Igniting the American Revolution


Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze

The David Library of the American Revolution is a history gem, just up the road from Washington Crossing (yes, THAT Washington Crossing) Historic Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. As a preamble to July 4, last Saturday historian Derek W. Beck gave a lively talk about “the war before the war”—the goings-on in Massachusetts before the Declaration of Independence, before the formation of the Continental Army, and in the earliest days of George Washington’s command.

Paul Revere

photo: Kathy, creative commons license

Beck tries to present both sides of the conflict and in his efforts exposes certain myths that arise when historians wear partisan blinders. Would Paul Revere have ridden through the countryside hollering, “The British are coming, the British are coming!”? Not likely, Beck says. If he did, he’d be greeted by puzzled looks and scratching heads, because practically everyone considered themselves to be British. They didn’t necessarily want independence from England (yet); they just wanted to be treated like any other British citizen. But in our mythologized history, with the clarity of hindsight, we know who the enemy was, and we name him.

Another example is “the shot heard round the world”—the first gunshot of the Revolution, traditionally fired at Lexington, Massachusetts. Who fired it? In the verse by Ralph Waldo Emerson,

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

It was to the Americans’ advantage to be the aggrieved parties, the victims, so preferred the view that the British fired first. However, Beck says, forensic evidence suggests that the very first shot wasn’t fired by either an American militia member or a British soldier, but a bystander outside a pub. (Figures.)

Beck considers it a plus that his two books (Igniting the American Revolution and The War Before Independence) are said to “read like action novels,” and he consigns the documentation that ordinarily fills history books to a thorough set of notes at the end. Such details are of vital interest to historians but make books much less interesting to those of us who merely want to gain a better understanding of our country’s past and establish a stronger connection to it.

Noble train, Henry Knox, Ft. Ticonderoga

The Noble Train of Artillery

Another myth he debunked was the one in which poor General Henry Knox struggled through heavy snows with the cannon from Fort Ticonderoga (“the noble train of artillery”). Histories (and many artworks) commemorating this episode depict them being pulled by oxen. Indeed, that was Knox’s plan. However, the farmer who owned the oxen so inflated their price, that at the last minute, he used horses instead, and he wrote about the change in his diary at the time.

Beck’s insights were informative, entertaining, and memorable, just as history ought to be!