Locke’s Two Treatises of Government appeared in December of 1689. It began with a full-throated refutation of the hereditary, divine right of kings, and a scathing dismissal of Scriptural justifications for such power, such as claims by kings to be descended from Adam. The second essay outlined a civil society in which all men were created equal. This cohered with Locke’s theory of selfhood and the mind. What could all those blank slates be but equal at birth? Nearly simultaneously, he sent out his letter on toleration, that divisive subject that had long simmered in Western religious and legal circles. Hiding behind anonymity, Locke argued that civil interests included life, liberty, health, and possessions, but not the salvation of souls. Since belief emerged from the full persuasion of the mind, error could be challenged by reason only. Force was useless. Dissenters, Locke proposed, should be treated like odd fellows who did their hair up in a silly manner.
If you bought a popular book on science, one that came with a similar sheen of intellectual prestige, and learned that it essentially ignored years’ worth of scholarship, you’d demand your money back. Why should history be any different?
…These pop histories make arguments I haven’t seen scholars of the Revolution make in years. Implicit in all of them is the notion that the founders’ professed ideas of liberty and equality truly rallied colonists to their cause. It’s a comforting thought, but one that flies in the face of the latest research. For most of the war, the majority of colonists probably wanted nothing to do with the conflict, an argument emphasized at a recent Penn conference of leading scholars. Battlefield successes and Britain’s heavy-handed tactics may have boosted the patriots’ appeal, but it’s misleading to call their cause genuinely “popular.” To gain supporters, local patriot leaders often relied on fear and intimidation, not appeals to hearts and minds. In most towns, for instance, patriots created vigilante groups, called Committees of Safety, that forced colonists to take loyalty oaths, swearing to turn in anyone deemed suspicious. During the war, in other words, colonial America may have felt more like the Soviet Union than a free and open republic.
In 1789, at the onset of the French Revolution, that American model was France’s for the taking—she had helped pay for it, and Frenchmen had fought and died for it. When the French set about drafting a constitution and establishing unfamiliar political and judicial institutions, advice and wisdom from thoughtful Americans might have been highly useful. After all, the Americans had already drafted a Constitution, elected George Washington as their first president, and, in the summer of 1789, were in the process of framing a Bill of Rights.
But the tables quickly turned. The French had strong doubts about their sister revolution. Some believed they could improve upon what the Americans had done—maybe even surpass it.
When Assassin’s Creed III was in development, the game’s Canadian developers regularly quizzed Americans about their knowledge of the Revolutionary War. Who were the leading lights of the era? What did Boston look like? Just how deep would Ubisoft Montreal’s writers, artists, and cultural consultants have to dig to tell a story that felt fresh and surprising to Americans?
Not all that deep, it turns out. Alex Hutchinson, the game’s creative director, says Americans were as likely to identify Christopher Columbus and Billy the Kid as Colonial-era figures as they were to cite George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. In addition, some assumed that cities like Boston were little more than frontier campgrounds, with tiny communities huddling for warmth in tents.
You might argue that these sorts of answers reveal how ignorant Americans are about their own history, and you might be right. But they’re also a consequence of the dearth of popular depictions of this period. When Assassin’s Creed III comes out on Tuesday, millions of gamers will be exposed to the American Revolution for the first time. (Perhaps tens of millions—Assassin’s Creed II sold more than 9 million copies.) What they’ll find is the most accessible reconstruction of the Revolutionary War era that’s ever been made.
SONS OF LIBERTY – For the American “armchair historian,” this American Revolutionary organization conjures up a myriad of confusing images. But, what of this “secret” organization that played such an integral part in advancing the idea of American independence from Great Britain? What were the Sons of Liberty? Who were its members and how widespread was its support among the thirteen colonies comprising British America? What was the ideology and degree of political affiliation within the organization?
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Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” is credited with having precipitated the move for independence. In fact, the exact nature of the American cause would have been rather hard to define in 1775 or early 1776. Clearly the Americans wanted the English to stop abusing them, as they saw it, but how was fighting a war supposed to achieve that end? What would constitute victory? As long as they were still British subjects, they would still be subject to British law, and by 1775 it was unlikely that Parliament would grant them any real form of self government. As the Declaratory Act of 1766 had made clear, Parliament claimed the right to govern the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” Since achieving quasi-independence was an unrealistic hope, therefore, the only thing that finally did make sense was American independence, a case made very powerfully by Thomas Paine.