Museum of the American Revolution, PhiladelphiaGeorge Washington’s war tent, on display at the Museum of the American Revolution

The American Revolution has returned to Philadelphia. After almost two decades of planning and fund-raising, the Museum of the American Revolution opened its doors last April 19, the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord. Its thousands of artifacts, with the support of the latest interactive digital technology, recount a provocative story of how ordinary men and women of different races and ethnicities experienced military conflict and then, having achieved independence from Great Britain, created a republic that has survived for more than two centuries.

As one might expect, the museum celebrates the courage and vision of the country’s leaders, such as George Washington, but it does much more. It gives visitors a far greater sense of the personal sacrifice and frustrated aspirations of those who saw the Revolution as an opportunity to achieve personal liberty. By depicting the full complexity of nation-building—a contentious process that brought people of very different regions and cultures under a stable constitutional government—the museum encourages a candid reassessment of the origins of our shared political culture.

Gone from this interpretation of the Revolution is the smooth, comforting narrative of a liberty-loving people who moved effortlessly from resisting colonial oppression to creating a new federal republic. There were many false starts, accusations of betrayal, and enduring disappointments. Freedom and liberty were goals, not accomplishments. As a museum film entitled Authors of Independence observes, the promise of the Declaration of Independence “will be fulfilled only when all people have equal rights and an equal voice in government.”

Many visitors will, of course, bring to Philadelphia a narrative of the American Revolution they learned as schoolchildren. The traditional story begins with the coronation of George III in 1760. Soon afterward, Parliament decided to raise revenue from the colonists to cover the cost of defending the empire. Although the Americans affirmed their loyalty to Great Britain, they protested taxation without representation, and in a series of confrontations with British authority, they defended noble political principles—liberty and rights—against what they increasingly perceived as tyranny. At every stage in the growing resistance, leaders of the colonial gentry—wealthy lawyers, planters, and merchants—gave voice to their grievances. These men produced scholarly pamphlets in which they argued for greater representation in government affairs; they served in the Continental Congress, guiding the country through military and fiscal crises that could have thwarted national independence and the establishment of a new republic.

The difficulty with this familiar history of American political development is that it often reduces ordinary people of the time to mere spectators of their own revolution, giving them no meaningful part in a story that focuses mainly on abstract political thought or the actions of a few famous leaders. The Museum of the American Revolution gives the Founders proper acknowledgement. But it expands the historical memory to include the experiences of a broader range of participants—farmers and artisans as well as African-American slaves and Native Americans who also actively engaged in a colonial rebellion that became a revolution. The point is not that these largely ignored Americans failed to comprehend the intellectual rationale for revolution. They did comprehend it. But they came to the creation of an independent republic from different perspectives. The choices they made about freedom and survival sometimes put them at odds with other Americans. The museum confronts visitors with a more troubled take on the use and abuse of political power.

The centerpiece of this fresh interpretation of the American Revolution is George Washington’s campaign tent, known at the time as the Marquee (the contemporary military term). Its survival over two centuries is a fascinating story. Throughout the war Washington insisted on sharing the discomforts of military life with the troops. The linen canvas structure was larger than theirs, twenty-three feet long and fourteen feet wide, but it barely protected him from the cold weather. During the harsh winter of 1777–1778, when the army was quartered at Valley Forge, the tent provided a private space where Washington issued orders and begged the Continental Congress for greater support.

After retiring from the presidency, Washington moved the tent to Mount Vernon. When he died in 1799 it passed to his wife, Martha. By this time the tent had suffered considerable damage. Perhaps sensing its historical significance, Martha gave it to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who in turn presented it to his daughter Mary Anna. She was the wife of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general. During the Civil War, when Union soldiers seized the Lee house in Arlington, Virginia, a slave woman, Selina Norris Gray, protected the tent from souvenir hunters. It eventually fell into the hands of the federal government, and for several decades the Marquee remained largely forgotten in a warehouse.

Mary Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee’s daughter, refused to accept the loss of her property. She insisted that the Marquee had been seized illegally. In time, President William McKinley accepted her argument. The tent was returned to the Lee family. But as soon became clear, Mary had little personal interest in its historical significance. She wanted to raise money for a retirement home for Confederate widows in Richmond, and she demanded what was then the formidable price of $5,000 for the Washington tent.

The Reverend W. Herbert Burk, an indefatigable collector of Americana who lived in Pennsylvania, immediately came forward, announcing that whatever the expense the tent should be raised once again at Valley Forge. Against all odds he succeeded. Burk also managed to obtain the original Washington campaign flag, thirteen white six-pointed stars on a blue background. At the time, he announced: “If there was nothing but this old flag and tent in the Valley Forge Museum of American History, it would be the greatest collection of Washington Relics in the world, for these are two things which were used by him and represented him in the greatest struggle of his life.”

The Marquee now anchors the Philadelphia museum’s interpretation of the American Revolution. The curators who decided how best to present the fully restored tent to the public developed a strikingly original perspective. They chose not to exhibit it as a shrine to George Washington’s heroic leadership. Indeed, they did not make much of its military significance. Nor did they attempt to transform the tent into a kind of patriotic relic designed to promote wistfulness for an exceptional founding generation.

A short film entitled Washington’s War Tent urges viewers to see the Marquee as an enduring symbol of the country’s core values, such as unity and equality. It invites the public to perceive the American Revolution not as a historical moment but as a process, as an ongoing challenge to bring together people of different backgrounds and races—African-Americans, Native Americans, and white Americans—and admonishes us not to take national unity for granted.

In this setting Washington’s Marquee bears witness to an unfinished Revolutionary agenda. To be sure, it once served as the headquarters of the man who fought for national independence, but it was also the place where Washington’s slave William “Billy” Lee served his owner while the nation’s political leaders complained of being slaves to the British Parliament. Washington constantly appealed for unity, knowing full well that many states had refused to provide the resources necessary to defeat the British. The museum has made no effort to hide such unresolved political and social tensions. When the movie ends the screen becomes transparent, dramatically revealing an inspiring view of the real tent. A light glows within it, as though Washington were still working hard to make the Revolution a success.

The museum is located among some of the most revered historic sites in the United States. The classically inspired redbrick structure designed by Robert A.M. Stern complements the architecture of its neighbors, the First Bank of the United States, Carpenters’ Hall, and Independence Hall. The museum raised some $150 million in private donations, a sum that has allowed it to assemble an impressive collection of objects and to establish a research center.

It is remarkable that the Museum of the American Revolution ever got off the ground. By the time Reverend Burk died in 1933, he had amassed a huge number of artifacts that had no adequate home. As various groups at Valley Forge who wanted to preserve his collection soon discovered, the growing number of Revolutionary items required ever more space and funds. The prospect for success was not promising. Not until the end of the twentieth century were separate, often competing historical institutions at Valley Forge able to devise a solution. Through a complex land swap, the National Park Service exchanged privately owned acreage next to Valley Forge for a sizeable lot in Philadelphia’s historic district. Thanks to the efforts of city leaders and state officials, construction of the new museum finally began in the fall of 2014.

Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia‘A Brawl in Harvard Yard’: an exhibit depicting a clash in 1775 between northern and southern troops of the Continental Army. George Washington is at center, breaking up the fight.

Visitors initially enter the museum through a large, light-filled hall, and then are immediately swept up a long curved staircase to the spacious second-floor galleries, which encircle a central atrium. The rooms that house the museum’s collection of Revolutionary artifacts are arranged in roughly chronological order, so that one first confronts the objects of a colonial era during which Americans strongly identified with British culture, and eventually comes to an exhibit on the ratification of the Constitution. Several poignant exhibits along the way provoke reflection on what the American Revolution currently means to us, as well as to the people who actually experienced it.

Indeed, a striking feature of the entire exhibit is that the individual displays often pose questions, leaving it up to the public to decide how best to resolve apparent conflicts and competing agendas. At the start, four questions attempt to provide thematic coherence for the Revolutionary tour: How did people become revolutionaries? How did the Revolution survive its darkest hour—the rout of Washington’s army following the British conquest of New York City in the fall of 1776? How revolutionary was the war? What kind of nation did the Revolution create?

The last two questions are particularly complicated, since the character of our Revolutionary heritage still sparks heated debate. Some visitors see the American Revolution as somehow exceptional, even divinely inspired, and unlike other revolutions such as those in France and Russia that transformed the modern world; they consider it less violent, more intellectual, and not so threatening. The museum presents a more accurate interpretation, reminding visitors that achieving national independence involved chronic violence, especially against loyalists who suffered greatly for their allegiance to the Crown. It is not surprising, therefore, that such people may leave the museum perplexed, disturbed by the lack of clear answers, longing perhaps for a comforting narrative of great men fighting for high principles.

However they may react to the museum’s overall interpretation of the American Revolution, visitors will surely find the individual objects and displays captivating. There is almost too much information to absorb. One sees the predictable assortment of weapons, but as interesting as the guns and swords may be, the museum does more than recount major battles. It uses the latest technology to introduce artifacts and personalities that in a less imaginative setting would generate little interest. Here one presses a command on a screen and hears from figures who participated in the Revolution. They speak to the public through interactive digital presentations, and their testimony is grounded in careful research. The challenge, of course, is one that all contemporary museums face: How can they draw a younger, more diverse audience into the interpretive experience without falsifying the past? Visitors can observe intense battlefield action in a special theater that provides thunderous noise and cannon smoke. They can walk the deck of a privateer or touch a fragment of the last surviving Liberty Tree, which a hurricane felled in Annapolis in 1999.

Some galleries have the capacity not only to surprise but also to recapture the profoundly human dimensions of the past. There are few Americans who have not encountered the line from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1837 “Concord Hymn” in which he memorializes the famed bridge: “Here once the embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard round the world.” The curators of the museum managed to obtain a large piece of the original bridge.

An equally astonishing find came from New York City, where a contingent of Continental soldiers pulled down a statue of George III, vowing to transform the symbol of British authority into bullets. As it turns out, not all the metal became musket balls. A section of the original statue somehow survived, providing vivid, tangible testimony to the violent rejection of monarchical authority. And in one corner, easily missed on this demanding Revolutionary tour, is a small collection of toys discovered in what was a British military camp. The tiny carved animals are a reminder that the men who fought the battles also had wives and children.

Throughout the museum, key exhibits reinforce the idea that social and political cooperation had to be forged out of unpromising materials. A fragile sense of national purpose developed slowly. One tableau entitled “A Brawl in Harvard Yard” depicts Washington in full military uniform trying to stop a fight between soldiers from Virginia and New England. It is hard to accept that a person of such reserve would have intervened at such a moment, but the explanatory label assures us that the incident was well documented. If nothing else the life-cast figures, snowballs in hand and tussling with Washington, remind visitors of the difficulty of mounting effective resistance to Great Britain. As much as these American troops disliked the king and Parliament, they thoroughly distrusted each other as well.

African-Americans and Native Americans faced excruciatingly difficult decisions throughout the war. The slave population was about 400,000, nearly 20 percent of all the people living in the British colonies. They too heard the call for freedom and liberty. They carefully calculated—often at great personal risk—how the Revolution might liberate them from bondage. The break with Great Britain invited them to make choices. Many supported the king, but the British had little more interest in freeing the slaves than did Virginia planters such as Thomas Jefferson, who despite his declaration that all men are created equal of course owned slaves himself.

What is striking is that the museum does not treat the African-American experience as an afterthought or a marginal element in the narrative of independence and nation-building. Slaves appear in almost every room. We encounter prominent figures such as Phillis Wheatley, the Boston slave who achieved international renown for her poetry. Other, less well known black men and women also are featured, reinforcing a more inclusive Revolutionary story. We meet Elizabeth Freeman, for example, who demanded her freedom in a Massachusetts court after learning of the equality promised by the Declaration of Independence. At one interactive station London Pleasants tells of his escape from a Virginia Quaker, Robert Pleasants, in the spring of 1781. He celebrated his newfound freedom as a trumpeter in Benedict Arnold’s British American Legion. Another disturbing display contains a set of hand-wrought manacles small enough for a child.

Native Americans also command attention. An entire room is devoted to the decision of the Oneida Nation, a member of the Iroquois Confederacy, to support the American cause. In front of a group of life-cast Indian figures we can listen to a debate about how best to react to a war that threatened their own sovereignty. The decision to forge an alliance with the United States came at a terrible cost. Many Oneida warriors were killed fighting the British at Oriskany and Saratoga in 1777. Other Native American groups tried to remain neutral or backed the British. For most of them the American Revolution ended in tragedy. As soon as the Americans won independence, thousands of farmers moved beyond the Appalachian Mountains, seizing land and pushing the Indians aside. While the museum is correct to recognize the Oneida contribution to the Revolution, it could perhaps have informed visitors more fully about how citizens of the newly independent United States destroyed Indian settlements, often without making any distinction between friend and foe.

The journey through the museum concludes with three brilliantly conceived presentations. On a long wall hang photographs of over one hundred men and women who lived during the Revolution and somehow managed to survive until the mid-nineteenth-century invention of photography. They stare out at us, wide-eyed, seemingly a little surprised by the process of recording their likeness; time has taken a toll on all of them. The photographs have the effect of compressing time. These are not strange and distant figures dressed in periwigs, knee breeches, or hooped skirts. They share a technology with modern Americans. Suddenly the people and issues that once energized their lives resonate with our world. They provide a human link to the Revolution. Confronting them in this form makes it easier to engage with their generation’s appeal for unity and equality, rights and freedom.

Second, in a short film entitled The Ongoing Revolution, the museum urges us to reflect on what is in fact the central question of the whole experience: What kind of nation did the Revolution create? The answer is delivered as a message of hope and uncertainty. For more than two centuries Americans have tried to make good on the Revolutionaries’ appeal for unity and equality. On many occasions they have turned their backs on their own heritage of political and social justice. But the film insists that the core values have endured, through a long and bitter Civil War and inspiring twentieth-century demands by women and minorities for full citizenship.

Some commentators have found this interpretation of our Revolutionary origins irritating, claiming that the museum has transformed the nation’s founding into a narrative driven by modern identity politics. Such criticism misses the point. However nostalgic one may be for the traditional story of gifted and heroic Founding Fathers, one cannot credibly deny that men and women of several races, competing economic classes, and different ethnic backgrounds made significant contributions to the American Revolution, driving it forward, asking hard questions about its goals, and shaping its ultimate outcome. A gritty, more inclusive account is not only more accurate than are histories that focus only on elites but also a reminder that we have not yet fulfilled the promise of the Revolution.

Finally, the visitors exiting the galleries pass a wall of mirrors. This display serves as a forceful reminder that we are still Revolutionaries. We bear a responsibility to be true to our own political and cultural inheritance. During a troubled moment in our shared history this is an important message to communicate to the public. The burden is heavy. Unity and equality—basic elements of freedom—cannot be taken for granted. The Revolution depicted here remains fragile, incomplete, a goal rather than an accomplishment. It is not yet time to extinguish the light in Washington’s tent.

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