Summer Reading for Teachers: The Unknown American Revolution

The last thing teachers want to do during the summer is plan for next year. 

Yet if you’re like me, stuck in a massive heat wave with no motivation to brave the rain forest-like conditions, then maybe some planning in the AC could help—especially when you have a resource like today’s selection.

I just got back from a conference at UCLA on the American Revolution.  Yes, I’ve heard all the stories: what does California have to do with the American Revolution?  Well, between UCLA and the Huntington Library, there is a massive concentration of primary source material on the subject. 

Secondly, the main lecturer of the conference helped tie all that material together.  UCLA’s Gary Nash is a true master of the subject, particularly in areas that get little attention.  Professor Nash teaches history at UCLA and is the director of the National Center for History in the Schools, an organization devoted to making meaningful connections between classroom teachers and university academics.  Witty, soft-spoken, and incredibly approachable, Nash makes a wonderful guide through an increasing thorny subject—the “other” stories of the American Revolution that often get buried in textbooks.

Nash’s 2005 work The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America serves as a worthy guidebook through this material.  In it, he details many of the conflicts, struggles, debates and battles that have received little attention, making the Revolution a far more complex subject—and far more real experience—than is often depicted.

According to Professor Nash, the American Revolution is not simply a war of independence between the colonies and Great Britain, but a large, unwieldy, often conflicting web of movements and struggles that affect our national character even today. 

As the battles raged, radicals, conservatives and moderates were jostling to create a new nation and offer voices to new groups of people: immigrants, women, blacks, poor whites, etc.  State constitutions were the first real experiments in representative democracy, scoring victories and defeats in the advancement of freedom and suffrage.  Shortages would see a struggle for economic power as bread riots would rage in northern cities.

The Revolution also set the stage for what Nash argues is the largest black rebellion in American history, as thousands of enslaved Africans made a flight for freedom—mostly heading for the British lines.  The need to control the black population also caused a drain on recruitment in the south, as white landowners worked to keep control of their property.

It would also be a turning point in the Native American struggle to maintain independence and sovereignty in the face of encroaching white development, creating unforeseen tensions, alliances and rivalries.  The Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, would split up forever over the Revolution, and tribes in the Ohio valley and the southeast would fight as independent actors in a stage largely seen as two-sided.

Finally, the Revolution really began the era of westward expansion, as the population explosion of the 18th century would force settlers farther into the American hinterland.  Conflicts arise, with native populations, eastern colonial elites, and the British military. 

The need for a “popular history” of the American Revolution is expressed by Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of New York’s Central Park and quoted by Nash in his introduction:

“Men of literary taste…are always apt to overlook the working classes, and to confine the records they make of their own times, in a great degree to the habits and fortunes of their own associates or to those people of superior rank to themselves. The dumb masses have often been so lost in this shadow of egotism, that, in later days, it has been impossible to discern the very real influence their character and condition has had on the fortune and fate of nations.”

History is about telling the whole story, and according to Olmstead, half the story is usually hidden by those at the top of society.  Their narrative, the one that has prevailed so many centuries, has filled our textbooks and the addled minds of so many schoolchildren—children like mine, who look nothing like the Founding Fathers.

So how can The Unknown American Revolution be used in the classroom?

Obviously, this work is much too complicated for most students, even high schoolers.  We’ve covered popular histories of the Revolution before here in the Neighborhood, and Thomas Fleming’s work Everybody’s Revolution is still a great book for elementary and middle-school children in covering much of Nash’s premise.  Fleming’s book is best for any classroom assignments.

Where Nash’s book really excels is both as a resource for high school students in research and as a reference for student questions.  High schoolers, who so often cut corners in research papers, can use Nash’s book as a valuable tool in rounding out any topic about the Revolution, giving a nuance scarcely found in the shelves of typical high school libraries.

For younger students, The Unknown American Revolution provides some explanation to questions many children have about the time period.  In the South Bronx, few children can feel a tangible connection to the Revolution.  In looking at women, the poor, Africans—people that they can relate to—my students can see the Revolution as an event that affected everyone, and that mattered to everyone.   

Finally, I’ll end with a warning Professor Nash gave all of us at the beginning of our week together.  He told us that the most dangerous word in history is “inevitable.”  In our textbooks, we often think that the events that happen were inevitable and could not be stopped.  In doing so, the actions of human beings are conveniently marginalized. 

I always tell my students that history is the story of how humans solve problems, and the consequences of these solutions.  People, all sorts of people, have an active role in not only creating problems, but also in finding meaningful solutions.  The guys on the money were not perfect; and it’s important that kids understand that sooner rather than later. 

It is up to us as teachers to take the premises presented by professors like Gary Nash and make them real and meaningful to our children.

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2 responses to “Summer Reading for Teachers: The Unknown American Revolution

  1. Pingback: The Moral Liberal

  2. Pingback: Summer Reading for Teachers: Forbidden Love: The Hidden History of Mixed Race America « Mr. D’s Neighborhood

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