Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

We’ve Been Doing History’s History

· December 26th, 2017 · No Comments

Today’s post accompanies “Freedom and the American Revolution,” episode 166 of Ben Franklin’s World and part of the Doing History 2: To the Revolution! series. You can find supplementary materials for the episode on the OI Reader app, available through iTunes or Google Play.

History is a primary context for every decision we make; our understanding of the past—our own as individuals and collectively—is background, framework, presumption, and rationale. It’s not always conscious, and it’s not always exact or even correct. But it is there, informing us. It isn’t the case, either, that history is inescapable, or the past makes any specific future inevitable. Individuals and communities large and small can make change happen suddenly or deliberately. But when we recognize change, it is because we know what came before.

Though we know how important history is, it’s not like a cabinet we can open to see what’s inside. First, there is no unitary, single past—of course, history is highly dependent on the multiplicity of experiences and perspectives.  And second, there is no simple way to recover the past in all its complexity.

Doing history requires many of the same basic skills necessary for all people in a free society, including a critical understanding of the source and context of information. Historians work to recount the past through exploring its evidence, sometimes discovering materials long hidden, and sometimes seeing the same things from a fresh vantage. And we keep reading other histories. By debating interpretations, by offering new arguments, we accumulate, expand and increase collective knowledge. That’s what you’ve shared with us through 20 podcast episodes, with supplements on this blog, and incredible additional resources on the OI Reader, exploring the histories of the American Revolution.

Today is the finale episode for the Doing History: to the Revolution! series on Ben Franklin’s World. We have looked at different geographies, political perspectives, and contemporary experiences and understanding of the Revolution. We have looked at material and visual culture, economics, and warfare. And we have talked a lot about how histories of the Revolution have developed since the time of the war itself.  The histories of the American Revolution have a history, too. We have too much respect for the complexity of the past and the range of historians doing histories of the Revolution to think we have covered it all.  We made a start, and that’s one of the major points of this series.

Walker’s Appeal, In Four Articles, via Documenting the American South.

For today’s episode 166, “David Walker’s Appeal,” we knew we wanted to explore one of the most important questions about the American Revolution:  who was it for? Was the freedom and liberty that patriots described available—even rhetorically—beyond the propertied white men typically counted among the new American citizenry? A key idea of American political ideals is that the privilege of citizenship has expanded to incorporate more people over the centuries. But in the Revolutionary moment, how was that potential understood? We asked Christopher Cameron, author of To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (2014) to talk with us about the African Americans, free and enslaved, who were wrestling with these issues.

Doing History: to the Revolution has been a team effort. At the top of the team, of course, is Liz Covart. Other OI staff who have worked hard to bring you Doing History include Joe Adelman, Kim Foley, Martha Howard, Holly White, and yours truly. But there are lots more around the OI and around the world of #VastEarlyAmerica who have made this series so successful. We worked to complement Josh Piker and Cathy Kelly’s extraordinary teamwork in the “Writing to and from the Revolution” October 2017 joint issue of the William and Mary Quarterly and the Journal of the Early Republic.

We need to thank the many historians who took time to talk with Liz, and who have made the episodes so rich and informative:

We also want to thank the historians who contributed such terrific blog posts to accompany the series:

And, alongside bonus audio and chapters of OI and University of North Carolina Press books, and essays from the William and Mary Quarterly, thanks to the other organizations who generously shared images and permission for us to reproduce their materials in the OI Reader:

Most of all, we want to thank you. Along with hundreds of thousands of downloads, the email, tweets, and Facebook messages you’ve sent with comments, suggestions and questions have made Doing History: to the Revolution! a team effort well beyond the OI’s offices and the interviewees. Stay tuned!  We’ll be finding new ways of sharing this series with you. And we’ll be back with a new Doing History series in 2018.

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