Misunderstanding the American Revolution, misapplying its lessons, and misappropriating its symbols and figures is an American tradition as old as the nation itself. Jill Lepore reminded the nation of this reality years ago during the rise of the Tea Party movement. Now, as shutdowns nationwide have carried on for weeks in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, activists by the hundreds are descending on statehouses nationwide in movements that are meant to look like grassroots uprisings but are in actuality supported or funded by right-leaning political organizations. Some protestors bear signs with simple slogans highlighting economic distress. Others have chosen more pointed messages directly attacking governors. A few have exposed their ideological and political motivations by dressing up as George Washington, carrying Revolutionary-era flags, and deploying slogans tied to America’s founding era. Given the ways in which their displays corrupt the nation’s history, it is the latter group historians need to challenge lest they expand into a new version of the Tea Party, a movement that did potentially irreparable damage to Americans’ understandings of the American Revolution. As was the case with the Tea Party a decade ago, the tie between the age of COVID-19 and the American Revolution is a tenuous one at best, but that has not stopped a testy minority from invoking the Revolution to press for the liberty to pursue individual happiness at the expense of American lives. Though invoking and claiming the legacy of the American Revolution to justify these ideas may seem innocuous, given the relatively thin attendance figures at these rallies, the ongoing efforts of the political right to claim the legacy of the American Revolution both oversimplifies the complex legacy of the American Revolution and threatens the very fabric of American identity.
Make no mistake, those protesting COVID-19-induced restrictions on American society are manipulating public memory for their own selfish ends. They have little to no interest in the wellbeing of the nation and absolutely no understanding of the intentions, ideas, and shortcomings of past revolutionaries. Take, for example, a man who earned a couple hours of fleeting Twitter fame by marching around in front of the city-county buildings in Pittsburgh dressed in a George Washington mask, a Continental Army frock coat, and carrying an AR-15. Apparently, this protestor was playing a decidedly different George Washington than the man who stopped the Newburgh Conspiracy in its tracks. When, in March 1783, angry, fearful Continental Army officers began plotting a move on the Continental Congress at Philadelphia with the intention of either intimidating the legislature into guaranteeing the officers’ pensions or staging a coup d’état, Washington put an end to it. He made a surprise appearance at the meeting of conspiring officers chaired by General Horatio Gates at the Continental Army camp at Newburgh, New York. After imploring the men to trust in civilian government, Washington pulled out a letter he had recently received from the Continental Congress. Then, Washington hesitated—something he rarely did in view of his men—before donning a pair of spectacles—which he never did in front of his men. “Gentlemen, you must pardon me,” he said, “I have grown old in the service of my country and now find that I am going blind.” Washington’s point was crystal clear. He expected the army to sacrifice for the good of the new nation. Marching on Philadelphia would negate that sacrifice. Point made: There would be no marching on statehouses by patriots in uniform. Conspiracy over. Nation preserved. No assault weapon needed.
Other protestors have been holding up signs bearing the slogan “Liberty or Death”—a phrase derived from an exclamation supposedly uttered by Patrick Henry of Virginia in 1775—or another similar exclamation. The slogan is not at all applicable to the current moment when too much personal liberty could result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. In an era marked not only by a pandemic but by a surge of libertarianism, the political right has attempted to link the word “liberty” to an ideology where any state-sponsored order of any sort that produces a restriction on the actions of individuals is perceived as a threat to liberty. True, many American Revolutionaries did want relief from restrictions on economic activity imposed by a central state. But those restrictions were—depending on who one was talking to in the 1760s and 1770s—crafted for the benefit of a distant state at the expense of colonial merchants, shopkeepers, and consumers (not to mention smugglers). No rational person would think that any government within the current United States benefits from a freeze on economic activity.
The core problem with these misappropriations of Revolutionary history is the effect they have on public memory and, consequently, the effect they have on our national character. The marching George Washington in Pittsburgh, the “Liberty or Death” signs, and “Don’t Tread on Me” banners at protests against stay-at-home orders around the nation are not only reflections of a deeply problematic public memory of the Revolution, but also illustrations of an epistemological crisis that threatens to permanently corrupt Americans’ connections to the nation’s history, which, in turn, undermines efforts to develop a more equitable, safe, and prosperous country. History is a powerful motivator and an important building block of identity in the modern world where shared history is one of the few binding agents in diverse nation-states. By allowing history to be corrupted by the few, we collectively strip the past of its power to influence the present. The American Revolution as experienced and propelled by famous men like George Washington and less famous radical laborers like Ebenezer Mackintosh was not a mass libertarian movement pushing for the eradication of government intervention. It was also not an exceptional, flawless movement that should be deployed as a trump card to narrowly define American values as those most beneficial to an angry minority. Believing the Revolution and those who participated in it were uniformly perfect in their thinking or fundamentally opposed to government intervention contributes to a nefarious narrative that Americans, by definition, distrust government now and always, and must live with inequality because that is somehow the American way. Allowing a generation of Americans to believe that there exists any link between the gun-toting George Washington imposter and the actual George Washington, or between Patrick Henry’s call to arms and self-centered protestors, corrupts American identity and misconstrues the actual challenges facing the nation at this moment and in the years ahead. Allowing Americans to believe that distrust of government is written into the nation’s DNA and our national character demands we frame our choices in terms of absurd dichotomies like individual liberty or actual death puts us all at risk by constraining the possibilities of our nation.
So, to all those who want to exercise their right to protest right now, please stay 6-feet apart, wear masks, and leave George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Christopher Gadsden out of it, for all our sakes.
Andrew Detch teaches early American history at the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Colorado Denver, and Metropolitan State University of Denver. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2018 and holds an M.A. in History from Brown University (2009).
His work explores the intersections of revolutionary cultures during the Age of Revolutions. His dissertation, “Liberty’s Forest: Liberty Trees and Liberty Poles During the Age of Revolution,” explains that liberty trees and liberty poles were singularly malleable symbols that Americans, French people, and Haitians constantly reconceptualized for nearly a century as they all worked to define liberty, construct national identities, and delineate the political and cultural geography of a world in flux. He is currently working on articles that examine the construction of public memory and liberty trees in the United States and Haiti during the early nineteenth century.
Lepore, Jill. The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History. The Public Square Book Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Martin, James Kirby, and Mark Edward Lender. A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic,1763-1789. Third edition. The American History Series. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell, 2015.
Taylor, Alan. American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.
Young, Alfred F., Gary B. Nash, and Ray Raphael, eds. Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
 Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, The Public Square Book Series (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).
 Lisa Graves, “Opinion | Who’s Behind the ‘Reopen’ Protests?” The New York Times, April 22, 2020, sec. Opinion, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/opinion/coronavirus-protests-astroturf.html.
 James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender, A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789, Third Edition, The American History Series (Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 200.
 Alfred F. Young, “Ebenezer Mackintosh: Boston’s Captain General of the Liberty Tree,” in Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation, ed. Gary B. Nash, Ray Raphael, and Alfred F. Young (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 15–33.