As teachers, parents, and schoolkids know, spring is prime season for fieldtrips. Recently, three decidedly older kids picked an April Saturday for a foray to Philadelphia to take in the Museum of the American Revolution. The history-loving trio included Charlie Greenawalt, Senior Fellow at the Susquehanna Valley Center, Ed Arnold, Chairman of the Board, and me, the ever inquisitive and fascinated student and scribe.
Dispensing with any suspense, our collective review is unreservedly thumbs up. I have been through well over one hundred museums in my travels, here and abroad, and this one is top shelf, captivating intellectually and emotionally.
In a serendipitous development, we arrived amidst the museum’s first birthday celebration. So there was a sizable crowd, including a good percentage of kids, at least one of whom was garbed in replica colonial fashion.
On a crowded day, it is easy to catch comments and conversation. Heard time and again: “I never knew that.” “This is more complicated than I thought it was.” “I was always confused on that point.” “I wish they presented history like this in my day.” “Hard to believe that we lost nearly every battle yet won the war.” Despite a gallery that provides the sensation of battle, the only casualties inflicted are puncturing the prevalent myths and misconceptions about independence, revolution, and peace. A key point driven home relates to the division of sentiment among the colonists. Roughly one-third were patriots, one-third were loyalists, and the remaining third just wanted to get on with their lives.
If there is an aspect of the Revolution overlooked in the displays and videos, it would be hard to identify. The causes and doubts, the words and documents, the full array of actors, and the complex politics are all in evidence. No surprise that George Washington and the Continental Army have starring roles. Women, slaves, Native Americans, spies, and foreign nations are featured in their supporting roles. Even if you recollect the names of Lexington, Bunker Hill, Trenton, Saratoga, and Yorktown, you will find a broader and deeper view of the stakes and consequences of these pivotal engagements and many more. And yes, there was war on the waters. Rediscover that Benedict Arnold was a huge hero before he turned arch villain. Perhaps the most unexpected and intriguing gallery is dedicated to the Oneida Indians, who allied with the Americans in conflict with four other Iroquois nations.
Yet, the museum is not exclusively about armies and generals and battles and tactics and armaments. There is an appropriate concentration on the men and women who shaped and secured our fundamental rights, eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence and given structure and permanence in the federal Constitution. We are reminded the right to hold and express opinions is not limited to the noble and the inspired. It also covers the ill-informed and ill-intended thought and speech. Nothing about gaining independence was a straight-line progression or pristine process. Democracy too proves exceptionally messy.
The Revolution was at many times and in many places a quite uncivil war. The clashes between patriots and loyalists were often brutal affairs in which quarter was not always given. This hard reality is reinforced throughout.
Artifacts for the Revolutionary War period are not as plentiful or easy to come by as Civil War relics. But the collection is varied and moves from the implements of war to items of daily life. The gem of the collection is Washington’s marquee tent, which is presented in dramatic and moving fashion.
Naturally, there was no Matthew Brady or Alexander Gardner to photograph the Revolution, because the technology was far down the trail of invention. So we see the famous paintings depicting key moments, victory and defeat. These are augmented by sketches and portraits less well known. Videos are compelling and enlightening.
The controversy that lifted the museum from Valley Forge and landed it in Center City put it in close proximity to Independence Mall and the National Constitution Center. So there is context and continuity of story, both prelude and aftermath, to be found right in the neighborhood.
For those who still love the thrill of turning pages in books you can hold, there is a terrific collection offered in the gift shop, essential volumes on the people, battles, and political wars that constituted the Revolutionary War era.
Surveys constantly remind us that a lot of Pennsylvanians have written off the study of history as boring or irrelevant. The Museum of the American Revolution is an effective antidote. It is quite possible to make a day of it and still feel compelled to go back and learn more. Part of the joy of a return visit will be taking in the reaction of those making their first visit.
Go. See. Learn. Experience. You will assuredly come away with a greater appreciation of the courage and conviction of our founding fathers and mothers and a better sense of the remarkable legacy they blessedly provided for us.
David A. Atkinson, is an Associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.