Revisiting the Revolution

In fifth grade, we learned American history. I lived in New England at the time, and there was no better place to learn about the American Revolution. Upon a hill in my neighborhood was an old graveyard. It had a stone wall, and among the briers and brambles aging gravestones tilted this way and that. Several of them had rusted markers in front of them indicating that the person buried there fought in the Revolutionary War. They fought in the Revolutionary War. You couldn’t get closer to history than that, not in the fifth grade. It left an impression with me right down to the present. I am fascinated with the period of time surrounding the American Revolution, and the people involved.

Last fall, I read Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father by Stephen Fried, a wonderful biography of Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, friend of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and the man who re-ignited the light of Adams and Jefferson’s friendship after many years. You can’t read about that time period without Rush’s name appearing just about everywhere. Reading in the fall reminded me of how much I enjoy that period.

Last week, I read 1776 by David McCullough, and like Rush’s efforts with Adams and Jefferson, it re-kindled my interest in the American Revolution. Yesterday, I kicked off a diversion into that period once again. I started re-reading John Adams by David McCullough, my third time reading that biography. I first read the book in the summer of 2001, the year it was first published. I happened to be in New England at the time, in Maine, and I remember sitting up until late at night, unable to put the book down.

I read it again a few years ago, uncertain if it would hold up to the original reading. I enjoyed it even more the second time, perhaps because I knew more about the history than I did 18 years ago. The book is my favorite biography, the best one I’ve ever read, and John Adams has been my favorite president ever since I first read the book in 2001. (Note: I don’t claim that Adams was the best president, just my favorite.)

Last year I finally finished Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson and His time. A few years earlier I read Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington. But there are still some gaps. I’m kicking off this journey back to the Revolution with John Adams because I love the book. But when that is finished, I plan on reading a few others. These include:

  • Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham. Because I believe it’s good to read more than one biography of a president if possible, and Malone’s biography, while fascinating, is somewhat dated.
  • Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. I’ve resisted reading this because Hamilton always came across as an unlikeable character in other biographies I’ve read. Truth is, I know little about him, so I think it’s time to change that.
  • American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham. I’ve read a biography of John Quincy Adams, and it seems that Andrew Jackson is a natural cap to that particular time period. (Also, I visited the Hermitage while on vacation last summer.)

That leaves just two of the first seven president for whom I still need to read a biography: James Madison and James Monroe. I’m sure I’ll get to them eventually.

The other reason I decided to dive back into the American Revolution is to remind myself why there was a revolution in the first place. With all of the craziness going on in the country and around the world today, I feel like I sometimes lose sight why we declared our independence. I have this feeling that if Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hancock, Rush, and many others would be appalled at what we’ve done with the revolution into which they placed their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

2 thoughts on “Revisiting the Revolution

  1. I took a course on the American War for Independence as part of my MA in History. As a grad course, it was more than just learning the history. There was a lot of technique and theory applied to the topic, as well. One big focus of that course was the paradigm shift from personality-driven history, that which focuses on key famous figures (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, etc) to people’s history, a focus on the population. The traditional history of this period focuses on elites, who had a certain motivation and point of view. When you look at the common people, you get a different story. I would add the book “American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People” by T.H. Breen to your reading list. It’s one of the first books I ever read that looked at people’s history.

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