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The Birth of an Idea: Instant Nation

Chadwick Jenkins

The history of the United States is essentially the history of an idea; the idea that all men are created equal, and its gradual manifestation in actuality with all of its contradictions and hypocrisies.

The History Channel Presents The Revolution

Distributor: A&E Home Video
Network: The History Channel
US Release Date: 2006-12-19
"Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.

Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated."

-- Thomas Paine, The Crisis

It is all too easy to collapse history into mythology and nowhere is this more common than in accounts of the development of a nation. The mythologizing narrative of the American Revolution is a particularly clear example of this tendency. The distance between England and its American colonies, the fierce independence and rugged individualism of the colonists, the "natural" repugnance of the monarchial form of government, and the "natural" desire for self-government all conspired to pave the way to create a form of political administration and a mode of life previously unknown in the Western world (or, at the very least, lost with the fall of Ancient Greece). Such accounts of the genesis of the United States attempt to convey an inherent "rightness" to its establishment; it simply could not have been any other way. Doubtless all nations purvey similar tales of their inevitable birth and development.

Yet the birth of the United States is somewhat different insofar as historians can point to a single event that marked the moment in which it appeared wholly intact like Athena from the head of Zeus. That moment was the American Revolution.

But there is something more important at work in the birth of this nation. Unlike the European nations from which it largely arose -- whose formational histories comprise the slow accretion of territory, the migrations of different races, and the increasing centralization of power -- the history of the United States is essentially the history of an idea, the idea that all men are created equal, and its gradual manifestation in actuality with all of its contradictions and hypocrisies, its brutal failings and the sad inequity that seems to accompany its attempts at realization.

In this 13-part series contained on four DVDs, the History Channel attempts to bring to life the bitter disputes among the rebels, their desperate battles with the superior military force of England, the struggle toward building a national identity, and the adoption, dispersion, and proclamation (and even the partial betrayal) of the idea of freedom. All of this is accomplished largely through an attempt to depict the era in a way that is visually appealing while avoiding the trappings of historical fiction.

The History Channel has refined this format down to a sort of culinary science: begin with a generally familiar historical narrative, mix in a generous portion of etchings and drawings from the era, fold in some mildly embarrassing historical reenactments, stir in occasional remarks by acknowledged authorities (typically authors and university professors), pepper it with the recognizable names of celebrated historical figures and some intriguing anecdotes, thicken the broth with a liberal amount of music (some of which is well chosen while other selections are of questionable taste) to underscore the emotion, and cover the resulting concoction with a healthy dose of the carefully modulated tones of a baritone narrator. This basic recipe has served the History Channel quite well over the course of its history and with The History Channel Presents the Revolution, the producers have managed to capture the breadth of the war while including the minute details of individual experience.

Although at times portions of the series threaten to collapse into the myth of the foregone conclusion of American independence, the majority of The Revolution admirably succeeds in representing the stream of contingent occurrences and more importantly the individual decisions that serve as the foundation for a truly historical project. By culling their information from a variety of sources (official reports, newspaper items, diary entries, private letters, and so on), the producers of the series offer up a compelling vision of the workings of this crucial moment in American history. Moreover, the series confronts the contradictions inherent in the vainglorious pursuit of fame while fighting in a common cause and the more serious contradictions involved in the proclamation of freedom as the ideological foundation of a country that continued to enslave a large portion of its population based on the color of their skin.

The latter contradiction serves as the thread that unites much of the third episode of the series, "Declaring Independence". Here we witness once again Thomas Jefferson's attempt to formulate verbally the spirit of an emergent political entity. Jefferson, acknowledging the hypocrisy involved in proclaiming that "all men are created equal" when so many people within the colonies were slaves, included within the original draft of the Declaration a passage condemning the institution of slavery. When brought to the Continental Congress, this passage was, of course, struck out and it was the failure of the Congress to live up to its own ideals that would strongly influence the course of the nation's history up to this day.

None of this is particularly new. What is clever about the History Channel's presentation of it, however, is that the episode juxtaposes Jefferson's failed struggle to include everyone within his vision of freedom with a discussion of the many slaves who fled their masters to join the English army and to take up arms against the rebels. This seemingly facile juxtaposition undermines the simplicity of the mythic account of the history of the United States by demonstrating that freedom as such was not an overarching national ideal so much as it was the goal of numerous individual decisions. Going to war against England was the price of freedom for the rebels; fighting for England was the price of freedom for the escaped slaves. Later, Rhode Island offered freedom to its slaves in exchange for enlistment in order to fulfill its quota. The issue of oppression and determining just who the oppressor is becomes exceedingly more difficult to grasp.

The conflict between ambition and the national cause is wonderfully illustrated throughout the series but nowhere is it more poignantly portrayed than in the handling of Benedict Arnold. Arnold helped lead a bold expedition to recover Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 but lost credit to his rival Ethan Allan. In 1777 he was the heroic architect of the victory at Saratoga; however, his efforts went without mention in the official reports and his commanding officer, Horatio Gates, garnered all of the credit for Arnold's success. To make matters worse, Arnold was severely injured in the conflict. Clearly, Arnold had reason to feel slighted; far from the villain of American history, Arnold here emerges as a man worthy of sympathy, even pity.

Indeed, that is precisely what he receives from at least one commentator interviewed within the series. Reportedly, after Arnold was shot at Saratoga and was nearly crushed to death by his horse as they fell, someone asked the officer where he was hit. Arnold responded that he was shot in the leg but wished it had been his heart. The authority concurs inasmuch as had Arnold been killed before his treasonous act, he would have been adored rather than reviled by history. The historian, having come to know his subject, wishes to save Arnold from his own calamitous decisions.

As it happened, however, Arnold became the military governor of Philadelphia after it was retaken from the British forces. He soon became embroiled in another conflict. Joseph Reed, the civilian governor of Pennsylvania, wished to regain control of Philadelphia and in his quest he denounced Arnold and charged him with abusing his position -- although according to the evidence, Arnold merely behaved as most officers in his position customarily did. Eventually, Arnold appeared before the Continental Congress and was exonerated pending a hearing with Washington. However, Reed threatened to withdraw Pennsylvania's support of the war effort should the Commander-in-Chief not reprimand Arnold. Washington had decided to give Arnold command of forces in the field but feeling constrained to comply with Reed's demands, he first rebuked Arnold for inappropriate behavior. It was simply more than Arnold could stand. Through his wife, Arnold established contact with the British forces and offered them the strategically desirable fort that bore his name -- Fort Arnold, also known as West Point.

By the time that Washington informed Arnold that he was to have a new command, it was too late. The wheels of treason had been set in motion. Arnold needed command of West Point to fulfill his promise to the British army. What is notable about the History Channel's portrayal of Arnold's downfall is that it continually emphasizes the decisions Arnold made in relation to the contingent conditions that he confronted. His promotion having arrived too late, Arnold saw himself shackled by the free choices he made in order to gain the very position he lost through treason. The mythologizing spirit would insist it was fate; the sad historical truth of the matter (that his misfortune or treachery -- depending on your level of sympathy -- was the result of a congeries of understandable decisions) is much harder to bear.

This, ultimately, is the achievement of The History Channel Presents the Revolution. It manages to shuttle back and forth from the macrocosmic clash between the armies of the rebels and Britain to the microcosmic dilemmas and hardships of the individuals who propelled the war. History as such is neither simply the result of a conglomeration of individual decisions nor the unfolding of a transcendent supra-human force compelling these individuals to behave in a manner conducive to the mindless drive of social development. Rather it is the dialectic tension between individual choices and larger social forces (composed of those choices) that serves as the final object of historical inquiry. It is not an easy object to identify; it constantly eludes one's grasp. While I would not claim that The History Channel is always successful in elucidating its object within The Revolution, I cannot help but admire the visceral and deeply human vision it produces.

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