Myths of Our Founding: Carol Berkin on Teaching the Revolution

Battle of Bunker Hill, by John Trumbull.  Yale University Art Gallery

Battle of Bunker Hill, by John Trumbull. Yale University Art Gallery

Should we have revolted against the British Empire?   According to Carol Berkin, we never had it so good–as long as you were a New England merchant, a Caribbean slave trader or a tidewater planter.  That covers everybody, right?

Here at the Neighborhood, mythbusting in history has always been a key issue.  Because so much of our collective history has been built on myths created over centuries, this process is often complex, messy and controversial. 

Over the months, we’ve tackled subjects as diverse as the Boston Massacre, Native Americans, the War of 1812Civil Rights, even Jesus.  With each, it was important to strip away the veneer of the textbook to get as close to the source as possible.  Carol Berkin, University Professor of History at Baruch College and CUNY Graduate Center, does a similar job with the American Revolution in the latest issue of History Now, from the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.

Berkin does an excellent job in parsing a straightforward narrative into a complex web of conflicts, struggles and contradictions.  Upon reading her analysis, Great Britain seems less than a tyrannical imperial power and more like a rookie teacher who can’t control her students.  The British were real penny-pinchers when it came to colonial control, leaving much of the actual legwork to local assemblies that took advantage of the crown, Native Americans, and poorer backcountry farmers and townspeople. 

It was only with the French and Indian War, which left the empire broke, that Britain decided to read up on classroom management and establish some routines and procedures for effective imperial rule.  By then it was too late–the little monsters that were the 13 colonies had already dumped the hamster cage, spilled the paste on the floor and pulled the fire alarm (so to speak).  No amount of time in the woodshed was going to control this bunch.

In all, Berkin makes a great framework for upper-grade elementary, middle and high school teachers to enrich their U.S. history lessons.  Focusing on even one of her points can make a week’s worth of lessons.  Please let us know how you used this information in the classroom and comment her at the Neighborhood.

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