History Department
History Department

You Say You Want a Revolution? Making History in the Classroom

Wed, June 4, 2014
You Say You Want a Revolution? Making History in the Classroom
Students of Prof. Olwell's "Debating The American Revolution" Seminar, Fall 2013

By Dr. Robert A. Olwell, Associate Professor of History, The University of Texas at Austin

Two students stand back-to-back in the center of the room.  At my signal, they step in opposite directions, turn, and shoot. Afterward, one crumples to the floor dead while the rest of the class erupts in cheers of glee or howls of outrage. This scene took place in my classroom last fall. My students were all “in character,” acting the part of the historical figures to which they each had been assigned. The duelists were Abraham Brasher, a New York City silversmith and member of the “Sons of Liberty,” and Christopher Billop, a Staten Island farmer loyal to the king. Although Brasher and Billop were both genuine historic figures and real political foes, their fatal meeting never actually took place. The student playing Billop had provoked the duel, gambling that if the dice fell his way (the projectiles they each “shot” were not bullets but dice), Brasher’s death might prevent the New York Provincial Congress from voting for independence.

It might strange for a history professor to allow his students to fight “duels,” let alone to encourage them to make choices and pursue strategies that diverge from the reality of the past, but such fictitious events and “unhistoric” outcomes are an integral part of a class that I have taught for the past few years called “Debating the American Revolution.”     

The class was first inspired by the book Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution in New York City, 1775-1776 written by William Offutt (a history professor at Pace University in New York City). This book is part of a series called “Reacting to the Past” launched in the late 1990s by Professor Mark Carnes of Barnard College. Each of the (now nine) books in the series focuses upon a particular historical event or debate. Carnes believed that students would be more engaged with history if they encountered it as a participant rather than as a spectator. In the case of Offutt’s book, the chosen setting was New York City in the period between the start of the revolutionary war in April 1775 and the passage of the Declaration of Independence fifteen months later, and the historical debate was whether or not New York should join the American Revolution.

As soon as I read Offut’s book I knew that I wanted to try it. However, as I became more excited about the idea, I also became convinced that I would need an entire semester, and not merely the five weeks he allowed, to do the job properly. I believed the students’ role-playing would be more factually grounded (and therefore more historically accurate) if they were given a deeper background in the ideas and material life of late colonial New York before the “game” began.

In my course we devote the first half of the semester to background research. We begin by reading and discussing things colonial New Yorkers would have (or at least could have) read. These include extracts from “classics” of early modern political theory (Locke, Hobbes, and Montesquieu) as well as from writers less well remembered (or read) today but who were very popular and influential two-hundred fifty years ago such as Lord Bolingbroke, and John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s “Cato’s Letters.” From there we progress to reading the pamphlets published on both sides of the Atlantic during the imperial crisis of the decade prior to 1775. Bringing things home, we finish with political tracts written by colonial New Yorkers themselves. Students read an essay by the loyalist parson, Samuel Seabury, writing under the pseudonym the “Westchester Farmer,” and the robust rebuttal penned by Alexander Hamilton, then a twenty-year-old student at Kings College (now Columbia University).

From the world of political ideas, we move on to the nitty-gritty of daily life. To give students a sense of the physical landscape of colonial New York City, we pore over a wonderful map of the southern end of Manhattan Island made by John Montresor, an officer in the Royal Engineers, on the eve of the revolution. On the map, the city sits on the southernmost tip of the island, occupying an area about the same size as UT’s campus. (The whole of colonial New York City lies beneath what is today the financial district, south of the Brooklyn bridge and east of the former World Trade center site.) Colonial New Yorkers still lived in close proximity to the countryside. On Montresor’s map, Greenwich village was still literally that, a rural hamlet separated from the city proper by a mile and a half of fields and forest.

Yet, despite its small size, colonial New York was a surprisingly urban place. With approximately 25,000 inhabitants, the city was the second largest in the colonies (after Philadelphia). Living crowded together into such a confined space, the population density of colonial New York City was almost twice that of its modern counterpart – and about the same as that of modern Manhattan.      

However, unlike modern Manhattanites, colonial New Yorkers did not live in towering skyscrapers. Buildings in the colonial city were only three or four stories tall (and usually built of brick). Colonial New York’s “better sort” could not escape the bustle of the street (or the presence of the poor) by riding an elevator up to a penthouse. All colonial New Yorkers, rich and poor, black and white, lived in constant and close proximity to each other. They walked the same broad streets or narrow alleys and often slept beneath the same roofs (although the poor – or enslaved – were likely to be relegated to cramped and unheated attics, or dank basements.

Lastly, each of my students is tasked with reading one month’s worth of a newspaper printed in New York City between July 1773 and March 1775. (Digital versions of these and many other Early American newspapers are available online through the UT library web-site.) Most colonial newspapers were weeklies and each issue was only six to eight pages long, so this assignment is not quite as onerous as it might sound. (However, since paper was expensive, colonial printers used very narrow margins and small fonts so as to cram as much as possible on every page.)

Perusing the pages of a colonial newspaper is a bit like peering into the past. Then as now, newspapers are written for today; yesterday’s newspaper is used to wrap the fish. Thus, everything you read in the paper speaks to immediate concerns: a long-ago present, frozen forever in time. We will never know if the runaway slave advertised for by his master escaped or was caught and returned for the reward. In the woodcut that accompanies the advertisement, he is caught in mid-stride, perpetually on the run.

Besides reading for the “news,” I ask my students to examine the advertisements that made up the bulk of each issue (and of the printer’s income). Students are naturally appalled at notices of slave auctions, but they also are intrigued by the minutiae of a distant time and place that in its fervent hopes and desires (good health, fashionable attire) as well as its problems and fears (illness, debt, death) can seem surprisingly familiar. For example, then, as now, high-speed travel was a valuable commodity. One recurrent ad was for the “Flying Machine,” an express stagecoach service that boasted of being able to transport passengers the 100 miles between New York and Philadelphia in only two days.

Besides writing papers (for me) on their newspaper reading, the students also present their findings to the rest of the class. Because each student reports upon a different month between the July 1773 and March 1775, listening to their presentations in chronological order encapsulates the last stages of the imperial crisis as it occurred. This sense of the impending crisis ends in April 1775, the first meeting of the New York Provincial Congress, and the start of the “game.”

At last, midway through the semester, comes the moment that everyone has been waiting for. From a tri-cornered hat, each student draws the name of his or her character. I then leave the room for five minutes. While I am gone anyone unhappy with their “lot” can try to persuade someone to trade with them (I plead ignorance regarding the terms of any such bargains.) Upon my return, roles are written down and students cannot alter or escape their chosen “fate.” I then give every student a sealed envelope containing secret information about their character which they are not to reveal to anyone and which they should use to guide their conduct in the game.

Each character belongs to one of four larger groups or (in 18th-century language) “factions.” Five students are patriots, charged with promoting the revolution and declaring independence. Four students are loyalists, tasked with preventing the same. Another four classmates are “moderates,” members of the Provincial Congress who have yet to decide between the first two options. This moderate bloc forms the “swing vote” whose support the patriots will need to win if they are to prevail. The tri-partite division of our in-class Congress echoes John Adams’s post-war calculation that at the start of the Revolution Americans were evenly divided between patriots, loyalists, neutrals. It also closely reflects the actual historical situation in Colonial New York, where loyalism and neutralism were both particularly strong.  

The patriots’ challenge of winning over the moderates is made harder by the last and largest segment of the class representing the great majority of colonial New York’s inhabitants: those people who were not permitted to vote or sit in the Provincial Congress. In our class, this group consists of two poor men, two women, two slaves, and a clandestine Catholic. In class, we call the politically disenfranchised the “People-Out-of-Doors” (or PODs). This was a polite 18th-century term for people more often and less respectfully called “the lower sort,” the “mob,” “crowd,” or, in Edmund Burke’s memorable phrase: “the swinish multitude.” (In modern political parlance, we might call them “the street.”)

In the early modern era, however, as well as in our game, people excluded from the formal political process could nonetheless still make their opinions known by means of popular protest (parades or riots). Accordingly, once each class session, I ask the back of the classroom (where the PODs gather) if a mob is forming in the city’s streets, and if so, who is the crowd’s target and what is their demand? Those confronted by a mob have three choices: capitulate (i.e. agree to the mob’s demand), flee (in which case they cannot vote in that game session), or resist. The latter choice could end in tar-and-feathers or even death (for either the mob’s target or one of its members).

Although their power lay in numbers, each of the PODs also has an individual agenda. Slaves, naturally, want to gain their freedom. One of the women seeks the right to obtain a divorce from her absent and ne’er-do-well husband. All of the PODs would like to gain political rights, and therefore a chance to vote in the class’s ultimate vote on independence. To this end, they must persuade the Congress to remove the disqualifications, whether of property, gender, or religion that barred them from having political rights in the colonial period. Both the patriot and loyalist factions fear the mob’s wrath, but they also see it as a weapon that can be used to threaten their opponents and whose actions might be swayed by promising to support some of the “liberal” reforms.

With the possibility of adding members to the Congress (as individual PODs gain the vote), as well as the likelihood of subtracting them (either permanently by death, or temporarily by flight), you can see how complicated the political calculus and game strategy can become and why the weekly game sessions of the class as well as the weeks between classes were filled with intense negotiations and intrigue.

At the start of each week’s game session students meet briefly with the members of their group to plan and plot. Afterwards the most formal item on the agenda: speeches. In the course of the game, each student has to write and present two ten-minute-long speeches. Although everyone speaks from the same podium at the front of the classroom, members of the Congress are presumed to be speaking before that assembly, while the PODs pretend to address the tavern-table-democracy of the “Bunch O’ Grapes” tavern, located across the street from the statehouse (we assume the windows of the two buildings are open so the people within each could easily hear each other).

I was always pleased (and, to be honest, surprised) by the earnestness and skill students display in portraying their character and presenting their opinions and grievances to the rest of the class. Nor does the rest of the class sit idle while the speeches were being made. I encourage the audience to interject freely with cheers, and table-pounding when they approve of what the speaker says or with hisses or cries of “rubbish!” when they disagree with the sentiments being expressed.

Besides speaking and voting, students’ are also required to submit two anonymous letters to our in-class newspaper. The letters allow for a great deal of mischief (the Billop-Brasher duel began when the former planted a letter falsely accusing the latter of beating his wife) but the assignment also reflects a historical reality, for the print culture of the 18th-century was a filled with pseudonym and imposture. Authors commonly hid their true identity and agenda behind pen names. Perhaps the most famous example in American history is “Publius,” the author of the “Federalist Papers” (in fact, Publius was a composite of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay) which were published in the New York newspapers in 1787.    

Students first send their letters to me (so I know who wrote what and can assign grades), and I remove their actual names before inserting the letters into the newspaper (“The New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury”) that I put together and distribute to the class a few days before each week’s meeting.      

Our in-class newspaper also provides students with a short synopsis (and reminder) of what had occurred in the previous week’s class, and what was scheduled to happen this week (upcoming court cases, etc.). Most importantly, the paper advances the hands of time. Each weekly session of the game is set three months after the preceding one. Thus, the first game session occurs in April 1775, the next in July 1775, and so on until our sixth and final session: July 1776. Each issue of the newspaper informs the students as to what had happened in England and in the other colonies since the last game session. These “outside” events, decisions, and declarations, drawn verbatim from the actual historic record, force students to react to the changing political and military situation as events in America and Britain spiral toward revolution.

It is this ongoing “course of human events” (to quote Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence) beyond New York, and beyond the control of the students (just as they were, of course, beyond the control of colonial New Yorkers) that drive the game. For example, if the main item on the patriots’ agenda in the April 1775 session was to get New York to join the economic boycott of Britain (the Non-Importation Association), by the next week’s session (July 1775), the war has begun and the patriots are charged with answering the call of the Continental Congress to raise troops for General Washington’s new Continental Army. By the winter of 1775, New Yorkers read of Britain’s rejection of the Congress’s “Olive Branch petition” (a plea for peace) and instead of calls to arm slaves who agreed to fight for the King against their patriot masters. In the spring of 1776, the newspaper prints extracts from Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” then hot-off-the-press.

My loyalist students find the rising revolutionary tide vexing. Often, when they read the latest issue of the newspaper they learn that their carefully negotiated agreement with the moderate faction has been undermined not by the radicals in Philadelphia, but by the hard-liners in London, and by a British policy that became increasingly militaristic and intransigent as the year wore on.

Eventually, the middle ground erodes, and everyone must choose sides. Most of the moderates reluctantly join the patriots. PODs who have gained the vote, also tend to lean patriotic, reasoning that their new found liberties depend on the success of the American cause. Thus, all my classes thus far, have declared independence and joined the revolution when the push finally comes in July 1776.

But what I find fascinating is that no two classes have arrived at that destination by the same route. John Adams once famously remarked that getting the Congress to declare independence was like trying to “make thirteen Clocks, Strike precisely alike, at the Same Second.”  As Adams’s remark suggests, until July 1776, the American Revolution consisted of thirteen closely related but distinct crises. Each colony followed its own peculiar political path to independence, shaped in part by the colonies’ own particular histories and circumstances, but also by the choices made by individual actors. No two of these thirteen revolutions were exactly alike.   

Thus, in trying to make the revolution happen in our class, my patriot students often unknowingly follow the historical paths that lead one colony or another to join the revolution. For example, when one class voted to print paper money in order to pay for the troops required by Congress (risking inflation and the wrath of the poor), they inadvertently adopted the same course (in the same month) as had their historic predecessors in the actual New York Provincial Congress. In another case, the class-appointed commander of New York’s Continental Brigade ordered his troops to dismiss a deadlocked Congress and declared New York independent by something like a military coup-d’etat (which resembles what actually happened in Pennsylvania).

If asked to justify the class on pedagogical grounds, besides the sheer fun of it, that is, I would first point out how it immerses and engages my students into the source material, ideas, and events of the American Revolution. But beyond this, and better than any class I have ever taught, the format of this class teaches students about how history is woven from the interaction between structure and contingency, between the larger forces of economics, politics, and culture and the immediate consequence of events and of individual choice. In “Debating the Revolution,” my students do not only learn about history, they help to make it.

As to what my students feel they get out of the class, perhaps the best way to illustrate that is to let one of them speak for her self. Sara Gordon, a student of mine in the fall semester of 2013, shared this description of her experience, written for another purpose, with me:    

"Every week, I temporarily become Bathsheba Spooner, an impoverished laundress who supports women’s civil rights and the Patriot cause. As Bathsheba, I yell my opinions and pleas through the windows of the Colonial Assembly, I argue with my fellow people-out-of-doors regarding what the best course of action for our colony of New York would be, and I march through the streets with the Daughters of Liberty.

I am able to become Bathsheba through my History 350R seminar class entitled “Debating the American Revolution.” Though this class began with a . . . study of British and early American political theory and a detailed summary of the years leading up to the American Revolution, it was not long before my professor, Dr. Robert Olwell, assigned us each a character from the colonial time period, and as a class, we began historical role-playing.

I must admit, I was at first skeptical and hesitant about this aspect of the class. I have such a deep interest in the study of the American Revolution that I was inclined to prefer a more traditional lecture and discussion based class. This class, however, has made me incredibly glad and grateful to be a history major. When my peers and I enter the classroom, we take on our assigned character’s identities. We have set aside time for faction meetings, for congressional discussion and voting, for court, and even for mobs. Each class period is intense, and we must each be able to truly represent our character and argue, debate, and vote as if we are he or she.

This class is distinctively challenging. It is fascinating and enlightening to not simply learn about the issues that the Colonial Assembly discussed during the Revolutionary War, but to be the people discussing them in a simulated real-world, unprompted situation. This class has made me glad to be a history major because of . . . the historical insight and knowledge it [has given] . . . me.”  

In “Debating the American Revolution,” history comes alive for my students, and, in the end, that is what I hope to achieve in all of my classes.

Professor Olwell earned his Ph.D. in 1991 at Johns Hopkins University. His research and teaching interests are focused on the eighteenth-century British-Atlantic World and the early American South. Currently, he is writing a book on the British Florida colony, 1763-1783. View his CV and read more about his classes on his faculty home page. He has contributed to the podcast 15 Minute History and has contributed several articles to Not Even Past, including:

"Rebel With a Cause: Johnny Tremain" (1957)

"Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth" (1993)

Podcast Interview with Henry Wiencek, Oct. 26, 2012, by Profs. Olwell and Jacqueline Jones

"Show & Tell: The Video Essay as History Assignment"

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