The American Revolution is more than just Paul Revere’s ride to Lexington and Concord, Yorktown and all the battles in between. In addition, to the enormous scale of a complex global war conflict, the Revolutionary years are rich in non-military issues including radical social changes, maddening inconsistencies and new forms of political associations all in the era of philosophical enlightenment. Listed below are my top ten tips (along with hyperlinks to additional information) for better understanding the nuances of this seminal period of American, British and world history.
- Read an overview – The starting point for learning about the American Revolution is mastering a book providing a good survey of the eight-year war. Dan Higginbotham’s The War of American Independence is a good exmple. There are many other overview histories including ones by British authors that are helpful for providing alternative interpretations.
- Gain the British and Loyalist perspectives – Aim to have a third or sometimes half of your sources from British and/or Loyalists authors. A good starting place is Sir Henry Clinton’s American Rebellion. Although his work contains some self-serving passages, Clinton is provides an cogent “insider view’ of the war.
- Understand the global aspects – After the French entry in 1778, the War of American Independence became a global conflict contested on all continents except Antarctica. The forces of France, Spain, The Dutch Republic and Mysore (Indian Kingdom) allied against the British. Many important battles waged outside the thirteen colonies were won by the British. As a result, there is an innovative argument that the British won the American Revolution.
- Learn the Native American perspectives – Native Americans were active, though not always willing participants in the American Revolution. Most Native Americans fought on the British side, but several tribes allied themselves with the Rebels. An excellent overview of the Rebel/Native American conflict is presented by Colin G. Calloway in his The American Revolution in Indian Country. A massive, brutal campaign between the Rebels and Native Americans occurred in Western New York State. The records of the Rebel Army on this campaign are published in Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan against the Six Nations of Indians in 1779.
- Discern the complexities of the many African-Americans roles – As with Native Americans, Blacks fought on both sides, both as free men and as slaves. The classic text in this area is Benjamin Quarles’s The Negro in the American Revolution. An interesting new interpretation is offered by Judith Van Buskirk – Standing in their Own Light.
- Focus on primary sources such as diaries and papers – Care should be taken when using secondary sources – especially 19th Century historians who had biases and sometimes weak scholarship. Today’s reseacher don’t have to rely on secondary sources as they have increased access to many primary sources which are published in book form with other available through on-line data bases.
- Don’t forget newspapers in your research – Some of the best primary sources are British and American newspapers. Todd Andrlik provides a good overview of the impact of colonial newspapers on the revolution in his Reporting the Revolution: Before it was History, It was News.
- Critically evaluate previous historian’s work – Amazingly, the opening page of a book by Bellemy Partridge entitled Sir Billy Howe contains a significant factual error. Even eminent historians such as David McCullough have mistakes in their works. Care should be to trace back any citations of facts to original sources before including them in your work.
- Focus on the “big picture” cultural and societal environment not just the battles – While many people are fascinated by the battles, the American Revolution is a rich social history with many facets including women, gender, sex and religion.
- Keep key references handy – There are several “go-to” reference books that should be in the library of any student of the Revolution. In addition to printed materials there is a wealth of on-line tools available to both serious and casual reserachers.
And for daily reading pleasure, I recommend the on-line Journal of the American Revolution, which publishes a peer-reviewed, thoroughly researched article each business day.