Previewing the Museum of the American Revolution

On a misty winter night, scores of people traveled through fog to the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge National Historical Park. Individuals of all ages braved the slick roads to listen to a lecture delivered by R. Scott Stephenson, the Vice-President of Collections, Exhibitions, and Programming for the Museum of the American Revolution (MoAR). Armed with images of artifacts and renderings of new exhibitions, Stephenson’s talk previewed what visitors will find in the museum when it opens in a few months. He addressed the history of the collections, the institution’s past and establishment, and the significance of the museum for twenty-first century Americans. 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. Furthermore, over the next nine years, amid this political climate, the country will be preparing to honor its 2026 Sestercentennial. The MoAR will certainly be a part of that conversation.

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A rendering of the Museum of the American Revolution, which opens on April 19 on the corner of the 3rd and Chestnut Streets. Image from amrevmuseum.org.

In his presentation, Stephenson praised the museum’s humble originator, an Episcopalian minister named Herbert Burk. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Reverend Burk founded the Washington Memorial Chapel and began preserving objects from the Revolutionary era, including Native American artifacts, the Marquis de Lafayette’s check for his military service, and other period documents. His crown jewel was George Washington’s marquee, the original canvas tent that served as the general’s headquarters throughout much of the war. Many of Burk’s objects, including the marquee, remain in the collections of the MoAR. Herbert Burk’s efforts attracted the attention of a likeminded supporter of historic preservation, Theodore Roosevelt. In 1904, the president and his wife traveled to Valley Forge so that he may deliver a speech on behalf of Burk’s project.[1]

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Dr. R. Scott Stephenson previews the MoAR to a full Washington Memorial Chapel January 3rd, 2016.

Over a hundred years later, Burk’s instinct to preserve became Scott Stephenson’s calling. Stephenson, who received a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Virginia, has become a familiar face on network news programs over the past few years, speaking with reporters about the new museum’s collections and their significance. In his presentation at Valley Forge, Stephenson highlighted some of institution’s advanced and modern features: a digitally recreated statue of King George III that Patriots and their slaves destroyed at the New York City Bowling Green in July 1776, a life-size reproduction of the Boston Liberty tree, a replica of an eighteenth-century privateer ship constructed with the help of the Independence Seaport Museum, and a theater that recreates the British charge up Osborne’s Hill at the battle of Brandywine. Stephenson explained that the MoAR hopes not to heap facts upon visitors, but rather to provoke them with contemporary media and interesting questions.[2]

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A rendering of the Boston Liberty Tree exhibit. Image from amrevmuseum.org.

But beneath these bells and whistles is a larger narrative about what the American Revolution means to the country in 2017. In his recent book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution, historian Robert Parkinson claimed “What would become known as the American Revolution was a massive argument over the meaning of those words, whom they applied to, and who were the most legitimate, responsible guardians of those ideals.” The museum is a discussion about those very ambiguities. What type of nation did the revolutionaries create, and for whom did they create it? The War for Independence was more than a military slugfest; it was “a contest of injuries and of interpretation,” interpretations that continue to carry plenty of political weight. Politicians on both sides of the aisle often try to claim the mandate of the revolutionaries to support their political agendas. Bancroft Prize winning historian Jill Lepore believes that the fascination with connecting the ideas of the revolutionaries to contemporary issues is often problematic.

“What would the founders do?” is, from the point of view of historical  analysis, an ill-considered and unanswerable question, and pointless, too. Jurists and legislators need to investigate what the framers meant, and some Christians make moral decisions by wondering what Jesus would do, but no NASA scientist decides what to do about the Hubble by asking what Isaac Newton would make of it.

Many people with vastly different interpretations of the American Revolution will deem the MoAR as a bastion of historical “truth”. Museums are more than storehouses for old materials, they are spaces where individuals form and reform their understanding of citizenship, nationalism, and identity.[3]

The years between President Johnson’s Bicentennial Commission proposal in 1966 and the national celebration a decade later were years of intense divisions. As the commissioners planned how to best to honor the country’s birthday, they lived through the Vietnam War, political assassinations, Woodstock, Kent State, and Watergate. Similarly, the Museum of the American Revolution will open its doors at a time of hyper-partisanship with a major national anniversary looming. As the nation plans to celebrate its Sestercentennial, the MoAR will have to grapple with it all. The Museum of the American Revolution will open to the public this April 19, two hundred and forty two years after minutemen at the Lexington green and the Concord Bridge fired upon British regulars.


     [1] Lorett Treese, Valley Forge: Making and Remaking of a National Symbol (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1995), 88-89, 91-93.

     [2] CBS News, “First American Revolution museum set to open,” filmed [2012], YouTube video, 02:35, posted [July 2012], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqfAO7o4ggE; Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2016), 161.

     [3] Robert Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Williamsburg and Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 4, 8; Jill LePore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), x; Taylor, 372-73; Jill Lepore, The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 124-25.

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Abigail Hartman Rice and Public History from the Bottom-Up

Throughout the country you will find monuments, parks, and historic sites dedicated to soldiers who have fallen in battle. Valley Forge National Historical Park is one of the few preserved places in the U.S. that focuses attention on the suffering of ordinary soldiers off the battlefield. This unique position, therefore, provides public historians a specific opportunity to highlight stories not of privileged white men and martial heroics, but rather individuals long ignored in conventional narratives. The life of Abigail Hartman Rice is one such individual story we attempt to highlight at Valley Forge. She served on the frontlines against one of the Continental Army’s greatest enemies: disease. As a nurse at Yellow Springs hospital, Abigail tended to sick men, an ordinary sacrifice that would cost her life.

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Abigail Hartman Rice’s grave, at St. Peter’s UCC Cemetery in Pikeland Township, Pennsylvania.

Maria Appolonia “Abigail” Hartman Rice was born in Germany in 1742. In 1750, the British ship Royal Union docked in Philadelphia carrying Abigail, her family, and roughly five hundred other German immigrants about a month before her eighth birthday. Young Abigail was one of tens of thousands of immigrants coming to the Philadelphia in the middle of the eighteenth century. Her family settled in what is presently Pikeland Township, Pennsylvania, and regularly attended Trappe Lutheran Church, where Abigail was confirmed (likely by the founder of North American Lutheranism, Henry Muhlenberg) in 1756. A year later Abigail married Zachariah Rice, a carpenter and millwright. Their first child, John, was born at the end of the decade. For Abigail, twenty more pregnancies would follow. Seventeen of her children would live to their adulthoods.[1]

In late summer 1777, events far beyond Abigail’s control would bring the American Revolution literally into her backyard. In September, the Crown Forces engaged the Continental Army at the Battle of Brandywine. According to the Rice family genealogy, an exasperated Washington and his staff retreating through Chester County following that battle stopped at the Rice home, where Abigail offered the men a drink. The Rice family also surrendered their land as a campsite to General Anthony Wayne’s Pennsylvania brigades, following the near-clash at the Battle of the Clouds (September 16).[2]

By February 1778, the Continental Army had established a military hospital in Yellow Springs, a few miles from the Rice home. There, Abigail served as a nurse for a couple of years, in the building her husband helped construct. During the Valley Forge encampment Yellow Springs struggled to obtain necessary medical supplies. Requested items like blankets, clothing, soap, and liquor arrived at sporadic intervals. With few medical professionals available, local civilians like Abigail, became the first line of defense against disease. And between 1,800 and 2,000 Americans died during the Valley Forge encampment, more than at any single battle of the American Revolution. Hundreds of men passed through the walls of the hospital, and surely many recognized Abigail Rice. At Yellow Springs she contracted typhoid fever, and never was fully able to recover from the disease. Six years after the war, she died at the age of forty-seven.[3]

Yellow Springs Ruins

Ruins of Yellow Springs Hospital.


More and more women are included in the historical narrative of the Revolutionary period. Yet still, the mantle of “Patriot” is largely reserved in the public mind for people who look like Washington or Joseph Plumb Martin. While exceptional women such as Abigail Adams or Margaret Corbin are often celebrated, the story of Abigail Hartman Rice is significant in its very ordinariness. This founding mother was not from a significant political dynasty or a martial heroine. She was a working immigrant, not from a wealthy family, who by the accidents of fate and geography was thrust into the Revolution’s battle against illness.[4] Her story generates empathy, and helps to break the myth that the human cost of the Revolution was paid exclusively by white men. When we think of the Revolution, we should broaden our understanding of “Patriot” to include people like Abigail Hartman Rice.

As a tour guide at Valley Forge, this story has become an important element of my presentation. Visitors are certainly shocked to hear of her twenty-one pregnancies, but also equally interested in her immigrant past, and the important realization that not all sacrifices are made on battlefields. Placing a spotlight on individuals like Abigail is part of a larger undertaking, to recognize those moments in public history when traditional narratives can be replaced by bottom-up stories. While audiences certainly perk up when they hear the familiar names such as Washington, Hamilton, Lafayette, etc., I find they are equally interested when I say, “Now let me tell you about someone you have never heard of before.”

     [1] I. Daniel Rupp, A Collection of Upwards Thirty Thousand Names of German, Dutch, Swiss, French and other Immigrants in Pennsylvania from 1727 to 1776 (Philadelphia: IG. Kohler, 1876), Internet Archive, 228; Lelia Dromgold Emig, Record of the Annual Hench and Dromgold Reunion (Harrisburg: United Evangelical Press, 1913), HathiTrust edition, 78-84.

     [2] Emig, 81; Winthrop Randolph Endicott in U.S., Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970, Ancestry.com.

     [3] James E. Gibson, Dr. Bodo Otto and the Medical Background of the American Revolution (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1937), 154, 157; “Abigail Hartman Rice” in Abstract of Graves of Revolutionary Patriots, Ancestry.com.

   [4] “Transcript of the Tenth Eighteenth Pence Rate,” Pennsylvania Archives, Series 3, Volume XI, Fold3, 355.

A special thank you to Jennifer Bourque, a Park Ranger at Valley Forge, who not only led me to this story, but was also kind enough to share some of her archival and online research. 

Blake is interested in early American and public history at Villanova. He helps edit the Muster Blog for the Journal of the Civil War Era. He can be reached at bmcgread@villanova.edu.  

The True Mandate of the Minutemen: Gun Safety in Lexington, Massachusetts

Exploiting history for political purposes is nothing new. Every week I find myself laughing, cringing, or yelling about comments made by presidential candidates attempting to employ U.S. history to meet their own ends. Today, in Lexington, Massachusetts, the first moments of the American Revolution are being utilized in the ongoing debate about gun safety.

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Minuteman National Historical Park, photo taken from the National Park Service.

 

Months ago, Harvard Professor Robert Rotberg drafted legislation aiming to ban specific assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in Lexington. At the end of March, the debate over Rotberg’s amendment will begin at the Lexington Town Meeting, a centuries-old local government organization made up of about two hundred representatives. Outsiders are welcome to voice their opinion, as long as they abide by the Town Meeting’s decorum. Defenders of gun rights have already made public their disapproval of Rotberg’s proposal, and town residents anticipate a spirited debate.

Both advocates and opponents of the measure have employed their community’s history in defending their positions. As Lexington’s minutemen fired the “shot heard round the world” beginning the Revolution, Rotberg hopes his proposal will encourage other local governments to enact similar restrictions on assault weapons across the country. Rotberg’s opponents, however, have claimed that the proposal is exploiting the town’s history and legacy to forward a political agenda.[1] So, which side carries the true mandate of the minutemen?

Rotberg’s amendment will provoke an interesting debate, in which both sides may weave Lexington’s heritage into their particular stances. Many Americans remember the Revolution as an inescapable, violent, military struggle. However, what Americans forget (or fail to realize) is that the minutemen did not hear gunshots, put down the plow, and plunge headlong into a war against a superpower. Rather, the citizens of Concord and Lexington met for months and years at town meetings, weighing the cost of resistance against their hardships under British rule.[2] Gun access is merely one part of Lexington’s story. In fact, the Town Meeting was just as, if not more, consequential to the advent of the Revolution.

From now until November, we are sure to see continued use of American history as candidates compete for the windbreaker on Air Force One. History provides perspective and context, with which we can hopefully visualize the larger picture. Outside of Boston amid a contentious gun safety debate, the larger picture is that despite Revolutionary, Civil, and World Wars, the Lexington Town Meeting still remains. The arena in which this political battle will be fought is a part of the minutemen’s legacy.

For a compelling and short read about current uses and abuses of the Revolution’s legacy, check out Harvard historian Jill LePore’s The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History.

[1] Arun Rath, “Home of the Revolutionary War’s First Shots Wants to Ban Assault Weapons,” NPR, February 21, 2106.

[2] Robert Gross, The Minutemen and their World (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976), xvi.

The Hype of Hamilton

What do you get when you combine hip-hop, Broadway style songs, and the Founding Fathers? Apparently, you get the most popular New York musical since The Book of Mormon.  Hamilton, written and composed principally by Lin Manuel Miranda, tells the life story of Alexander Hamilton, and is based on the biographer Ron Chernow’s 2004 study of the man on the ten dollar bill. But Hamilton is not your parents’ musical, and besides some costumes and characters, bares little resemblance to 1776. 

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The characters pictured from left to right, Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, John Laurens, and Alexander Hamilton. Picture from publictheater.org.

Rap battles between Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton have replaced the ballads of other musicals rooted in history, like Les Miserables and Ragtime. Despite the show’s perception as hip hop musical, it is not exclusively based on contemporary music. (There are still Broadway showstoppers, and a Beatles-esque breakup song King George III sings to the colonies.) Not only does the music sound different, the cast looks different. Most of the principal characters are played by actors from minority communities. This was a conscious choice by the show’s creative team, who wanted to make this era of history more accessible to today’s audiences. Miranda, the show’s composer, has said, “It is the story of America then, as told by America now.” Hamilton is already being discussed as a landmark for Broadway. But is it a landmark for history, too?

If someone approached you two years ago and said that in order to make the story of the nation’s founding accessible to more Americans, we should tell their story using hip hop, you might have scoffed. But today, that idea is working. If the aim of public history is to generate empathy between the observer and the subject, then Hamilton should be studied inside-out and backwards. The show humanizes its characters, and recreates the men and women of the Revolutionary generation in a way that allows the audience to see beyond their traditional, Gilbert Stuart image.

You can check all this out for yourself. The soundtrack to Hamilton is available in its entirety on Spotify or YouTube. Yale Professor Joanne B. Freeman’s article for Slate, “How Hamilton Uses History” is worth the read as well. And if you love Hamilton, you might be able to score some tickets by the next presidential election cycle.

Recreating the Election of 1932 at Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park’s history is fundamentally linked to two of the most significant political actors of their day, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Both presidents had a connection to the land in their own particular way. I have been privileged to visit the park twice in the past six months, and both times I have noticed perplexing representations of both individuals.

What was Herbert Hoover’s relationship to Shenandoah National Park? Well, in reality he did not have one while he was in office. The park opened during FDR’s first term. However, along Rapidan Creek within the present park boundaries, Hoover built Rapidan Camp, a log cabin retreat and a forerunner to presidential escapes like Camp David and Hyannis Port. For Franklin Roosevelt, the Skyline Drive was one of the ways he could enjoy his country’s parks, due to the fact he could enjoy the Shenandoah’s great nature from the backseat of an automobile. Roosevelt also presided over the park’s dedication, and there encouraged Americans to find “recreation and re-creation” in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Hoover picture at the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center.

Hoover picture at the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center.

Hoover’s representation in the park’s public venues is noticeably favorable. When you enter the museum section of the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center, you are first greeted to Hoover’s campaign song, “If He’s Good Enough For Lindy.” The song is centered on Charles Lindbergh’s endorsement of Hoover, and continuously reminds its listeners that “Hoover is the only man who can keep our country free!” One of the first images you see is Hoover fishing along the Rapidan as well. This past June we hiked down to Rapidan Camp, and got a long tour of the small cabin from a Park Service Volunteer, who repeatedly reminded our group that Hoover had warned Wall Street investors about the dangers of over-speculation. It might be true, but I was more interested in the history of the space, not exonerating Hoover from the disaster of the Great Depression.

On the other hand, Franklin’s Roosevelt’s relationship with the park can be viewed as intrusive, and in some cases, nefarious. In the Byrd Center, which repeatedly plays the Lindbergh song and not so much as a note of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” there are extensive depictions of the men, women and children who were evicted from their local homes when the park was created. The Roosevelt administration comes across as a villain in these displays, and even the park introductory video presented regularly in the theater makes a similar claim. Our parks service volunteer at Rapidan Camp was also keen to point out the political attractiveness Roosevelt saw in opening a national park close to eastern urban centers. If Hoover was the Depression’s Nostradamus who merely got caught in the White House at the wrong time, then Franklin Roosevelt was a villain, who exploited the park lands and forced diaspora on the peoples of the Blue Ridge.

Roosevelt portrait and CCC Boys.

Roosevelt portrait and CCC Boys.

My issues with these depictions are numerous. First, Hoover’s relative inactivity at the beginning of the Depression was one of the presidency’s great sins. Hoover’s meetings at Rapidan Camp might have set out to discuss the depression’s most pressing questions, but no answers were found. Second, blaming the Roosevelt administration for local evictions neglects similar practices in national park history. Loggers in the Great Smokies, Shoshone Indians in Yellowstone, tradesmen at Mammoth Cave, among others, were all dispossessed of their lands as parks were created. And finally, Roosevelt’s depiction does not adequately celebrate the triumph of New Deal programs in the park, particularly the Civilian Conservation Corps. Do not be mistaken, the Shenandoah experience loves to show off their CCC history. You can even watch a twenty minute public television video in the theater, which contains interviews from past CCC boys. However, the CCC was particularly close to Roosevelt, and he was the agency’s chief architect, a role that the displays and videos fail to mention.

If you want to learn more about Shenandoah and its history, I encourage you to visit their website, or visit in person. The north entrance is three and a half hours away from Villanova! Get out there, explore the history, and find your park!