The American Revolutionary Generation

A History

Developed by Phil Jordan

  • The American Revolution: A History by Gordon S. Wood
  • Benjamin Franklin by Edmund S. Morgan
  • The Minutemen and their World by Robert Gross
  • Women of the Republic by Linda Kerber
  • Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution by John Ferling
Ever since the birth of the Republic in the American Revolution, each generation of Americans has sought to understand the generation that created their nation’s origins: the quest for historical comprehension began in the lifetimes of the participants, with partisan accounts of heroic Patriots triumphing over Tory opposition and British tyranny—history written by the winners. Later writers saw the hand of God in the creation of the United States, with the Revolutionary generation fulfilling the promise of American liberty planted with the first English settlements . Others, still later, appraised the 18th century British Empire, finding it worthy and successful, and hence explained the Revolution not in terms of an heroic generation’s resistance to oppression, nor as its implementation of divine intent, but as the consequence of impersonal forces pulling the colonies away from the mother country, with no one really to blame.

In the early twentieth century, historians looked inward at divisions in colonial society to identify internal strife, much like class conflict, as the force driving the Revolution forward. They saw the American revolutionaries as motivated by conflicting economic interests, not ideals. Then, in the Cold War period, the areas of public agreement or consensus among the notable figures of the American Revolutionary generation received emphasis, while critics on the left countered that a full history of the Revolution should include everyone who lived at the time, especially the ‘inarticulate’ or elements of the American population who had little voice: the lower classes, women and blacks. Reappraisal and reinterpretation of the American Revolution continues, fueled by new scholarship and by new questions that Americans ask about their own national past.

This discussion series focuses on the men and women who lived during the American Revolution, the actors in the Revolution and others whose lives were changed by it. The readings provide multiple perspectives on the people of this generation and their times.

We begin with Gordon Wood’s new short narrative history of the Revolution, incorporating the latest scholarship, to provide a common base of knowledge about events and issues. Wood interprets the Revolution as a radical event—radical in the sudden and complete shift from a society headed by a monarch to one posited on republicanism, and radical also in the individual aspirations it unleashed.

We continue with a new biography of Benjamin Franklin by Edmund Morgan, a “moral biography” of a singular figure in early American history. Perhaps the prototype of the self-made man in America, Franklin rose by talent and effort from humble beginnings to prominence in America and Europe as journalist, essayist, scientist and often behind-the-scenes political leader. A cosmopolitan colonial, deeply loyal to the British Empire, he became an ardent American patriot, brilliant diplomat for the American cause, and member of the Constitutional Convention. His life story is at once incomparable and at the same time representative of how the controversy between the colonies and the mother country changed lives.

The story moves from biography to community history in a detailed account by Robert Gross of the Concord, Massachusetts minutemen and their town. Describing Concord before, during and after the opening hostilities around Boston, Gross provides a case study of how the Revolution changed the character of life in one New England town. Gross incorporates the methods of the “new social history” which rely on “impersonal” sources as well as “literary” sources (local and individual records along with diaries and letters) to write a town history that recreates the character and quality of Concord life in relation to the larger experience of the Revolution.

Change is also the theme of Linda Kerber’s study of Women of the Republic, which describes how the Revolution gave the private domestic sphere of women a new public significance and made the education of women and their responsibilities as ‘republican mothers’ central to the future of the young nation. The status of women in the American Revolutionary generation did not change much, but their importance to the Republic was enhanced.

Finally, in Setting the World Ablaze, John Ferling ventures into comparative biography, with side-by-side accounts of the early lives and engagement in the Revolution of perhaps the three most prominent leaders, George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Using insights from modem psychology, Ferling plumbs the motivations of these men, examines their achievements and shortcomings and raises the question of whether these men shaped the Revolution or were themselves shaped by larger historical forces. He reasserts the importance of major figures in history, as against the recent attention to the less conspicuous elements of society, the men and women lower in the socio-economic scale, both white and black The questions raised by Ferling about major actors in the Revolution versus the ordinary American, about how men and women shape events or are shaped by them, about the contingencies of history, pertain to all of the readings. We should ask this question about the entire Revolutionary generation: Did that generation make the Revolution and the American nation, or were they moved by events they did not intend and could not control? And we may also ask: What is the legacy of that generation for our own?


The American Revolution by Gordon Wood

Wood’s survey begins with a portrait of American colonial society as growing and developing rapidly during the first half of the 18th century. He also depicts Great Britain as a dynamic imperial power in need of reforming governance of its old North American possessions. Does this history explain the American Revolution as an “irrepressible conflict” between divergent societies or as the result of contingent human actions based on misunderstandings and misjudgments? Is anyone to blame for the escalating conflict between colonies and mother country? When the controversy moved from debate to resistance, from American aspirations for home rule to independence and war, the new nation framed its own regime. What was the role of ideas and principles as opposed to interests? How does Wood account for the rejection of monarchy for republicanism by the Americans? What were the implications and consequences of republicanism for society and government after independence? How democratic was America before and after the Revolution? To achieve full nationhood the United States needed to establish stable constitutional government, win the war and the peace in the military conflict with Britain and gain general recognition of their separate existence. How was each of these necessities satisfied? Why did the creation of an effective central government require several steps? Did the Constitution of 1787 settle the question of national sovereignty or leave the nation vulnerable to future internal conflict? Did the Founders compromise the future of the republic by failing to settle permanently the slavery question? Finally, according to Wood, was the American Revolution only political—a change of regimes—or did the Revolution alter the character of American society and government through an ideology that would fuel further change in the future?

Benjamin Franklin by Edmund Morgan

As Morgan describes in his introduction, the papers of Benjamin Franklin are voluminous. But probably as many pages have been written about Franklin as by him. Why has he been the subject of so many biographies? Why do biographers continue to offer new accounts of Franklin’s life? As you read Morgan’s bestselling book—according to Gordon Wood, the finest short biography of Franklin—consider how this “moral” biography differs from the more detailed and exhaustive conventional kind. Does Morgan’s informal and selective approach, as if introducing an old friend, prevent him from probing Franklin’s deficiencies and mistakes as well as he displays Franklin’s conspicuous talents and achievements?

As noted above, Franklin has been portrayed as both exceptional and representative. Do you agree? Does his 18th-century life teach us anything relevant to life in 21st-century America?

Since any biography of Franklin must emphasize the public man, it is fair to ask how Morgan explains and evaluates Franklin’s public roles in Pennsylvania and England, in the United States and France? How did Franklin become a patriot of the British Empire? When and why did he lose his faith in the Empire and abandon his earlier dreams of America’s place in the imperial future? What were his contributions to American independence as an influential figure in political circles and as a diplomat? In Europe he got teamed with John Adams, and the working relations between them were troubled. Biographers of Adams—David McCollough and John Ferling, for example—have tended to see Adams as the stronger, straighter-thinking, more effective member of the American diplomatic delegation and Franklin as problematic in representing and serving the interests of the United States. Franklin biographers see Adams as the problem and Franklin as the astute “chess master” in his dealings with French foreign minister Vergennes. Why? Where does the truth lie? Overall, do you see Franklin as a man who shaped events or was changed by them?

The Minute Men and Their World by Robert Gross

Most of us remember from school the “shot heard round the world” when British regulars came out from Boston in April 1775 to seize munitions stored in Concord. We remember too the reputation of New England towns as paragons of local self-government, perhaps the birthplaces of American democracy. With the Revolutionary experience and the history of New England towns in mind, Robert Gross tells the story of the town of Concord and its people before, during and after the War for Independence. Drawing on intensive research in local records, histories, diaries and letters, and combining the new social history with everything he could learn about Concord families and individuals, he describes how the Revolutionary generation moved from absorption with local quarrels and controversies into engagement with the issues of Parliamentary power and the rebellion against Britain. He analyzes their responses to war, independence and American nationhood as a defense of traditional ways of life which were, nevertheless, ultimately changed by the experience.

Does Concord represent towns all over New England, one may properly ask, or was the town distinctive? How and why did Concord fall into divisions and conflict over local issues? Why were the townspeople “reluctant revolutionaries?” In what ways was their response to Boston a “well-ordered revolution?” How did the early revolutionary movement in Concord, including the organization of the Minutemen, at once perpetuate and alter traditional political and social patterns? What were the people of Concord fighting for when the Redcoats attacked? What were the impacts of war on the Concord community? How, in the long run, did the American Revolution affect political ideas and behavior, social structure and relationships in Concord?

Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology In Revolutionary America by Linda K. Kerber

Concord women appear in Gross’s story as participants but not as major actors in the public life of the town and the events of the Revolutionary period. Yet in Concord young women asserted themselves against family control by choosing their own marriage partners and sometimes getting pregnant before marriage. Did the liberating impetus of the Revolution affect American women? Linda Kerber describes the responses, aspirations and experiences of “women of the republic” during the years of colonial protest and resistance, independence and war, She shows how aspects of domestic life, the private sphere of women, gained public significance; how women’s behaviors touched politics, formerly an exclusively male sphere; how republican ideology altered ideas about women’s family and parental roles, women’s education and reading. Yet traditional values persisted, and the subordination of women to men survived the Revolution. Why?

In order to judge the change in thinking about gender in the new republic, one must first understand prevailing views of women’s place in society and the family, the inherited justifications for different gender roles, and the specific limitations on women’s lives. How did the Revolution challenge aspects of these traditional beliefs and behaviors? How did American women enter the public sphere of politics without leaving their private domestic sphere?

Did the ideology and experiences of the Revolution meliorate traditional legal constraints on women’s property rights and the right to divorce? Did republican ideas affect older conceptions of women’s intellect and education? How did “Republican Motherhood” define the duties of women toward the new society that the Revolution created? Why did the egalitarian values of the Revolution fail to emancipate American women and bring them fully into the public life of the republic? Does Kerber’s study help us discern the social dimensions of the American Revolution?

Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson and the American Revolution by John Ferling

In contrast with community history and women’s history, Ferling returns to a more traditional biographical treatment of major figures in the Revolution. But he does so with some new twists. One twist is a parallel and comparative relation of the life histories of Washington, Adams and Jefferson from birth through the years in which they looked back upon the Revolution, but with almost nothing about their respective presidencies. Another twist is his use of contemporary psychological and medical analysis of his subjects’ development and afflictions. A third is his ability to explore their qualities of mind, their strengths and flaws, and their contributions to the character, successes and shortcomings of the Revolution. Particularly interesting is Ferling’s interpretation of these leaders’ failures to address the great contradiction of the Revolution, the perpetuation of chattel slavery.

Readers will wish to appraise Ferling’s execution of comparative biography. Does his approach enhance or detract from our generation’s understanding of these major figures of the Revolutionary generation? Did the early lives of these men, in Ferling’s account, shape their conduct and achievements during the Revolution? Was each man in some sense heroic, deserving of the large historical reputation he enjoys, or not? Why does Ferling rank Washington and Adams well above Jefferson in historical importance? Were the three, especially Washington and Jefferson, responsible for missing opportunities to place slavery “in the way of ultimate extinction,” as Lincoln later put it? Did they, in fact, “set the world ablaze?”