From the moment historian David Fowler suggested that we could put a new twist on an old tale, by inverting the social ladder in 1776, we knew he had a great idea. Fowler asked, "Why not try and piece together what ordinary people were thinking as they debated independence?" Instead of telling the story of what Washington and Jefferson were thinking, we'd tell the story of the 'common man.' While we knew that there was no single unifying text for this idea--nothing nice and neat that we could simply transform into a film--we had only a slight inkling of how complex a task finding the common man would turn out to be.
We knew there were libraries
full of letters, notes, and diaries written by the founding fathers. We were
told that stories of ordinary people were not as readily accessible. This
was, after all, an age when paper was expensive.
Literacy and self-esteem might have conspired against us in our quest. A farmer might have kept a ledger sheet, but unless he was part of an educated elite--a really substantial figure in the community--the chances were slim that he would have jotted down his political thoughts for posterity.
What's more, we weren't sure that the opinions of more ordinary 18th-c. people had been preserved after the fact. Even assuming they had once been written, who would bother to keep the musings and ruminations of ordinary people-- who didn't make headlines?
We began to visit archives and libraries and sift through the records ourselves, to see what we could learn. Were there sympathetic characters who would create good stories for a film -- whom TV viewers would root for--or would care about? Could we find them? What were they saying about independence? Was there sufficient evidence to see beyond tea and taxes? What would we find?
After lots of undirected reading, the common man remained elusive. All the bits and pieces seemed small and fragmentary, like little pieces of a mosaic.
Still, we were persuaded that this was an interesting inquiry, and one that could make an interesting film. Key questions began to multiply: Would our story focus on military participation, on the battles and fighting, or on the debate behind it? Did the rank and file, and the 'lower sort,' as historians call them, share the gentry's sense of outrage at British despotism? Suffrage, of course, extended only to property-owning white males, so ordinary people didn't have a vote any way. Would the common man have given a fig about politics, or who ruled? Did it boil down to case of a far away lord versus a local one?
Along with sorting out the history, and figuring out our principle themes, we also had the 'little problem' of how to visualize the story. Even though any TV series on our nation's founding is necessarily important, we could be certain that we would have only a tiny fraction of a Hollywood budget. (Funding is always a struggle for historical documentaries; but that's another story.) To write grants and approach humanities funders we had to have some idea of how our film might be achieved. What combination of talking-heads, reenactment, period art and artifacts would we propose? Were there enough 18th-c visuals of ordinary people to illustrate our stories?
The next stages were fundamental to the overall process. We looked at lots of documentaries on the revolution, to see what we liked and didn't like. We discussed with historians -- how THEY would approach reconstructing independence from the 'bottom up.'
We quickly learned that historians seldom agree on much--except that all generalizations are false. Everyone had their own ideas. As we asked questions, historians shot back: Why are you just talking about patriots? Why are you fixated on Anglo society -- just yeoman farmers, sailors, working artisans, and indentured servants from the British Isles? Who are the ordinary people? Were they all on the patriot side? We didn't know. After an immense amount of research, we had successfully progressed from shear ignorance to knowing what we didn't know. At least the scholars seemed game to help us figure it out.
We managed to enlist
a veritable 'Who's Who' of American revolutionary experts. Our advisory panel
includes the 1999 Bancroft Award winner, and slavery expert Ira Berlin; Phil
Chase, Senior Editor of the George Washington Papers; Ron Hoffman, Director
of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture; Pulitzer
prize-winner, Rhys Isaac; Jean Lee, expert on the Chesapeake and women's history;
Mark Lender, Professor of History at Kean University, who knows the Continental
army, and the New Jersey story inside out; Pauline Maier, expert on the Declaration
of Independence, and Professor of History at MIT; James Merrell, leading expert
on Native Americans; Gary Nash, leading figure in developing the new social
history, and Professor at UCLA; Ed Papenfuse and R.J. Rockefeller of the Maryland
State Archives; and editor of the 55-volume American Heritage series, Alfred
Young, and many more.
The scholars drew up a more current reading list.
Instead of looking through the old histories, now we were mostly reading articles and books published within the last few years. After absorbing -- lets say just enough to grasp the breadth and depth of the new scholarship (a few hundred books) -- we realized we had even bigger problems.
Anyone who has kept up
with the deluge of social history over the last thirty years, may be chuckling
by now. Specialists in colonial history have been pretty busy. They have produced
thick volumes about the lives of enslaved and free Blacks, maroon communities
in the Carolinas, abolitionists and pacifists in Philadelphia, camp-following
women, shoe makers, tenant farmers, Loyalist jack tars, and much, much, more.
In the last twenty five years more articles have been written about the history
of Native Americans in the colonial era--than in the previous two hundred.
How could we possibly embrace this explosion of social and ethno history? And where on earth is the common man or woman in all of this? Is he or she white, Black, or Native American? How could we possibly even begin to generalize about so many different people, and equally many scholarly points of view?
Then it began to dawn on us, that we were perhaps looking at an even bigger story. What if our story is really about these multiple points of view, and all these different people? Could our story be about "how the story itself has changed?" Could it be about why historians have told it a certain way, and why the story is constantly being revised? What if it's about one absolutely indisputable fact: how the historians have been writing more inclusive history for the last few decades? They aren't just writing history about white men, for white men. That seems important.
During the course of our planning grant, we've learned that history should not be just a recitation of famous names and dates, of "mindless facts," but rather a process of imaginatively investigating the character of people, ideas, and events -- whose significance no one person or generation can comprehend.
Perhaps our history must reflect the society that reads it? Because the history of the revolution rightly belongs to all of the people; perhaps now, years after the civil rights movements began, the history being written, is itself becoming more democratic? Will our film manage to capture some of that new spirit?