This article was originally published by the New Boston Post.
After the Battle at North Bridge in Concord, while the British retreated and began their march back to Boston, some Massachusetts men found a wounded redcoat left behind. They did a terrible thing: They scalped him and left him to die.
Word about the atrocity reached the British, and along with their bloody exposure to American snipers and to our side’s hit and run attacks, the British understandably concluded that they were fighting a new and vicious kind of enemy.
Our revolutionary forces were never very disciplined and their respect for the “rules of war” couldn’t be counted on. After Washington retreated from Fort Lee across New Jersey in November 1776, many of his troops melted away into the countryside. The British under Cornwallis followed the Continental Army cautiously, knowing that officers were likely to be ambushed and summarily executed. Atrocities begat atrocities. Later at the Battle of Princeton, the British bayoneted General Mercer and his men in one of the war’s small-scale massacres.
This is to say, war is war, and the Revolutionary War was often grim business, not a bloodless, high-minded marching to and fro across the pages of half-read history books.
Revolutionary War buffs, of course, know the terrain of all the major engagements in America’s war for independence. They also are well informed about the economics of the war, and the crucial role of American diplomacy. Without the help of the French, our Declaration of Independence would have been a historical curiosity.
But amateur enthusiasts aside, Americans in 2016 have very little sense of the Revolution that defined the country. Partly that’s because we just are not a historically-minded people. Paradoxically, one of the things the Revolution gave us was the freedom to live in the present and to dream of a future we could make for ourselves. And that is exactly what we do—unlike other peoples around the world who define themselves by the great conquests of their ancestors or by their resentments over great battle fought and lost a thousand years ago. The war in the Balkans in the 1990s, for example, turned in no small part on Serbian loss in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Americans just don’t think like that, and perhaps we should be in some degree grateful for our historical amnesia.
But that amnesia has costs too. One of Herman Melville’s lesser-known books is “Israel Potter.” It tells the largely true story of an American revolutionary soldier, a veteran of Bunker Hill, captured by the British and transported as a prisoner to England. He escapes, serves the Revolutionary cause as a spy, but is left at war’s end penniless and vagrant. It takes him some 45 years to get home, and when he does he discovers that he is entirely forgotten. America has moved on, and the Revolutionary War itself has been moved into the realm of sacred symbol, not lived experience.
Tellingly, Melville’s book was itself a commercial failure. You can’t shame people into feeling something they don’t feel. And most Americans don’t “feel” the Revolutionary War the way we do, say, the Civil War or World War II.
Why is that?
After all, we are much more powerfully influenced by what happened between the shots fired in Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, and the British surrender at Yorktown on Oct. 17, 1781, than even by Appomattox or Hiroshima. Other wars consolidated our national identity. The Revolutionary War created it.
Our amnesia about the Revolutionary War is, in large part, a result of how we teach to ourselves in school. The schoolbook versions vary from childish simplicity to cynical debunking. Washington and his men shiver at Valley Forge, cross the Delaware on Christmas Eve, and eventually the Brits surrender. Or, in the cynical version, the “Revolution” is no revolution at all. It is just a bunch of rich white colonists finding a way to keep their privileged positions by conning some poor white colonials to rebel.
This debunking of the American Revolution has been with us for over a hundred years, since Charles Beard published in 1913 a Marxist-style reading of the Constitution. It has been taken up by many others, perhaps most famously by Boston’s own Howard Zinn in the 1980s in his “People’s History of the United States.” More recently it found its way in to the College Board’s 2014 revision of the Advanced Placement U.S. History Standards. Those standards didn’t have much at all to say about the Revolutionary War itself. Wars are not a favorite subject for the academic left these days, except to underscore the destructiveness of American society.
The American Revolution thus has become an event that was already out of focus for most Americans and has now been remade into something that underscores how America isn’t really so exceptional after all. It is, in this view, just another war, barbaric like all wars, and was fought like every other war for the benefit of the few at the cost of the many.
The trouble with that view is that it is completely false. The Revolutionary War was truly something the world had never seen before. It was a war not just for political independence from a foreign power, but a war that brought into being a “new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Someone famous once said that.