COL Bursting the revolutionary bubble

Some of what we believe about our independence are just big misunderstandings

By David Greenberg

New York Times News Syndicate

Every year as Independence Day draws near, we debunk old myths -- pointing out that Betsy Ross didn't sew the first flag or that the Continental Congress actually proclaimed independence on July 2. But historians say that the real misunderstandings of history run deeper than a botched date or the unmerited canonization of a Philadelphia seamstress.

Here are a few of what scholars describe as the true myths of Revolutionary history.


The Declaration of Independence was an original work by Thomas Jefferson.

In national lore, no Revolutionary leader except George Washington looms larger than Jefferson. "People seem to think that if not for Jefferson, we would not be created equal, and we wouldn't have inalienable rights," said Pauline Maier, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But the Declaration was hardly Jefferson's solitary work. He drafted it as part of a five-man committee. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin edited his version, and the Continental Congress substantially revised the document (to Jefferson's irritation), excising a fierce condemnation of slavery.

In addition, the ideas didn't originate with Jefferson. Americans had been issuing similar calls for independence for months. As Professor Maier described in her 1997 book "American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence," records of at least 90 proto-declarations have survived, put out by towns, counties and groups of local tradesmen or soldiers. "These documents in some ways are much more effective than Jefferson's draft," Professor Maier said. "They tell the story of how the colonists loved the king and how things got worse and worse."

Jefferson borrowed words and arguments from these documents, notably George Mason's draft of Virginia's Declaration of Human Rights. Mason wrote: "All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, ... among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."

In fairness, Jefferson conceded that the Declaration didn't embody his original ideas; he intended it, he said, "to be an expression of the American mind."

The intellectual godfather of the Revolution was John Locke.

Practically every high school student learns that Locke's ideas about liberty, self-government and rights -- what philosophers call "liberalism" -- are echoed in the Declaration and other Revolutionary tracts. Yet in academic circles, Locke's standing has fallen. Historians including Bernard Bailyn at Harvard and Gordon S. Wood at Brown have long argued that Locke's liberalism mattered less to colonial thought than did "classical republicanism" -- a strain of ideas from antiquity that was embraced by British politicians in the 17th century.


Instead of Locke's individualism, republican thinkers stressed the public good, which was threatened easily by corrupt leaders. In this reading of the Revolution, the colonists were motivated less by material grievances than by a visceral, even conspiratorial fear that corruption in the court of King George III would lead to tyranny, as it had in Rome.

Although most historians now agree that colonial thought included strands of both republicanism and liberalism -- "They were mixed up together from the start," Professor Bailyn said -- republican ideas still aren't fully appreciated. Americans respond readily to the language of freedom and rights but are less attuned to the ways the republican tradition survives -- in the American distaste for pretension, the concern with public corruption and the preoccupation with national virtue.

The Revolution was a war of independence, not a social upheaval.

It's commonly thought that American colonists fought to separate themselves from the British monarchy but, unlike the French revolutionists of 1789, not to remake their society. There were no bloody purges, no significant redistribution of wealth and, heaven forbid, no class warfare.

"But the American Revolution was far more radical than people realize," said John E. Ferling, the author of "A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic" and a historian at the State University of West Georgia.

In 1909, the historian Carl Becker famously wrote that the war was not just about "home rule" but also about "who should rule at home." "If you emphasize home rule, you emphasize the repudiation of state power," said Isaac Kramnick, a professor of government at Cornell. "If you emphasize who rules at home, you see the revolution as a historic milestone in overthrowing traditional elites."

Popular notions tend to neglect the social consequences of breaking with the crown -- what Professor Bailyn calls "the contagion of liberty." After 1776, artisans, small farmers and other workers challenged traditional elites such as merchants, planters and lawyers. In both politics and social relations, the elites were denied the deference they had previously received. "This was a profoundly transforming event," said Edward Countryman, a historian at Southern Methodist University. "Everyone was affected."

Today, historians are quick to qualify any description of the Revolution as radical because it kept slavery intact and only modestly changed (or perhaps reinforced) the dependent position of women. Still, the rejection not just of monarchy but of all inherited political office and aristocratic lineage was, for its time, a decidedly radical move.


Americans won the war because of their Indian-style guerrilla tactics.

"There is an idea out there that the British lost because they were too stiff, too formal, too European," said Jon Butler, a colonial historian at Yale. "We have this image of the Americans as guerrillas, jumping out from behind some rock."

In fact, the settlers performed so badly in earlier wars against the Indians that they petitioned England for training and help, said Guy Chet, the author of a new book, "Conquering the American Wilderness: The Triumph of European Warfare in the Colonial Northeast."

When war with Britain broke out, the Americans redoubled their efforts to become disciplined. "John Adams and George Washington wanted professional training, professional tactics, a professional command structure," said Professor Chet, who teaches at the University of North Texas.

The British accepted American independence because they were falling deeply into debt. Having failed to confine the rebellion to New England, they had to keep sending more troops at great cost. Rather than being outmatched in battle, the British chose to cut their losses.

In coming to America, colonists made a clean break with the Old World.

Leaving Britain, we like to think, was the first step on a one-way road to independence. But historians now see continuing and even strengthening bonds between the Old and New Worlds in the 17th and 18th centuries. "The old view of the colonists as isolated between an ocean and a wilderness falls apart when you see that the ocean was really a bridge and the wilderness wasn't a wilderness," Professor Countryman at Southern Methodist University said.

A new current of research -- sometimes called the "Atlantic history" school -- holds that the colonists were tightly bound up with events not just in Britain but in the Caribbean, Africa and much of Europe.


From commerce to politics, "they were involved in all sorts of influences and flows and connections," said Professor Bailyn of Harvard, who surveys the rise of Atlantic history in his new book, "To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders." And they considered themselves English.

All these fine points about the Revolution might seem beside the point to the public. And in the end, most people do grasp the basic idea. "The central question was one of the protection of liberty against political power," Professor Bailyn said. "That seems as relevant as ever today."

David Greenberg teaches history and political science at Yale and is the author of the forthcoming book "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image."

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