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Battlefield diaries, reluctant patriots tell a new story of the American Revolution

By Anna Maria Gillis | HUMANITIES, November/December 1997 | Volume 18, Number 6

Would you have been insolent to British soldiers in Boston in 1774? Would you have stood with the rabble-rouser Thomas Paine against "the sceptered savage of Great Britain," King George III?

People think they have the makings of a revolutionary, "but it really is hard to say who would have been a patriot," says Muffie Meyer, the producer of a new film on the American revolution. "Why fight Britain, then the greatest empire on earth?"

Middlemarch Films in New York and KTCA, a public television station in St. Paul, Minnesota, explore this question and the birth of the Republic in Liberty! The American Revolution, a six- part series supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities airing November 24-26.

One of the myths the series dispels is the notion that most citizens of the colonies were eager to sever ties with England. A fifth of the population remained loyalists to the king. The figure was even higher in places like New York City, which was under British control during the war. "What will surprise viewers is the extent to which colonists considered themselves British," says Liberty! writer Ron Blumer. A mere six years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a split from Britain would have been unthinkable.

A prime example of a faithful British subject is Benjamin Franklin, who made a nice fortune as a printer in the colonies. "He goes off to England because he wants to hobnob with the greats. He can conceive of nothing better than to live the rest of his days there," says KTCA's Catherine Allan, executive producer for the series.

As tensions increased between America and his beloved Britain, Franklin tried to calm matters by deflecting colonial anger from Parliament and onto Massachusetts Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson. Franklin did this by leaking a private letter from Hutchinson to a member of Parliament suggesting that an abridgement of colonial rights would be better than severing ties with England. If Hutchinson could be made a scapegoat for all of the colonial troubles, Franklin thought tempers might cool.

Franklin was found out and publicly humiliated at a hearing of the King's Privy Council. He reportedly vowed to make King George "a little man for this." Transformation from subject to rebel didn't come easily to Franklin and the other well-to-do founders. "The American aristocracy really backed into the revolution," says Meyer.

Everyday people, likewise, wanted the colonies to stay on good terms. One New England woman, whose words appear in the series, described how her own sons might "sink in the torrent." She hoped for an "honorable way to put an end to this conflict, to be once again reconciled with old friends."

"Forty years ago, the story of the revolution would have only been told in terms of the leaders," says Brown University historian Gordon Wood. "But the revolution in scholarship since the 1960s is apparent in the Liberty! series."

The major players like Franklin, George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and British and French leaders appear, but the series gives voices to ordinary soldiers, slaves, and women.

Among Blumer's favorites are the woman who learns to knit from "good New England wool" to show her support of the boycott of British products and Nicholas Cresswell, a young Englishman. "The kid is traveling from England to find himself, thinking maybe he'll try to farm. He writes about the Revolution breaking out all around him and the moth holes in his coat," says Blumer.

Baroness Von Riedesel's story is more frightening. She accompanied her husband, a Hessian officer in General Burgoyne's forces, on the military campaign through the North American wilderness. Along the way, Americans hidden behind trees picked off British and Hessian soldiers with their rifles. Near Saratoga, the baroness huddled with her children as rebels fired cannon and small arms upon them. "The sounds of the battle are growing louder, and I am sitting in the corner trembling," she wrote. "I am more dead than alive, not so much because of my own danger as from worrying about my husband. Of all the women whose husbands have been killed or wounded, shall I be the only fortunate one?"

Blumer drew on an array of written materials, including diaries, letters, and first-person accounts by soldiers, who had to report on their war service to be eligible for pensions. Thousands of soldier accounts still exist. Joseph Plumb Martin kept a diary for the duration of his service in the Continental Army. After the long march from Rhode Island to Virginia for the Battle of Yorktown, Martin wrote with some humor: "They told us that we're about to pay a visit to our old friends, the British. Their accommodations are cramped; I fear that they're not ready to receive so many visitors. But we've come such a long way to see them, and we're just not going to be put off by their excuses."

"These people were truly expressive," says Blumer, who finds much of their writing extraordinary. "Not only were people literate, they knew their Bibles inside out, and many knew Latin, Greek, Shakespeare, and philosophy." Because the language is so rich, at times sounding almost Shakespearean, Blumer modified some of it for the modern ear.

Finding the best way to use the words took some time. Blumer and Middlemarch producers Meyer and Ellen Hovde decided early in the series that visuals with voice-overs alone would be inadequate in portraying the vibrancy of the American Revolution. They also didn't want to do straight reenactments. "We've all sat through those horrible attempted dramatic interpretations," says Hovde.

They opted to use actors as "witnesses to the events." "We've always wanted to combine acting and documentary making," says Meyer.

Hovde, who did most of the directing, says casting was the most difficult task in producing the series. Middlemarch needed classically trained actors to deliver sometimes difficult language- -people who could emote directly into the lens with no buildup, no props, and no help from other actors. "This is a real test of acting, like acting school or being at an audition," says Hovde. "I think the actors did this for fun."

Middlemarch's location near New York's theater district gave the producers access to some of the best American and English stage actors working in the United States. Among the ninety or so actors who appear in Liberty! are Tony Award winner Donna Murphy, who "witnesses" events as Abigail Adams, and Roger Rees, who is Thomas Paine.

The series features baroque music and revolutionary era folk melodies as well as new compositions by Richard Einhorn and Mark O'Connor, four-time winner of the Country Music Association's "Musician of the Year Award." James Taylor, Wynton Marsalis, and Yo-Yo Ma perform.

David and Ginger Hildebrand, members of a reenactment group called the Brigade of the American Revolution, supplied Middlemarch with music. The amateur reenactment groups, with their consuming passion for what they call "the hobby," were among the most helpful sources in creating the series. They could be counted on to shoot cannons, do horse charges and battle scenes, and answer questions about everything from muskets to period buttons. Some of these weekend hobbyists were as knowledgeable as scholars, says Blumer.

With these groups, the producers created what they call "reenactment sketches." These short, fleeting images give the feeling of action without being a full-blown reenactment, which may have come across as too fake. People just look different now. Faces have changed, glasses are common, people are significantly heavier, and beards are more prevalent today. "No one may have washed then, but they were clean shaven," says Meyer.

The trick of doing a documentary is to provide entertainment while staying true to the history. "TV people and scholars fix on and obsess about different things. They want drama; we want scholarly standards," says Michael Zuckert, a professor of political science at Carleton College in Minnesota and Liberty! research director. He hopes the two fields provide the viewers with a good balance.

While the scholarship is critical, the drama of events surrounding the formation of the United States makes a good yarn. Opportunities abound for the Revolution to fail. "Just think about Yorktown and what an incredible fluke it was," says Blumer. In the days before fast communications, somehow the American and French troops had to march from New England to Virginia in late summer 1781. The objective was to get to Yorktown in time to meet French admiral Count de Grasse's fleet, which was traveling from the Caribbean to the Chesapeake Bay. But the Admiral was only available until the middle of October. Fortunately, the besieged General Charles Cornwallis surrendered October 17. The British reinforcements arrived a week later after the French fleet had gone.

In the series, the role of the French in the American cause is seen in a global context. All of a sudden those rich colonies did not seem quite so vital to British interests. The colonies were troublesome, expensive political issues, says British scholar Nicholas Rodger. But France was "an enemy that spoke a foreign language, a dangerous enemy. An enemy that might invade, an enemy that might overthrow the kingdom."

Another eye-opener for watchers will be the role played by African Americans in the war. An estimated one in five soldiers in the North was black. Many blacks were promised freedom for fighting. Whites and blacks fought side by side. The American army was never fully integrated again until the Korean War.

The film tells us that the prevalence of black soldiers didn't please slaveholder George Washington. But he knew his little army needed all the help it could get.

Blacks did not automatically side with the colonists. In the South, the British promise of protection and freedom to escaped slaves encouraged blacks to enlist in the king's army. However, when Cornwallis was under siege by American and French troops at Yorktown, he broke the British promise. As food dwindled, Cornwallis ordered that the black soldiers who had dug the protective trenches be driven from camp.

"What's very clear during the Revolution is that slavery is an American institution, not just a southern one," says Pauline Maier, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology historian featured in the series. Slavery ends in the North in the early 1800s.

The American Revolution was also a civil war, dividing colonists into loyalists and rebel factions. In the South, it was especially brutal with the loyalist Scotch Irish immigrants battling the aristocratic patriots, says Blumer. People tortured each other; one pregnant woman was skewered with bayonets. Loyalists used her blood to write, "Thou shalt never give birth to a rebel."

The point, though, that the series's creators want viewers to understand is that the American Revolution was a war of ideas, a war that shaped national identity. "The American Revolution is a story of people changing a paradigm from one where the ruler has a God-given right to rule to one where rule was by the people," says Meyer.

Could the war have been prevented? Pauline Maier thinks so. "The loss of the colonies was an example of incredibly poor British statesmanship."

If the king and Parliament had eased up after repealing the hated Stamp Act, a little tax law, the colonists may have forgiven Britain for forgetting that they were used to taxing themselves. As George Washington said, "Parliament has no right to put its hands into our pockets without our consent."

Instead, angry that the colonists were such ingrates after Britain had spent a fortune to fight the French and Indian War, the British Parliament slapped on more laws that impinged on colonial self-government. The king wouldn't heed petitions from the colonists, and when they saw that British forces were treating American vessels as enemy ships and burning colonial towns, the leaders concluded that "the king was making war on them," says Maier. "If the king had graciously accepted petitions from his still loyal subjects, things could have been different."

Once the colonists grabbed onto the idea of popular rule, Britain had little chance of holding her subjects. But the young United States could only hang onto the ideal by creating a workable government in the chaos after the war.

The American Revolution could have gone the way of countless revolutions. But "it succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the revolutionaries," says Maier, because it met the challenge of creating the first republic in the world with significant longevity.

About the Author

Anna Maria Gillis is a writer in Bethesda, Maryland.

Funding Information

The Endowment is a major public funder of Liberty!; other supporters include KTCA-Twin Cities Public Television, Norwest Corporation, and the Challenge Fund of PBS/Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The Liberty! project includes an illustrated history written by Thomas Fleming and published by Viking Penguin. PBS Video has developed a video package for teachers that includes a curriculum; Sony Classical will release a music video.