1776: The World Turned Upside Down

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.

Historical drawing, US_American history, 18th century, arrestment, 1776, William Franklin, 1730_1813 under house arrest, an American soldier, colonial administrator of New Jersey and last colonial governor of New Jersey

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.

They did.

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.”

British view of American privateers

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.





1776: The World Turned Upside Down — 35 Comments

  1. Ever since I saw Hamilton I’ve had a different attitude about American history. This sounds exactly like what I’ve been looking for. (Sad to say I slept through American History classes in school. Gross national product, you got that right.)

  2. While this series is not fictionalized the way the musical is supposed to be (I haven’t seen it), I think you’ll like the breezy narrative style, which rambles from interesting person to topic. Each month’s episode begins with a list of important events during that month, but the episodes are not confined to that month. They range outward over time, geography, individuals, culture, as well as events.

  3. The caption of William Franklin leaves out what is the most salient fact about him in this context: he was Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate son, who was essentially raised by BF’s wife, likely, though not factually known, his son by the wife of one of BF’s best friends. Ben and Will were close for a number of years, but there were always troubles. They divided over independence. When Will was arrested, Benjamin did nothing at all to help or assist. William died estranged from Benjamin. The theme of Benjamin’s illegitimate son in his life is not one that redounds in any way to his credit. Which is probably why it is usually left out of the narrative all together, despite the many years of working together — living together in London, even.

    • That’s because it’s a caption. The narrative in the episode does talk about how Franklin’s son was illegitimate, going on I believe for three more generations.

  4. Still, as an historian, I have to emphasize that to be an honest historian, or even to get historical fiction right one has to know a lot about gross national products, tariffs, taxes, and all sorts of things that people label dull. One makes dreadful mistakes when one doesn’t know the full picture and that includes stats and other dull matters.

    • Of course. But back in my school days, that was pretty much all we heard about, presented as isolated facts stitched together with nationalistic rah rah. The personal aspects of history–those who lived, fought, laughed, loved, ranted, and imagined–were so sanitized (and only the white males were deemed worthy of inclusion) that there was no sense to it all, except to prove that the United States topped everyone else in steel production because of its, and I quote, “endless resources.”

      Once one gets more of a picture of life then, those statistics do indeed become vitally interesting, because they take on meaning.

      • By the way, if you haven’t watched it, the War of Independence series Turn is quite good. It’s not rahrahrah, but show the cast of players of that time in as fascinating a light as they were.

        I quite like how they portrayed Washington. He’s really difficult to do for many reasons, some because the man himself is ultimately quite a mystery, and because people will scream if it’s not the haloed hero sans reproach rather than a man, a politician and a general (who was excellent at keeping an army together, though not so good at fighting battles).

        But it’s a lot of ‘little people’ and how they are affected by the war trampling over their lives and lands and livings — both sides. Incredible heroics and sacrifices, betrayals and self-aggrandizement — it’s all there.

        The series three seasons are organized around the Culper spy ring on Long Island, which for the early days of the war provided the Patriots with an enormous amount of essential information at great great risk to themselves — and for no pay. I always found these figures fascinating since historians were finally able to track down hard information about them. Secrecy was their number one priority.

        It has two of the best villains (real life really bad people) — and that’s not including the really finely played Benedict Arnold. The entire cast is more than excellent. It’s also as tense and suspenseful as can be. People do not get off scot free on either side. One’s heart is in one’s mouth very often. I often just left room at times, hardly able to breathe, so terrified I was for the fates of some of Our People.

        The 4-season series is based on Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (2007) — which I read when it came out, after reading earlier histories of this action in the war way back when working at the Fraunces Tavern Museum. It’s always exciting to know the places where history happens, isn’t it? Though as you all say, history is taking place everywhere and we all make it.

        • I have the book right over here on my )tottering) TBR pile. And I have the series lined up on Netflix, though I haven’t begun it yet. (My Netflix lineup is as bad as my TRB pile as I only watch TV when on the exercise bike.) It looks terrific.

    • One important skill to learn in all classes — not just history — is how to look things up and otherwise do research. I got this in law school, because you can’t remember all the stuff you need to know, plus law changes regularly.

      History classes should excite students with story, teach them to think critically about what they hear, and teach them how to do the research when they need the details.

  5. Like you I hated my high school history classes, and when I got to the university, I said to myself, “I’ll just take the required U.S. History courses, and then I’ll never have to take history again.” Famous Last Words.
    I never forgot that history happened to human beings, and I think that is one of the things behind the enthusiastic response to the courses I taught in high school.
    Historical fiction was also my gateway drug. I never connected it with the boring read chapter 10 and answer the questions at the end classes I had.

      • Freshman year of college. I’d always loved history. My grade school teachers didn’t or really know anything about it. History at the university level was a revelation! I loved the in depth analysis and the intriguing glimpses of actual personalities from the past.

  6. My college roommate ended up with a PhD. or two and teaches history at the University level. She complains that all her students–usually the white males living on a trust fund and looking for a comfortable career in law or accounting–don’t want the lives that make history. They want a list of dates and names and battles. Just the facts, Ma’am.

    History is the people. We are making and living history every day.

    I’m watching my DVD of “1776” later today. Another good reminder of what we fought for and why.

  7. I always loved history. Some of my teachers were pretty good at making it come alive, though they still taught the U.S. Civil War as a fight between “us” and “them” and I got a lot of mythology along with my history. I find I’m constantly revising my understanding of what I learned.

    But I think I grasped that history was story from the beginning.

    • I always loved history, no matter what it was. Never ever was bored. Never had any trouble with dates, names or places either.

      EXCEPT! and I still have it — there are so many very important figures in European history — all European history — who have the same name, distinguished by roman numerals. But their names are spelled differently depending on language was dominant in their time and place — but not always. There is no across-the-board formula among historians as to how to refer to such figures within the language being written, when it isn’t the language of their time and place.

      And then all those people and places about which I was never taught anything at all in Asia and Africa and South America. I’ve done really with South American and pretty well with certain sections of Africa. But the sheer vastness of time and space from the Balkans, Central Asia and South East Asia — I’m woefully ignorant. I keep trying though to remedy it. But it’s so vast I’ll never make it before hitting the time when I will no longer know anything at all that comes to us all eventually.

      • We did pretty well with South American history, probably as we live so close to the border of Mexico, and Spanish was a major language around us as kids. (We were taught it, but badly.) I can still draw the map of South America from memory, and recollect various details about fascinating Amazonian peoples we learned about.

        The cutoff was beyond the “iron curtain” as they labeled Eastern Europe and all across the vast continent. I’ve done pretty well with most of it over the decades, ever moving eastward, and am now trying to learn about Asia.

  8. Sitting as a volunteer in the Norwich Heritage and Visitors Center, I’ve had first-hand experience at what interests (or does not interest) “regular people” about history. The Center is the Dr. Daniel Lathrop Schoolhouse, built in 1783 from a donation by the very rich Dr. Lathrop who specified that the school should admit boys and girls. It continued as a school till the money ran out about the time of the Civil War. By then, this once state-of-the-art brick schoolhouse was no longer fancy enough for the wealthy part of town, but somehow it survived till the present day, owned by the town which didn’t know what to do with it. Finally the local Historical Society convinced the town to add a bathroom and one of those wall-mounted heating and AC units (most welcome for us volunteers!), and let us turn it into a combination Museum and Visitors Information Center.

    Back to our Visitors. Many are looking for directions or the bathroom. Of those who arrive intentionally, the majority are seeking The Story of Me–that is, family history, revealed through genealogy. I’ve had to disappoint them–we’re not a genealogical research center. We have a few standard reference books, but mostly we refer them to the library or show them the way to the two Colonial graveyards. I try every time to get them interested in the Colonial and more recent history of Norwich, its fascinating residents, etc., but they flee for the exits. Anyone who is not an ancestor does not interest them.

    Families prove out Sherwood’s account of History As She is Taught. At first reluctant, they can be coaxed into reading our illustrated panels (which are quite good and inclusive narratives) and are surprised to learn, for example, that Washington and Lafayette met with Benedict Arnold on the now-peaceful Green just outside the window, or that the Dr. Lathrop whose money built the school was also the reportedly harsh master apothecary one of whose apprentices was that same Benedict Arnold.

    The kids and parents like writing with a quill pen and using chalk on a slate–last week, a bright kid said “wow! It’s like a tablet!” (and he didn’t mean the one Moses brought down).

    Sorry for rambling on, but I’ve got many such anecdotes.

    • That’s fascinating, and right on topic. That’s so excellent about those good and inclusive panels! And relating famous figures to the space around them is nifty as well.

  9. I was fortunate—in elementary, as well as high school—to have had history teachers who knew how to draw the story out of the facts to make it interesting. My grade eight teacher (who went on to win awards for his teaching methods) was especially adept. And my grade twelve teacher clearly stated that he wasn’t hung up so much on precise dates and numbers, but on the social, economic, and political landscape that laid the foundation for the events we were studying. Those students who were used to simply memorising facts often didn’t do well on his tests.

    The library at my university has some very old books (some dating back to the 1700s) that no-one has evidently checked out for decades. A couple of them, which I found browsing the shelves last year, were from a series published in the 1920s and ’30s under the imprint “Benn’s Sixpenny Library.” They were actually very well written and hilariously engaging. The book hoarder in me wanted to spirit them away forever, but my honest side won out, so they’re safely back on the library shelf now.

    But yeah, history is fascinating when presented in the right way.

  10. As a child, in 4th grade, I read A History of the Land of Israel, From the Pre-historical Era To Our Time by Nathan Schur. Not as required reading, or anything of the sort; simply because I was reading everything I could, and it looked interesting. It was fascinating. Wars, people, amazing characters – it wasn’t even focusing on them, but just throwing out tidbits about Berenice, Herod, the Crusaders, Saladin, Zahir al-Umar was enough to engage me. I read a serious historical book, by a noted historian, in 4th grade, for no other reason than it was interesting. And sure, I skipped over some boring parts, like the bureaucracy of the Ottoman Empire, but that realization later on made me realize how much I enjoy history, and how badly it is taught.

    I did not care at all for history in my classes at school. It was horrible. We were forced to learn all kinds of boring details, like how people lived, and it was all very general and not at all engaging. Some teachers taught it better, but the material was always so dull.

    I didn’t let that stop my love for history. I read David McCullough’s John Adams and Truman, Ronald Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (the musical was based on the book), and so many other books. I’ve listened to podcasts, such as Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series. They’re always so much more interesting and real than any history taught. Today, I know a lot more about historical figures and events than anything I was taught in school.

    (And just to go off on a tangent, McCullough’s John Adams convinced me that Adams really was a far greater and better man than Jefferson, as well as a better President. Nobody appreciates John Adams enough)

      • Thank you! It’s rare to find people who know what I’m talking about.

        The book was fascinating, it taught me one of the best anecdotes about Rome, law and history: Berenice was Jewish Queen, a Roman Client. She become Titus’s lover (Titus destroyed the Second Temple and was Emperor after his father Vespasian). She was twice Titus’s age when they became lovers, apparently, and it was during the Siege of Jerusalem. That’s not the best anecdote, this is:
        Quintilian (Roman rhetorician) writes in Institutio Oratoria of a case he found himself pleading on Berenice’s behalf, where she herself presided as the judge.

          • What always got me about that story is how over the top it is. That is, you’re already the lover of the most powerful/second-most powerful man in Rome. Somehow, you find yourself embroiled in a legal case you can’t solve with extracurricular activities (threats, bribes, etc). You go ahead and hire the best lawyer possible… and then you replace the judge with yourself? You don’t bribe the judge, you don’t ensure the appointment of a sympathetic judge, you just appoint yourself the judge. It’s beyond overkill.

            I actually don’t think it’s ever been translated from Hebrew, though I know he has a few other good books that have been translated.