El General Washington

This Spanish portrait of General Washington poses an unusual mystery.

What did George Washington look like? We know, or think we know, because we have seen dozens of portraits of him. We carry his image in our pockets, on our dollar bills and our loose change. And though the most familiar portraits by Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale and John Trumbull differ somewhat, most of us think we would recognize Washington if we met him in person—unexpected as that would be.

Washington is so famous that it is hard to imagine a time when Americans didn’t know what he looked like. But during the first years of the Revolutionary War, the only people who knew what Washington looked like were people who had seen him in person or had seen one of the very few painted portraits of him.

Printers tried to fill this void with imaginary portraits based on written descriptions—someone who had seen the general said he had a prominent nose, a broad forehead, a firm jaw or simply a “noble countenance”—but these portraits no more resembled Washington than they resembled any other middle-aged man in a general’s uniform.

Charles Willson Peale, the great Philadelphia portrait painter, set out to correct this. Peale had first painted Washington from life in 1772 and had seen and painted the general several times since. On October 16, 1778, Peale wrote in his diary that he “Began a Drawing in order to make a Medzo-tinto of Genl. Washington. got a Plate of Mr. Brookes and in pay I am to give him 20 of the prints in the first 100 struck.”

The plate was a small rectangle of polished copper, perfectly flat, on which Peale engraved his image of Washington. A mezzotint (from the Italian mezza tinta or “half-tone”) is a sophisticated form of intaglio (or inward cut) printing characterized by subtle gradations of tone from deep black to white produced with nothing more than black ink on paper. The shading is produced by varying the depth of the image by burnishing areas of the heavily roughened surface of the copper plate, which in turn varies the amount of ink conveyed to the paper.

Peale recorded on November 16 that he “began to print off the small plate of Genl Washington.” He presented copies of the print to several prominent people in Philadelphia, including Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress; Conrad Alexandre Gérard, the new minister from France; David Rittenhouse, a clockmaker and self-taught scientist; and Thomas Paine, the famous author of Common Sense. Peale left prints on consignment, priced at five dollars each, at local shops, including two dozen copies left with printer John Dunlap and a dozen “at Mrs. Mccallisters.”

Peale’s composition was copied by other engravers and became the most widely disseminated image of Washington during the Revolutionary War. Through the war years, this was the face of George Washington to Americans who never saw the great man in person. Yet today Peale’s original print is exceedingly rare. Only three are known. One in exceptionally fine condition is among the treasures of our own Robert Charles Lawrence Fergusson Collection. The other two are now in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington and the General Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain.

In all, Peale’s records account for about one hundred and fifty strikes from his mezzotint plate. Why then, is it so rare?

The main reason appears to be that four dozen copies—nearly a third of Peale’s print run—were taken by Don Juan de Miralles, a Spanish agent who admired Washington. This would account for the survival of a copy in the Archives of the Indies in Seville. Miralles probably sent some, or perhaps nearly all, of the forty-eight copies to Spain before his untimely death in 1780. Ironically, Peale did not benefit from this large sale. In his accounts, Peale noted “unpaid” against Miralles’ entry.

Rare as it is, there may be a version of it that’s rarer still. Among the most recent additions to our library collections is a little print, obviously derived from the 1778 Peale mezzotint, bearing the simple legend El General Washington (the “W” in Washington printed as a double-V). This extraordinary little print does not include the name of the publisher or the engraver or even supply a date. It is an enigma.

El General Washington is among the rarest prints of George Washington.Unlike Peale’s mezzotint, this portrait was created as a line engraving (where the design is cut into a smooth plate and shading is created by hatching, cross-hatching and dots)—but who engraved it and when? No one seems to have figured this out.

El General Washington is not listed in WorldCat, a collective catalog of the world’s libraries—the largest catalog of printed materials in the world. Nor is it listed separately in the online digital catalogs of the world’s leading research libraries. The print does not appear in the catalog of the Biblioteca Nacional de Espana, the Spanish analog of the Library of Congress; the British Library; and the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Nor is it found in the extraordinary collection of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando—the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando—in Madrid, which serves as the home of the Calcografía Nacional, the world’s greatest collection of Spanish copperplate engravings. Founded by the Spanish Crown in 1789, the Calcografía Nacional gathered up an impressive number of eighteenth-century engraved plates from private publishers and those working under the patronage of the government. The collection includes some eight thousand plates, but El General Washington does not appear to be among them. A search through the catalogs of Spain’s great art collections—including the Prado, which has an impressive collection of eighteenth-century Spanish prints—yields no clue about the phantom.

Nor is the print mentioned in the important early Spanish works on Spain and the American Revolution by Manuel Serrano y Sanz, Manuel Conrotte and Juan F. Yella Utrilla, though their books were informed by deep study in the Spanish archives where a copy of this fugitive print might be hiding.

And finally—in all the voluminous literature on Washington portraits, we can find only three mentions of El General Washington. The pioneering American print collector and scholar William S. Baker, in his book The Engraved Portraits of Washington, published in 1880, does not illustrate but clearly describes this print: [after Charles Willson Peale] “El General VVashington. Bust in uniform, Head slightly to right. Circle, with border the sides partly reduced, in a square. Line,” adding “only one impression of this has come under the notice of the writer.”

Baker’s work inspired a new generation of collectors and scholars of printed portraits of Washington. One of them, Baker’s protégé Charles Henry Hart, compiled a new and expanded Catalogue of the Engraved Portraits of Washington, which was published by the Grolier Club in 1904. Hart also listed El General Washington: “Bust, full to right, in uniform, with ribband, but without epaulettes. Circle, with border, 5/16 cut off to rectangle. Line.”

That same year, an impression of El General Washington was sold at auction by Stan V. Henkels of Philadelphia as part of a large collection of engraved portraits assembled by Philadelphia lawyer Hampton L. Carson. (Carson is acknowledged in Hart’s catalogue and it is very likely that this is the same engraving Hart—and probably Baker—had seen.) Henkels described the print as “a beautiful impression of one of the rarest and most interesting portraits of Washington,” and included an illustration of it. To add to the complexity of our story, there is another print by a Spanish printmaker, Mariano Brandi, titled El General Washington. That print, which Hart also cataloged, is a Spanish version of the portrait of Washington in profile based on a drawing by Pierre Eugène Du Simitière, and is a completely different work.

The present-day print shop from which we purchased our impression of El General Washington traced the provenance of our print to the family of Zachary Taylor Hollingsworth, another early twentieth-century connoisseur of engraved portraits who was actively collecting “portraits of Washington from all countries, with every degree of merit” at the time of the Carson sale.

Our search for any other references to this fugitive print leaves us wondering: did the Society just acquire the “one impression” Baker first documented more than 140 years ago? Is there another? The print is clearly Spanish—the title gives it away, but so does the open, woven appearance of the corners and the background, which is consistent with many Spanish prints of the late eighteenth century. But the absence of names of engraver and publisher is curious. Spanish engravers included these just as conventionally as their British, French and German counterparts. They sometimes don’t appear in the proofs struck before printing. This is an extraordinarily clear, well-struck print. Could our fugitive be a proof before printing? Or was the plate made, some proofs struck, but copies never struck for sale to the public?

And perhaps the most important question: who in Spain was interested enough in George Washington to want to see a fine portrait of him published? Washington had admirers in Spain including Miralles’ eventual replacement, Diego de Gardoqui. As a partner in the firm of José de Gardoqui e Hijos of Bilbao, he supplied the American army with 215 bronze cannon, 30,000 muskets, 30,000 bayonets, some 500,000 musket balls, 300,000 pounds of powder and other supplies during the war. After the Revolution he became Spain’s envoy to the United States. A cultured gentleman, he presented Washington with a four-volume edition of Don Quixote. He was later succeeded by a member of his staff, José de Jáudenes, who commissioned an Italian artist then living in Philadelphia, Giuseppe Perovani, to paint him a copy of Gilbert Stuart’s magnificent full-length portrait of Washington, which he sent back to Spain. The painting is now in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando.

Either man, or some other Spaniard with close ties to the United States, might have interested himself in publishing El General Washington—a curious, fugitive reminder of Spain’s involvement in our war for independence.

Ellen McCallister Clark
and Jack D. Warren, Jr.

El General Washington (above) was acquired for the library collections with a gift from a private foundation.


Read more about Charles Willson Peale’s First Authentic Portrait of George Washington in our series Masterpieces in Detail. You can also view Peale’s mezzotint, His Excellency Genl Washington, in our Digital Library of the American Revolution.

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Lessons from the Boston Massacre

The connection between the Boston Massacre and the Tiananmen Massacre, and the lessons that comparison offers, are suggested by these images.

On the night of March 5, 1770—251 years ago tonight—a party of British soldiers shot and killed five Bostonians in an event known ever since as the Boston Massacre. The killings shook the loyalty of Britain’s North American colonists to the British government. John Adams wrote that the “foundation of American independence was laid” that night.

The basic outline of what happened is well established, although the fine details are elusive. The soldiers who participated in the killings were tried for murder, and dozens of eyewitness accounts were entered into evidence at their trials. The accounts differ considerably and in some cases conflict with one another. The massacre occurred on the dark streets of an eighteenth-century city in late winter. It began with an altercation between a Bostonian and a sentry outside the customs house. Angry words were spoken, a crowd gathered, the sentry call for assistance, and a captain and six soldiers armed with loaded muskets came to his aid. The crowd grew—whether to thirty or forty or two hundred or even more is unclear—and ugly words turned to threats and taunts and then to sticks, snowballs, and chunks of ice thrown at the soldiers. The captain ordered the crowd to disperse, to no effect. As the situation degenerated, one of the soldiers fired, and quickly the others joined him. Eleven civilians were shot. Three died on the scene and two others died within a few days.

These are basic facts, and they are not in dispute. But how these facts are presented in our history classrooms—and particularly the interpretative context into which they are now woven—illustrates the challenges we face in reviving understanding and appreciation of the American Revolution. For generations the Boston Massacre was presented to students as Exhibit A in the case for resistance and rebellion. The British government was so intent on imposing its will on the colonies that it sent an army of occupation to Boston, and its soldiers shot and killed unarmed civilians who confronted them.

Over the last generation, this interpretation of the Boston Massacre has been dismantled. At first this flowed from a reasonable effort to encourage students to look at events from different points of view. The sentry was obviously frightened, and so were the soldiers who came to his aid. The crowd wasn’t carrying placards—they were cursing the soldiers and throwing things at them. The soldiers were young men. They weren’t seasoned veterans. It was dark and they were scared the mob was going to kill them. They acted in self-defense.

These, too, are facts, and facts are stubborn things. There are two sides to the story. But today’s students aren’t likely to get both sides. The version of the Boston Massacre widely taught today could be called neo-loyalist. Its takes the basic outline and embeds it in an interpretation that presents the victims as participants in a mob that got what it had coming—when the taunts turned to threats and protestors began throwing things, what did they expect?  People got shot. It was inevitable. Of course it was all very unfortunate (we can hear the king’s ministers saying that in London) but that’s what happens when mobs challenge armed soldiers.

Henry Pelham's engraving of the Boston Massacre still offers us important lessons.

Henry Pelham’s “The Fruits of Arbitrary Power” includes a passage from the 94th Psalm—an enduring challenge to tyranny: “How long shall the wicked triumph? How long shall they utter and speak hard things? and all the workers of iniquity boast themselves?” (American Antiquarian Society).

Exhibit A in the case for the neo-loyalist version of the unfortunate events of March 5, 1770, is the Paul Revere engraving, “The Bloody Massacre in King Street, Boston.” Published and republished in history books for two hundred years, it’s the best known contemporary image of an event in the American Revolution. Today’s students are commonly taught that the print is pure propaganda, depicting innocent Bostonians being gunned down by evil soldiers. Nor was what happened in Boston, the neo-loyalists say, a “massacre.” Like the print, the use of the word here is pure propaganda, they say, attached to a street brawl by radical leaders like Samuel Adams to whip the colonists into a frenzy of irrational hatred of the British—who were, after all, just trying to bring order to the empire.

Let’s set aside, for a moment, the horrors perpetrated in the name of bringing order to empires. For reasons that defy rationality, the empathy today’s students are taught to feel for people under colonial rule does not extend to the king’s subjects in the thirteen colonies in North America.

There are, indeed, some things about the Revere engraving to criticize. To begin with, Revere appropriated—by our standards he stole—his view of the massacre from Henry Pelham, the young half-brother of artist John Singleton Copley, who drew the scene with the intention of producing an engraving for sale. Pelham apparently didn’t know how to prepare an engraving plate. He probably went to Revere, who was a pretty poor artist but knew how to engrave, seeking technical advice. Revere had possession of Pelham’s design for a few days and decided to copy it and issue an engraving of his own, which he did. He beat Pelham to the market with his pirated engraving, and thus the most famous view of the event is credited improperly to Revere.

Revere wasn’t the first person to call the killings a massacre, and it really was a massacre, despite what our young people may be taught. Eleven gunshot victims, three left dead at the scene two more mortally wounded, doesn’t make a massacre—or so says the new orthodoxy. But consider this. The population of Boston in 1770 was about 15,000, so about one in two thousand Bostonians was killed on March 5, 1770. The population of modern Washington, D.C., is about 700,000. If one in two thousand Washingtonians was suddenly killed by an army of occupation in a single incident, the death toll would be three hundred and fifty people. Wouldn’t that be a massacre, especially if the people killed were not bearing arms?

Murder at Sharperville illustrates the commonality of massacres and underscores the lessons we can still learn from the Boston Massacre.

Murder at Sharpeville, by Godfrey Rubens, depicts the aftermath of a 1960 massacre of unarmed civilians in South Africa. The suffering and loss it expresses echoes the suffering and loss in Boston and a hundred other places where soldiers have turned on unarmed civilians (Consulate of South Africa, London).

Of course it would be. For all of their apparent inaccuracies, the Revere and Pelham engravings speak to the horror of armed soldiers killing unarmed civilians. We have seen it happen too many times in the 251 years since that night—in encounters between our army and the Indians, in Europe under the Nazis, in Soviet Russia, at My Lai and Kent State, and in the horrifying genocides of our own time—in massacres so appalling that what happened in Boston so long ago has lost the power it once had to disturb us as deeply as it should. Yet the scenes are often much the same—Revere’s King Street is Tiananmen Square in miniature, his dead are eerily like the crumpled bodies in Godfrey Rubens painting of the victims of the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa.

Henry Pelham wisely titled his engraving “The Fruits of Arbitrary Power.” By fruits he meant consequences—the results of British policy. Today the word arbitrary is often used to mean random, unpredictable, or erratic. In the eighteenth century it meant ungoverned or uncontrolled. Arbitrary power is uncontrolled power.

There was nothing random or unpredictable about what had happened. In 1768 the British had landed four regiments, each of some seven hundred men—that’s one soldier for every six civilians—to occupy and impose their government’s arbitrary will on Boston. The warships that brought them entered the harbor with their gun ports open, and the occupying army entered the city with bayonets fixed in a naked display of arbitrary power. Before the massacre the force was reduced to two regiments, but Boston remained a city under armed occupation. The killings in Boston, Pelham reminds us, were entirely predictable—the natural consequences, or fruits, of a government exercising uncontrolled power over its people.

The Boston Massacre still has much to teach us. It revealed how far the British might go to impose their will. The American Revolution, we should teach our children, was about controlling the power of the state, limiting it, and making government always the servant of the people and an instrument of justice, not a tool for tyrants to impose their will on others. The massacre was a warning in the night, and it will remain a warning of dangers our world has yet to master.


Above: The desperate effort of Bostonians to carry a wounded man to safety in 1770, depicted here by Paul Revere, was repeated in Tiananmen Square in 1989—and many times in between.


The People’s Revolution

Margaret Corbin, portrayed in this sculpture by Tracy H. Sugg, was a heroine of the people's revolution.

How will we understand the American Revolution in the future we are making?

For more than two hundred years the American Revolution defined our nation and the ideals to which it is dedicated. For most of that time the heroes of the American Revolution were the cherished heroes of our nation. But in the last generation many Americans have turned away, suspecting at first and then in greater numbers believing that the Revolutionaries do not embody ideals we cherish, touching off a debate about the nature and meaning of our Revolution that will go far in shaping our national identity and the ideals that shape our conduct. Much more is at stake in this debate than the fate of monuments and memorials.

On the one hand are those—their voices have been particularly loud in the last year—who argue that the Revolutionaries did not go far enough or fast enough to fulfill the ideal of equality. Some go much further and argue that the Revolutionaries did not believe in equality, and simply used the rhetoric of universal natural rights to justify a political movement intended to impose deeper and more lasting forms of inequality.

On the other hand are those who insist that the Revolutionaries created a remarkable political and constitutional order which has facilitated the development of a free, wealthy, and powerful nation  which has, through gradual and at times dramatic moments of reform, provided for equality before the law and equality of opportunity for its citizens. While acknowledging that the men they admiringly refer to as the Founding Fathers were imperfect, they insist that we judge them in “the context of their time”—a time in which inequalities were commonplace. Their opponents are equally determined to stand in judgement of those same Founders, finding them wholly unworthy of admiration because they did not live according to standards of our time.

Although they have little in common otherwise, people on both extremes look on the Revolution as a political, legal, and constitutional event, and pay little attention to the Revolution as a social and cultural one. As a consequence people on both sides, and many in between, misunderstand the American Revolution.


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To understand our Revolution, there are few better places to begin that with the view of John Adams, a thoughtful revolutionary if ever there was one, who lived long enough to have historical perspective on the events through with he had live and in which he played such a prominent role. For Adams, the American Revolution began at the end of the French & Indian War, when the British began asserting themselves as never before in colonial affairs, and extended through the Declaration of Independence. Adams regarded the Revolution as a change in the sentiments of the American people, involving alienation from the British monarchy and the adoption of republican ideas about government, which he said had occurred before the war began. This was, for Adams, the real American Revolution.

Although it’s far from the way most modern Americans understand the Revolution, this view has some merit. The rejection of monarchy in favor of an experiment in self-government made the American Revolution an extraordinary event. In 1776 nearly everyone on Earth was the subject of a monarch. True self-government existed only in the theoretical speculations of philosophers and the conversations of coffeehouse radicals.

Few of us, however, share Adams’ view that the American Revolution was almost over before the war began. This is, at least in part, because our generation doesn’t readily grasp how radical the rejection of monarchy was in 1776. We live in a world in which most  governments are, at least nominally, republican—including governments, like that of the People’s Republic of China, that share few of the characteristics we associate with republics, and governments of constitutional monarchies, like that of Great Britain, that are republican in practice.

The success of our Revolution and the republic we created encouraged the world to follow our example. Much of the world did, and now what we accomplished no longer seems particularly radical. In this sense, the American Revolution succeeded beyond the expectations of its most enthusiastic supporters—except that, as we all know, many of the self-described republics of modern times are in fact some of history’s most vicious and sordid tyrannies. The idea that humankind should be governed by republic principles has triumphed, but the reality remains much as it was Rousseau challenged the world: mankind was made to be free, but is everywhere in chains. If understanding the fundamental ideals of our Revolution ever mattered, it matters now, when tyrants stalk the world falsely claiming to represent sovereign people—people they routinely oppress and brutalize.

John Adams was right that the American commitment to self-government was at the heart of our Revolution.  He simply underestimated the revolutionary consequences of the war in making it so. For him it was the war that followed the Revolution. In fact, the war was an intrinsic part of the Revolution.

This has been less and less appreciated, in the popular mind, in recent decades. The Revolutionary War now occupies little time in our history classrooms, where the focus is on political and constitutional events—chiefly the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Federal Constitution—and the statesmen who shaped them.  The Revolutionary War is dealt with in a few broad strokes.  It seems small to many Americans, at least when compared to later wars. Its battles seem like mere skirmishes, its death toll paltry, its suffering minor, its sacrifices modest.

We are easily deceived by the war’s scale. It was, in fact, until the interminable, undeclared foreign wars of modern times, the longest war in American history. It touched every part of the new nation, from Maine to Florida, and westward to the Mississippi. It touched every community and brought sorrow and loss to many thousands of families. In proportion to the population, it took the lives of more Americans than any other war in our history except the Civil War. The Revolutionary War was itself a civil war that degenerated into a brutal partisan conflict between loyalists and patriots. It was a traumatic event punctuated by episodes of extraordinary courage and of remarkable brutality.

The war mobilized an extraordinary number of Americans—as soldiers, of course, but many more as laborers, sailors, and craftsmen. It had a dramatic effect on the lives of women—many of whom lost husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers, many more who were forced to manage for themselves and do work that they would never had had to do in peacetime, and some of whom followed the army on the march, in camp, and a few even to the battlefield. It also had an enormous effect on the lives of the enslaved. Many of them took advantage of the war to free themselves—running away, serving in or with the army as soldiers, laborers, or servants, bringing suit for their freedom, and taking advantage of the first statutes abolishing slavery ever adopted in the history of the world.

Little of this would have happened if the Revolutionary War had been brief—if, as many patriots hoped, the war had ended when the British evacuated Boston in the spring of 1776. But that didn’t happen. When George Washington took command of the Continental Army in June 1775 he had implied to his wife, Martha, that he would be home by Christmas. That was undoubtedly wishful thinking, but he never imagined that eight Christmases would come and go before he returned to Mount Vernon.

A war of that scale, fought in every part of the country, over such an extended period of time, was bound to transform peoples’ lives. To understand how deeply it effected people’s lives we have only to read some of the thousands of pension declarations veterans made fifty years and more after the war ended. For most of them, the war had been the singular event in their lives, never to be forgotten. Many bore physical scars from the war and for many more, the war was an upheaval that lifted their lives out of the course it would otherwise have followed and set them on an entirely new path. We will never understand the Revolution until we understand it in these terms.

The pension file of Jesse Stout, a New Jersey farmer, tells us that he served for most of the war. He was shot through the shoulder in 1777 and after recuperating, he returned to service. When the war was over he moved to Pennsylvania, then back to New Jersey, then in 1795 to Ohio, then seven years in Indiana, before settling finally in west central Illinois. Such an odyssey would have been unimaginable before the Revolution. But it was far from unusual. Thousands of Revolutionary War veterans moved west or south or north after the war—the population seemed at times to be charged with a restless energy. When the American Revolution began, the colonists nearly all lived with two hundred miles of the ocean, and most lived within fifty, as earlier generations had done.

The Revolution changed that forever. The graves of the men and women of the American Revolution are scattered over nearly half of the continent, and are found as far away as Missouri and Illinois. John Abstom of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, fought at Kings Mountain when he was nineteen, moved to Kentucky after the war, and settled finally in Texas. Charles Polk of Mecklenburg County was a teenager when he served in the defense of Fort Moultrie in 1776. He survived the war, married and settled in Tennessee, before he moved to Texas. Stephen Taylor served for three years in the Massachusetts Continental Line, moved around upstate New York, and lived for the last years of his life in the Minnesota Territory, a region barely mapped when the Revolutionary War began.

The war was a defining experience for those who never strayed far from the home. Marmaduke Maples enlisted in the North Carolina Continental Line in January 1777 and later signed up to serve for the duration of the war. He fought with Washington’s army at Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth, was captured when Charleston capitulated in June 1780. He was imprisoned for some two years, much of it on a prison hulk moored in the harbor, where the suffering prefigured Andersonville, except the prisoners packed in the hulks starved within sight of a city where food was abundant, their miserable lives punctuated by the daily ritual, in summer’s heat and winter’s cold, of burying their dead comrades in shallow graves scooped from the mud near the ship.

Most of the men Maples served with died on the prison hulks or agreed to enlist with the British as their only means of escape. Maples refused to join the British army. Malnourished and sick, he survived until he was exchanged in 1782, when he was loaded on a British transport and dumped at Jamestown, Virginia. Maples and the remaining North Carolinians marched to Hillsborough where they were captured by raiding loyalists in September 1782. Maples was so close to death that the loyalists paroled him. He was still on parole in early 1783, when he mustered at Cross Creek, (now Fayetteville) expecting to rejoin the army.

At several points in this odyssey Maples could have escaped the army, but he kept returning to service, and it seems unlikely that he did so simply to obtain bounties that went constantly unpaid. The inescapable conclusion is that he was committed to the cause. After the war he went home to Lincoln County, where he taught school. He lived for another sixty years, and when he was too old and broken down to support himself any longer and applied for a veterans pension, his neighbors testified that it was well known that he had been soldier of the Revolution and shared in many of its greatest battles.

The remarkable thing about his story is how unremarkable it was. The story of David Dorrance, a Connecticut captain, is much the same—he joined the army right after Bunker Hill, fought in its great battles and was shot through the right hip by Tories while leading a raid in Westchester County, New York, in 1781. It took him more than a year to recover, but he, too, returned to the army, despite being disabled. He carried the musket ball for decades, and in the last years of his life he could barely walk.

The early republic was filled with men with stories like these. “At the close of that struggle,” Abraham Lincoln wrote, “nearly every adult male had been a participator in … its scenes. The consequence was, that of those scenes, in the form of a husband, a father, a son or brother, a living history was to be found in every family—a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related—a history, too, that could be read and understood alike by all, the wise and the ignorant, the learned and the unlearned.” At Gettysburg, when Lincoln referred to “our fathers,” who “brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation,” he meant the ordinary men—the fathers of his own generation—who had won the war.

The war made the American Revolution a people’s revolution. We don’t see that as clearly as we should, and that in the future we must. We have a tendency to think of our Revolution as an event dominated and driven by a group of people we call the Founding Fathers or sometimes even more simply, the Founders. This is a group of men, all of them white, and most of them wealthy, who were most active in the creative state building of the Revolution. They were mostly very conscious that they were participating in one of the great moments in world history and many cultivated reputations for unselfish public service. Some of them—Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, John Adams most clearly—recognized that they were historic figures and saved their papers for us to read. They wanted us to remember them, and we do.

We don’t see the other Revolutionaries—the ordinary men and women for whom the Revolution became a transcendent and transforming cause—as clearly. Their Revolution was one of the defining events of modernity but it was over a few decades before the invention of photography—one of the defining technical achievements of modern times—which makes it possible for us to see the faces of the ordinary people who fought our Civil War, who protested for women’s rights, who suffered in the mines and the slums, who labored in the mills and who bore the scars of slavery. We can see their faces and easily imagine them as men and women like us.

Nor did the ordinary men and women of the Revolution leave us a large body of personal writings to make up for this deficiency. They weren’t Romantics. They didn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about themselves. They wrote some about their experiences but rarely about themselves—occasionally they share ideas but not often their feelings. Their diaries are too often spare and unrevealing. Their personal letters are not much better.

Just occasionally we get a glimpse of their emotional lives through the veil of reserve that they maintained. Acquilla Cleaveland was a young private in a New Hampshire ranger company, when he wrote to his wife, Mercy, on June 10, 1777. His company had been patrolling the west shore of Lake Champlain for sixty miles north of Fort Ticonderoga, but had seen only one Indian scouting party. They had no reports of British movements to the north. “By what we herd they will not trouble us here this summer.” He had no idea that a British army was descending on them. He was more worried about smallpox, which he said loyalists were trying to spread to American troops. Food was expensive, he wrote, and promised recruitment bounties remained unpaid—all in the workaday prose of an ordinary soldier. Then he closed:

My Dear wife after my regards to you, I don’t know when I shall see you, but would have you do as well as you can. Remember that God is as able to support you now as ever, if you trust in Him. I shall come home as soon as I can get a chance. And so I remain your loving husband till Death.

A week later, on June 17, Acquila Cleaveland was killed by a party of Mohawks sent south by the British in advance of Burgoyne’s army.


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Why did they do it?  Why did they risk their lives, and give their lives, in the American Revolution?  These are essential questions, and one of the basic flaws of the present, overheated public dialogue about the Revolution, is that the participants aren’t asking them.

At the level we need to be asking these questions, the documents often fail to give us clear answers, but the record is far from silent. Margaret Corbin was young and recently married when the war began. She lived in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, in the wooded hills west of Gettysburg, though that town was not founded until she was ten and its terrible moment was near a century away. When Margaret was small her a party of Indians killed her father and carried off her mother, who was never to be heard from again. At twenty-one Margaret married a local farmer, John Corbin, and when the war began he enlisted in the First Company of Pennsylvania Artillery.

Men like John Corbin did not read treatises on natural rights or political economy like John Adams or Thomas Jefferson did. Women like Margaret Corbin certainly did not. Few of them ever heard of John Locke or Baron Montesquieu or ancients like Cicero. Taxes on paint, paper, lead, tea and glass—the Townshend Duties that so angered colonial merchants, didn’t touch people like John and Margaret Corbin, who didn’t buy paint or drink tea, who didn’t use much paper, and for whom lead was something cast into musket balls rather than used to hold window glass in place.

Men and women who lived in the colonial backcountry valued their independence. They had little property. In the Corbins’ Pennsylvania, where the law was more generous to squatters than elsewhere, many lived on land to which they had no clear title. What little they had—a bedstead, a few pots, a gun—belonged to them, and there was no squire to whom they owed obedience or to whom they paid rent. And if they liked they could go, joining the constant movement southward through the valley, or press westward, toward the Appalachia frontier, where the British had drawn a line forbidding settlement—a symbol of their intention, or so it seemed to Americans across the colonies and up and down the social scale, to impose much tighter control on their restless, unruly subjects.

These were people to whom independence was not a philosophical abstraction. It was a personal cause, and when they spoke of independence they meant personal independence as much or more than they meant national independence.

When John Corbin went off to war Margaret went with him and supported herself doing laundry, mending clothes, cooking, and nursing the sick. George Washington didn’t like the practice, but grudgingly accepted it, and at nearly every moment of the war, women were present. On November 16, 1776, John Corbin’s battery was stationed on a ridge on the northern end of Manhattan, which the British and Hessians had to take before approaching Fort Washington—the last American stronghold on the island. John Corbin was killed Margaret was nearby and took his place on the gun crew. She fell hideously wounded as the battery was overrun, hit in her left shoulder and arm, jaw, and left breast. She was captured, though in so much pain, if she was conscious, that she can hardly have cared about falling into the hands of the enemy. Released, she was taken by wagon to Philadelphia, where she languished for months.

Margaret’s story reminds us—and we clearly need reminding these days—of the extraordinary lengths to which the men and women of the revolutionary generation went to establish their independence. Perhaps if we had her photograph we would not be so quick to abandon the memory of her generation, but we don’t. Forgetting, Americans turned her sacrifice and that of other women like her into the genteel fantasy of Molly Pitcher, which our generation—so certain of its sophistication, so cynical—dismisses as a myth. If we had her photograph we would know her as a disfigured and scarred young woman who lived on, permanently disabled, drawing rations at West Point for the rest of her life, finally buried when she died at forty-eight in a grave that has been lost to memory. She paid the cost of liberty, and in doing so lost the personal independence she was probably fighting to maintain, or secure for herself, her husband, and for the family she never had.

We can, and often do, tie ourselves in knots trying to understand the Original Intent of the Revolutionaries who drafted our first constitutions and the laws under which we live. There are indeed many insights to be gleaned from the reflections of John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, who all left their papers for us to read. But at its most fundamental, the American Revolution was a struggle for self-government—to vindicate the right of ordinary people to manage their own affairs—and the theoretical speculations of the most sophisticated founders tells us little that we cannot learn from the simple explanation of Captain Levi Preston of Danvers, Massachusetts, who explained decades after the war that “what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”

This same intent—independence defined as autonomy—self-government as a people and as individuals—is woven through the words and deeds of innumerable ordinary people who lived through our Revolution. Among them was Jeffrey Brace—a native of Mali, enslaved as a teenager, beaten and abused by a succession of masters in the Caribbean and later in Connecticut, who enlisted in the Continental Army with a promise of freedom at the end of his service. When he was finally discharged in the summer of 1783, he was awarded the badge of merit. “Thus was I,” he remembered, “a slave, for five years fighting for liberty.” We can know his story because almost thirty years after the war he told it to a young lawyer who wrote in all down. Like so many others, he had fought for personal independence. “The first time I made a bargain as a freeman for labor” after the war was one of the most memorable days of his life. “I enjoyed the pleasures of a freeman; my food was sweet, my labor pleasure: and one bright gleam of life seemed to shine upon me.”

The achievements of the American Revolution were not the achievements of a small group of men we call the Founding Fathers. They were thinkers and leaders, creative statesmen to be sure, but the achievements of the American Revolution are the common achievements of thousands of people. The leaders we remember most clearly played essential roles, but often that role was to articulate, in declarations, constitutions, bills of rights, laws, learned essays, and popular polemics, ideas that were being expressed in varying ways and to various degrees of precision, by thousands of people.

Leaders have to lead, and the essence of leadership is a balance between fulfilling the ideas and expectations of the people led and expressing new ideas and translating those ideas into action. The first is critical, because the hope of seeing their ideas and expectations fulfilled is the reason people embrace leaders, and a leader without followers is just someone taking a walk. Philosophers had been talking about natural rights and what we have come to call civil rights for more than a century when the Revolutionary War began. Political thinkers had concluded, in weighty books circulated among themselves, that a republic was, in theory at least, the best sort of government. Thomas Jefferson didn’t vindicate our natural rights. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton didn’t give us our republic.

They were taken for us by Charles Polk and Acquilla Cleaveland, and by Margaret Corbin and Jeffrey Brace.  They were taken for us by the officers and men of the Continental Army, who scorned a military takeover at the end of the war. They were taken for us by thousands of ordinary Americans who became our first veterans, who went home at the end of eight years unpaid, with promises made to them by government unfulfilled, mostly penniless, many in rags, but conscious of duty faithfully performed in a war of liberation that had made possible, for the first time, governments based on the principle of popular sovereignty and limited by devotion to the rule of law and limited, by constitutional principle, to prevent governments from invading the legitimate rights of the people.

Thomas Paine had told them to expect independence to come at a high price. “What we obtain too cheap,” Paine wrote in Common Sense, “we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”

Independence—the accomplishment of eight years of desperate war, the shared accomplishment of thousands of ordinary Americans—made possible all that we have become. Independence led, despite the misgivings of the Founding Fathers about democracy, to the development of a liberal democracy in which ordinary people participated to a degree the Founders never imagined or foresaw—the people’s revolution, you see, confounded their expectations—and left us with a government republican in form but popular in practice, with constitutional boundaries preventing the popular will from invading individual rights—the very individual autonomy so many of the Revolutionaries had fought to achieve.

The war created a nation where none had existed before—a nation based, not on ethnicity, religion, or ancient traditions, but on shared principles and shared history—a shared history that involved heroic leader like Washington but also heroes fit for a democratic republic like Sergeant Jasper and Peter Francisco, along with eighteenth century gentry like Francis Marion and Benjamin Franklin, made over into Everyman heroes. The war gave us the opportunity to establish the modern world’s first great republic, and to begin the difficult work of fulfilling the ideals upon which that republic was founded—liberty, equality, natural and civil rights, and the privileges—and obligations—of citizenship under the rule of law.

Embracing the idea that the American Revolution was a people’s revolution compels us to consider the varied ideas, hopes, and motivations of an enormous range of Americans from all walks of life. And it does something equally important: it forces us to view the Revolution, not from the perspective of the present, but in relation to what came before—the conditions of life before America was, in any meaningful sense, free. It leads us to judge the people of the Revolution not by our standards alone, nor by what we call “the context of their time,” as if that was static and immovable. It leads us to judge them by how far their energy and daring changed the world in which they lived for the better—a fair and just standard against which all should be judged.

“Posterity!” John Adams admonished us in the spring of 1777. “You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good Use of it.” Our task is to make sure posterity does know how much it cost the revolutionary generation to establish our freedom, and makes good use of it.

Jack D. Warren, Jr.


Above: This extraordinary modern sculpture of Margaret Corbin by Tracy H. Sugg pays tribute to a heroic woman whose sacrifice embodies the commitment that made the American Revolution a people’s Revolution (image of the original clay sculpture prior to bronze casting, used by permission of the artist—

The People’s Revolution was presented, under the title The Future of the American Revolution, as the 2021 American Revolution Lecture at the North Carolina Museum of History, an annual series sponsored by the North Carolina Society of the Cincinnati.  Watch the lecture online at The Future of the American Revolution.

For more on the ordinary men and women whose drive for personal independence defines the American Revolution, read Margaret Corbin, Revolutionary and The Heroic Jeffrey Brace.

On the basic achievements of the American Revolution, read Why the American Revolution Matters.







The Fruit Seller’s Portrait

Bryan Rossiter was a New York City fruit seller and sergeant at arms of the New York State Society of the Cincinnati when John Trumbull painted this portrait of him.

Among the treasures in the care of the American Revolution Institute—owned for nearly two hundred years by the New York State Society of the Cincinnati—is an enigmatic portrait painted by John Trumbull at the height of his career. The sitter, Bryan Rossiter, is a handsome man in middle age, in what appears to be a military uniform, wearing a bicorn hat.

The portrait presents a mystery. Trumbull painted and drew hundreds of portraits, but nearly all of them were either commissioned or they were executed as sources for his historical paintings. Trumbull’s portrait of Bryan Rossiter doesn’t seem to fall into either category. It appears to be an outlier, which is one of several things that makes it intriguing.

Although he had been a soldier in the Revolutionary War, Bryan Rossiter was not a participant in any of the historical scenes Trumbull painted. He wasn’t present at the British surrender at Saratoga or Yorktown or the Hessian surrender at Trenton. He didn’t fight in the battles of Bunker Hill, Quebec or Princeton, and he wasn’t a face in the crowd at the presentation of the Declaration of Independence or in Annapolis when Washington resigned his commission. Trumbull painted preparatory portraits for his historical paintings of people he ultimately left out, but there’s no reason to suspect Rossiter was one of them.

There was nothing unusual about Rossiter’s Revolutionary War service. A native of Durham, Connecticut, he joined the Connecticut State Troops in 1776, when he was just sixteen. The next year he enlisted in the Continental Army. For most of his tenure he served in the Sixth Connecticut. He was promoted to sergeant in October 1780 and furloughed in June 1783, and was awarded the army’s Badge of Merit for his faithful service. This honor is reflected in the two stripes on Rossiter’s left sleeve in the Trumbull portrait.

Rossiter was twenty-three when the war ended. Like most veterans of the Continental Army, he was owed back pay. Rossiter was also owed a bonus of eighty dollars and a warrant for one hundred acres of land, but he would wait many years for the government to make good on these promises. In the meantime, he made his start in civilian life. He married in January 1784 and he and his wife had a son, named Asher.

Unfortunately we lose sight of Rossiter for most of the next twelve years. There’s a Bryant Rosseter in the 1790 census of Westchester County, New York, that might be him. At some point he moved into New York City—one of tens of thousands drawn into the city, which grew at an astonishing rate, from 30,000 in 1790 to 60,000 in 1800 to 202,000 in 1830.

Rossiter shows up in city directories beginning in 1796, driving a delivery wagon. After 1800, the city directories identify him as a fruit seller, which probably means he operated a stall in one of the city markets, probably at the Catherine Market, which was beside the East River close to his home. In the 1810s, that market—located near what is now the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge—was one of the city’s most important purveyors of food, serving at least twenty-five thousand residents of surrounding neighborhoods, between two thousand and five thousand of whom visited the market each day. The market arcade housed between forty and fifty butchers, around twenty fishmongers, as well as vendors selling vegetables and fruits. Much of what was sold at the Catherine Market came across the East River by boat from farms, dairies and orchards on Long Island. Farmers came to the market to sell their own produce, often selling from makeshift stands and wagons on the adjacent streets.

This nineteenth century view of a New York City market depicts the kind of market where Bryan Rossiter, the subject of Trumbull's portrait, set up his fruit seller's stand.

William P. Chappel painted this view of the Fly Market—similar to the Catherine Market where Bryan Rossiter probably sold his fruit—as it appeared in 1808. The butchers occupied the stalls inside the arcade. Fruits and vegetables were sold from stalls flanking the outer walls (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Since Rossiter sold fruit, he probably had regular suppliers on Long Island or Westchester County. Vendors set out for the market in the middle of the night. Most of the market business was finished by ten in the morning, although stands might remain open until early afternoon to sell the last of their picked-over goods. The market was open six days a week; fishmongers and some other vendors were permitted to sell on Sunday. This went on year round. From 1801 there was a vendor in the market who sold coffee and hot chocolate by the cup. We can imagine Bryan Rossiter warming himself with a cup after setting up his fruit stand for the morning. This humble, honest occupation was sufficient for Rossiter to support his little family in a simple way, but he was never prosperous. In this respect his life was probably much like that of thousands of other Revolutionary War veterans in New York City. He lived in New York City for many years before he could afford to buy a simple home. He certainly could not have afforded to commission John Trumbull to paint his portrait.

What set Rossiter apart from other veteran enlisted men in the city is that in 1801, the New York State Society of the Cincinnati hired him to serve as its sergeant at arms. The New York State Society was one of the most active state organizations in the Society of the Cincinnati. Its members enjoyed socializing, usually at a tavern, maintaining the “cordial affection,” as the Society’s Institution called it, of their war days. As a veteran enlisted man, Rossiter was not eligible for membership, which was restricted to commissioned officers. His role involved making the practical arrangements for Society events—informing members about gatherings, ensuring a supply of food and drink was on hand, making sure bills were paid, and carrying out other administrative tasks. The New York State Society paid Rossiter $2.50 to $5 for officiating at events.

Rossiter also played a ceremonial role. The New York State Society was much given to ritual. General Steuben, one of its most active members in its first years, enjoyed the theatrics of aristocratic society and introduced pomp and ceremony into the life of the organization. The flag of the Society of the Cincinnati, still in use, was first used by the New York State Society.

To carry out his ceremonial role, the New York State Society supplied Rossiter with a military-style uniform. This is the uniform he is wearing in the Trumbull portrait. The dark blue coat with red facings bears a superficial resemblance to a Continental Army uniform, but the details, including the silver epaulettes, are particular to this costume, which seems to have been designed especially for the Cincinnati’s sergeant at arms. Those details bring us closer to unravelling the mystery posed by the portrait.

Bryan Rossiter and John Trumbull were both Connecticut men, and about the same age—Trumbull was just four years older—but there is no reason to believe they knew one another before Trumbull arrived in New York in the early summer of 1804. Trumbull had grown up in Lebanon, Connecticut. He had served briefly as adjutant of Connecticut troops in 1775 and thereafter was an aide to George Washington until 1777, when he resigned his commission. He returned to service in the winter of 1782-1783, working for his brother as a supply officer. Although Trumbull and Rossiter were both from Connecticut, their wartime service barely overlapped. There is no reason to imagine they were friends or even encountered one another during the war.

During the years after the Revolutionary War, Trumbull divided his time between Britain and America, learning the painter’s art and establishing himself as an artist in America. He arrived in New York City on June 27, 1804, after spending ten years in Europe. We can be reasonably sure that Bryan Rossiter and John Trumbull met a week later on July 4, when Trumbull attended a meeting of the New York State Society.

The meeting began by transacting a little formal business, in which Alexander Hamilton, who had been president general of the Society of the Cincinnati since George Washington’s death in 1799, made a motion about membership that was adopted. Then the group, or at least most of it, turned to its usual mirth and good cheer. Trumbull described the occasion in his autobiography:

On the 4th of July, I dined with the society of the Cincinnati, my old military comrades, and then met, Gen. Hamilton and Col. Burr. The singularity of their manner was observed by all, but few had any suspicion of the cause. Burr, contrary to his wont, was silent, gloomy, sour; while Hamilton entered with glee into all the gaiety of a convivial party, and even sung an old military song.

The song Hamilton sang was probably “How Stands the Glass Around,” an old military ballad associated with General James Wolfe. Its melancholy refrain:

Why, soldiers, why,
Should we be melancholy, boys?
Why, soldiers, why?
Whose business ‘tis to die!

The dinner was on a Wednesday night. The next Wednesday, Hamilton lay in anguish from a pistol ball fired by Burr that had passed through his liver and lodged near his spine. The day after that he was dead.

Hamilton’s funeral was held on Saturday, July 14. Hamilton’s coffin was taken from the home of his friend John Barker Church and carried in a procession that wound its way to Trinity Church. The procession was led by the Sixth Regiment of militia. Following the pallbearers came Hamilton’s children and relatives, then physicians, members of the bar, city officials, foreign consuls, military officers, bankers, merchants, the faculty and students of Columbia College, and members of the St. Andrew’s Society, the Tammany Society, the Mechanic Society and the Marine Society. Gouverneur Morris, who gave the eulogy when the procession reached the church, followed the pallbearers in his coach.

Behind the militia and immediately in front Hamilton’s coffin, in a place of conspicuous honor, marched the members of the Society of the Cincinnati. John Trumbull was probably among them, and they were led, no doubt, by their sergeant at arms, in his handsome dark blue and red uniform. On his hat Rossiter surely wore the prominent black cockade depicted in his portrait. The black cockade was an appropriate sign of mourning, but it was also the symbol of the Federalist party, of which Hamilton had been a national leader and to which all of his pallbearers and most of the members of the New York State Society of the Cincinnati adhered. The black cockade may have been a regular part of the sergeant at arms’ uniform—we cannot know for sure—but it took on special meaning for Hamilton’s friends on that day of mourning.

Hamilton’s sudden death was shocking to Trumbull, who wrote that dueling was “a senseless custom, which ought not to have outlived the dark ages in which it had its origins.” The tragedy also resulted in a steady income for Trumbull. The city commissioned him to paint a full-length portrait of Hamilton for city hall, which Trumbull based on the portrait of Hamilton he had painted a decade earlier. Between 1804 and 1808, while he remained in New York, Trumbull painted many more copies of the portrait for Hamilton’s admirers.

Trumbull painted Bryan Rossiter’s portrait during this period. It seems to have been a remembrance of Hamilton’s death and funeral—terrible events that weighed heavily on Trumbull as they did on many of Hamilton’s friends and admirers. Trumbull sold the Hamilton portraits, but he kept his portrait of Bryan Rossiter. Perhaps he imagined it as a study for larger work relating to Hamilton’s death that he never began, and of which no other evidence survives. Trumbull considered several historical paintings he never executed, and for which fragmentary evidence survives, including a sketch of Gen. Charles Lee drawn as a study for a painting of the heroic defense of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1776. Regardless of Trumbull’s intentions, the Rossiter portrait is a reminder of the tragic events of July 1804.

Trumbull left New York in 1808 and returned to England. That same year, Rossiter successfully petitioned for his land warrant and then sold it to supplement his income. The proceeds may have provided much of the price of the modest house Rossiter bought at 62 Hester Street, in what is now the Lower East Side, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Rossiter continued to serve the New York State Society of the Cincinnati until old age overtook him. In 1818 he was involved in organizing the Society’s role in the recovery of the remains of General Richard Montgomery from Quebec and their ceremonial reinternment in St. Paul’s Churchyard. That same year Rossiter applied for support under the Pension Act of 1818 and was awarded eight dollars a month, but he was struck from the rolls in 1820 because he had not demonstrated sufficient financial need. In 1822 the New York State Society conferred an annual salary of fifty dollars on him. When Lafayette dined with members of the Society in New York in 1824, Rossiter, in his uniform, led the former general and other Society members into the room.

In 1828, Rossiter petitioned to receive the eighty-dollar bonus Congress had promised in 1778. After waiting fifty years, he finally received the bonus owed to him. His pension was restored later that year after he was disabled by a “paralytic affliction”—probably a stroke—to which the extraordinarily labored signature he affixed to his petition is mute testimony. The New York State Society of the Cincinnati gave Rossiter an additional thirty dollars (about six hundred dollars in today’s money) in 1828, “to provide for the comfort & medical attendance of the said Sergeant, he now being dangerously ill.”

Shortly thereafter John Trumbull presented his portrait of Rossiter to the New York State Society of the Cincinnati, expressing hope that the painting would “serve to commemorate a very worthy and faithful veteran of the American revolution.” Bryan Rossiter died on Christmas Eve, 1834.

Portraits of men who served in the enlisted ranks in our Revolutionary War are very rare. Without Trumbull’s surprising portrait, Bryan Rossiter would be little more than a name on a roster and an entry in a city directory—the ripples that common men make in the historical record. Only occasionally do we have enough to develop a more complete picture. Bryan Rossiter’s portrait reaches across more than two centuries to introduce us to an ordinary man whose life was touched by extraordinary events, and who commands our respect as one of the thousands of brave men and women who founded our nation.


The Trumbull portrait of Bryan Rossiter is featured in our current exhibition, America’s First Veterans, which is also the theme of the new book from the American Revolution Institute.

To learn more about other great works in the Institute collections, visit Masterpieces in Detail.

If you share our concern about ensuring that all Americans understand and appreciate the constructive achievements of the American Revolution and honor its veterans, we invite you to join our movement. Sign up for news and notices from the American Revolution Institute. It costs nothing to express your commitment to thoughtful, responsible, balanced, non-partisan history education.

Our First Veterans

William Tylee Ranney's Veterans of 1776 honors America's First Veterans.

The American Revolution was the most deeply consequential event in our nation’s history. It secured our independence, established our republic, created our national identity, and expressed ideals of liberty, equality, natural and civil rights, and responsible citizenship that have defined our nation for nearly 250 years. The achievements of the Revolution were the work of a whole generation of Americans. We remember the statesman and the generals, but should remember as well the service and sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans, without whom the American Revolution could not have succeeded. First among those are the soldiers and sailors who risked their lives, and the many who gave their lives, in our Revolutionary War. They left us extraordinary legacy.

That legacy includes our understanding that military service involves sacrifices for which free societies incur obligations that transcend the commitments they make to others in their service. Men and women in the military sacrifice their liberty, embrace discipline that deprives them of freedoms others possess, accept risks few civilians encounter, and forego opportunities and ordinary pleasures others enjoy, and which their service makes possible. Those who serve in combat endure terrors and suffering beyond the comprehension of most of their fellow citizens. Our debt to them is no ordinary debt. No financial transaction can discharge it. Our debt obliges all of us to express our respect and appreciation—to care, in Lincoln’s words, “for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves.”

Americans took a very long time to grasp these truths and honor the veterans of our Revolutionary War. In the process they redefined what it means to be a veteran, abandoning the idea that the term applies only to a limited class of long-serving, accomplished men, and attaching it to nearly all former soldiers and sailors, recognizing service rather than expertise. The experience of our first veterans transformed the way Americans understand pensions—once regarded as a tool of monarchical or aristocratic privilege used to corrupt public life and reward family, friends, and political allies at the expense of ordinary people. By the middle of the 1830s, the American pension system was operated for benefit of ordinary people, and pensions had become a way for a democratic society to recognize and reward veterans of every sort. America’s first veterans also changed the way Americans understood honor—once regarded as a quality of gentlemen of education, refinement, and high social standing. Americans redefined honor as a moral and ethical quality displayed by people at every level of society.

All of these changes were shaped by the ideals of the American Revolution, and unfolded over several decades. This experience holds an important lesson for us. Like Americans of the early nineteenth century, we do not fully grasp the revolutionary implications of our Revolution—how radically it challenged the injustice of its age, how deep and pervasive its influence has been, what it principles require from each of us now and will require of each of us in the future. We live in a nation defined and continuously transformed by our Revolution, yet we often overlook its vast importance.

It took a lifetime to work out some of the simplest implications of that vast event, yet the ideals articulated and defended by the revolutionary generation ultimately transformed, and continue to transform, the lives of everyone in the United States. Those ideals fueled the demands of ordinary people for an active role in governance, unleashed an egalitarian movement in religion that transformed the spiritual lives of millions, exposed slavery as an abomination and set it on the path to extinction, released the creative energy that transformed American business, science, literature, and education, encouraged the unfettered expression of ideas, and provided the intellectual foundations for challenging centuries of discrimination against women and all forms of oppression on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, social status, vocation, physical condition, or mental ability. We are all heirs to the American Revolution and the free society it created, and is still shaping. That free society, with all the promise it holds for the United States and the world, is the legacy of America’s first veterans.


Above: Detail from William Tylee Ranney, Veterans of 1776 Returning from the War, 1848, Dallas Museum of Art. View the whole painting at the museum’s website.

This is an excerpt from America’s First Veterans, published on November 11, 2020, by the American Revolution Institute. Visit America’s First Veterans to order a copy.

We encourage all our visitors to read Why the American Revolution Matters, our basic statement about the importance of the American Revolution. It outlines what every American should understand about the central event in American history. It will take you less than five minutes to read—and a few seconds to send the link to your friends, family and colleagues so they can read it, too.

If you share our concern about ensuring that all Americans understand and appreciate the constructive achievements of the American Revolution and honor its veterans, we invite you to join our movement. Sign up for news and notices from the American Revolution Institute. It costs nothing to express your commitment to thoughtful, responsible, balanced, non-partisan history education.

For more on Revolutionary War veterans, read Margaret Corbin, Revolutionary, The Heroic Jeffrey Brace, Joseph Winter, Lone Wanderer, and Joseph Plumb Martin, Everyman. The American Revolution Institute honors all our Revolutionary War veterans, including men (and women) of every race and background who fought for our independence.