Among of the most important aims of the American Revolution Institute is to persuade educators to focus attention on the constructive, enduring achievements of the American Revolution, and to devote more resources, including time, to teaching students about the Revolution. This is not a call for the revival of an earlier, more effective approach to teaching this period, but rather a call for a new synthesis, focusing on the constructive achievements of the Revolution and incorporating what we have learned over the last generation about varied ways Americans experienced the Revolution, as well as how ideals of the Revolution have shaped our history for nearly 250 years. The result would be a revolution in the way educators teach about this period and about American national history in general.
Teachers have been teaching and students have been learning about the American Revolution since the end of the Revolutionary War. What they have taught and learned has been shaped by changing circumstances—by evolving educational theories, varying ideas about the relevance and utility of historical knowledge, and by shifting social and political concerns. In recent decades, teaching and learning have also been shaped, to an unprecedented degree, by the preoccupations of academic historians.
Revolution in the New Republic
Little evidence survives about what teachers actually taught and students actually learned about the American Revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The largest body of evidence is prescriptive literature—the school books teachers and students used. Then, as now, textbooks reflect the aims of their authors and, to some degree, the aspirations of teachers. The most popular and widely circulated school books give us a sense of what contemporaries thought students ought to learn about the American Revolution. It’s safe to assume that few students learned everything these books offered, and equally safe to assume that few learned more, or considered people, events or ideas that the school book writers did not.
The primary aim of most schools in this period was to achieve basic literacy, ensuring that students learned to read and write, add and subtract. Many teachers also taught elocution and rhetoric. The ability to speak clearly and present facts and arguments cogently was highly valued in what was still very much a face-to-face culture. In more sophisticated schools, teachers also taught classical languages and literature, through which their students were introduced to the history of ancient Greece and Rome. Regardless of the kind of school, American history was rarely taught as a discrete subject. More often it entered the classroom in the materials used to teach reading and elocution.
School book writers and publishers began including allusions to the Revolution and its heroes in their most basic works less with a few years of the end of the Revolutionary War. Late eighteenth-century editions of The New England Primer, for example, included simple portraits of George Washington with a verse to teach the letter W: By Washington, Great deeds were done.
School book authors of the late eighteenth century often included character descriptions and anecdotes from popular biographies of Revolutionary heroes, or copied sketches of them from magazines and biographical dictionaries. Jedediah Morse included part of David Humphrey’s biographical sketch of Washington in his popular American Geography, published in 1789. For his Little Reader’s Assistant, published in 1790, Noah Webster borrowed anecdotes about the heroism of Israel Putnam from Humphrey’s Life of Putnam, encouraging students to imitate Putnam’s courage: “Everyone who wishes to be a hero, must be as bold as the brave Putnam.” Authors chose these anecdotes and character sketches for their didactic value. The heroes were inevitably presented as brave, pious, courageous, benevolent, or industrious, and sometimes exemplified more than one of those virtues.
Among historical works used in schools, Mason Locke Weems’ Life of Washington, first published in 1800, was ubiquitous. It was regarded with “veneration” by “every lover of true biography,” a contemporary reviewer wrote, and “found in almost every school-room.” Weems described Washington as “a pure Republican whom all our youth should know, that they may love & imitate his Virtues.” He encouraged his publisher, Mathew Carey, to focus his attention on the schoolbook trade. “People will have, because they must have school books,” Weems wrote to Carey, and those books should “contain just what Ethics & Politics we please.”
Weems extolled Washington’s honesty, piety, patriotism, benevolence, and justice in short anecdotes well suited for classroom elocution exercises. He repeatedly praised Washington’s industry and held it up as a model for young people. “O that the good genius of America may prevail! that the example of this, her favorite son, may be universally adopted! Soon shall our land be free from all those sloth-begotten demons which now haunt and torment us!”
Weems introduced young Americans to images of the Revolution as well as Washington’s virtues. He pressed his publishers to include a portrait of Washington, and persuaded Carey to include simple engravings of events in the Revolution, including illustrations based on John Trumbull’s Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec and his Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill. Such simple woodcuts became a staple of early nineteenth-century school books and made certain images icons of national identity.
School book authors also included texts for students to read aloud as elocution exercises. The most widely circulated of these books—Caleb Bingham’s American Preceptor, first published in 1794—included an account of Israel Putnam’s youthful heroics, an extract from the oration Joseph Warren delivered on the second anniversary of the Boston Massacre, and the text of Washington’s remarks to Congress when he surrendered his commission at the end of the Revolutionary War.
It would be hard to overestimate the influence of these works. School books were among the best-selling books in the early republic. American Preceptor went through at least sixty-nine printings. Some 640,000 copies of this one book were sold between 1795 and 1825. Twenty-nine editions of Weems’ Life of Washington were published between 1800 and 1825.
Historians heap scorn on Weems for his sentimental moralizing and fictitious anecdotes illustrating Washington’s virtues, without appreciating how deep an impression his Life of Washington made on young Americans in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, who had few other sources for understanding and appreciating the American Revolution. Fortunately, one of those children grew up and recalled the lasting impression the book made on him. “Away back in my childhood,” Abraham Lincoln said in speech the New Jersey Senate in February 1861, in “the earliest days of my being able to read, I got hold of a small book, such a one as few of the younger members have ever seen, ‘Weems’ Life of Washington’ I remember all the accounts there given of the battle fields and struggles for the liberties of the country, and none fixed themselves upon my imagination so deeply as the struggle here at Trenton, New Jersey. The crossing of the river; the contest with the Hessians; the great hardships endured at that time, all fixed themselves on my memory more than any single revolutionary event; and you all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others. I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come.”