Ordinary Americans in the Revolution

Meet the everyday people who made the American Revolution happen.
Ordinary Americans in the Revolution is rated 5.0 out of 5 by 3.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from The History We Should Learn This lecture cuts through the overview of history we are flooded with written by or about the most prominent. This course has me feeling I can relate more to their challenges, while thinking about the forces shaping their outcomes. It seems many of our collective challenges would narrow some if we learned more about the daily life of those who came before us. Otherwise, such history seems to be a repeated cycle, albeit a forgotten one. I like that other reference material was provided as well as scholars drawn upon to not only give credit but provide us with a path to learn more about a particular topic.
Date published: 2021-09-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What an able consideration of the ORDINARY Not immediately attracted to the course, I feared it would be a quaint, romanticized description of everyday life in those times. How pleasantly surprised I have been. Without any overt intent whatever, the author presents the facts, to the extent the facts CAN be known, of the "little people" involved in this period. The unvarnished expressions of these people, equally forgotten as most of us will be, powerfully explicate the truth of the situation as irrefutably a childlike manner, allowing for the power of the principles their experiences denote. The level of scholarship of the author is such that my observation can be of no surprise to him. Considering the personal horror I have experienced as I've noted our society methodically destroying itself, and it's institutions, in past 30 years, I find these stories to be very comforting, surprisingly and paradoxically so. To see the facts confirm so forcefully, (in a still small voice, as it were), that the cultural myths of the American story, powerfully contrary to facts. In my serious study of American history over past 25 years, I have, unguided by personal, previosly politically very comservative political beliefs, been very gradually made aware that the Revolutionary War, itself, was a Tax Revolt, spurred by prominent, successful Boston smugglers, who justified their pursuit of greed "at all costs," presented the often illiterate yeoman farmer with such lofty Lockian principles as in Declaration of Independence to justify their violent pursuit of that greed. Like recent similar "actors" in baby boomer generation, of which I am a part, Thomas Payne's vitriolic "Common Sense" to stir these peasant farmers up, Washington also enlisted Payne to accelerate donation of supplies from local farmers from countryside for his soldiers at Valley Forge. Surprisingly, perhaps, I DO not denigrae the Founding Fathers. In fact, George Washington's repeated refusals to accept kingship is likely most determinative singular event in world history. Yes, it was momentous accomplishment even to aspire to such a republiccas ours. The insertion of "republican, representative" form of democracy as a buffer against some of weaknesses of Athenian, direct democracy was masterful. James Madison's idea of separation of powers and, later, his formulation of Bill of Rights, were strokes of genius. BUT, they were, at base, unscrupulous, capricious businessmen, who wrapped that greed in cloak .of high minded, beautifully written prose. That it worked out AS WELL AS IT HAS, GIVES me GREAT comfort. It does NOT, however, give me HOPE. It is no mistake that the brains, and ende minds, created by our DNA has resulted in our inescapable VIOLENCE, with REAL BLOOD and REAL DEAD bodies, akin to our fellow primate, the baboon. I was especially attracted to statement attributed to Grosvenour Morris, decrying with alarm to fellow convention members, his terror that EVEN the local bipusinessmen of Philadelphia were expressing interest in governing. Thus, he called them to action. (Listen CAREFULLY, it is an EXPLICIT QUOTE.)
Date published: 2021-09-18
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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.


Richard Bell
Richard Bell

No one is ever truly ordinary.


University of Maryland, College Park

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.

By This Professor

America’s Long Struggle against Slavery
Ordinary Americans in the Revolution
Ordinary Americans in the Revolution


Ordinary Lives in Revolutionary Times

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.

21 min
Down and Out in Colonial America

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.

25 min
Jane Mecom: Franklin’s Struggling Sister

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.

23 min
Boycotting the Townshend Taxes

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.

26 min
Ebenezer Mackintosh: Stamp Act Protestor

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.

25 min
The Occupation of Boston

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.

25 min
Crispus Attucks: The Massacre’s Martyr

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.

24 min
Sailors, Shoemakers, Crowds, and Class

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.

24 min
George Hewes: Tea Party Captain

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.

25 min
Forging a Common Cause in the Colonies

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.

26 min
Tom Paine: Immigrant Pamphleteer

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.

23 min
Colonial Soldiering Life

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.

26 min
Deborah Sampson: Woman Soldier

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.

23 min
War on the American Home Front

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.

22 min
Mary Silliman: Soldier’s Wife

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.

25 min
The Revolution in Indian Country

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.

29 min
Molly Brant: Native Power Broker

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.

24 min
The African American Revolution

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.

25 min
Thomas Jeremiah: Free Black Pilot

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.

27 min
The Price of Loyalism

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.

23 min
Harry Washington: Runaway Rebel

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.

25 min
An American Workers’ Revolution

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.

28 min
Daniel Shays: Veteran Turned Rebel

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.

26 min
An American Sexual Revolution

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.

24 min
Martha Ballard: A Midwife’s Tale

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.

25 min
An American Racial Revolution

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 min
Richard Allen: Freedom’s Prophet

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.

24 min
The Unfinished Revolution

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.

32 min