Terrorism, Fake News, and the American Revolution

Though we often romanticize the Revolutionary War, it was more complicated—and brutal—than many of us would care to remember.

It wasn’t all Delaware crossings, Valley Forge winterings, and Cornwallis surrenderings. Don Glickstein‘s overview of the American Revolution involves a much wider canvas — stretching from the Colonies to India, depicting horror as well as heroism, and questions the primary causes of the war.

“It’s always been a debate — was the Revolution launched by noble freedom fighters, or by greedy merchants who were upset because Britain had cracked down on their smuggling operations?” Glickstein says. “The truth is probably somewhere in between.”

The author of After Yorktown: The Final Struggle for American Independence surveys this Revolutionary landscape in his Speakers Bureau talk, “What Our Teachers Never Told Us about the American Revolution.”

“The key message I want to send out is to always question assumptions,” Glickstein says. “If we have the tools to separate fact from opinion when looking at the Revolution, we’ll have the tools to separate fact from opinion in our current-day politics.”

 

Humanities Washington: What do we think we know about the Revolutionary War that is actually wrong?

Don Glickstein: History belongs to the winners of wars. The United States clearly won the war against Great Britain; therefore, the history that we grew up with was written generally from the perspective of the winners — a very country-centric perspective. And if you look at many popular books written about the Revolution, they assume that the only patriots fighting in that war were those led by George Washington. In reality, Loyalists were just as patriotic as the rebels — and certainly Native Americans, most of whom fought the rebels, were just as patriotic as well, and just as American. African-Americans, a small percentage, ended up fighting for the rebels, but most supported the British, because often the British offered freedom in exchange for fighting — and the British, I might add, kept their end of the deal. We also don’t get the perspective of our allies the French, or our co-belligerents the Spanish and the Dutch. We only get the tip of the iceberg of what really happened.

All nations tell unifying stories about themselves and their creation. Is our Revolution story a function of nation-building?

I guess I would ask the question, whose nation? Is it the nation of enslaved people? Is it the nation of the Native Americans, the nation of the Canadians? I suppose you’re right — that’s part of how nations are built. But if you do history right, then you do question assumptions. And certainly in our current politics, we don’t question assumptions. We don’t teach kids how to separate fact from opinion. In some instances it’s even Orwellian: real news is being labeled as fake news, and fake news is being labeled as real news, because we’ve lost the ability to differentiate fact from opinion.

The original title of your talk was “The American Revolution and the First War on Terror.” Who were the terrorists in the American Revolution?

There was terror everywhere you looked, because this was a total war. There was certainly terror among the Loyalists, starting in Massachusetts, where good loyal Americans, who were trying to do their job and uphold the British government — which was their government—were intimidated by insurgents and rebels. Those who tried to uphold law and order were tarred and feathered, their houses were gutted, and their families threatened. The Loyalists soon learned that discretion was the better part of valor. Some had to flee their homeland, their native America, and live on the frontier.

For years, Native American nations sent peaceful protests to colonial governments, and said, “Hey, you’ve got to control these land thieves coming into our territories.” Yet one of the great land speculators of all time, of course, was George Washington, and some of the so-called treaties that were signed were really trumped up. The Iroquois were famous for giving away land that they didn’t own. But other times, more often than not, Native Americans would be coerced, or somebody who was unauthorized to speak for the entire nation would sign a treaty, and the Whites would say, “Hey, it’s legal for us to move in and take this land.” There was terror on both sides, between Native Americans and again, depending on your perspective, the land thieves or the pioneers and settlers. There certainly was a torture culture among Native Americans, which was quickly adopted by White settlers. Colonial governments offered bounties for scalps, and the White settlers didn’t quite care whether those were male scalps, or female scalps, or the scalps of children. There was utter brutality on both sides, with one exception — it’s generally agreed that Native Americans never raped white women, and it’s generally acknowledged that Indian women were open territory for White soldiers, at least in the East.

Present-day Washington State was pretty distant from the Thirteen Colonies, but was it a theater for any Revolutionary action?

It was not, but interestingly, we have named many, many of our landmarks after sworn enemies of George Washington and the American rebels. Mount Rainier was named after Peter Rainier, a British lieutenant. He was injured in 1778 while capturing a rebel privateer. George Vancouver was a British lieutenant and fought in the Battle of the Saintes. Peter Puget fought in the Caribbean for the British when they took the island of Saint Kitts. James Vashon, of Vashon Island, was also at the Battle of the Saintes, and was captain of a ship that fought in one of the last naval battles of the Revolution. My favorites, of course, are Hood Canal and Mount Hood, named after Samuel Hood, who was this absolutely brilliant and caustic admiral for the British, who also fought in the Caribbean and was a sworn enemy of the American rebels. About the only things that weren’t named after sworn enemies of America were Washington State itself and Cordova, Alaska, which was named after the Spanish admiral Luis de Córdova — one of our co-belligerents who fought against the British in several naval battles, including the Great Siege of Gibraltar. None of these people ever made it out here, with the exception of George Vancouver, but their names still stand. Vancouver, after the Revolution, led an expedition in the 1790s, and he named a lot of landmarks — or his officers did. Of course, in the 1790s, the United States was nowhere in the Pacific Northwest region. It was the British trying to stake out turf against the Russians to the north, and the Spanish to south.

What was the propaganda situation? How did each side spread its narrative of the war?

The rebels used amazing new technology, the Facebook and Instagram of the 18th century: pamphlets and broadsides that were really cheap to produce. And they had wonderful propaganda artists, like Paul Revere — you’re probably familiar with the great depiction that he drew of the so-called Boston Massacre. They were geniuses at propaganda. They also had this innovation called the Committees of Correspondence, a communication network, like an 18th-century internet. Each rebel group in each colony set up these committees, and each of these separate colonies, almost separate nations, were able to communicate in a very fast and efficient way. In upstate New York, a Loyalist woman, Jane McCrea, was accidentally killed by Native Americans. But it was the rebels who used it as propaganda, saying here’s this young lady — and they conveniently ignored the fact she was a Loyalist — who got murdered by the bloodthirsty savages, and we need to defend against the British who are enabling all these savages. It helped lead to the rebel success at the Battle of Saratoga, because it was such an effective recruiting tool. But was it an exaggeration? Yes. It was a pretty good exaggeration.

Don Glickstein is presenting his free Humanities Washington talk “What Our Teachers Never Told Us about the American Revolution” around the state. Find out where he’s appearing next.