What do educated Americans know about the Revolutionary War? What should they know?
These questions are fundamental to the Institute’s mission to preserve and promote understanding and appreciation of the American Revolution. The Revolutionary War was just one aspect of the American Revolution, but it was an essential one. If we had not prevailed in the war, the great achievements of the Revolution—our independence and national identity as well as our republic—would not have been realized. The high ideals expressed by the Revolutionaries would not have become the foundation of a new nation or shaped our history.
For many years, popular understanding and appreciation of the Revolutionary War has been in decline. This is just part of a larger pattern of neglect that threatens to produce a generation of adults without the most basic understanding of American and world history. Recent studies indicate that more than half of American high school graduates cannot identify Stalin or Churchill, and three-fourths don’t know that the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900. As David McCullough has warned us, “We are raising a generation of historically illiterate Americans.”
Familiarity with the people and events central to our shared past is fundamental to our cultural identity. Citizens of the United States, unlike those of most other countries, are not bound together by shared ethnicity, religion or cultural traditions reaching into antiquity. American national identity is based on our shared history and on our commitment to the principles articulated in the American Revolution—principles of liberty, equality, natural and civil rights and civic responsibility. That shared cultural identity is at risk.
What constitutes cultural literacy about the Revolutionary War? The Education Committee of the Society of the Cincinnati considered this question. Its members included teachers, physicians, retired military officers, lawyers, investment professionals, bankers and businessmen, each one descended from an officer of the Revolutionary War. All were born between the 1930s and the 1980s. Most were educated at a time when the Revolutionary War still held a prominent place in American history classes.
At its first meeting the committee compiled a list of ninety-one people, places, events, documents and ideas associated with the Revolutionary War the members felt educated Americans should be able to identify. The list was subsequently reduced to twenty-five entries the committee and the Institute staff believe most can identify. Every American high school graduate should be able to identify, in a general way, each of these twenty-five people, places and events. Missing one, two or three might be acceptable. Missing more suggests a lack of knowledge every adult in America should possess.
A list of this kind is as notable for what it excludes as what it includes. It is, by nature, history from the top down. The people on it are all leaders. They were all men and several came from privileged backgrounds, although some of them grew up under fairly humble circumstances. There is much more to understanding the Revolutionary War than identifying famous leaders and major battles. We understand that. Recognizing people, places and events on a list is only a beginning.
Many important figures of the Revolutionary War are missing from the list, including Horatio Gates, Israel Putnam, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee and Anthony Wayne, along with others. Lord Cornwallis is the only British officer on the list. William Howe, John Burgoyne and Henry Clinton are conspicuously absent. So are some of the most important foreign volunteer officers, including Johann de Kalb, Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski. The list does not include the siege of Charleston nor the battles of Camden or Cowpens, all in the South. Nor does it include the battles of Long Island, Brandywine or Germantown. We believe properly educated Americans should be familiar with all of these people and events.
The twenty-five entries that made the list are people, places and events we believe most culturally literate Americans can identify. They certainly should be able to identify them. We do not contend that the people on the list contributed more to the American victory than those not on it. With respect to the final outcome of the war, Anthony Wayne, for example, was infinitely more important than Nathan Hale or Paul Revere. But Hale and Revere are icons of American patriotism, celebrated in literature. The list, admittedly imperfect, represents an attempt to test the limits of what Americans know, as well as to suggest what they should know. Of course we believe they should know a great deal more about the Revolutionary War than is suggested by this simple list.
Trying this list out on people exposes unexpected weaknesses in their knowledge. The number of people unable to identify Washington’s most effective subordinates—Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox and Baron Steuben—has come as a surprise. Less surprising, but equally disheartening, is their inability to understand the role of France in the war. Lafayette is still familiar to educated Americans. But the senior officers of the French forces sent to America’s aid—General Rochambeau and Admiral de Grasse—draw blank stares more often than any other names on the list. King Louis XVI is identified as “the king of France” but not as the leader of America’s most important ally. Clearly Americans are unaware, to a greater degree than we expected, that France fought at America’s side in the Revolutionary War and provided assistance that was critical to victory.
We invite you to test yourself. Identify, in one or two sentences, these people, places and events and their importance in the American Revolutionary War. Keep your answers simple. If this was a test of World War II Cultural Literacy, an acceptable answer for “Pearl Harbor” would be: “Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was the scene of a surprise Japanese air attack on the U.S. Navy that led to America’s entry into World War II.” Entire books are dedicated to the attack on Pearl Harbor, but this sentence demonstrates that the writer knows essentially what happened at Pearl Harbor and why that event is important. See if you can do as well with the Revolutionary War.