Founding Stories

By Michael A. McDonnell

In his best-selling book, 1776, David McCullough introduced readers to John Greenwood, a patriot fifer who served in Washington’s campaign of 1776. McCullough reported that when the sixteen-year old heard news of the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord, he “set off on foot with little more than the clothes on his back” and walked 150 miles to join the patriot forces. McCullough quoted from Greenwood’s memoir to note that he told astonished listeners he was “going to fight for my country.”[i]

Stories such as these animate popular ideas of the American Revolution – and arguably, still haunt the pages of academic histories, too. The Revolution seems to lend itself to irresistible stories about a founding. There is a clear beginning, at Lexington and Concord, followed by a series of epic battles at Bunker Hill, Trenton, Saratoga, and Cowpens, punctuated by trials and tribulations at New York, Valley Forge, Morristown, and Charleston. And there seemed sharp lines drawn between the patriots and the monarchical forces of the British and their loyalist minions, with the stakes significant and obvious: independence or dependence; democracy or monarchy; liberty or tyranny. The choices were simple and the denouement was virtually inevitable: victory at Yorktown and the creation of a new nation.

Yet participants at the time often recalled a different story. Even John Greenwood, in the memoir he wrote some thirty-five years after 1775, could not gloss the reality as easily as McCullough. He had been sent away from the family home in Boston in 1773 to serve an apprenticeship with his uncle, a cabinetmaker. When word came of bloodshed to the south in the spring of 1775, Greenwood had not been allowed to see his family for over two years. He saw his chance and slipped away in the confusion. He was very clear about his motives: “My reason for going was I wished to see my parents, who, I was afraid, would all be killed by the British, for, as I observed before, nothing was talked of but murder and war.”

On the road back to Boston, Greenwood quickly learned that if he played his fife and told people he was going to join the army—“to fight for my country”—he was almost guaranteed “free quarters nearly upon the entire route.” People were, he said, “astonished such a little boy, and alone, should have such courage.” Only when he arrived at Boston and was refused entry to the besieged city did he finally enlist—but only because he found himself completely alone and desperate for the food and clothing new volunteers were promised. “There I stood alone,” he wrote, “without a friend or a house to shelter me for the night, surrounded by women and children, some crying and others in different situations of distress.” He thought the army he was enlisting in at the time was no better than “a mob,” but he felt he had no choice.

Greenwood almost deserted after three weeks with the army but ended up returning and re-enlisting for one more year. Again he made it clear that he did so because he was determined not to go back to his uncle’s care and equally committed to finding his family. He served in the unsuccessful invasion of Canada and a little later in the surprise attack at Trenton. But a few days after the battle, his enlistment expired, and despite being offered almost double his pay for the past three months to stay on another six weeks, Greenwood refused. “I did not enlist for the purpose of remaining in the army, but only through necessity, as I could not get to my parents in Boston, I was determined to quit as soon as my time was out.”

Greenwood had no mystical conversion to the patriot cause in the course of serving in the army. Though there is some anecdotal evidence that he served again in the militia in 1777 and may have done time in an independent company near White Plains in 1778, Greenwood himself never mentioned it in his memoir. He had had enough of army life. Instead, he did what many young New Englanders did during the war. He joined a privateer, bent on finding a fortune plundering vulnerable ships along the eastern seaboard and down into the Caribbean. Though Greenwood took note of the ships he served on that were officially commissioned privateers by Congress, not all carried letters of marque. In other words, he turned to pirating. And even so long after the war, he could not bring himself to omit mention of the fact that he also joined a British ship in order to escape captivity in Jamaica. Greenwood – David McCullough’s quintessential patriot – ended his Revolutionary War career by plundering a ship that flew the flag of his country’s Spanish ally.[ii]

That David McCullough could misread Greenwood’s memoir is testament to the power of a triumphalist narrative of the American Revolution as a founding moment. Stories explaining the founding shape not just popular ideas of this period, but also the research questions of historians. One result is that we have failed to come to grips with the social history of the period – especially the self-interest, violence and trauma of the conflict and its legacy among a people who lived through it.

It is high time to explore alternate war stories – and there is a rich and neglected cache of Revolutionary memoirs to do so. And the more stories we hear, the more historians have realised that the War for Independence was a great deal more bloody, messy, and above all, divisive, than anyone envisioned at the outset – and that historians on the right and left have tried to paper over ever since. Once we come to terms with these other stories and develop a different framework to interpret them, we can start to appreciate the historical consequences and meaning of the Revolutionary War for the people involved.

Of course, John Greenwood’s memoir does not make for a seamless or soothing story of a patriotic War for Independence that culminated in the creation of the federal constitution.  But in the end, we might need to live with a more incoherent story and invest further energy into exploring its inconsistencies, paradoxes, and complexities. It might mean viewing the War for Independence as just another in a series of major imperial conflicts that were endemic to the eighteenth-century, and in which thousands of people found themselves unwillingly enmeshed. It might mean reframing our lecture courses, and subverting the narratives that underpin our monographs. It will be a hard sell to both students and wider popular audiences. Still, in an era in which Americans are arguably divided more than ever, comprehending a complicated founding story might yet be a salutary exercise.[iii]


Professor Michael A. McDonnell is Professor of History at The University of Sydney and is the author of Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Girouz, 2015).

Featured image: Battle on Lexington, 19th April 1775 by William Barnes Wollen. National Army Museum.

[i] David McCullough, 1776 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), 35-36.

[ii] Isaac J. Greenwood, ed., The Revolutionary Services of John Greenwood of Boston and New York, 1775–1783 (New York: De Vinne Press, 1922), 4–8, 25–42, 43, 49–83, 85–86. The memoir was originally written in 1809.

[iii] These themes are explored at length in Michael A. McDonnell, “War Stories: Remembering and Forgetting the American Revolution,” in Patrick Spero and Michael Zuckerman, eds., The American Revolution Reborn (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 9-28. I will also elaborate on some of this material at the upcoming ANZASA Conference 2019 in Auckland in July.