Some American history writers seem unwilling to take on the racist, violent events and attitudes of our shared past. Unless the topic directly relates to the atrocities and the people impacted by them, the writers either ignore them or pay some kind of lip service. I think we can celebrate ingenuity and innovation without sacrificing the often pretty terrible truth about how America became and continues to become the country it is.
Philbrick takes time out from recounting the first battles of the Revolutionary War to point out the essential hypocrisy and single minded fanaticism of the colonists. Long after the war was over, one of the militiamen stated his reason for fighting very simply: “We always had been free, and we meant to be free always” (p. 121). Philbrick does not let that statement simply go by without comment:
But to say that a love of democratic ideals had inspired these country people to take up arms against the regular is to misrepresent the reality of the revolutionary movement. Freedom was for these militiamen a very relative term. As for their Puritan ancestors, it applied only to those who were just like them. Enslaved African Americans, Indians, women, Catholics, and especially British loyalists were not worthy of the same freedoms they enjoyed. It did not seem a contradiction to these men that standing among them that night was the thirty-four-year-old enslaved African American Prince Estabrook, owned by town selectman and justice of the peace Benjamin Estabrook (p. 121).
He goes on to describe the sometimes brutal suppression of loyalists in Massachusetts. Tar and feathering was a popular punishment, and early in the book, Philbrick describes one such attack with excruciating detail so we understand the horror. Later, he only has to mention that it was administered to make my skin crawl.
I remember when, during her husband’s first Presidential campaign, Michelle Obama made a comment about being really proud of her country for the first time. Not surprisingly, she was widely criticized. But from its beginnings, the country that emphasized freedom for all not only left lots of people out, but did so in horrible, dehumanizing ways.
It is not without a touch of irony that Philbrick ends the section about the small battle in Lexington in which Prince Estabrook took part by describing the aftermath:
Besides Pitcairn’s twice-wounded horse and two soldiers who had received minor injuries, all the casualties had been sufferwd by the provincials, with eight dead and ten wounded, included Prince Estabrook, who became the first African American casualty of the Revo;ution since the death of the black sailor Crispus Attacks at the Boston Massacre (p. 128).