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Re-examining the Revolution

By Ray Raphael

Most texts do mention African-American participation in the war, but they focus primarily on those who sided with the Americans. In fact, those who sided with the British were far more numerous, but you'd never guess it from reading the texts. When they offer numbers, they typically compare the estimated number of black patriot soldiers during the course of the entire war (5,000) with the number of slaves who sought freedom with the British in a single week (generally cited as 300). The myth of the patriotic slave is not far removed from that of the happy slave.

Current texts do include some mention of the Native-American presence in the Revolutionary War, but their narratives display a serious bias. In fact, white colonists were looking west as well as east before, during, and after the war, but the texts do not discuss their drive to acquire trans-Appalachian lands—a major cause of the Revolution. They do not mention the extensive land speculation of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and other "Founding Fathers." The American Revolution was the largest conflict between Native Americans and European Americans in our nation's history, but students will not learn this by dutifully reading their assignments.

All elementary and middle school texts report the exploits of George Rogers Clark and his small band of frontiersmen, who supposedly "opened" the West. The authors of Harcourt's Horizons write, "George Rogers Clark helped protect the frontier lands claimed by many American settlers." Then, to ensure that students did not miss the message, they ask: "Review: Who defended settlers in the western lands?" In this one question, a war of conquest is turned on its head.

By contrast, not one of the elementary or middle school texts even mentions the genocidal Sullivan campaign, one of the largest military offensives of the war, which burned Iroquois villages and destroyed every orchard and farm in its path to deny food to Indians. Serious treatments of white conquest appear earlier (17th century) and later (19th century) in these texts, but not at the critical point of our nation's founding. Right at the moment of the greatest white incursion onto Native lands in United States history, the Indian presence mysteriously disappears. The pan-Indian resistance movements of the 1780s—the largest coalitions of Native Americans in our history—are entirely neglected. With nary a word about the impact on indigenous people, the texts uniformly celebrate the ordinances of 1785 and 1787—blueprints for westward expansion and death knells for Indian sovereignty.

In their eagerness to find female heroines of the Revolutionary War, 18 of the 22 texts feature the story of Molly Pitcher. They reify this folkloric legend into a real person, pronouncing unabashedly that she was Mary Hayes. (The legend did not settle on a flesh-and-blood woman until the 1876 Centennial, based only on the word of a local promoter from Carlisle, Pa.) Most texts display one of the 19th century romantic paintings of Molly firing her cannon. The pictures appear old and suitably historic—no matter that these fantasies were painted in the following century.

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