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The People’s Constitution

The moral sense philiosophy was important to the establishment of popular sovereignty as the foundation of the Constitution proposed by the Federal Convention of 1787, depicted in this print in 1823.

In 1787 Thomas Jefferson was in Paris, wasting his time as ambassador from a government that had so little authority that the French government could safely ignore it.

Many of Jefferson’s American friends, including James Madison, were deeply concerned about violent unrest driven by high taxes and the burden of debts compounded by deflation. In Massachusetts those toxic conditions drove thousands of farmers to take up arms to stop debt collection, leading the state government—inexperienced, insecure, and imperious—to impose order at the point of a bayonet.

Jefferson was not deeply concerned about the unrest in Massachusetts, known then and since as Shays’ Rebellion. He agreed with Madison that the insurgents had committed “absolutely unjustifiable” acts, but he thought “they were founded in ignorance, not in wickedness.” The insurgents did not understand that their distress was the result of economic conditions the government was incapable of addressing.

Although the people were sovereign, Jefferson wrote, they would not always be right. “The people can not be all,” he wrote, “and always, well informed.” In a government in which the people have a just degree of influence a certain amount of what Jefferson called “turbulence” was inevitable. But Jefferson was concerned that the unrest might lead reformers to conclude “that nature has formed man insusceptible of any other government but that of force, a conclusion not founded in truth, nor experience.” A government based on force—including monarchy in all its forms—was inherently unjust. “It is a government of wolves over sheep.”

The people of the world have been governed, for most of history, by wolves. Jefferson had confidence in the capacity of ordinary people to govern themselves.

So did Madison, who spent that summer at the Federal Convention in Philadelphia, shut up through the unforgiving summer heat in the Pennsylvania State House with the windows closed to prevent anyone from eavesdropping. Madison and the other leading delegate, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, were intent on creating a new kind of government—republican in form and spirit, national in scope, and endowed with authority that would enable it to protect the interests of Americans in a world of predatory imperial powers.

Lesser and less thoughtful men might have done what Jefferson feared and imposed an authoritarian government—a government of wolves over sheep—as lesser and less thoughtful leaders have done before and since. The delegates to the Federal Convention, guided by Madison and Wilson, did precisely the opposite. They built their proposed frame of government on the sovereignty of the people.

At the heart of their plan was a bicameral legislature consisting of a larger lower house and a smaller upper house—later the convention would decide to call them the House of Representatives and the Senate—that would have the power to tax, regulate commerce, impose tariffs, coin money, and make laws governing all matters not delegated to the states. Members of the lower house would be elected by the people in direct proportion to the population, each member representing an equal number of citizens.

This proposal, which gave substance to the abstract principle of popular sovereignty, was extraordinary. It has since become commonplace, but at the end of the eighteenth century no national legislature had ever been constituted in this way. The British House of Commons, in which members were elected to represent constituencies that varied in size from a few people to thousands and in which many thousands of people went unrepresented, was archaic by comparison.

A government that aims at the public good must begin by finding out the people’s numbers. Hard as it may now be to imagine, eighteenth-century governments did not know with any degree of certainty how many people they governed or where they lived. To the extent they felt any need to know, they relied on estimates and guesswork. To elect a national legislature based on population required counting every American and repeating the process periodically to keep representation in balance with a growing and moving population. The effort to do so reflects the confidence of the Enlightenment in the potential of governments based on rational principles to serve their people rather than subjugate them and the faith of the Enlightenment in the fundamental equality of people.

Many of the delegates had misgivings about what Madison and Wilson proposed, because many of the problems of the moment seemed to flow from what they regarded as the errors of popularly elected state legislatures. “The people,” Roger Sherman said, “should have as little to do as may be about the government” because “they want information and are constantly liable to be misled.” Vesting the people with sovereign power, skeptical delegates believed, was the problem.

Madison and Wilson argued that vesting the people with sovereign power was the solution. While acknowledging that democratically elected state legislatures were acting unwisely, they held the real problem was that no government possessed sufficient authority to address the nation’s ills.

Madison credited James Wilson with making the strongest case “for drawing the most numerous branch of the Legislature immediately from the people. He was for raising the federal pyramid to a considerable altitude, and for that reason wished to give it as broad a basis as possible. “No government,” Wilson said, “could long subsist without the confidence of the people. In a republican Government this confidence was peculiarly essential.” Confidence would come, Wilson contended, from a legislature that was “the most exact transcript of the whole Society.”

We look on their work today with the detachment that comes from knowing how the story came out. They managed to draft a constitution that became what is now the world’s oldest continuously functioning written frame of government. We live with its peculiarities and its compromises and imperfections while giving insufficient attention to the magnitude of their achievement and the living ideal on which it is ultimately based—the source of their conviction that the people, though they might not always be well informed, would ultimately choose well.

Madison and Wilson, along with the absent Jefferson, were trained in the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment. They were convinced by the writings of Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and other Scottish thinkers that people possess a natural moral sense that guides them and allows them to make judgements quickly and intuitively, without close study or the application of acquired learning.

In the summer of 1787, Jefferson explained the moral sense in a letter to his nephew Peter Carr, a student at the College of William and Mary, advising him to skip lectures on moral philosophy:

I think it lost time to attend lectures in this branch. He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality therefore was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality . . . The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call Common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.

This optimistic view of the capacity of ordinary people to make good moral and ethical judgements is the most important justification of popular sovereignty—the defining ideal of the Federal Constitution—and remains the ultimate foundation of American democracy.

The practical implementation of a theory of popular sovereignty on a national scale was so new that it baffled many of the delegate who gathered in Philadelphia for the Federal Convention. Their anxieties obscured their ability to imagine the future of democratic government. None approached that future with as much confidence as James Wilson, who imagined, he said, “the influence which the Government we are to form will have, not only on our people and their multiplied posterity, but on the whole Globe.” He was, Wilson admitted, “lost in the magnitude of the object.”

The future of the Constitution depends on the people, who should remember Jefferson’s admonition that the moral sense needs to be exercised. Above all things,” Jefferson concluded,

lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, courageous etc. Consider every act of this kind as an exercise which will strengthen your moral faculties, and increase your worth.

No better advice can be offered to people determined to preserve their freedom.

 

Above: George Washington presides over the Federal Convention in this engraving from A History of the United States of America, by Charles Goodrich, a pioneering American history textbook published in 1823.

To learn more about the moral sense philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, explore Francis Hutcheson’s An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue in Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty. The Inquiry introduced Hutcheson’s ideas about the moral sense and established his reputation as a philosopher. James Madison, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson were all familiar with Hutcheson’s work and drew their ideas about the moral sense from it.

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, 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.

Richard Henry Lee: Gentleman Revolutionary

The American Revolution was a peculiar sort of revolution, and not least because it was led by men we find it hard to imagine as revolutionaries. George Washington, George Mason, and John Hancock were respected and wealthy members of the gentry. They had everything to lose and apparently little to gain from revolution. They were certainly nothing like the revolutionary leaders of the last century. As a consequence we tend to underestimate the revolutionary implications of their ideas and the revolutionary consequences of their actions. We conclude that there was nothing very revolutionary about their revolution and look elsewhere for the fundamental transforming events of American history—to the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the civil rights movement.

Perhaps it is a testament to the overwhelming impact of their revolution that we can scarcely imagine what the country was like before it, and conclude erroneously that their revolution was simply a colonial rebellion that shifted political power from London to America, trading one group of political grandees for another.

No conclusion could be more wrong. The American Revolution swept away the social hierarchies of the old order. It transferred sovereignty to the people at large, launching an era of increasingly democratic politics. It accelerated the economic transformation of the former colonies and led to the creation of a continental nation unlike any the world had seen.

Few Americans embodied the unique revolutionary character of the period more completely than Richard Henry Lee. He was a member of one of Virginia’s first families. The Lee name was synonymous with wealth, land ownership, and influence. Like his forebears, he dedicated much of his life to public service.

Unlike them, he became one of the most determined radicals of his time-—a leader of the opposition to British taxation and intrusive regulation and an early and important advocate of American independence and republican government. Lee looked for independence to reshape Virginia society—to make Virginians more self-sufficient and virtuous. Yet, like most of the patriot leaders of his generation, he did not anticipate the unintended consequences of his revolution.

Lee was born at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County on Jan. 20, 1732—just four weeks before George Washington was born a few miles away. Like Washington, he was a younger son and did not stand to inherit the great plantation where he was born. After education in England, he built his own plantation house, Chantilly, on land he acquired from his brother.

Younger son or not, he was still a Lee, and an heir to one of Virginia’s great family traditions. Groping for a way to explain the distinctive culture of the Northern Neck, a Loyalist minister traced it to the attributes of the leading gentry families, “the Fitzhughs, the Randolphs, Washingtons, Carys, Grimeses, or Thorntons” whose “character both of body and mind may be traced through many generations: as for instance, every Fitzhugh has bad eyes, every Thornton hears badly, Carters are proud and imperious, and Taliaferros mean and avaricious, and Fowkeses cruel.”

“Lees,” he added, “talk well.”

Richard Henry Lee entered the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758, and was immediately recognized as the most talented speaker in that body. But he was, despite his name and family connections, something of an outsider.

The House was dominated by a political faction associated with the Randolphs and their network of clients and kin. House Speaker John Robinson was a part of this group. He was also the colony’s treasurer. Shortly after taking his seat, the young Lee demanded an investigation of Robinson’s management of the treasury. It was soon found that Robinson had loaned large sums to prominent families associated with his faction. Lee’s Northern Neck neighbors applauded him as a reformer, but the Robinson-Randolph faction never forgave him.

Lee reminded many of his contemporaries of a character from Roman history, or, as one remarked, “one of Plutarch’s men.” He was tall and spare, with a long nose-—a Roman profile—and reddish-brown hair. His manners were stiff and formal and he seemed to always be striking a pose. Even his private letters read as if he intended them for publication. But the stiffness did not diminish the admiration that others had for him. Quite the contrary—he seemed the ideal eighteenth-century gentleman. “If elegance had been personified,” a contemporary wrote, “the person of Lee would have been chosen.”

But he was unlike other gentry leaders. He owned a plantation, but expressed no interest in agricultural innovations of the sort that relieved the routine boredom of farming for Washington and Jefferson. Nor did he use the pose of gentleman-farmer, as Washington did, to cloak his public life in the garb of a reluctant (and therefore deserving) hero called from the plow.

Lee called politics the “science of fraud,” yet he never had any real profession other than politics. In addition to his oratorical skills, he excelled in cloakroom maneuvering, what eighteenth-century politicians referred to as “composing the business” or working “out of doors.” He angled constantly for higher and better-paid offices. He was, in fact, one of Virginia’s first professional politicians, at a time when few Virginians would have recognized politics as an occupation.

A patrician master of the conventions of gentry politics, Lee was adept at mobilizing popular sentiment as well. But he was not a populist leader or a democrat in the modern sense. He expected the republic he worked to create would embrace the leadership of gentlemen like himself. Yet his radical politics tended to undermine gentry leadership and helped usher in a new and unexpected era of popular democratic politicians.

The American Revolution brought to the fore a new kind of popular radicalism, most closely associated with the insurgent organization forged by Boston’s Samuel Adams, who employed an array of weapons that later became a standard repertoire of urban revolutionaries—street theater, surgical rioting, show trials, strategically leaked documents, staged debates, and managed news.

Richard Henry Lee was a part of Adams’ network, and employed the same sort of tactics against the Stamp Act in the 1760s. In September 1765 he dressed his slaves up in “Wilkes costume” and marched them to Montross for a staged ceremony in which the stamp collector was hanged in effigy. Lee himself played the role of the condemned man, and read the “confession” of the accused before the dummy representing the collector was strung up.

A few months later, he used his militia to harass an uncooperative merchant, Archibald Richie of Leedstown, who vowed to use the hated tax stamps. Working with Richard Parker and Samuel Washington (the future general’s younger brother), Lee orchestrated a march on Ritchie’s home, where the mob forced the merchant to renounce the Stamp Act.

Lee made his first appearance on the national stage as a radical. In the First Continental Congress, he was allied with Patrick Henry, Virginia’s most vocal firebrand, and was far in the lead of more conservative Virginia delegates, including Peyton Randolph and Benjamin Harrison.

Men like Randolph and Harrison were not the sort to engage in back room maneuvers. But Lee was in his element. He was tied by marriage to some of the leading Philadelphia families and had cultivated contacts in New England. His speaking ability—which led more than one congressman to refer to him as the “American Cicero”—made him a major force in debate. But behind the scenes, he was even more effective in persuading his reluctant colleagues to break with Britain.

Working closely with John Adams, Lee introduced the resolutions that led to American independence. He made three different motions. We tend to remember only the first: “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be totally dissolved.”

This was bold language, simple and forthright. In time, Americans came to regard it as a prologue to the Declaration of Independence, the political backdrop for Thomas Jefferson’s eloquence. But we have it backward. The Declaration was an explanation of the measure Lee proposed. John Adams understood this when he predicted that Americans would henceforth celebrate July 2—the day Lee’s resolutions were adopted—as the anniversary of American Independence.

The other resolutions Lee offered were nearly as important: “That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign alliances,” and “That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective colonies for their consideration and approbation.”

Lee was astute enough to recognize that the chance of securing military aid from France was the real selling point for the resolution on independence, that it was the only practical way to sell congressional moderates on the idea. His efforts to establish a lasting confederation between the independent states, embodied in the Articles of Confederation, helped build the foundation for a continental republic.

Unlike some of the other congressmen, Lee relied on his small congressional salary for a living. Payment was irregular and he was often in financial distress. For a few weeks in 1777, he lived mainly on wild pigeons, which were sold for a few cents per dozen, though he commented that they “afforded but a scanty fare.”

Lee’s revolutionary ideas were not limited to independence, foreign alliances, and a continental confederation. He expressed support for the idea of allowing women who owned property to vote, opposed secret legislative sessions, and demanded a bill of rights be attached to the Federal Constitution. These were, for him, natural consequences of the revolutionary commitment to equality.

Lee’s commitment to the principle of equality was in conflict with his dependence on enslaved people. He saw that the logic of the Revolution underscored the injustice of slavery. African-Americans, he wrote, were “fellow creatures created as ourselves, and equally entitled to liberty and freedom by the great law of nature.” Moreover, they would eventually be driven to rebellion when they “observed their masters possessed of a liberty denied to them.” Yet through most of his adult life, he realized much of his income from renting his slaves to other planters. As a member of the House of Burgesses, he advocated taxing new imports of slaves and other restrictions on the slave trade, but this may have been as much to drive up the price of his own slaves as it was a humanitarian effort. Lee recognized the inconsistency of it all, but in the end he could see no other way: “I do not see how I could in justice to my family refuse any advantages that might arise from the selling of them.”

Richard Henry Lee was a radical revolutionary without being a democrat. He believed in popular sovereignty but he was certain that the people would be best served by deferring to gentlemen like himself. In 1788 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he championed a resolution to endow federal officials with aristocratic-sounding titles. It was an effort to defend the tradition of deferential politics and gentry rule that he believed was essential for the survival of republican government.

The House of Representatives rejected the idea. A revolutionary republic established on the foundation of popular sovereignty ultimately had little use for titles or patrician leaders. The Revolution Richard Henry Lee did so much to foment and to lead ended by discarding the leadership of gentlemen revolutionaries like him in favor of a new kind of democratic politician, often common in background and lacking the classical education and aspirations that distinguished Lee and his peers. The Northern Neck of Virginia never produced another American Cicero.

Lee did not live to see the Virginia that his revolution produced. In ill health, he resigned from the Senate in 1792. He died at Chantilly, his home in Westmoreland County, in 1794. The democratic culture that flowed from Lee’s revolution ensured that there would never be another leader like him.

That revolution also accelerated the process that turned the Northern Neck, one of the most important and distinctive regions in eighteenth-century British America, into an economic and political backwater. The fortunes of the great planter families continued to fade as agriculture productivity declined and capital was drawn away from the Chesapeake region toward the new states and territories to the west and into new commercial enterprises.

By the early decades of the nineteenth century, the distinctive plantation culture of the Northern Neck was gone, and with it the gentry that had produced leaders like Lee. Stratford Hall’s ceilings were falling in, its fields uncultivated. A traveler found nothing left of Chantilly but a crumbling chimney. “Lee is gone, his house is in the dust, his garden a wild.”

 

Above: Charles Willson Peale painted this portrait of Lee in profile around 1794, emphasizing the classical features that led contemporaries to compare Lee to a senator of the Roman Republic (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.).

Learn about the Lees of Virginia at Stratford Hall, Richard Henry Lee’s magnificently preserved birthplace in Westmoreland County.

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, 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.

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.

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, 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.

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 Bostonians in the crowd weren’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.

 

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.

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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—www.tracyhsugg.com).

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.