Why A Brit Should Teach American Revolutionary History

George III“There’s just one question I have to ask,” said the pleasant young man at the US Embassy, reviewing my visa application. “You are aware that we won, right?”

As a Brit teaching early American history in the U.S., I get some version of this question quite a lot. And it’s something I play up to in my own classes, as well. Many of my courses begin with the warning: “If you learn nothing else over the next 15 weeks, you will understand what it is like to be subject to arbitrary British despotism.” When teaching the Boston Massacre, I jest that I’m worried to give too much information, just in case my students get ideas. And in teaching colonial history, I remind my students that the history we cover is as British as it is American.

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National Identity and the American Revolution

In his recent review of Kevin Phillips’s 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, Jack Rakove argues that in tackling the causes of independence, “Phillips deals with political loyalties more fundamental than the mere matter of party allegiance.” The inference is clear—deciding to be a member or an activist for a political party is one thing; but your nationality is something that defines you in perpetuity. Once revolutionaries chose to take on the label ‘American’, there was no turning back. It was who they were; while that American identity might be complex and multifaceted, there is something about ‘national character’ that stands above the rough and tumble of party politics. Continue reading