The American Revolution was a vast insurgency movement requiring mass communication, mass mobilization, and a single-mindedness of purpose on the part of a huge number of colonists acting together, joined by a common cause. Who were these people? In Ordinary Americans of the Revolution, you’ll discover the American Revolution from a startlingly different perspective. Professor Richard Bell of the University of Maryland introduces you to the soldiers, midwives, artisans, shopkeepers, farmers, enslaved people, and the other men and women—European American, Native American, and African American—with whom the success or failure of the revolution depended. The experience of these unfamiliar Americans offers a deeper understanding of the causes, meanings, and consequences of the American Revolution.
Ordinary Americans in the Revolution
Richard Bell is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. He holds a BA from the University of Cambridge and a PhD from Harvard University. Dr. Bell has won more than a dozen teaching awards, including the Board of Regents’ Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest honor for teaching faculty in the University System of Maryland. He has held major research fellowships at Yale University, the University of Cambridge, and the Library of Congress.
Dr. Bell serves as a trustee of the Maryland Historical Society, an elected member of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is the author or coeditor of multiple journal articles and three books: We Shall Be No More: Suicide and Self-Government in the Newly United States; Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America; and Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home, which received a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award.
01: Ordinary Lives in Revolutionary Times
Begin by considering the focus of this course: the men and women who peopled the American Revolution, who made history happen, but who are largely unknown to us now. Grasp the ways in which the legacy of the revolution was much more complex for common people than it was for the wealthy and privileged. Take a first look at the roles common people played in the revolution and its impact on them.
02: Down and Out in Colonial America
In this lesson, assess the reality of urban poverty among American colonists in the 1760s. Learn about the economic depression that followed the Seven Years’ War, which was exacerbated by incoming waves of poor immigrants. Note how high costs of living, lack of job security, and a stark gulf between rich and poor left many at the bottom rungs of society in extreme hardship, which fueled resentment.
03: Jane Mecom: Franklin’s Struggling Sister
Learn about the experience of Jane Mecom, the sister of Benjamin Franklin, whose story we know through letters she wrote to her famous brother. Follow the arc of her life, characterized by poverty and adversity, noting how she became enmeshed in politics in Boston. Observe the details of her circumstances during the revolution and afterward, and how the conflict affected her and her family.
04: Boycotting the Townshend Taxes
Take a broad look at commerce in the pre-revolution American colonies. Take account of the great proliferation of British manufactured goods in the colonies and their role as markers of status. Follow the advent of harsh British taxation of imports and the resulting boycott of British goods, which required vast mobilization and coordination, uniting colonists in a common identity.
05: Ebenezer Mackintosh: Stamp Act Protestor
Ebenezer Mackintosh was a shoemaker who became a leader of mass protests against the British. Trace his early life and how his career as a fireman thrust him into the public eye. Witness the crisis surrounding the Stamp Act, in which Mackintosh led what became violent insurrections. Learn also of his connection with the Sons of Liberty, a powerful group protesting British taxation.
06: The Occupation of Boston
Hear the story of the British military occupation of Boston, beginning in 1768, following violent reprisals against customs and tax officials. Track the simmering tensions between the colonists and the occupying forces, the oppressive stresses on the soldiers, and the types of altercations that grew from a pattern of retaliation and revenge to gang warfare between civilians and soldiers.
07: Crispus Attucks: The Massacre’s Martyr
Relive the event known as the Boston Massacre, of March 1770, where shots were fired by British soldiers, killing five colonists. Study how the incident unfolded, the subsequent political fallout, and the sequence of the trial of the perpetrators and its aftermath. Learn how one of the dead, a mixed-race sailor named Crispus Attucks, later became an icon of African American patriotism.
08: Sailors, Shoemakers, Crowds, and Class
Take account of the competing interest groups within the anti-crown protestors in the pre-revolution period. Consider how the tactics used in political actions differed between the lower rungs of society, the artisan class, and the elites. Note how artisans and skilled craftsmen became a distinct, organized political force, often at odds with the merchant and wealthy class.
09: George Hewes: Tea Party Captain
George Robert Twelves Hewes was a shoemaker who became embroiled in revolutionary events. Trace his early life and how he came to be present at the Boston Massacre. Then, witness Hewes’ key role in the Boston Tea Party and in a later uprising involving a customs official. Learn how his revolutionary exploits made him famous in his nineties.
10: Forging a Common Cause in the Colonies
Punitive measures by the British following the Boston Tea Party led to the creation of the Continental Congress, an association of insurgents from across the colonies. Observe how the Congress used media coverage, local committees, and a new currency to build a sense of common cause among colonists, transforming a Massachusetts insurgency into an American revolution.
11: Tom Paine: Immigrant Pamphleteer
The 46-page pamphlet Common Sense by Tom Paine is credited by many for catalyzing the mass movement for independence. Trace Paine’s life and how he came to write Common Sense. Analyze the text to see how Paine used the power of rhetoric to propose something previously unthinkable—a rejection of monarchy and a declaration of independence and autonomy.
12: Colonial Soldiering Life
In the wake of military confrontation with the British in 1775, patriot leaders had to move quickly to form a standing army. Witness how initial enthusiasm for enlistment was followed by widespread challenges in recruitment. Learn about the brutal conditions of service in the Continental Army; how it became an effective fighting force; and, afterward, what became of those who had served.
13: Deborah Sampson: Woman Soldier
Deborah Sampson served 17 months in the Continental Army disguised as a man, distinguishing herself in battle. Uncover the amazing story of her enlistment, her remarkable service, and how she evaded discovery. Also unearth her experience following the revolution, when, suffering severe economic hardship, she capitalized on her wartime exploits to bring security to her family.
14: War on the American Home Front
Examine the experience of the colonists who did not take up arms during the revolution. Observe the many ways that noncombatants supported the war effort. Take stock of the war’s devastating economic effects on many, and how colonists dealt with privation. Note the divide-and-conquer strategies of the British to undermine the patriots, and what the common people gained from their war experience.
15: Mary Silliman: Soldier’s Wife
Mary Silliman’s life was typical of the sacrifices of thousands of women and mothers amid the revolution. In excerpts from her letters, learn of her early life, the elements of her character, and her hardships during the war, including the traumatic political kidnapping of her husband. Witness how her family survived during the conflict and experience the trials of her later life.
16: The Revolution in Indian Country
Native Americans were heavily involved in the events of the revolution. Study the factors that led most Native tribes to side with the British during the conflict. Take account of the roles of Indigenous peoples in the fighting, the atrocities committed on both sides, and the ways in which the war drastically reshaped the balance of power between Europeans and Native Americans.
17: Molly Brant: Native Power Broker
Molly Brant, a Native Mohawk, was hugely influential on behalf of her people and the cause of Native loyalty to the British war effort. Learn how her marriage to a British diplomat, plus her own extraordinary talents, positioned her to become a military and cultural broker, and how her intelligence work, her role at war councils, and support for Native refugees earned her renown and gratitude.
18: The African American Revolution
Both enslaved and free African Americans responded fervently to the war effort. Witness how initial resistance to using enslaved soldiers in the Continental Army changed with severe manpower shortages. Note how the British recruited African Americans using promises of freedom, luring huge numbers of the enslaved to the British lines, and learn of the varied roles African Americans played during the war.
19: Thomas Jeremiah: Free Black Pilot
The story of Thomas Jeremiah sheds light on the racial politics of the American Revolution. Learn how rumors of British plans to arm the enslaved caused panic among slaveholders in Charleston, South Carolina. Follow the events through which Jeremiah, a wealthy, free Black man, a pilot, and a slaveholder himself, became implicated in a phantom plot to foment a slave rebellion, leading to tragic consequences.
20: The Price of Loyalism
During the revolution, remaining loyal to the immensely powerful British Empire was an attractive choice for Americans across the economic spectrum. Discover the war from the loyalist perspective, from the tensions, intimidation, and violence between loyalists and patriots, to the evacuation and exile of tens of thousands of loyalists over the course of the war.
21: Harry Washington: Runaway Rebel
Harry Washington, born in West Africa, became a slave of George Washington and, eventually, a loyalist. Uncover his life under enslavement and how he came to serve in Black British regiments during the war. Relive the events that took him to Sierra Leone, a destination for loyalist fugitives from slavery, and how he became involved there in rebellion against British oppression.
22: An American Workers’ Revolution
Between 1775 and 1800, working peoples’ economic opportunities diminished significantly. Track the decline of the apprenticeship system and the rise of wage labor, which deprived poorly paid workers of job security. See how this led to widespread strikes, followed by riots and coercive violence, as workers embraced protest tactics they’d exercised during the resistance to British rule.
23: Daniel Shays: Veteran Turned Rebel
Examine the post-revolution plight of Northern farmers. Witness the conditions of crippling debt that led farmers in Western Massachusetts to march on courthouses, igniting severe repercussions from a legislature controlled by business elites. Learn how former soldier Daniel Shays led 1,200 farmers in storming a federal arsenal, and how these events influenced the writing of the Constitution.
24: An American Sexual Revolution
During the revolution, American women became political actors through petitions, protests, and myriad activities during the war. In the decades that followed, observe how they retained and expanded this role, up to the point of a dramatic backlash. See how women’s political actions and awareness in this era led to movements for women’s rights.
25: Martha Ballard: A Midwife’s Tale
Martha Ballard’s diary records her long and rich life during the revolution and afterwards. Learn about her extensive work as a midwife and expertise with numerous kinds of medical treatments. Follow her hardships during the war, when her husband was accused of loyalism, and take note of what her diary reveals about sexual violence toward women, pre-marital sex, and divorce in the young republic.
26: An American Racial Revolution
For African Americans, the legacy of the revolution depended largely on geography. Study the gradual collapse of slavery in the North, while slavery thrived more than ever in the South. Take account of the domestic slave trade in the South, and an attempted rebellion, as well as the struggles of Black people in the North against rampant discrimination and the difficulty of building prosperous lives.
27: Richard Allen: Freedom’s Prophet
Richard Allen bought his way out of slavery and went on to become one of the most important African American leaders of the young republic. Witness his religious awakening, his career as a preacher, and his founding of the Free African Society, a self-help association and political group. Note how he founded the Black church movement in the United States, a central pillar of the Black community.
28: The Unfinished Revolution
Conclude with ruminations on the legacy of the American Revolution. Note how elite factions in the new republic worked against radical social revolution, leaving many classes of people to struggle on for political and social freedoms. Take stock, nevertheless, of how the Declaration of Independence, framed by white men of privilege, has ultimately become a secular creed for everyone else.