Before Americans were American, they were many things; Swedish, Dutch, British, Scotch, Irish, Welsh, German, French, free and enslaved Africans, and of course American Indian. Yet Americans (of the 13 original colonies) were British citizens, governed by a distant King. The historian Gordon S. Wood reminds us that we have always been and continue to be composed of so many immigrants and ethnicities that we have never been able to take our nationhood for granted. Early on, even John Adams was disconcerted over the 19 religious denominations that could be found in America in 1813. And yet, the radical statement made in the Declaration of Independence is that America was indeed “one people.” And not just that, but “all men are created equal.”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”
If you haven’t been living under a rock, you are well aware the Museum of the American Revolution (MAR) is set to open on April 19th on Third Street here in Philadelphia, a date chosen specifically to commemorate the battles of Lexington and Concord (Massachusetts) which were fought on that day in 1775, marking the beginning of the American War of Independence. For those of us who work in the heritage tourism industry in Philadelphia, especially at the sites in and around Independence National Historic Park, this opening has been a long time in the making. Through the years we have watched. Where would the museum be located? Many assumed it would be at Valley Forge. Eventually through a land swap deal between the American Revolution Center and the National Park Service, the group settled on the former INHP Visitors Center across from the First Bank. Locals were not unhappy to see the 1970s-era modernist building and Bicentennial Bell Tower demolished. It had been little used and too quiet for years. With the selection of architect Robert A. M. Stern to design a proposed $150 million building in its place—using the “language of traditional Philadelphia architecture”—the locals remained focused on the physical site… the demolition, the construction, and the actual building. Inga Saffron, the architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer seems to speak for most Philadelphians when she published her judgement on the architecture “Museum of the American Revolution’s building at odds with revolutionary content” The building will evidently join a long-established narrative of modern buildings in Philadelphia—especially in the Old City-Society Hill quadrant post 1960—that did not live up to the expectation of the locals.
But beyond the politics of location and design, the big question on the minds of many centered around what exactly the focus would be inside the building. It’s not exactly easy to wrap your brain around how you contain a “revolution” inside a single building. Here at PhilaLandmarks, we especially wondered what impact MAR would have on our two downtown houses; The Powel House, about a block south on Third Street, and The Hill-Physick House, a block further south and over on Fourth Street. For much of its 85 years as a house museum, the Powel House has focused on the story of the “Patriot Mayor” Samuel Powel and his wife Elizabeth, with a strong emphasis on their well-documented socializing with the Founding Fathers, especially their close relationship to George Washington. When visiting you may learn John Adams’ opinion of the “sinful feasts” he enjoyed while dining with the Powels or about the time General Washington danced in the ballroom with Sally Bache, daughter of Benjamin Franklin. In recent years, we’ve been working to redevelop our traditional house museum narratives in two significant ways; first to expand our stories beyond the time of the Powels’ residence, and second to take a more nuanced look at the voices and perspectives of the “revolution-era” stories we are already telling. We are also working on ways of story-telling that move beyond the traditional object-based house tour. With all of this in mind, we were honestly a bit apprehensive about what we might find inside MAR. Frankly, as we make a concerted effort to move beyond the history of “dead white guys”… is that what we’d find had just moved in down the street?
This past Friday, a group of PhilaLandmarks staff gathered together to attend a preview of the museum. Many of our fellow historic site folks were also there; public historians, educators, tour guides, site managers, park rangers, etc. And I must say we were immediately like kids in a candy store. (The free donuts helped with that!) Before you go upstairs to the exhibits, you’re invited to watch Revolution, a sweeping film that explores not just the origins of the American Revolution, but its ongoing legacy. By the time you walk up the main staircase towards the exhibit halls, you have the word REVOLUTION seared in your brain.
The day’s first surprise for me was the immersive film and “reveal” of General Washington’s original Revolutionary War headquarters tent. I had heard about this tent quite a while ago, and understood that it would be a centerpiece of the museum. In all truthfulness, I thought “his tent? really?” But I get it now. Wow. Beyond the symbolism it provides of the General standing by his troops for eight difficult years, the story of how it was saved and why is even more inspiring. Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee—who had inherited the tent—was forced to leave it behind at her Arlington home when her husband, Robert E. Lee, decided to join the Confederacy. If not for the actions of Selina Gray, a Lee family slave left behind, the tent would have likely been looted when the Union soldiers arrived. Gray made sure the tent and other Washington family items were taken away for safe keeping by a trustworthy Union general. The Union army would put the tent on temporary display in DC during the war as a symbol of unity. It would take the Lee family until 1901 to reclaim their confiscated Washingtonia items, especially as the public didn’t like the idea of these uniquely American relics being returned to the family of Robert E. Lee. Once recovered, the Lee family would ultimately sell the tent—to raise funds for Confederate widows—to Reverend Burk, a Pennsylvania man who had a vision of constructing a Valley Forge Museum of American History. I don’t know why, but the story of this chain-of-custody makes this tent ever more interesting. And wait until you see how the tent is revealed. Every Philadelphia theatre artist will be intrigued by the lighting and artistry at work here.
As we walked through the galleries I began to wonder if the fact that MAR came to fruition in 2017—instead of the early 1900s as Reverend Burk envisioned, or during the Bicentennial (or any other time)—had somehow changed the meaning of what we found inside. In today’s political climate the words and imagery felt quite relevant… “Resistance,” “The Ongoing Revolution” “The Promise of Equality” my eyes bounced around the text panels in the exhibit. In 1774, the Daughters of Liberty helped to organize a boycott of British goods. This idea of peaceful resistance is as popular as ever as American consumers ensure their purchases are from companies who support the causes they believe in. The principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence promised to lead America into a new era of freedom. It would inspire all people living under the burden of oppression and ignorance to open their eyes to the rights of mankind, to overturn the power of tyrants, and to declare the triumph of equality over inequality. Of course in some respects we’ve never quite lived up to that expectation. But in the moment, anything seemed possible. While the Declaration of Independence was meant to represent the landing-owning men with the power to vote, the sentiment would inspire calls for equality from women, slaves, and the poor. In this sense the revolution begun by Americans on July 4, 1776 has never ended. It can’t. Not until everyone enjoys these same rights.
This call for equality and freedom is what populates the galleries of MAR. It’s not just about the soldiers who fought in the fields but people like James Forten (an African American sail maker and Abolitionist), William Lewis, (a Quaker Lawyer who drafted The Pennsylvania Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery), and Elizabeth Drinker (who extolled the words of Mary Wollstonecraft in the Vindication of the Rights of Women, which argued that women were intellectually equal to men). The environment around the Revolution especially helped to transform the roles women played in politics as elite women were afforded the opportunity to play a backstage role through their strategic socializing.
One of the biggest revelations came in the Oneida Nation Gallery which highlights the debate among the various members of the Iroquois Confederacy and the decision of the Oneida Indian Nation to break ranks to support the Americans. Other member tribes had sailed to England and met with King George III, who promised them protection and land if they supported the British. The fighting between the tribes on either side became ruthless. How did I never learn about this before now? The British also guaranteed enslaved African-Americans their freedom in return for their loyalty and service.
I was feeling good about finding these stories of resistance and the promise of equality. I was learning something new… and then I came across a disgruntled gentleman. We had just left the Battle of Brandywine Theater and we were standing in front of an enormous display entitled the “Arms of Independence” which is basically a giant wall of artillery. “Disgruntled man” appeared to be a part of a legacy group with “Revolutionary” family roots. What had been feeling good to me was upsetting to him. "The balance is all wrong," he complained to his wife. He apparently was looking for more “battle” and less… I don’t know what… everything else?
I felt a bit deflated as I walked away and immediately ran into a tour-guide friend in the next gallery. When I shared my encounter, my friend laughed and said “that’s nothing… you should read what some people have said online.” What? He said he found himself in a particular chat room where one man actually accused MAR of revisionist history. I was stunned. I had to think that one through.
Which I did. A day later, with those complaints still ringing in my ears I Googled some numbers. The best consensus I could find seems to indicate that there were about 2.5 million inhabitants of the Colonies during the Revolution. These are the people who make up our nation’s “founding generation.” These are the people who were ALL witness to the same dramatic historic events and lived in the same Revolutionary time. It is believed that about 45% of colonists supported the war, while about 20% remained loyal to the British crown. Yes…that leaves about 35% of the population sitting on the fence. Sound familiar? About 80,000 men served as militia and Continental Army at the height of the war, and about 55,000 American privateers. Some number of Americans fought for the British. Somewhere I found a statistic that 6.5 % of the population participated in the war, by that I am assuming these are the soldiers, privateers, and similar. If those numbers hold true (or are anywhere close), that still leaves well over 2 million “other” American colonists who lived through the Revolution. What were their stories? What did they think? What were their concerns? THIS is what MAR has attempted to address. The American Revolution is not just about military battles, it’s about the people who lived through it. It’s about the choices they made as individuals and the repercussions of those decisions.
And please know I do not mean to denigrate anyone who celebrates their founding family connections. I myself have identified 24 family lines of direct great-grandparents living in five of the American Colonies at the outbreak of the Revolution. Nothing is more fascinating than finding an ancestor hanging out with a “big name” (warts and all) … like my 7x great-uncle who appears to have been fighting the Cherokees alongside Daniel Boone. I haven’t quite identified what each of my direct ancestors was up to during the Revolutionary War, but I have a sense of where they were and what they stood for. They themselves descended from some of the earliest American settlers who arrived 75 and 100 years prior. The interests of my British great-grandparents in Virginia and Maryland would have been quite different from my German ancestors in Pennsylvania and my Dutch ancestors in New York. I haven’t taken the time to track down every Revolutionary soldier on my tree either, but the most illustrious I have identified to date is my 6x great-grandfather Captain Andrew Wallace, a Company Commander who helped defend Philadelphia as part of the 12th Virginia Regiment (Continental Army), a group that was part of Lafayette’s division and Scott’s Bridage in Valley Forge. His life would ultimately be lost on May 29, 1780 during the Battle of Waxhaws in South Carolina. Known as the Buford Massacre the battle would also take Andrew’s brother and his son. The Battle of Waxhaws included an infamous group called Tarleton’s Dragoons, a group of American Loyalists who sided with the King against Congress. They had a particular reputation for cruelty and mercilessness. Imagine my surprise when I found a life-sized diorama of Tarleton’s Dragoons in the War Gallery. “These are the ones that killed my 6x great-grandfather!”
But think about it. For every story told in the MAR galleries (or on the battle fields or in historic houses like Powel House), how many others have gone unmentioned or undiscovered? Hundreds of thousands. (upwards of 2 million?!) I remember visiting this site in its earlier incarnation as the visitors center for the park. You know the year… the one in elementary school where they decide it’s time to “learn the Revolution.” We visited Independence Hall and Betsy Ross, but first we were brought to this location to watch a film. From what I recall some 40-years later it was a battle film. The American Revolution as taught to a 12-year-old in the 1970s was about generals and battle strategies while some other men debated and signed a Declaration. And oh yeah… there was this lady who sewed a flag for the men. How exciting it will be for a new generation of children to learn a bigger more inclusive story. Revolution is a social concept, not just a war.