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Joseph Winter, Lone Wanderer

On the evening of December 18, 1829, a young Philadelphia portrait painter named John Neagle set off on foot toward the home of an artist friend named Thomas Birch. It was snowing and the streets of Philadelphia must have been nearly empty. People who had somewhere to go pulled their coats tight and hurried through the dark.

The thirty-three year-old Neagle had not gone far when he saw an old man huddled under a makeshift shelter, trying to keep out of the snow. Neagle might have kept on walking, but he paused. “I found him much benumbed with cold and scantily clad,” Neagle wrote in his diary. “His outer dress was ragged—His flannel and coat scarcely covered his naked body and he had an apology for a shirt—all were in rags and strings.”

Neagle tried to engage the man in conversation, but found that his first language was German, which Neagle did not speak. Rather than give up in frustration, Neagle invited the old man to come home with him, where the artist “administered to his wants over a good cheerful fire.” It might have been the first kindness anyone had shown the old man in a long time. Neagle went out to ask his neighborhood grocer, a German, to come translate for him.

There by the fireside the artist learned that the man’s name was Joseph Winter. He was something like seventy-three years old, though Winter wasn’t quite sure of his own age. He had come to Pennsylvania before the Revolution and settled in a German community near Bethlehem, where he had worked as a weaver. He had been married, but his wife and children were long dead. His eyesight had grown dim and his fingers were no longer fit for the loom. Unable to support himself, he had become, Neagle wrote, “a lone wanderer in a world evincing but little feeling or sympathy for him.”

Neagle learned something else that made a profound impression on him. As a young man, Winter had served in the Revolutionary War, and “had fought very hard to establish the liberties of our country.” Winter was a homeless veteran—one of the first homeless veterans about whom we know anything at all. Homeless veterans are now a familiar sight in our cities, but they were something new and appallingly sad in 1829, at least to a thoughtful man like John Neagle, whose imagination quickly turned to how he might express that sadness and inspire his fellow Americans.

A few years earlier he had completed a masterpiece—a heroic portrait of an ironmaster titled Pat Lyon at the Forge. Lyon commissioned the portrait, writing to Neagle “that I do not desire to be represented in this picture as a gentleman—to which character I have no pretensions. I want you to paint me at work at my anvil, with my sleeves rolled up and a leather apron on.” The painting created a sensation when it was exhibited. It was revolutionary in its realism—a craftsman’s portrait in his working clothes, standing at an anvil—and densely symbolic—beneath his leather apron Lyon wears a pair of fine shoes no blacksmith ever wore to work, and outside the open window is the Walnut Street Jail, where Lyon had once been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.

Looking at the homeless Joseph Winter, Neagle decided on a project as richly symbolic as Pat Lyon at the Forge. He would paint Winter’s portrait, just as he appeared—old, his face etched in sorrow, exhausted, his clothes shabby and threadbare. Winter sat for the portrait, which is the first known portrait of a homeless veteran.

The finished portrait attracted wide public notice, and Neagle had it engraved for sale with the title Patriotism and Age. The portrait made Winter a symbol of the thousands of elderly veterans of the Revolutionary War for whom the nation had made no provision. “This picture speaks a satire of melancholy truth,” one viewer commented, “that must reach the heart of every American, who is not forgetful of the blessings inherited from his forefathers.” Nearly a quarter of a million Americans had borne arms in the Revolutionary War, and tens of thousands were still living in 1829. Most of them were then in their seventies or eighties. Like Joseph Winter, many were no longer able to support themselves, and depended on family or charity to meet their most basic needs.

The federal government had not turned its back entirely on veterans of the Revolution. Those who had been disabled were granted pensions during the war, and in 1818 Congress had voted to provide pensions to veterans of the Continental Army and Navy who could document their service and prove their financial need. But the law made no provision for the majority of Revolutionary War veterans, who had served in the militia, and pension examiners rejected thousands of applications on the grounds of insufficient evidence of service or of financial distress. Joseph Winter did not receive a pension under the act of 1818.

We don’t know how Winter came to live on the streets of Philadelphia. We can guess that he left his home near Bethlehem when he was no longer able to work as a weaver and made his way to Philadelphia because in the city he might find some way to support himself. Perhaps he was attracted to the city because he might find food there, or inexpensive lodging, or access to public or private charity, or simply because a city is a better place to beg than a country town—all reasons the homeless are drawn to cities today. The decision cut him adrift from the people he knew and the community in which he had lived, making him, as Neagle saw, a “lone wanderer.”

For John Neagle, the homeless veteran he took into his home was a challenge and a chastisement—a symbol of our unrealized aspirations as well as our ingratitude. We turn too easily from both. Neagle reminds us to look harder, and to look beyond material needs—beyond the food and shelter Joseph Winter so clearly lacked, to the indefinite needs we all have for the conditions necessary to be happy.

That might sound like a thing very difficult to define, but our Revolution placed it among our highest aspirations. Our right to life, and therefore a claim on what we need to survive, is a right so fundamental that our Declaration of Independence calls it a self-evident truth. So, too, is liberty, a right to be free from unnecessary restraints—a fundamental right but hard to define in a comprehensive and immutable way, since the restraints necessary to maintain civil society change with society itself. Jefferson might have stopped with life and liberty—conditions clearly necessary to human flourishing—but he forged on to name, but not to define, a right to pursue happiness.

Our fundamental right to pursue happiness is a right to fulfill needs that governments cannot fulfill—among them our needs for dignity, respect, appreciation, honor, fellowship, community and love. We do not need these things to live or to be free, but we need them to flourish—to be happy. Governments cannot provide them. Jefferson knew this, which is why he wrote that we have a right to pursue happiness rather than a right to happiness itself. The role of government is only to create and defend the circumstances in which free people can pursue happiness in their own way.

The soldiers of our Revolution, and all of our veterans since, risked their lives and deferred enjoyment of their liberties to create and defend the circumstances essential for our freedom and happiness. Their sacrifices transcend the conditions of any normal employment, and oblige all of us as beneficiaries 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.”

On that snowy December night 190 years ago, John Neagle met a homeless veteran who was cold and hungry. He took him home and “administered” to his most basic needs. But when he painted Winter’s portrait he treated the old soldier with dignity, respect, appreciation and honor. He called on his contemporaries to treat all of the surviving soldiers of our Revolution in that way, and through his art he calls on us to treat our own veterans—particularly those who have become lonely wanderers in a world so often without sympathy—with that dignity, respect, appreciation and honor we owe to them, and which are vital to their happiness.

In 1832, moved in part by the popular sensation caused by the engraving of Winter’s portrait, Congress passed a comprehensive pension act, offering pensions to every surviving veteran of the Revolutionary War, without regard to disability, financial need or whether he was in the Continental service or the militia. Shortly thereafter, Congress extended those same benefits to the widows of Revolutionary War veterans.

Joseph Winter disappeared from the historical record after his encounter with Neagle. The weather warmed over Christmas that year, and Winter may have returned to the streets, or found lodgings in the city with Neagle’s help or the help of new-found friends. We cannot know. We can only hope that his last years were contented ones.

 

Joseph Winter is one of many remarkable veterans of the Revolutionary War featured in our current exhibition, America’s First Veterans, on view at the headquarters of the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati through April 5, 2020. Learn more about America’s First Veteranshere.

Margaret Corbin, Revolutionary

Liberty is commonly depicted as a pretty young woman in a white classical robe, kindly in peacetime, steel eyed and determined in war. This personification of Liberty is grounded in Roman depictions of the goddess Libertas, who was honored with a temple on the Aventine Hill in Rome. Libertas was often depicted offering a pileus, the soft cap that symbolized freedom for former slaves, and was sometimes shown wielding a vindicta, a rod symbolizing emancipation from slavery, tyranny and arbitrary rule.

These symbols—the pileus and the vindicta—intertwined with the initials U.S., were cast into the breech of cannon barrels manufactured in Philadelphia in 1777, a silent acknowledgment of the hard truth that American liberty had to be won in battle and protected by arms. One of these cannon barrels, a chance survival from a desperate time in the Revolutionary War, is on display at the headquarters of the American Revolution Institute. It was probably cast in the summer of 1777 by James Byers, who set up a makeshift foundry in a converted pottery workshop.

At the moment Byers cast it, and probably no more than a few blocks away, a remarkable young woman was suffering. Her story, like the hard truth symbolized by the emblems of liberty cast into the cannon barrel, reminds us that liberty is hard to win and hard to keep, and might be better personified by a woman in a tattered skirt and a torn shirt, her face black from burnt powder, her hands dirty and bloodstained, her expression angry, defiant and determined.

The young woman’s name was Margaret Corbin. She was then not quite twenty-six years old. Margaret had been born in what is now Franklin County, Pennsylvania, in the rolling farm country west of Gettysburg, though that blood-soaked town would not be founded until she was ten. Her father (and her mother, too, probably, though we don’t know that for sure) was a Scots-Irish immigrant. They settled on the Pennsylvania frontier not long before Margaret was born—two of the thousands of poor immigrants who surged into the Cumberland Valley in the last decades before the Revolutionary War, many of whom moved south into the Great Valley of Virginia and into the western Carolinas.

Margaret barely knew her parents. When she was five, her father was killed by Indians and her mother taken captive, never to be heard from again. Margaret and her brother weren’t home when the Indians attacked, and as frontier orphans they were raised by an uncle. Margaret married a farmer, John Corbin, when she was twenty-one.

Some three years later he enlisted in the First Company of Pennsylvania Artillery. What could have moved him to do it? What did fighting the British mean to him? We cannot know for sure. We can only generalize. Men like John Corbin did not read treatises on natural rights or political economy. Few of them had 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 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 holding genteel window glass in place.

Men who lived in the colonial backcountry valued their independence. They had little property. In Pennsylvania, where the law was more generous to squatters than in other colonies, 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 nor 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 Ohio 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.

Margaret went with him to the army. Like thousands of other women who followed the army, she probably had nowhere else to go, and supported herself doing laundry, mending clothes, cooking and nursing the sick. George Washington didn’t like the practice, but grudgingly accepted it, and allowed women with the army to draw rations, at least when his men were in camp. When his troops were on the march, he did his best to shed the army of anything that would slow it down or consume its meager stores, but at every moment of the war, women were present—in camp, on the march and on the battlefield. This was particularly true of the artillery, which had wagons and horses and, on the battlefield, a constant need for people to carry ammunition, powder and water to swab and cool the guns between rounds, without which powder being loaded would explode prematurely and kill or maim their crews.

Margaret went with the First Company of Pennsylvania Artillery to the defense of New York City. What she did between August and November 1776 is a blur, as Washington’s army shifted from Long Island to Manhattan to Westchester County, parrying the blows of a superior British army intent on destroying it.

On November 16, 1776, their battery was stationed north of Fort Washington, on the northern end of Manhattan. The guns were set up on the northern edge of a vast ridge, which the British and their Hessian auxiliaries had to take before approaching Fort Washington—the last American stronghold on Manhattan Island. The battery supported some 250 Maryland and Virginia riflemen commanded by a skilled young Marylander named Moses Rawlings.

A British officer, Thomas Davies, painted a watercolor (now owned by the New York Public Library) of the approach from a secure vantage point across the Harlem River, depicting the British landing on northern Manhattan. One of their batteries is firing in the middle foreground, and in the middle distance, on the edge of a ridge, smoke rises from an unseen American battery perched on the edge of the ridge defying the enemy’s approach. Fort Washington—a large, crude pentagonal earthwork—is in the distance, a long way from the outwork where the little battery was firing.

The puff of smoke from the lonely American battery in this watercolor is as close as we can come to an image of Margaret Corbin, who was on hand to support the guns. John Corbin was a matross—a key member of a conventional gun crew, which in theory consisted of a loader, a spongeman, a ventsman, a senior gunner and a firer. Under usual circumstances, a matross could assume any of these roles except that of senior gunner, which required more training than most men received, and in a crisis a matross might wind up commanding a gun. A gun battery in the field also had a large contingent of laborers to drag the heavy guns around, move powder and ammunition from wagons in the rear, and carry water from wherever it might be found—sometimes at a considerable distance from a firing position. Women often did this work.

Everyone on a gun crew had a very specific role in the deadly choreography of battle. The loader placed the powder bag in the bore and the spongeman rammed it home with the back end of the sponge staff. The ventsman, who had been keeping his leather-covered thumb over the vent hole to keep fresh oxygen from feeding a spark, jammed a tool like an icepick through the hole to tear open the powder bag. The loader then added the ball and the spongeman rammed wadding in behind it. The senior gunner (typically in command) aimed the piece and the ventsman primed it by pouring fine priming powder down the vent. Everyone stepped back but the firer, who touched off the priming charge with a slow burning match held in a tool called a linstock, discharging the gun.

The deadly dance started again with the spongeman dipping his sponge staff into a bucket of water and swabbing out the gun to extinguish lingering sparks. If he didn’t get them all, the next powder charge might blow as he rammed it home. Pension records testify to the many spongemen who were burnt, blinded, maimed or killed outright by premature powder explosions. It was the most dangerous job on a gun crew.

John Corbin may have been a spongeman. As the Hessians advanced on their position, he was killed by Hessian musket fire, an enemy artillery round or the premature explosion of powder in his own gun. We will never know which. What we know is that Margaret was nearby and took his place on the gun crew, which continued firing. We can only imagine the scene, but if she was carrying water and her dead husband was a spongeman we can picture her seizing the sponge, dipping it in the water she had brought forward to swab it out. The enemy brought its own light cannons forward as the infantry approached, and as soon as they were close enough they undoubtedly shifted from heavy round shot to grape shot or canister—ammunition that scattered balls like a shotgun.

Margaret fell hideously wounded before the battery was overrun, hit in her left shoulder and arm, jaw and left breast. She must have been looking down, her chin briefly on her chest near her armpit, her left arm raised. In that posture a ball entering her left arm near the shoulder could have smashed her jawbone and lodged in her left breast, or even passed through her breast and onward in flight. Whether the wound was caused by musket or cannon fire we don’t know, but the damage was severe. Margaret 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.

Fort Washington was supposed to hold out for weeks, but it fell within a hour and the British captured over 2,800 Americans and much of the Continental Army’s remaining cannons, powder and ammunition. Three-fourths of those men would later die as prisoners. George Washington watched, appalled, from the New Jersey side of the Hudson. It was the worst defeat he ever suffered, though he suffered at a distance. Margaret’s suffering was much more immediate. The British released her, along with other women and some of the wounded. She was taken overland by wagon to Philadelphia, where she languished for months, slowly recovering, at least somewhat, from her wounds.

She was evacuated from Philadelphia before it fell to the British in the fall of 1777 and ultimately assigned to the Corps of Invalids, a unit composed of disabled soldiers kept on the army’s rolls to guard hospitals, magazines and other facilities—soldiers unable to march or bear the strains of campaigning, with no other means of support. Margaret’s place among them was an anomaly. She was apparently too crippled by her wounds to do any service, but she was housed, drew rations, provided with rough clothing, and cared for as she recovered, to the extent she ever did.

On July 6, 1779, Congress awarded Margaret Corbin, “who was wounded and disabled in the attack on Fort Washington, whilst she heroically filled the post of her husband who was killed by her side,” a complete outfit of clothing and one-half of the pay of a private soldier for the rest of her life. By this act Congress formally recognized a female combat veteran for the first time in American history. George Washington’s aide Tench Tilighman wrote to Henry Knox’s aide Samuel Shaw and paid Margaret a fellow soldier’s grim compliment: “It appears clearly to me that the order forbidding the issue of Rum to Women does not extend to Mrs. Corbin—Granting provision at all, to Women who are followers of the Army, is altogether matter of courtesy, and therefore the commanding General may allow them such a Ration as he thinks proper—But Mrs. Corbin is a pensioner of Congress.”  Therefore, he added, she should be given rum with her rations, but “perhaps it would not be prudent to give them to her all in liquor.”

In 1780, she moved with the Invalid Corps to West Point, where she remained a disabled pensioner in the charge of William Price, commissary of military stores, long after the war was over. On January 31, 1786, Price complained to Henry Knox, who was then secretary of war. “I am at loss what to do with Capt Molly” he wrote. “She is first an offensive person that people are unwilling to take her in charge . . . and I cannot find any that is willing to keep her.”  She was, we can only imagine, in constant pain from her wounds. If she was offensive, we can readily understand why. William Price comes off rather badly in the story. Margaret Corbin—“Captain Molly”—never left West Point, and died there in 1800, just forty-eight, and was buried 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. Her arm crippled, her face disfigured, she is not the way we imagine Liberty. Perhaps we should.

 

Margaret Corbin is one of many remarkable veterans of the Revolutionary War featured in our current exhibition, America’s First Veterans, on view at the headquarters of the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati through April 5, 2020. Learn more about America’s First Veteranshere.

 

The Remarkable Thomas Pinckney

American independence was won by men who refused to be beaten—who were defeated and rose again, battered but determined. That’s the lesson we can learn from the battlefield of Camden and from the story of Thomas Pinckney, a remarkable young man who embodied the courage it took to win our independence.

You can walk the battlefield of Camden, now preserved by the Historic Camden Foundation, in less than an hour. That’s longer than the battle took to fight. An American army of about four thousand men—a mix of Continental Army regulars and Virginia and North Carolina militia—confronted an army of British regulars and loyalists there on August 16, 1780.

The Revolutionary War was then in its sixth year. The British had largely given up on conquering their former colonies to the north, but they were intent on recovering Georgia and the Carolinas, and if things went their way, Virginia and Maryland, too. In the late summer of 1780 things were going very much their way. They had occupied Savannah and taken Charleston, and in the process had taken most of the Continental Army in the South prisoner.

In August a British army under Lord Cornwallis was marching through the South Carolina interior, mopping up resistance and preparing to invade North Carolina, when a hastily assembled patriot army barred their path in the pine forest north of Camden.

The battle began shortly after first light, the heavy smoke of cannon fire hanging in the trees, covering the battlefield in a thick fog. As the British advanced, the Continentals on the right swung out to meet them. The British got the worst of the first exchange, but on the American left, Virginia militia fled at the sight of British bayonets bearing down on them through the battle smoke. Their left flank exposed, most of the North Carolina militia followed the Virginians pell-mell off the battlefield.

On the American right, though it was only a few hundred yards away, Continental officers could not see what had happened. Continentals exchanged fire with the British regulars at short range, both sides taking a severe beating before the Americans—outflanked and outnumbered—were overwhelmed.

Over nine hundred Americans were killed or wounded that day, among them twenty-nine-year-old Major Thomas Pinckney. A British musket ball smashed his thigh, causing a compound fracture. The fragment of the American army that managed to escape the battlefield left him behind. He was taken prisoner, though in such anguish that his captors cannot have expected him to trouble them long. They released him on parole to relatives, who cared for him as best they could. Doctors saved his leg—an extraordinary thing—though Pinckney endured enormous pain.

Less than a year later, Pinckney had recovered sufficiently to mount a horse, which was enough for him to return to duty as an aide to the marquis de Lafayette, who was sparring with Cornwallis in Virginia. Ultimately Cornwallis withdrew to the tidewater village of Yorktown to rest and wait for support that never arrived. A few weeks later Thomas Pinckney had the pleasure of watching Cornwallis and his British army—the victors at Camden—surrender their arms.

Too often we neglect the very real people, like Thomas Pinckney, who suffered to secure our independence. Pinckney came from a wealthy family. He had little to gain—at least personally—and most everything to lose by fighting the British in what many perceptive people believed was an utterly hopeless cause. If Pinckney had nursed his shattered leg and remained at home, rather than return to service as he did, who could have blamed him?

The answer is that he would have blamed himself. He had joined the Continental Army in 1776 and had committed himself, like many others about whom we know much less, to a cause greater than himself. And so he mounted a horse and returned to war, and saw that war through to an improbable victory.

He went on to a remarkable career in public life, as governor of South Carolina, ambassador to Britain and an emissary to Spain who negotiated the treaty that opened the Mississippi River to American commerce—without which the vast region west of the Appalachians might have drifted away, and what became the United States might have become an array of smaller countries.

We neglect men like Thomas Pinckney when we reduce historical analysis to abstractions of class or wealth or region or to numbers on a ledger, forgetting that so much of history is contingent on the decisions very real men and women make and the actions they take. The remarkable Thomas Pinckney—climbing back into the saddle months after a devastating defeat—reminds us to honor them as individuals who endured hardships, suffered anguish and defeat, and persevered.

 

How We Got Here

If you’re surprised by reports that “student activists” at Hofstra University are demanding the removal of a statue of Thomas Jefferson from campus because “Jefferson’s values aided in the construction of institutionalized racism and justified the subjugation of black people in the United States,” you haven’t been paying attention to what gets taught in history classes in this country for the last thirty years. The young people at Hofstra—a private university on Long Island—are simply repeating what they’ve been taught.

By almost every measure, historical knowledge among high school graduates has been declining since the 1980s. In an increasing number of states and school districts, history is being crowded out by allegedly more “relevant” subjects. What time is left for history is often devoted to “global history,” which typically involves a shallow pass over a variety of world cultures. The little time spent on American history is often dedicated to a distorted tale of racism, misogyny and class oppression driven by capitalist greed, militant nationalism and institutionalized violence.

To get a sense of where the Hofstra students developed such a distorted view of the American past, peruse A People’s History of the United States, one of the most successful American history texts of the last generation. Over two million copies are in print, and the book has spawned videos, a website, and a collection of companion works, including a version for young readers. The book is required reading in many high school history classes, and a well-thumbed copy can be found on many young teachers’ bookshelves.

A People’s History presents a relentlessly dark tale of xenophobia, brutality, racism (foisted on poor white laborers by the master class), poverty, hardened inequality and class divisions, misogyny, imperialism, corruption, and always and everywhere, capitalist greed papered over with hypocrisy.  It offers more than a revisionist version of American history. A People’s History lays out a radical recasting of the American past, focusing, as one reviewer wrote, on “the genocidal depredations of Christopher Columbus, the blood lust of Theodore Roosevelt and the racial failings of Abraham Lincoln.” The young people at Hofstra who believe that the man who wrote our Declaration of Independence is a despicable enemy of humanity have drunk deeply from this well.

When A People’s History was published in 1980, it attracted wide notice for its readability as well as its iconoclasm and celebration of twentieth century radicals, from Emma Goldman to Mother Jones and Malcolm X, who were largely ignored by conventional history textbooks. Young college professors and high school teachers making their professional start in the 1970s found it refreshing. It resonated with the campus radicalism of their college years and the cynicism about politics engendered by Vietnam and Watergate.

The author, a Boston University professor of political science named Howard Zinn who variously described himself as a Marxist, anarchist, and democratic socialist, was one of their own. After a brief infatuation, many serious historians criticized Zinn for deliberately ignoring large swathes of American history, distorting others, and relying on unreliable sources. But Zinn’s many acolytes cling to the notion that he offers eye-opening truths long ignored or deliberately suppressed by other historians.

This is ironic, because Zinn rejected the idea that historians can present objective truths. He argued that writing history is an exercise in making choices about what to present. Every historian’s work is selective, and that selectivity, he claimed, is based on bias. “There is no such thing as impartial history,” Zinn wrote.  Every description of the past, he insisted, “serves some present interest.”

Rejecting the idea of objective historical truth, Zinn wrote history in the service of a political agenda he never tried to disguise. His writing was defined by his political activism—as a young labor organizer, a civil rights advocate, and an anti-war protestor. The “present interest” that drove him was his own unapologetically socialist agenda. In its service he crafted an alternative national history focusing on victims of oppression and exploitation, chiefly African-Americans, women, and laborers. He treated capitalism as institutionalized greed and nationalism as the source of war and the systematic exploitation of ordinary people by imperial powers and impersonal corporations driven by an amoral hunger for profit.

The “people” in Zinn’s People’s History are engaged in radical resistance to oppression by plutocrats, slave-owners, and other profit-seekers, or they are the tragically ignorant dupes of selfish elites. The great mass of ordinary people—working to improve their lives, acquire modest property, and provide for their families—barely make an appearance. The result is history without nuance, in which the players are good or evil—what one critic calls a “stick figure pageant of capitalist cupidity.”  Zinn’s aim was never to equip his readers to understand the past. His goal was to persuade them to reject the present and dedicate themselves to his vision for the American future.

A few years before his death in 2010, Zinn said that “our highest ideals are expressed in the Declaration of Independence,” and that our history “is a striving . . . to make those ideals a reality.” But he regarded the American Revolution as a vast fraud, in which rich Americans used the rhetoric of equality and universal liberty to secure their own interests and impose new mechanisms for class exploitation on unsuspecting Americans. Zinn never explained where he learned about equality and universal liberty, nor did he acknowledge a debt to the revolutionaries whose ideals he claimed to represent.

Zinn had a talent for story telling, which he employed to persuade his readers that he was letting them in on long-suppressed secrets about the American past. He made—and continues to make—his readers and those who are taught by them feel clever and in-the-know, despite the fact that his distortions have become classroom orthodoxy across the country. The young people at Hofstra who despise Jefferson think their radical iconoclasm makes them edgy and ever so smart. Unlike their elders who erected the statue, they know the dark truth about American history. They have Howard Zinn, his imitators, fellow-travelers and popularizers to thank for this wisdom.

Fortunately, Hofstra is led by a veteran president, Stuart Rabinowitz, too wise to join this herd of independent minds. “I have decided that the Thomas Jefferson statue will remain where it is,” he said last May. “Thomas Jefferson articulated the best of our ideals in the Declaration of Independence and was a defender of freedom.”  Jefferson had faults, to be sure, but President Rabinowitz explains that Jefferson and the other founders presented “a vision of a world in which all people are created equal,” adding that “it is this vision we celebrate and honor in our Founding Fathers, even as we wrestle with their human and indefensible failings.”

The American past, in short, is complex, and its characters a mixture of selfishness and idealism, and cowardice and heroism, ignorance and insight. In that past—knowable, if we work hard, read widely, and think critically, setting aside smug self-righteousness—are the foundations of a just society, built by the aspirations and actions of generations of Americans, rich and poor, free and enslaved, women and men alike. Our task is to build on those foundations, not tear them down.

Why the American Revolution Matters

The American Revolution was shaped by high principles and low ones, by imperial politics, dynastic rivalries, ambition, greed, personal loyalties, patriotism, demographic growth, social and economic changes, cultural developments, British intransigence and American anxieties. It was shaped by conflicting interests between Britain and America, between regions within America, between families and between individuals. It was shaped by religion, ethnicity, and race, as well as by tensions between rich and poor. It was shaped, perhaps above all else, by the aspirations of ordinary people to make fulfilling lives for themselves and their families, to be secure in their possessions, safe in their homes, free to worship as they wished, and to improve their lives by availing themselves of opportunities that seemed to lie within their grasp.

No one of these factors, nor any specific combination of them, can properly be said to have caused the American Revolution. An event as vast as the American Revolution is simply too complex to assign it neatly to particular causes. Although we can never know the causes of the American Revolution with precision, we can see very clearly the most important consequences of the Revolution.  They are simply too large and important to miss, and so clearly related to the Revolution that they cannot be traced to any other sequence of events. Every educated American should understand and appreciate them.

First, the American Revolution secured the independence of the United States from the dominion of Great Britain and separated it from the British Empire. While it is altogether possible that the thirteen colonies would have become independent during the nineteenth or twentieth century, as other British colonies did, the resulting nation would certainly have been very different than the one that emerged, independent, from the Revolutionary War. The United States was the first nation in modern times to achieve its independence in a national war of liberation and the first to explain its reasons and its aims in a declaration of independence, a model adopted by national liberation movements in dozens of countries over the last 250 years.

Second, the American Revolution established a republic, with a government dedicated to the interests of ordinary people rather than the interests of kings and aristocrats. The United States was the first large republic since ancient times and the first one to emerge from the revolutions that rocked the Atlantic world, from South America to Eastern Europe, through the middle of the nineteenth century. The American Revolution influenced, to varying degrees, all of the subsequent Atlantic revolutions, most of which led to the establishment of republican governments, though some of those republics did not endure. The American republic has endured, due in part to the resilience of the Federal Constitution, which was the product of more than a decade of debate about the fundamental principles of republican government. Today most of the world’s nations are at least nominal republics, due in no small way to the success of the American republic.

Third, the American Revolution created American national identity, a sense of community based on shared history and culture, mutual experience, and belief in a common destiny. The Revolution drew together the thirteen colonies, each with its own history and individual identity, first in resistance to new imperial regulations and taxes, then in rebellion, and finally in a shared struggle for independence. Americans inevitably reduced the complex, chaotic and violent experiences of the Revolution into a narrative of national origins, a story with heroes and villains, of epic struggles and personal sacrifices. This narrative is not properly described as a national myth, because the characters and events in it, unlike the mythic figures and imaginary events celebrated by older cultures, were mostly real. Some of the deeds attributed to those characters were exaggerated and others were fabricated, usually to illustrate some very real quality for which the subject was admired and held up for emulation. The revolutionaries themselves, mindful of their role as founders of the nation, helped create this common narrative as well as symbols to represent national ideals and aspirations.

American national identity has been expanded and enriched by the shared experiences of two centuries of national life, but those experiences were shaped by the legacy of the Revolution and are mostly incomprehensible without reference to the Revolution. The unprecedented movement of people, money and information in the modern world has created a global marketplace of goods, services and ideas that has diluted the hold of national identity on many people, but no global identity has yet emerged to replace it, nor does this seem likely to happen any time in the foreseeable future.

Fourth, the American Revolution committed the new nation to ideals of liberty, equality, natural and civil rights, and responsible citizenship and made them the basis of a new political order. None of these ideals was new or originated with Americans. They were all rooted in the philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome, and had been discussed, debated, and enlarged by creative political thinkers beginning with the Renaissance. The political writers and philosophers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment disagreed about many things, but all of them imagined that a just political order would be based on these ideals. What those writers and philosophers imagined, the American Revolution created—a nation in which ideals of liberty, equality, natural and civil rights, and responsible citizenship are the basis of law and the foundation of a free society.

The revolutionary generation did not complete the work of creating a truly free society, which requires overcoming layers of social injustice, exploitation and other forms of institutionalized oppression that have accumulated over many centuries, as well as eliminating the ignorance, bigotry and greed that support them. One of the fundamental challenges of a political order based on principles of universal right is that it empowers ignorant, bigoted, callous, selfish and greedy people in the same way it empowers the wise and virtuous. For this reason, political progress in free societies can be painfully, frustratingly slow, with periods of energetic change interspersed with periods of inaction or even retreat. The wisest of our revolutionaries understood this, and anticipated that creating a truly free society would take many generations. The flaw lies not in our revolutionary beginnings or our revolutionary ideals, but in human nature. Perseverance alone is the answer.

Our independence, our republic, our national identity, and our commitment to the high ideals that form the basis of our political order are not simply the consequences of the Revolution, to be embalmed in our history books. They are living legacies of the Revolution, more important now, as we face the challenges of a world demanding change, than ever before. Without understanding them, we find our history incomprehensible, our present confused, and our future dark. Understanding them, we recognize our common origins, appreciate our present challenges, and can advocate successfully for the revolutionary ideals that are the only foundation for the future happiness of the world.