Today’s guest post comes from Steven Elliott, a PhD candidate in American Military History at Temple University. Elliott (@EastJerseySteve) is writing a dissertation about the American War of Independence, tentatively titled “The Highlands War: Soldiers, Civilians, and Landscapes in Revolutionary New Jersey.” He has worked for seven years as a historical interpreter at Morristown National Historical Park in Morristown, New Jersey, which is the subject of this guest post.
“The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation,” Freeman Tilden, NPS
Despite Tilden’s call to action, provocative interpretation at many National Parks remains a challenge, especially for Revolution-era sites. As many Americans learn (or re-learn) their history at public history venues, rather than through books or schooling, the Park Service can play an important role in bringing challenging interpretations to popular audiences. Yet, this can be difficult for Revolutionary-era sites, many of which were created to focus on “heroic narratives” emphasizing military campaigns and political leaders. In this post, I reflect on my personal experiences in attempting to challenge visitors’ assumptions about the Revolution, as a seasonal park guide at Morristown National Historical Park in Morristown, NJ.
Morristown’s main attractions are the Ford Mansion, the home of a wealthy widow used as Washington’s headquarters in 1780, an adjacent museum, and Jockey Hollow, the 1780 encampment site of 10,000 Continental soldiers. Founded in 1933, throughout the early decades of the park’s existence, these venues served to reify the heroic, military narrative of the war. Tours of the Ford Mansion emphasized Washington’s leadership, while Jockey Hollow highlighted soldiers’ patriotic dedication to duty despite poor pay and chronic food shortages. The museum included a hagiographic hall of “Washingtonia” as well as an abundance of period weapons. Absent were any discussion of the Revolution’s origins, internal dissent, loyalists, neutrals, class conflict, blacks, Indians, or women. Indeed, the very sites chosen for preservation (headquarters house, camp ground) makes more difficult presenting narratives outside of the traditional political/military story.
Nevertheless, recent years have witnessed shifts towards a more nuanced interpretation. A “War Comes to Morristown Exhibit” highlighted how the army’s arrival forced residents to choose sides, and they did not always pick the Patriots. With the advent of multiculturalism during the 1980s, the Park placed new emphasis on the experiences of African Americans, Native Americans, and Women, though often in the form of special programs coinciding with Black History Month or Women’s History Month. In the late 2000s, a major renovation of the museum did away with the guns and Washingtonia, replacing them with a Colonial Style Gallery emphasizing consumer culture (hat tip to T.H. Breen) and a Pamphlets of Protest Gallery (with a nod to Bailyn and Wood).
Despite these shifts, it remains a challenge to bring complicated interpretation to visitors on a daily basis. Old-stock patrons have received the museum renovations unfavorably, with more than one angry parent firing off letters to the superintendent, complaining that the “gun room” of their childhood has been replaced by newspapers and things “kids don’t care about.” Turn-out at special events highlighting the role of women or blacks in the revolution remains low. In an era of declining budgets and overworked staffs, there’s little money or manpower to spare for community outreach events that might attract a younger or more diverse crowd.
Given these constraints of what the park has to work with, how can a guide bring a more nuanced perspective to public history venues such as mine? The Revolution suffers the irony of having a very rich and contested historiography, yet the general public subscribes to a straightforward narrative of taxes, revolt, and war. How can one provoke a dialogue about the origins of the Revolution on a historic house tour, or bring new perspectives on the war during an outdoor hike? Here are a few successes I’ve had, during my time at the park:
- Using the site’s perceived disadvantages as strengths. Morristown suffers from its relative anonymity; rarely capturing the attention of scholars or the popular public, it has long been overshadowed by the more famous winter encampment at Valley Forge. Moreover, New Jersey’s story in the Revolution, aside from being home to a few of the more famous battles, is little known, its path to rebellion unfamiliar compared to the stories from New England, Virginia, or Pennsylvania that often make it into the text books. So, a quick background at the start of any program detailing New Jersey’s path from colony to state, one in which support for independence was late-blooming and tepid, complicates many visitors’ preconceptions. Explaining why Valley Forge is more famous than Morristown often leads to a wonderful dialogue on the nature of memory and commemoration, what stories are preserved, and which are forgotten.
- Make use of nature. The encampment section of the park sprawls over two square miles, much of it pristine forests and hiking trails, and many of our visitors tend to be more interested in outdoor activities than history. Most have a keen interest in the natural world, one that can be tied to the past through environmental history. How did the presence of 10,000 men affect the forested hills they camped on? How did climate shape the winter campaign, such as when cold temperatures froze New York Harbor, enabling an overland attack on Staten Island? A quick visitor question about Mosquito protection can lead to a conversation about that insect’s role in weakening the British army during the southern campaign. National parks, because they so often blend history and nature, make for the perfect venues to engage patrons through environmental history.
- Continue to highlight diversity. Even in telling a narrowly military story, there is still room in the narrative to show how the war was not fought and won by a monolithic mass of patriotic white male volunteers. Recent scholarship on the Continental Army has highlighted its ethnic diversity as well as the class divisions between officers and men. The army at Morristown was likely composed primarily of the landless poor, many of them recent Irish and German immigrants. One visitor complained that description made the Continentals sound a lot like their Redcoat opponents. Provocation achieved, I counted that as one small victory for the front-line interpreter.
 Morristown itself is trending younger and more diverse, with a non-Hispanic white population of 48% as of 2010. A recent downtown building boom and ample nightlife has brought an influx of young professionals as well. The region overall remains wealthy, if not white. Morris and Somerset counties are both in the top 20 in per-capita income.
 For this interpretation, see Charles Neimeryer, America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army (New York: New York University Press, 1997) and James Martin and Mark Lender, A Respectable Army: the Military Origins of the Republic (Malden: Blackwell, 2005).