The date upon which Americans celebrate their nation’s independence helps explain a curious act of forgetting, a whitewashing of a complicated past in favor of a mythic narrative of heroism and unity.
It is on the Fourth of July when we mark the Continental Congress’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence, whose historic opening words have come to embody the American ideal. We do not gather for barbecues or fireworks on, say, Oct. 17. On that date in 1781, Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown, effectively ending the Revolutionary War — a rebel victory without which the words of the Declaration would have amounted to a footnote in history.
By embracing the Fourth of July and celebrating the Enlightenment ideals articulated in Jefferson’s magisterial Declaration (which, at the time, was less an abstract political treatise than a list of practical grievances against Great Britain), we obscure the war part of the Revolutionary War — the internecine violence, civil war, cruelty, terror, destruction of private property, and outright misery that has accompanied most wars and revolutions.
In this episode of History As It Happens, Pulitzer Prize-winning University of Virginia historian Alan Taylor discusses why it is important to acknowledge the violence and terror that scarred the revolutionary years as well as tales of heroism and courage and the triumph of freedom and liberty.
Instead of idealizing the past by embracing the myth of a united people throwing off the yoke of British tyranny, we might better understand our own times by acknowledging the divisions and hatreds of the 1770s and ’80s. By learning more about the war (and civil war) itself, we might drop the notion that the revolution was a restrained affair of set-piece battles in which civilians escaped unscathed.
“We’ve largely written [violence] out of telling the story of the American Revolution because, frankly, it is very uncomfortable,” said Mr. Taylor, the author of “American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804.”
“We could still see plenty that is admirable in the Revolution, but also understand that revolutions are violent, including our own. Our Revolution could be violent, nasty and destructive, and yet produce certain ideals of equality and of freedom, which were remarkable and radical for their time, and have been inspirational ever since,” Mr. Taylor said.
The Revolution meant different things to different people as it was fought, just as it holds different meanings today.
To Loyalists, the decision to declare independence and go to war against Great Britain led to suspicion, public humiliations, the loss of private property without due process, physical violence and, for tens of thousands of Loyalists, permanent exile.
For most Native American tribes and enslaved Africans (who made up one-fifth of the colonial population), there was little freedom and liberty to gain in the Patriot cause — a founding contradiction that bedevils public discourse to this day.
And what motivated ordinary colonists to pick up arms was different than what drove the elite in colonial society; most farmers and laborers drew from different intellectual traditions than, for instance, Thomas Jefferson.
For more of Mr. Taylor’s insights about the violence of the American Revolution, the ways Patriots and Loyalists treated each other, and how ordinary people came to legitimize the use of violence for political ends, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.