By Michael Leroy Oberg
One of my favorite undergraduate professors, John Walzer, taught the course I took on the American Revolution a long time ago at Cal State Long Beach. One of his students once made a movie reenacting the Boston Tea Party. The local marina stood in for Boston Harbor, somebody’s fishing boat for The Dartmouth, and cardboard boxes for chests of tea. After the “Sons of Liberty” committed their act of defiance, the cameras followed them home. When they attempted to wash off their “Mohawk” disguises, no matter how hard they scrubbed, they would not come off. They were revolutionaries now, and there was no turning back.
I have always loved that story. It gets at the dramatic urgency of the colonists’ protest movement, and depicts that moment when defiant opponents of parliamentary taxation realized that their relationship to Great Britain as subject and citizen was broken beyond repair. The story of this film helps students see the excitement of the Revolution, but also its danger. It is a powerful and important thing for students to experience.
So I worry that if states like Texas have their way, we will lose the drama and the excitement of the Age of Revolution. In a set of revised learning standards, the Texas State Board of Education reduces the revolution to little more than a constitutional dispute with Great Britain, of value only because it produces the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a new nation at its end. Nothing is at stake. Little will be lost. The revolution seems inevitable, and no more disorderly than a game of Canasta.
The Texas State Board of Education hoped to “streamline” the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) standards for social studies they produced almost a decade ago. You might remember how, in 2009 and 2010, the SBOE created a controversial set of learning standards. Critics called it a white-washing of American history, and for good reason. It downplayed race and injustice, emphasized patriotism and the role played by white males in American history, and included a large dose of Christian providentialism. It became national news, and Texas became a laughing-stock, with late night comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert making light of the SBOE’s more far-fetched changes. The elected members of the Board of Education, operating on the belief that “a bad day in the United States is better than a good day anywhere else,” forged ahead despite withering criticism. The TEKS standards they produced silenced dissident voices, erased the important roles played in history by peoples of color, and constructed a mythical retelling of the American past that emphasized freedom, justice, and liberty. I wasn’t laughing at or celebrating any of this.
Because of the size of the state, some worry that Texans can shape the content in history textbooks across the country. The state’s textbook market is so enormous that what publishers produce for Texas, some critics fear, will make its way into textbooks for other states, an economy of scale producing tendentious reasoning and bad historical knowledge. In part, that may be a debatable proposition—textbooks can be customized with more ease than in the past, especially when they are read on ubiquitous tablets. Still, there is little doubt that the history standards produced by the Texas SBOE correspond closely with much of the public’s understanding of the past, and as such, reflect the beliefs about American history that many students will carry with them into college classrooms. And for the history of the American Revolution, this is deeply disheartening.
Kindergartners in Texas learn, according to the new streamlined TEKS standards, about Stephen Austin, George Washington, and Christopher Columbus, presumably not in that order. Washington sticks around for first grade, where Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Ben Franklin, all of whom “exemplified” the “characteristics of good citizenship,” join him. Franklin and the Founding Fathers appear in third grade, too, because they provide students with examples of individuals who “have helped to change communities” and who “have contributed to the expansion of existing communities or the creation of new communities.” Fifth graders should understand, the revised standards continue, “how conflict between the American colonists and Great Britain led to American independence and the formation of the United States.”
Middle-schoolers, meanwhile, study the first half of American history, through Reconstruction, in eighth grade. Focus is placed upon the Declaration of Independence, the War, and the Constitution. And Texas high school students barely receive any history at all. They take courses in the recent history of the United States, world history, world geography, and American government. They will never examine the American Revolution as a social movement, as J. Franklin Jameson described it so long ago, nor will they look at the historical events that took place in the streets and in the countryside, or examine critically the limitations and failures of the Revolution, and its ambivalent legacies. No discussions of slavery and none of racism. No discussion of the dispossession and diaspora that came to indigenous peoples in its wake. For children in Texas, it seems, the American Revolution focuses on elite white males, the constitutional relationship with Great Britain, and the birth of the United States. The key question in the TEKS standards, as Carl Becker would have recognized long ago, is home rule, and not who shall rule at home.
Given its history of social studies education and its highly politicized methods for revising curricula, it is easy to beat up on Texas. But here’s the thing. Too many of my students think of the Revolution primarily as a creature of the “Founding Fathers.” They associate it, barely, with the Revolutionary War, and know little of the protest movements that preceded it. They know little of the consequences of the Revolution, save for the fact that the United States emerged as a new nation at its end.
Texas offers its schoolchildren a highly truncated presentation of the Revolution, and that is both disappointing and a cause for concern. The state’s approach robs students of the opportunity to explore the contingencies, the rending compromises, and the internal conflict that characterized these years. It deprives students of the human drama, as ordinary Americans—Anglo-Americans divided by class and region, immigrants from Europe from a host of religious traditions, Africans and Native Americans in all their diversity—found themselves forced to choose sides. Revolutions never tolerate neutrality, and the American Revolution was no different. Our students are seldom asked to consider that the gains brought about by the Revolution often came at the expense of others.
So when I teach the American Revolution, I tell my students about the Sullivan Campaign against the Iroquois, the Continental Army’s invasion of Haudenosaunee towns, and villages in the summer and fall of 1779. General Washington, the founding father and national hero, was known as the “Town Destroyer” in native villages, his soldiers and citizens as “Long Knives,” “Butchers,” and “Killers.” There were good reasons for that. Washington ordered and planned these invasions of Iroquoia. It resulted, if we choose to believe Haudenosaunee voices, in the rape and murder of Onondaga non-combatants by New York militiamen following Colonel Goose Van Schaick. It resulted in what justly might be called war crimes against Senecas and Cayugas, as well as the destruction of their crops and orchards, and dozens of towns. Washington hoped that Sullivan’s men would “distract and terrify” the Indians and, in Washington’s own words, “extirpate them from the Country.” They did. Sullivan’s soldiers drank a toast promising, among other things, “civilization or death to all American savages.” Hostility toward Native Americans and African Americans, who Jefferson charged had been unleashed upon the Patriots by the British, made up part of that “Common Cause” embraced by the Revolutionary generation.
I talk to my students about the Battle of Concord, too. I am not interested in the maneuvers, or the stockpiling and concealing of arms and ammunition in that town, but in the fighting men themselves. “How many of you,” I ask my students, “have ever been upset about something your government has done?” “How many of you,” I continue, “were so upset that you were willing to take up arms?” The men of Concord marched down that hill, and stood facing the British troops—ordinary men, with minimal military training. Fifty yards, a bit more than the distance from home plate to second base, separated them from some of the finest professional soldiers on earth. And they opened fire. While Patriot leaders drafted their indisputably important documents, ordinary men and women at first resisted the British in the streets and in the countryside, and then on the battlefield. They found a cause for which they were willing to fight, kill, and die.
I tell them about William Shepard, a customs inspector in Philadelphia in 1769. Shepard was the king’s man, and he believed in enforcing the laws of Parliament. He was told by friends that he might be attacked by the mob, that his house might be destroyed. He did not listen. “I could not be persuaded that my person was in danger,” he wrote, “and thought that if I appeared to be intimidated, the inhabitants would think it arose from a consciousness of guilt.” He went out as usual, but he carried a pair of pistols for protection. “Upon my return home about a quarter past ten o’clock, two men of a sudden came upon me, one of them without saying a word to me, struck me as hard as he could in the pit of the stomach, which immediately deprived me of breath and I fell down. He took the advantage of some weapon, I apprehend a knife, and slit my nose.” Shephard learned his lesson, recognized that he was “unable to persevere any longer at Philadelphia,” and went home. Shepard learned that there were more than proclamations and declarations in a Revolution.
Violent stories, these, where ordinary people in their way acted to advance what they saw as their own and their community’s best interests are important. The American Revolution was an episode where ordinary men and women made history. Without the involvement of these ordinary people, the Revolution could not have occurred. It was they who stood up to British authorities, intimidated stamp collectors, joined the Continental Army, squatted on Indian lands, resisted British authority, and slit William Shepard’s nostrils. They possessed so many similarities with our students: they were afraid at times, unsure whether they possessed adequate knowledge to weigh in on matters of import, uncertain about taking on the risks of shedding deference and weighing in as a citizen. When we focus on elites, and choose to set these stories aside, we do a grave injustice to the history of the Revolution and to our students.
Michael Leroy Oberg is Distinguished Professor of History at SUNY-Geneseo. He is the author of eight books, the most recent of which was the 2nd edition of Native America: A History, published in 2017 by Wiley-Blackwell.
Robert Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016)
Robert Gross, The Minutemen and their World, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976).
Alan Taylor, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution, (New York: Knopf, 2007).
Carl Lotus Becker, The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1909)