The Ninth Annual Lore Kephart ’86 Distinguished Historians Lecture Series: Craig Harline, PhD: A World Ablaze

Tuesday evening marked the ninth annual Lore Kephart ’86 Distinguished Historians Lecture Series. Villanova was pleased to welcome Craig Harline, PhD, a professor of history at Brigham Young University, who gave a lecture on his most recent book, A World Ablaze (2017). His book departed from his earlier scholarship on little known individuals throughout Europe who participated in the tumultuous period of the Reformation. Rather, his research for A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation focused on Martin Luther, the Augustinian Doctor of Theology who is most associated with the birth of the Reformation.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s publication of his ninety five theses in 1517 and has inspired reflections on the outcomes and relevance of the events that began the Protestant Reformation. Dr. Harline explained that, due to their magnitude, these initial events are often imbued with imagery beyond what the original actors would have recognized. For example, when we think of Martin Luther most of us imagine him defiantly nailing his ninety five theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church in front of a crowd. However, Dr. Harline compared the door to something akin to a campus bulletin board, where topics for disputations were routinely posted. Moreover, Luther may not have posted his theses for a disputation on indulgences, but instead circulated them, and the the disputation itself may have been canceled. It was not until years later that Luther directly challenged papal authority.

According to Dr. Harline, this distortion of events is problematic because it distances us from the actors, who become somehow mythical rather than deeply human. It also assumes that the events led to inevitable outcomes, rather than consequences resulting from the tenuous and fraught actions of individuals. By focusing on the specific details and nuances of Luther’s experiences, Dr. Harline described a world that was both strange and familiar. A world specific in time and place but nevertheless related to the world in which we live. We are grateful to the Kephart family and to Dr. Harline for an intriguing and informative evening that was immensely enjoyable. Many thanks to all who helped to organize and plan for the event in the months leading up to the lecture.

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The Opening of the Museum of the American Revolution

“The American war is over, but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed.”
– Benjamin Rush, 1787

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The Opening Ceremony

The Museum of the American Revolution (M*AR) opened this Wednesday, April 19, 2017, on the 242nd anniversary of the Battle at Lexington and Concord and the beginning of the American Revolution. The opening ceremony represented the many components, exhibits, interests, and people involved in the creation of the Museum. On January 6, Blake McGready posted “Previewing the Museum of the American Revolution” after he attended a lecture by R. Scott Stevenson, the Vice-President of Collections, Exhibitions, and Programming, on the significance of the Museum. McGready wrote, “Since the War for Independence ended in 1783, all sorts of people have debated its meaning and legacy. However, the MoAR seems to be entering into this conversation at a precarious moment of heightened political divisions and fear of future uncertainties.”

The opening of the M*AR on Wednesday included such debates through a myriad of voices in the collections within the Museum and the speakers during the opening ceremony at the Museum’s outdoor plaza on the corner of 3rd and Chestnut Streets.

Opening day activities started with a tribute to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution at 8:00 a.m. in Washington Square Park and continued in front of Independence Hall. Around 10:30 a.m. the official dedication took place outside the Museum. Before the ribbon was cut and the Museum opened to the public, a number of speakers paused to reflect on the project and the contested meanings represented by the Museum.

The opening ceremony began with a performance of the Star-Spangled Banner by vocalist Jamez McCorkle. Michael Quinn, Museum President and C.E.O., was first to address the audience, followed by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. The following speaker, David McCullough, author of 1776, began his address by stating that “the American Revolution still goes on,” a theme that is prevalent in the Museum and in many of the speeches. “It’s not easy to understand the past,” he continued, “…it was their present, not ours…” Yet he and other speakers alluded to a continued legacy that is part of the nation’s present.

Ray Halbritter, an Oneida Nation Representative and Museum Board Member, commented on the omission of Native American’s from the national narrative and much of the discourse surrounding the Revolution, but added that, “these omissions only make this museum more significant.” Halbritter argued that the Museum is “not an exercise in self-congratulation.” The next speaker was Colonel John E. Bircher III, member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, who discussed the Purple Heart and George Washington’s creation of its precursor the Badge for Military Merit in 1782.

Sydney James Harcourt then performed “History Has Its Eyes On You” and “The Room Where It Happens” from the Broadway musical Hamilton with students from the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

Following their performance, Cokie Roberts, author of Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty, described the long “eight years of American Revolution” and the importance of varied perspectives. Dr. Vincent Brown, Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, paraphrased a quote by Fredrick Douglass from his July 5, 1852 address, “What is the fourth of July to the African American?,” Brown asked. Douglass answered in his 1852 speech that it is “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” Brown argued Wednesday, that the opening of the Museum is a reminder to pursue a rendering of the American Revolution that rebukes triumphalism; one that is “not content with reassuring origin stories.”

Next to speak was the Museum Chairman, General John P. Jumper, followed by a few words of thanks from Marguerite Lenfest on behalf of her husband Gerry Lenfest, Founding Museum Chairman Emeritus.

The keynote address was given by former Vice President Joe Biden, who explained that when preparing his speech he settled on a fundamental question, “What is this museum intended to stand for?” A question that he argues is “as relevant today as ever.” Biden continued, “What was the experiment about? I think it was about an idea…the revolutionary idea of the consent of the governed.” He discussed the role of Philadelphia as a center of revolutionary activity as well as the development of  ideas after the meeting of the First Continental Congress in 1774. It took “…thirteen years to put ideas into a document of governance…” Biden argues, however, that the institutions created  by the Revolution are the “guarantor not the deliverer” of rights, alluding to the unfulfilled promises and internal contradictions of the Revolution. He concluded his speech by exhorting the audience to analyze political “judgement not motive,” to search for a consensus, and to remember the revolutionary legacy of the “consent of the governed.” [1]

Following Biden’s remarks the ribbon was cut and the Museum was officially opened to the public. I toured the Museum the next day, April 20, 2017.

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Main Galleries

There are four main interconnected galleries inside the Museum, “Becoming Revolutionaries (1760-1775),” “The Darkest Hour (1776-1778),” “The Revolutionary War (1778-1783),” and “A New Nation (1783-present).” Upon entering the first of the galleries visitors are met with “Prologue: Tearing Down the King” a video representation of colonists removing the statue of King George III from its stand in Bowling Green Park, New York on July, 9, 1776 after the Declaration of Independence was read to the crowd. The video ends with the question, “How revolutionary was the American Revolution?”

Visitors are then introduced to the many peoples living in British Colonial America and their views regarding the British crown in the aftermath of the French and Indian War (1754-1763). The following room includes “Boston’s Liberty Tree” a life-sized replica of the elm near Boston Commons under which the Sons of Liberty often met. The room includes an analysis of Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre, “The Bloody Massacre in King-Street, March 5, 1770 by a party of the 29th Regiment” (Boston, 1770). The exhibit draws attention to the depiction of colonists as innocent and unarmed victims. It also notes the exclusion of Crispus Attucks from Revere’s engraving and compares it to the lithograph by J.H. Bufford, “Boston Massacre, March 5th, 1770,” (Boston, 1856), which places Attucks in the center of the frame and clubs in the hands of the Boston colonists.

The next main gallery, “The Darkest Hour,” features the “Oneida Nation Theater” which explores the Oneida’s debates prior to the decision to ally with the American revolutionaries despite the alliance of most of the nations within the Iroquois Confederacy with the British, who promised to protect Iroquois land in return. Visitors can also enter the “Battle of Brandywine Theater,” an immersion experience which depicts the loss of lives during the battle.

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The final two main galleries include the final years of the war and the establishment of the United States of America. “A Revolutionary War” gallery is home to a replica privateer ship and a gallery devoted to the war and its affect in the southern colonies. The gallery poses the question “Could enslaved people find liberty, either in the American or British Armies?” by considering the hopes and risks of enslaved people in joining the fight. Many hoped that their service would be rewarded with freedom, but this was seldom the case. In 1795 Britain announced that enslaved people owned by rebelling colonists would be freed in return for joining the British army. Most of the enslaved people who enlisted with the British died of disease, starvation, or battle wounds. Any hope of freedom was lost after the American victory at the Battle of Yorktown. Similarly, few enslaved people who fought with the revolutionaries and survived the war were freed.

The final gallery features the debates surrounding the end of the Revolution and the formation of a new nation. The film “The Ongoing Revolution” asks, “What type of nation did the Revolution create?” It considers the legacy and promises of the revolution and implies that the American Revolution is not yet complete, that its future remains undecided. [2]

Theaters

In addition to the videos and small theaters within the galleries there are two large theaters. The film “Revolution” can be viewed on the first floor in the Lenfest Myer Theater and “Washington’s War Tent” is in the second floor theater. The first film is comprehensive and includes many of the images from the gallery. Visitors may choose to view it first in order to provide themselves with a framework, or, as I did, last as a summation. “Washington’s War Tent” includes one of the most remarkable artifacts housed in the museum, Washington’s marquee.

My discussion of the galleries is in no way comprehensive. All tickets to the Museum provide admission for two consecutive days. In order to fully engage in each of the galleries, many visitors may find that one day is simply not enough time. There are numerous exhibits, films, and interactive displays each of them as layered and complex as the ideas they represent. By including varied perspectives, voices, and primary sources the Museum is engaging the ideas of the Revolution and the concepts of liberty and freedom, fraught with disparity and conflict. The result is a museum in which the American Revolution is simultaneously grounded in a specific historical moment and extended into the present as an idea.

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Visitor Information:

The Museum of the American Revolution

101 South Third Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106

(877) 740-1776

Extended summer hours: 9:30 a.m.- 6:00 p.m.

Tickets are available online or at the Main Entrance [3]

The Grand Opening Celebration continues this weekend April 22-23.

 

[1]  The Opening Ceremony at 10:30 a.m. was a seated ticketed event. The ceremony was streamed live online: https://www.amrevmuseum.org/opening-celebration-livestream

[2] “Museum Guide & Map” Museum of the American Revolution, 2017.

[3] Information can be found here: https://www.amrevmuseum.org/visit