Podcast review: American Revolution Podcast

I love history. History teaches about the past and illuminates the present. It focuses on events and people but often reveals things about current situations and oneself. History done well can challenge assumptions and widen one’s perspective on the world. It can broaden horizons and deepen knowledge. The American Revolution Podcast lives up to this historical legacy.

A couple years ago, I stumbled across the well-established Revolutions podcast by Mike Duncan. I decided to start at the beginning, rather than jumping into the most current episodes. When I got to the American Revolution, I was surprised by what the podcast illuminated—both about events and people I knew and those I didn’t. After completing the episodes on the American Revolution, I searched for historical works to learn even more.

And then I learned about the American Revolutions Podcast by Michael Tory. (Full disclosure: Tory alerted me to his podcast in a comment to my blog post about the Revolutions podcast. Intrigued, I subscribed to his podcast and started to soak in his talks.)

I am still winding my way through his podcast, trying to catch up to the present episodes. (I’ve listened to 13 episodes so far.) I’m hooked. It is a completely different animal than Revolutions. True to his word, Troy goes into more detail about the revolution than Duncan does. (Of course, American Revolution Podcast is focused on the American Revolution whereas Duncan goes in-depth about a particular revolution for dozens of episodes before moving on to a different revolution.)

Troy begins by laying the groundwork for the revolution a few decades before the revolution technically begins in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. His focus is decidedly on military aspects. He gives wonderful blow by blow accounts of military expeditions—who was involved, the strategies used, the outcomes reached, and the implications. The sheer amount of information that he shares (and that is completely new to me) is staggering. Thirteen episodes in and I am not yet to what one typically thinks of the start of the revolution.

Troy walks listeners through the relations between the British, the French, and the Native Americans in the decades prior to the revolution. I suspect that many of the places and the people will resurface later, and that knowing about pre-revolutionary America will deepen my understanding about the colonies, our relations with others in the world, and the revolution itself.

I am patiently waiting (ok, maybe not so patiently) for if/when present-day Indiana enters the discussion on the Ohio River Valley. After my travels to historic sites in Vincennes and reading fiction set in the time of George Rogers Clark, I am finding the descriptions about skirmishes between the British, French, and Native Americans (aka the French and Indian War) enlightening.

Interesting tidbits in the episodes routinely jump out at me. I’ve learned why Washington was not the magnificent military leader early in his career—a fact alluded to in the musical Hamilton. Spoiler: Washington failed miserably at an expedition in the Ohio River Valley.

King George I (not The King George during the revolution—that was King George III) was actually originally over 50th in line to the throne, but as he was the only next in line who wasn’t Catholic, he got the throne. (You know that whole bloody mess they had in England over Catholicism.)

Delaware was originally a Swedish colony. (I didn’t know the Swedes were some of the early colonists.)

The Forbes Road—a military path in Pennsylvania—later became the basis of the Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania, a highway that spanned the US in the early 1900s.

Both American Revolution Podcast and Revolutions contain information on military exploits but the latter focuses more on political history. American Revolution Podcast focuses more, at least so far, on military history. Troy’s podcast is filling in gaps in my knowledge (or entire lack of knowledge) about pre-revolution America.

Troy’s episodes are so rich—I could easily listen to them multiple times and learn more each time. I am looking forwarding to continuing past episode 13…and seeing what I learn next.

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Book review: Revolutionary Summer

Irked that I couldn’t find the book that I wanted to read by Joseph Ellis, I went looking for other books by him. I landed on Revolutionary Summer.

Why was I even looking for a book by Joseph Ellis? I had been wandering around a bookstore and chanced on a book of his about the American Revolution. I was intrigued. I had just finished listening to the American Revolution episodes of the Revolutions podcast.

Revolutionary Summer covers the extended summer of 1776 (May through October). The constitutional conflict between the American colonies and the English that started with the Stamp Act in 1765 morphed into a military conflict ten years later. In the summer of 1776, the Continental Congress changed from hoping for reconciliation to working towards independence.

John Adams led the way, carefully planning for a clean, orderly step-by-step process towards independence: create state constitutions, form a confederation of states, enter into an alliance with France, and then declare independence. Of course, this orderly process didn’t happen. Once the Pandora box of independence was opened, the revolution was underway.

Adams did have more success in controlling what rights were addressed. The revolution was waged for the freedom of white propertied men. The non-white propertied male segments of the population called for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and the rights of non-propertied men.

Adams was afraid that fighting for these rights would alienate those fighting for the rights of white propertied men and end up jeopardizing the fight for independence before it even got started. In some cases, the cry for rights could not be stilled. Non-propertied white men in Pennsylvania and New York challenged the legitimacy of their elected government as not being the will of the people. Perhaps Adams was right to focus on the rights of one segment of the population, but the avoidance of these prickly issues merely kicked the can down the road, in some cases creating wounds so deep that they are still not healed today but continue to threaten the country and harm those whose rights were denied from the beginning.

Adams suggested that the colonies create state governments modeled off of the English government: executive branch, bicameral legislature, and judiciary. The colonies took to creating their state governments with a vengeance.

As that was happening, the Continental Congress set to drafting a declaration. Strangely, this was seen as less important that the creation of state governments and state constitutions. At least Jefferson felt that way, stuck at the Continental Congress but wanting very badly to be back in Virginia drafting the Virginia constitution.

The Declaration of Independence, for the most part, is a collection of grievances that the colonies addressed to King George. When editing the document, Jefferson and the Continental Congress spent much time on the grievances listed, but little, Ellis points out, on the first 35 words. This list of our rights, the preamble, received scant attention. But the preamble to the Declaration of Independence would go on to have an amazing effect on future liberal individual rights such as the end of slavery, the passage of women’s suffrage, and the recognition of civil rights.

The Continental Congress set up committees to flesh out what the government should look like and what the government’s foreign policy should be. Getting thirteen colonies to work together for independence was hard enough—the Continental Congress had no authority to force the colonies to denote money and men to the Continental Army—but agreeing on what the political entity of the colonies should look like was even harder.

The first committee, which focused on the form of the future government, really couldn’t reach a consensus. The result of their work was the Articles of Confederation, a list of items that provides no clear outline. Some items suggest that power resides in the states, others in a national government. The reason for the lack of consensus was due to the different nature of the colonies: the north/south split concerning slavery, the small/large population effect on the form of representation, and the desire for a confederacy versus a national union.

The second committee, which focused on foreign policy, was much more successful. The guidelines that came out of the committee lasted over a hundred years, and weren’t completely abandoned until after World War II. John Adams drafted a foreign policy that called for commercial treaties but no diplomatic or military treaties. Think of the Washington Doctrine.

By the time that the Howe brothers arrived on American shores as peace commissioners, it was too late. The Continental Congress and the American populace (on the whole) had moved beyond hope for reconciliation. King George’s earlier threat to destroy the colonies and his hiring of mercenaries converted the colonies from wanting reconciliation to wanting independence.

The portrait that Ellis paints of Washington and the Continental Army is equally fascinating. The Continental Army had already been fighting for at least a year, a rather strange fact considering that until 1776 the Continental Congress and the American people were hoping for reconciliation. The army was fighting for independence before a war for independence had been formally declared.

The myth of the militia and the Minutemen is just that, a myth that the Continental Congress believed then and that Americans believe now. Washington’s army was mostly, it seems, comprised of militias. The states would send troops as they saw fit, no matter what the condition or needs of the army—or Washington’s pleas.

The militias were made up of yeoman farmers and rabble. The farmers were only available during the times that they didn’t have crops to tend. The rabble, as Ellis describes, “were not the kind of men you wanted living in your neighborhood.” And these militias were not there for the duration of the war but for short periods of time. Just when they were trained as soldiers, their time of enlistment was up. They went home and a new batch (hopefully) of men arrived who needed to be trained.

The summer of 1776 seems like a time when Washington was figuring out how to fight this war. Originally, he was trying to win it rather than just not lose it. (Later he changed to just trying not to lose it, which worked perfectly.) His focus was on keeping New York City, a site that was originally deemed indefensible. Yet, the Continental Army decided to defend it at all costs. It was a harsh lesson to learn and one that could easily have meant the demise of the Army.

The picture of Washington that Ellis paints in the summer of 1776 is not of a sure-footed, confident commander, but of a man who is unsure and saddled with the 18th century sense of honor. Retreats were anathema to Washington. He would rather die than retreat. In the Revolutions podcast, I had recently learned that Washington was the master of retreats. And in Revolutionary Summer, I read with awe about his perfectly executed retreat of 10,000 men from Long Island to Manhattan.

“The planning had to be precise, the officers and men needed to behave with uncommon courage, the winds and river currents had to be properly aligned, the Royal Navy had to be negligent, and, finally, a dense fog had to make a providential appearance at the end.”

The British too were in awe. (Or maybe astonished would be a better description.)

Ellis’ narrative of these five fateful months in 1776 revealed a lot to me. It solidified information I recently learned from the Revolutions podcast. It suggested how the first 35 words of the Declaration of Independence helped ensure that rights initially brushed over were not brushed over indefinitely. It showed that the depth of the current anti-government stance had its roots in the confederation that formed to fight for independence. It ripped away the myth of the militia as the backbone of American independence—that a lack of professionalism does not spell success but rather brings chaos and disaster. (I would argue that this same revelation could also be applied to government—the outsider who has never head office does not bode well for leading a country.) It taught me that the populace and the government never supported their veterans but subjected them to mob violence and broken promises.

Ellis rips away myths and gently leads readers to see truths—some good, some bad—about the reality that was rather than the story that is taught. He shows us a populace that devolves into mob violence against other Americans, people speaking up for rights that they are still denied, and heroes who are heroes but not necessarily in the ways we originally thought.

Now to find the original book by Ellis that I was looking for—and learn how the form of government was decided after the fiasco that was the Articles of Confederation.

Podcast review: Revolutions

Revolutions is one of those podcasts that you hear about years after it started and then find yourself devouring episode after episode. Kind of like binge watching shows on Netflix.

I first heard of Revolutions on the NPR Politics podcast. One of the regular presenters shared a podcast that she had found very enjoyable: a historical podcast on revolutions around the world. Ooooh! That sounds interesting, I thought.

I have devoured the first year of backlogged Revolutions podcasts with no sign of letting up. Yes, they are interesting. Very.

The podcaster, Mike Duncan, makes history wonderfully engaging, full of anecdotes, facts, and commentary. I find myself laughing at descriptions he paints or emitting an exclamation of surprise about a tidbit of information that he shares.

In one case, he described a German officer who was attempting to train Americans to be soldiers. He spoke no English and the Americans spoke no German. Communication occurred through French. (He spoke French. Someone translated from French into English.) Often he would get frustrated or enraged at the American soldiers, turning red in the face and swearing in German—which the American soldiers found absolutely hilarious.

In another case, he related an observation by this same German officer: that European soldiers immediately obey when they are told to do something. In contrast, Americans want to be told why they need to do something before they will do it. I spit out whatever I was drinking. Some things, I thought, do not change with time. Imagine Americans not doing something until they knew why?! (I’d add that Americans need to agree with the reason.)

Revolutions are divided into, well, different revolutions. The podcast starts with the English Civil Wars and continues with the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and others.(I’m currently in the throes of the French Revolution.) The various episodes describe the political/social/historical situation that led up to the revolution under discussion, the revolution itself, and the immediate aftermath.

The podcast has definitely increased my knowledge and understanding of history and events. For example, while some names of the English Civil Wars are familiar to me (such as Oliver Cromwell), I was pretty much in the dark about England’s civil wars. (There were two civil wars back to back?!)

When I hear names in other contexts, I can now place them in time and understand the historical context around them. (Oh, King Charles II? The king that was invited back from exile after the English attempt at a republic failed? Oh, the Howes? Those brothers who led British troops in the American Revolution?)

The episodes on the American Revolution solidified, expanded, and corrected what knowledge I did have about my country. Who knew that Washington was the master of the graceful retreat? What was the deal with Benedict Arnold?

The episodes also piqued my interest. I found myself picking up books about the American Revolution and noticed nice confluences between the book I was reading and the podcast. I am now feeling yearnings to re-read political theory from undergraduate classes. Anyone up for Burke, Paine, or Locke?

Lafayette, who popped up in the American Revolution episodes, reappears in the French Revolution episodes that I am currently listening to. (I am waiting for Thomas Paine to make an appearance in the later French Revolution.)

Only two and a half more years of backlogged episodes to go! (Or only two and a half revolutions, depending on how you look at it.) And then I can turn to his initial podcast, The History of Rome, which ran from 2007 to 2012 and has only 191 episodes.

Check out either podcast—Revolutions or The History of Rome. (I can’t vouch for The History of Rome yet, but in 2010 it won Best Educational Podcast.) You won’t be disappointed.

Middle class as the buffer

I was struck by the use (dare I say manipulation?) of the middle class leading up to the American Revolution. Zinn describes a class of artisans that grew up between the social, political, and economic elites and the poor, who were often the indentured folk in the colonies. The struggle of the elites in colonial times was to retain their power and somehow get others in the colonies to take their side over the British. How to rally the masses from supporting one elite to supporting another? The American elite appealed to the nascent middle class with calls for liberty and property. (Give me liberty or give me death.)

How familiar this sounds even today. The political and financial elites rally the masses with fears of liberties being taken away…speech, arms, search and seizure, etc. Some fears are justified, some not so justified, some manipulated. The non-elites are promised the opportunity for property, for a slice of the pie that the elites hold, but only if they buy into the system and lend their support to the elites.

There is nothing about equality in these discussions—then or now. (In fact, equality is often depicted as somehow un-American.) But equality, or the more equal distribution of wealth, is what allows the middle class to exist and the American dream to be anything more than a cruel illusion. Without equality, wealth concentrates among the elites. The economy and society become more and more unstable.

What protects the elites from the masses? The bones thrown to the masses in the form of a middle class, the promise that you too can acquire some wealth. America, after all, is the land of opportunity, right?

What happens when the middle class is no longer there to be a buffer between the haves-all and the have-nots?

Battle between elites fought by the unrepresented

I’m not used to thinking of the Revolutionary War as a battle between elites. Rather it was a battle for liberty, a battle between us Americans and the British who were taxing us without representation. The Boston Tea Party and all that. Thomas Paine’s radical call to arms.

But when you think of it, becoming our own country divorced from Britain did not lead to representation. At least not among slaves, indentured servants, Native Americans, women, and men without property. Only men with property could vote and hold office. They were the ones that made up the Continental Congress. They were the ones that signed the Declaration of Independence. They were the ones that passed the Constitution. They were the ones the Constitution was written for.

No, the Revolutionary War was quite possibly just a war between American elites and British elites. Who was going to have wealth and power in the colonies? The American elites or the British elites?

Those invisible to the Declaration and the Constitution fought the war to defend the interests of the former, though their support was not unanimous by any means. Conscripted by the British earlier to fight their battles, the common man was then conscripted to fight against the British.

History has a sick sense of humor. War continues to be planned and profited by elites and carried out on the backs of those who really have nothing to gain and everything to lose.