People's History, Founding Myths, and the American Revolution


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Common People of the American Revolution

Lesson Plan Ideas by Ray Raphael 

Objective: To treat common people as political players who make strategic decisions and take historically significant actions.

Applicable courses: United States history at any level (with appropriate adjustments for age); civics.

Key definition: “Common people” are all those who do not enjoy the special privileges coming from wealth, prestige, or political power.

Rationale: Why do we need to include common people in the telling of history?

(1) As a simple matter of social justice, these people should be given the credit that is their due. Pharaohs did not build the pyramids by themselves, nor did kings and presidents “make history” on their own.

(2) If we want to tell a complete story and get it right, we have no choice but to include a full range of historical personages.

(3) If we marginalize common people of the past, we learn how to marginalize common people in the present. Through the study of history, students internalize the dynamics of the political process; typically, they study history for at least six years before undertaking a study of politics per se. When they read or hear that Washington marched against Cornwallis at Yorktown, they learn to view wars as chess games between military or political leaders. Unwittingly, they learn to ignore or at least marginalize the soldiers and civilians who actually fight and die in wars, both past and present.

The first two concerns are increasingly addressed in our multi-cultural texts. The third is more problematic. Common people must be included not only in side-bars, but in the core narratives of the main texts. They need to be treated as viable political agents, acting purposively and significantly in pursuit of their own interests and ideals. Only then will they serve as models for true citizenship in a democratic and inclusive society.

Anticipatory Set: Brief presentation to the class, along the following lines. Did you know that the American Revolution was the largest Indian War in our nation’s history? Did you know that 17 of George Washington’s slaves and 30 of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves fled to the British in search of their freedom? Did you know that Lexington was not the beginning of the American Revolution? The first “revolution,” or overthrow of an existing government, happened the year before, when common farmers from throughout Massachusetts toppled all British authority. (For more, see Introduction to People’s History.)

We don’t usually hear about these stories because common people are not often taken seriously. They should be. We will take their actions seriously by placing ourselves in their places. How would you have responded if you were an Indian at the time of the American Revolution, or a slave on Washington’s plantation, or a farmer in Massachusetts who had just lost the power of his vote?

Procedures: Simulations of four different situations.

1. A council of Iroquois Indians in upstate New York, 1777, trying to decide which side to support in the Revolutionary War.

2. Slaves on George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia, 1781, trying to decide whether or not to flee to the British.

3. A town meeting in Massachusetts, 1774, trying to decide how to respond to being deprived of the right to self-government.

4. A caucus of private soldiers in 1780, discussing how to respond to a lack of provisions.

Any one of these can stand alone, but the objective will be better achieved with more than one. If time is a constraint, the class could split up into sections, each engaging in one simulation.

Download a PDF of these four simulations.

If you need a PDF viewer, Adobe Reader is available for free.

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