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.

The Shot Heard Round the World

Ralph Waldo Emerson composed the Concord Hymn to be sung at the dedication of a simple memorial beside the Old North Bridge at Concord, where patriot militia had faced the British on the morning of April 19, 1775:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.

Emerson and his audience, gathered on July 4, 1837, believed that the Revolution that began that day had started a revolution in human affairs that would reach around the world and would ultimately free the human race from the yoke of tyranny and oppression under which it had labored for thousands of years.

They believed that the United States was an exceptional nation. They were under no illusion that it was a perfect one, but they believed the fulfillment of its ideals of liberty, equality, natural and civil rights, and responsible citizenship had a fair chance of making it as close to perfect as human energy and imagination could achieve.

The United States certainly was an exception, even in the middle of the nineteenth century, in the family of nations. It was a republic—a nation dedicated to the interests of ordinary people—in a world dominated by monarchies. We are reminded just how unusual the United States was in Emerson’s generation by the way the United States and its revolution was then perceived on the other side of the world.

A few weeks after the ceremony in Concord, an unarmed American merchant ship, the Morrison, sailed into Tokyo Bay. The captain aimed to return seven shipwrecked Japanese sailors he had picked up in Macau, deliver a group of Christian missionaries, and engage in trade. The Japanese fired on the Morrison, driving the Americans away—but it was easier to drive off foreign vessels than it was to keep foreign ideas out of Japan. Despite official edicts to prevent contact with the outside world, information about the West and about the United States and even the American Revolution had begun to reach Japan—about as remote from Concord’s Old North Bridge as any place on Earth.

Japan had been closed to nearly all Westerners for more than two hundred years. This policy of sakoku, or “closed country,” was intended to prevent foreign missionaries and colonial powers from undermining the authority of the ruling shogunate. But even during that period of self-imposed isolation, the Japanese learned some of what was going on in the West, chiefly from European books brought to Japan by Dutch traders permitted to call at Dejima, a tiny artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki, which was the sole point of legal contact between Japan and the West. The Japanese called this body of knowledge rangaku, literally “Dutch knowledge,” but it included information from other Western countries.

Rangaku included immense amount of scientific and technical knowledge, including Western advances in biology and physics. The Japanese learned about discoveries in chemistry, and were fascinated by telescopes and microscopes, Western medicine, surveying and cartography, clockwork mechanisms, hydraulics, and steam engines. They were particularly intrigued by electrical generation. The first practical Japanese book on this subject, Hashimoto Soukichi’s Oranda shisei erekiteru kyūri-gen, published in 1811, included a description of Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity.

Aware that they were living in a world of predatory imperial powers, rangaku scholars tried to learn as much as they could about Western nations, Western customs, and most of all about the military strength of the powers whose ships were arriving off their islands in increasing numbers. Curiosity about the West led them to inquire about the United States and its unusual form of government.

The Japanese had learned about North America, at first as a wild, mostly unsettled land peopled mainly by primitive people who wore skins and feathers, from the Dutch in the seventeenth century. They also learned that the British had settled in North America, but the news that Britain’s American colonists had staged a revolution and secured their independence from Britain did not reach Japan until after 1800.

Rangaku scholar Mitsukuri Shōgo provided what might have the first Japanese account of the American Revolution in his Konyo zushiki (An Overview of the Geography of the World), published in 1845-47:

During our Hōreki period England was at war for some years. The people became sorely enfeebled, and the loss in foreign trade was not at all inconsiderable. The English sought, therefore, to employ the people of this land, and use them for their own ends. The people of this land, however, resented their abusive language and scorned their cheap wages, and refused to obey their orders. They even seized and threw into the sea 242 boxes of tea that had been brought from India by the English. In great wrath, the English dispatched a number of warships, and blockaded the most important port of this land, thus stopping the transit of provisions into the country. The people found themselves in most desperate straits, and officials of the thirteen states assembled to ponder the situation. A military official named Washington, and a civil official named Franklin, promptly stood up and declared, “We must not lose this heaven-sent opportunity. We must sever relations with the English forever.”  The assembly decided to adopt this proposal.

The English then realized that they could not attain their ends, and that their words had been unreasonable, so they lifted the blockade and departed. In 1780, a certain official of this land reached an agreement with the English that this should forever be a free and independent nation. Since then, the nation’s strength has steadily increased, and its territory has expanded tremendously.

Having left the Revolutionary War entirely out of this brief account, Mitsukuri filled in the gap by including in his atlas a brief biography of George Washington, undoubtedly the first account of Washington’s life published in Japan. Mitsukuri identified Washington as the son of a “big farmer” in Virginia and told the story of his service in the French and Indian War, his successful conduct of the Revolutionary War and his service as “High Official” at the head of the new American government for eight years. Mitsukuri repeated errors that were probably in his Dutch sources, mistakenly dating Washington’s birth in 1734, for example, and reporting that Washington was educated at a school in Williamsburg, but the general outline of his account is as accurate as short accounts of Washington’s life published in Europe in the early nineteenth century.

The George Washington Mitsukuri described sounds much like a virtuous Japanese lord. When events “caused the colonists in North America to hate their mother-country,” he explained, “Washington voluntarily used his wealth to equip troops.”  Washington was a strict disciplinarian, but he cared for the welfare of his soldiers and led them with courage. Washington was prudent and cautious, but took advantage of each “favorable opportunity” and “crushed Hessian troops at Trenton, and defeated an English general at Princeton.”  As the war continued, “the aggressive power of the American forces became greatly enhanced, bringing fear to the English, and winning renown throughout the world.”  Final victory was won at Yorktown, Mitsukuri wrote. “All this was due to Washington’s great ability.”  Patient, skillful and brave, Washington had “gradually saved the country from its peril, and established peace and order.”

The nature of that order was hard for Mitsukuri to explain. When he came across the word “republic” in his Dutch sources he was hard pressed to translate the concept into Japanese. When he looked it up in a Dutch dictionary, he learned that a republic was a form of government without a monarch, which was wholly alien to the Japanese experience. A rangaku colleague, Ōtsuki Bankei, suggested that he translate it as kyōwa, a Japanese word applied to the Gonghe Regency (841-828 BC), a period of Chinese history in which two dukes ruled in the place of a dissolute king who had been driven from his throne. The connotation is joint, or cooperative, harmony, rather than a form of government in which the public good, as opposed to the interests of a monarch or a ruling group, is the primary end of government. The Chinese equivalent, gonghe, ultimately became the modern Chinese word for republic. Kyōwa remains the Japanese word for republic—a word and an idea introduced by a Japanese scholar trying to make sense of George Washington and his revolution.

Emerson and his audience would have been mildly chagrined to learn that the first detailed treatment of the American Revolution published on the other side of the world located the first great battle of the Revolutionary War in Lexington rather than their own Concord, but they would not have been surprised that the American struggle for liberty and the universal rights of mankind had attracted notice in the most isolated nation on Earth. They were proud of the American Revolution and the exceptional nation it had created, and believed that the shots fired on April 19, 1775, would awaken the world. So they have.


What You Can Expect from Us

The American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati was established to ensure that this generation of Americans and future generations understand and appreciate the achievements of the American Revolution and the brave men and women of the Revolutionary era who secured our independence, established our republic, created our national identity, and expressed ideals of liberty, equality, natural and civil rights and responsible citizenship that have shaped our history and are shaping our world.

We are united in our belief that the American Revolution was one of the most important events in world history.  The American Revolutionaries were born into  world where no one was truly free, and where governments existed chiefly to advance the interests of monarchs and their aristocratic subjects.  Before the American Revolution, liberty and equality were ideas discussed by learned men and debated in the coffeehouses of Europe.  Natural and civil rights were abstractions discussed by legal theorists and philosophers in a world ruled by tyrants.

The American Revolutionaries changed that.  They rose up, first to demand what they regarded as the rights of British subjects. When it became clear that those rights ultimately rested on the indulgence of a king and his supporters, they rejected monarchy and asserted their independence from Britain and rested their new government on principles of natural right. They began an extraordinary experiment in self rule, creating republican governments aimed at protecting the rights and promoting the interests of ordinary people.  The world had never seen anything like it before.

The monarchs and aristocrats of the Old World predicted that the American republic would degenerate in anarchy and confusion, and that the Americans would soon enough welcome a monarch or some kind of dictator to restore order. It never happened.  Quite the opposite.  The United States grew and prospered.  Millions of people fled the oppression of the Old World to make it their home.  The United States drew new strength from immigrants from every part of the world.  The American experiment in self rule inspired revolutionaries and reformers across South and Central American and through much of Europe.  In time the ideas of the American Revolution reached the farthest corners of the world.  The United States — the first republic of modern times — has been, and remains, a symbol of liberty to billions of people and  proof that free men and women are fully capable of governing themselves.

We do not believe that the Revolutionaries completed the work of ensuring the blessings of liberty to all Americans.  The Revolution was fought in a dark time of ignorance and oppression.  The Revolutionaries brought light into that dark world, but they only began the work of creating a truly free, truly just society.  The task of extending the blessing of liberty has been the work of every generation since the Revolution.  It remains our task today.  Our national history is marred by injustice, by men and women systematically denied the fundamental rights that inspired the Revolutionaries.  Generations of reformers have called on us to fulfill the promise of our Revolution by protecting the rights of all.  Much of our public life is shaped by the imperative to realize the ideals that inspired the heroic men and women who struggled for our independence.

We are all heirs to those heroic men and women, whether our ancestors came to this country long before the Revolution or we just arrived in the United States.  We have a duty to understand their struggles, to appreciate their accomplishments, and to perpetuate their ideals.  The future of our republic and of the world depends on how we meet this obligation.

We believe that Americans are growing forgetful, and that far too many have been persuaded that our Revolution is a source of injustice and oppression that threw off one set of tyrants only to impose new ones.  There is no truth in this.  The Revolution was imperfect and incomplete, but it created the foundations upon which liberty has grown for nearly 250 years.

We believe all Americans should understand and appreciate our shared Revolution.  Our aim is to ensure that they do.  Our strategy is to build a national movement of thoughtful, patriotic Americans committed to this cause.  Together we can ensure that our schools teach young Americans about the history and ideals of our Revolution, and persuade them to embrace their role as stewards of our great experiment in liberty and self government, rather than regard themselves as victims of an oppressive society built on a history of injustice.  Together we can ensure that the millions of people who come to the United States each year understand that they are part of a great tradition built on the accomplishments and principles of our Revolution.

You can expect us to speak up in defense of our finest traditions and a history of which all American can take pride.  We seek to unify.  Like the men who founded the Society of the Cincinnati — the nation’s first and oldest patriotic organization, created by the heroes of the Revolutionary War — we reject partisanship.  Our principles are ones all patriotic Americans can embrace.

We are committed to stewardship of the books and manuscripts, art and artifacts, battlefields and monuments with which and through which our Revolution, distant in time, can be made real for millions of Americans.  We are not alone in this commitment, and you can depend on us to draw attention to the great work of other cultural institutions in promoting the memory, history and ideals of our Revolution.  A great movement is the work of many hands.

We welcome your interest, your engagement, your assistance, and your support.  You can depend upon our energy, our commitment, and our unwavering dedication to the memory and ideals of the men and women who made our Revolution.