I first began teaching at a small private school that got its furniture and texts from public school discards. The history textbook I was given was a massive, excruciatingly dull text listing kings, Prime Ministers, and battles, interlarded by great chunks of tariff, export and import data—the sort of history book that I had yawned over as a student.
Being a new teacher, I did my best with what I was given, but the children were getting C’s and D’s on my tests.
Then came a day when a child asked a question and I got sidetracked into talking about what life was actually like for kids in those early colony towns along the North American coastline.
I gabbled until the bell rang, and I was furious with myself because I hadn’t finished covering the mass of statistical detail assigned for the day, which meant I’d have to double the load the next day. I did my duty, finished the chapter a week or two later, and gave the test.
What I got back for the essay questions, instead of the usual blanks or guesses, were somewhat incoherent but remarkably detailed descriptions of what life was like for kids in the early colonies. Those students remembered the descriptions I tossed off two weeks before and never referred to again, but as usual, half of the dates and economic details, laws and names of important men I’d gone over and over were wrong, or forgotten altogether.
I should have known better.
I loathed school-taught history as a kid, though I adored historical fiction. When I was permitted to go to the adult side of the library as a teen, I started reading biographies, and collections of letters and diaries from historical figures. I had wanted stories about real people, and what life was like. I didn’t give a hoot about isolated lists of imports, exports, and gross national products.
I completely revamped my history course, basically putting the “story” back in history. And those test scores took a sharp upward turn. That remained my template for future teaching, whether it was fifth grade American History or AP history classes in high school.
So when I saw that Serial Box, in conjunction with The Associated Press, was coming out with 1776: The World Turned Upside Down, I hoped that this series would put the “story” back into history.
The writers who put together this series are blithely and entertainingly aware that history is made by human beings, most of whom have no idea what they’re doing. Or when they do, they are all too frequently operating orthogonally to the actual result.
The first episode gives a general picture, establishing that revolutionaries were not made overnight. Angry as many colonists got with Parliament, in the early days, that didn’t extend to the king.
Even in Boston, where the redcoats of General William Howe had held the city under siege for six months, as late as this very January, the officers in Washington’s mess toasted the king’s health every evening.
It’s not all future politics. We get a good picture of Thomas Paine, he who wrote Common Sense. He turns out to be an unexpectly colorful figure—as unsuccessful at marriage as he was at holding down a job. But he loved books, and could he write!
The authors do not neglect to offer a vivid picture of what life was like in the colonies in 1776, including factoids you might not be aware of, like this bit:
The [Conestoga wagons] were the high tech trade vessels of the time, and . . . Their drivers, “sharpshooters,” were the aristocrats of the Great Wagon Road. They looked down on the sheep drovers herding their flocks to the markets of Pennsylvania because they smelled of the barnyard and were not welcome in the crude roadside inns.
The teamsters on the Conestogas rode the left rear horse to keep their right hand free for the bullhide whip, so they customarily drove to the right to pass oncoming traffic, a heritage they left to their motor-driven descendants.
Episode two takes a closer look at the makeup of the colonies’ population. Or populations, as they were scarcely a united front, whatever those old history books maintained.
“What then is the American, this new man?” asked Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, a transplanted Frenchman, just before Lexington and Concord. They were crabbed Yankees and curtsying belles, pioneers of the forest, merchants on the wharf. They lived behind logs, and dined on silver. A nation? No. Subjects of His Majesty? Maybe. . . .
Walking around in Philadelphia, the traveler might have seen Native Americans practicing with their bows and arrows in front of the State House. In Newport, RI, Ezra Stiles, later president of Yale, was milking a cow in his back yard where he also kept pigs and made soap . . .
In episode three, we discover how George Washington went about inventing an army out of pretty much nothing, as there was no colonial tradition whatsoever for forming an army: for one thing, there were no titled, leisure classes to serve as officers, as was the norm in Britain.
British authorities had a perennial problem: how to field an army and navy large enough to police and protect its wide-flung empire, when you’re drawing from the population of an island or two.
Scouring the prisons, bars, and unsavory streets for the drunk and unwary was one method, and of course there was impressment, loathed with fire and brimstone by the colonists. A respectable merchant might find his trade vessel summarily stopped by a forty-gun frigate, and self and his crew summarily hauled over to become sailors for the British empire, a very rough life at best.
But it was never enough. As troubles mounted in the North American colonies, Britain had to scrape together an army, and the ships to carry them over in, often under shipboard conditions described at the time as, “continued destruction in the foretop, the pox above-board, the plague between-decks, and the devil at the helm.”
The colonies had a different set of problems. “As Benjamin Franklin noted wryly that while Britain had been paying millions of pounds and expending hundreds of lives, 60,000 babies had been born in the colonies, half of them male.”
The Minutemen had formed readily enough—but there was no commander-in-chief, no uniforms, no artillery, little gunpowder, and of course no money to pay anyone with—once they settled on who was to earn how much and for what.
The episode is filled with colorful characters, rascals, and con-artists as well as Washington somewhat grimly learning as he went how to invent an army, then train it, and field it, all pretty much at once. (Then there was the problem of keeping men from hopping to either side as events swung this or that way, or going AWOL altogether—along with runaway slaves and errant wives.)
Once Washington got his men pointed in the right direction, there was the ongoing problem of supplies. “ . . . No sleep for Washington. He stayed up counting the booms to make sure his powder-husbanding limit of 25 shots was observed.”
As it happened, the French had been watching from afar, and at the chance of sticking it to their traditional enemy, the swashbuckling playwright and raconteur Beaumarchais, among others, went to strenuous effort to come to the colonies’ aid.
In episode 4, we learn about the formation of the navy, or as it was known at first, the army’s ships.
Which were a constant headache for Washington, as the most successful of the nascent American navy were the privateers who—next thing to pirates—had been zipping around successfully in their fast, beautifully made schooners, a law unto themselves.
In episode 5, we get to know Benjamin Franklin as the quirky genius he was, too generous to patent his many inventions, and the vastly different Adamses, John and Sam, among others.
Each episode has a professionally produced audio component, featuring voice actors performing various period quotations.
Altogether 1776: The World Turned Upside Down is a vividly exhilarating read, so full of imagery and interest you don’t realize how much you’re learning.