Skip to main content
Smithsonian Associates - Entertaining, Informative, Eclectic, Insightful

Ordinary Lives in the American Revolution

All-Day Seminar

Saturday, September 7, 2013 - 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2676

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers, happiness included owning and protecting private property. But how did ordinary people in revolutionary-era America define that term?  What did happiness mean to soldiers, midwives, clerks, smugglers, shopkeepers, shoemakers, or slaves—to the men and women on whom the success or failure of the revolutionary movement would ultimately rest?

Richard Bell, associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park, examines a familiar topic—the American Revolution—from the less-familiar perspective of common people.

10 to 11:15 a.m. The View from the Bottom

Our veneration of a dozen or so well-to-do Founding Fathers has obscured the fact that fighting a revolution is a collective act that requires a genuine mass movement. To revolt is something that crowds, mobs, and whole communities do together. Just ask Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane, whose life descended into ruin and chaos when she found herself caught in the middle of the imperial crisis.

11:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. Mobilization

How did a few scattered protests over import taxes escalate into a continental insurgency? Why did shoemaker George Hewes or sailor Crispus Attucks join a fight led by moneyed merchants like John Hancock and Henry Laurens? What was in it for them?

12:45 to 1:45 p.m. Lunch (Participants provide their own lunch.)

1:45 to 3 p.m. War

When the war came, it turned out to be a messy, bitter, and costly struggle that pitted neighbor against neighbor and split apart families and communities.  How did people like enlisted soldier Robert Shurtlieff, abandoned housewife Mary Silliman, and opportunity-seeking slave Harry Washington navigate their way through these eight grinding years?

3:15 to 4:30 p.m. The Limits of Liberty

How revolutionary was the American Revolution? Not content to fight a war solely for home rule, ordinary veterans such as Daniel Shays demanded a debate over who should rule at home. In the aftermath of the break with Britain, elites and commoners, men and women, whites and blacks and natives clashed over competing visions of who should have the power to speak, vote, and govern.


S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Drive, SW
Metro: Smithsonian Mall Exit (Blue/Orange)