of slavery in the Civil War and the great civil rights campaigns of the twentieth century. But do these victories for freedom really belong to the Revolution? It is not unreasonable to wonder if the cause of freedom would have been better served within the British Empire.
Really, I’m just stirring the pot. When you think about the American Revolution, are your sympathies more with the patriots or loyalists? Or does patriotism prevent us from even considering the question?