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Department of History

College of Humanities and Sciences

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Do you really know the history of the American Revolution?

Sep 22, 2021

Do you really know the history of the American Revolution? Historian Mary Beth Norton's research shows a different and more detailed story than what you may have learned in high school.

On September 20 we welcomed acclaimed historian Mary Beth Norton to present our annual Society of the Cincinnati Lecture. Norton discussed her latest book, 1774: The Long Year of Revolution, which covers the period from the Boston Tea Party to the fighting at Lexington and Concord.

One of the things that makes the book so extraordinary is Norton's insistence that we see the events of this long year through the eyes of all Americans at the time -- and she does not allow us to look at the war or the Americans' ultimate triumph as inevitable. In her talk, she also demonstrated how important it is to think historically and understand that many people during this year changed their allegiance -- sometimes more than once.

Her talk focused primarily on the Tea Act, demonstrating that the Boston Tea Party was just the most famous of many other acts of defiance throughout the colonies against the importation of tea. Many listeners were perhaps surprised to learn that several leading figures of the revolution, including George Washington, felt that the Boston Tea Party was inappropriate, and called for the people responsible to pay for this act of destruction. Eventually in October 1774 the first Continental Congress decided by vote that the colonies would not reimburse the East India Company for the destroyed tea. After the adjournment of Congress, Norton explained, "things started to spiral out of control" toward war.

In concluding the talk, Norton noted the assumptions about this period in history stating, "people today think that everyone was in favor of revolution and it was an easy decision, but it wasn't. There were arguments. People didn't know how the story was going to turn out, people were bothered, they changed their minds, and political alignments were uncertain." Which is why she urges historians to "forget that you know what happened."

"Mary Beth Norton is a historian's historian," VCU history professor Carolyn Eastman said of the speaker. "She is driven by her boundless curiosity and the pleasures she takes in working with early American documents trying to make sense of the past for those of us today."

Watch the full recording of Norton's lecture.  

Congratulations to Mary Beth Norton who was recently awarded the 2021 George Washington Prize for her book 1774: The Long Year of Revolution. The annual award recognizes the past year’s best works on the nation’s founding era, especially those that have the potential to advance a broad public understanding of early American history.

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