Declaration of Independence, painting by John Trumbull via Wikimedia Commons

The American Revolution, Today

Richard Brookhiser—

History leans heavily on words—and that’s fine, says every publishing house. But there are other media that tell the story.

The civil rights movement and America’s wars from Vietnam forward were impressed on us by photojournalism and television. World War II lives most vividly these days in movies, from Casablanca to Saving Private Ryan. The Civil War spoke through the performances of memorable orators (Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Lincoln’s old friend and Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens). But it also sang in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and the re-purposed minstrel tune “Dixie.”

How was the story of the American Revolution told, non-verbally? How is it told so, now? Late eighteenth-century America, despite having few artists and no artistic academies, was well served by the artists it had. Loyalist John Singleton Copley moved to England on the eve of the Revolution, but before he decamped he left impressive portraits of prominent patriots (John Hancock, Samuel Adams). Charles Willson Peale and his artistic children filled a family-run institution, the Philadelphia Museum, with portraits of revolutionary figures, as well as stuffed and skeletal animals. Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington decorates the dollar bill. It is a rather forbidding likeness—artist and subject did not hit it off. John Trumbull told the story of the Revolution in a series of eight paintings, depicting battles, surrenders and sessions of Congress. He left the complete set to Yale College; life-size versions of four of his scenes hang in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington DC.

The journalism of the day contributed imagery too. Akhil Reed Amar called one of Benjamin Franklin’s designs, the Join-or-Die snake, a meme that went viral:1 Franklin first drew the segmented serpent, each piece labeled for a different colony, in the French and Indian War, in order to encourage inter-colonial cooperation. When colonies became, in the language of Richard Henry Lee’s June 7, 1776 resolution, “free and independent States,” newspapers revived Franklin’s discontinuous creature to promote American unity during the Revolution.

Cartoons are polemical—do this, avoid that. Good portraits can be psychological. Gilbert Stuart painted John Adams when Adams was 87, a lion in winter image showing a man who, despite his years, was still keen, combative, determined—a triumph of spirit over failing flesh. A series of paintings can spin a narrative. Trumbull’s eight-part tour of the Revolution takes viewers to two defeats (Bunker Hill, Quebec); two victories (Trenton, Princeton); and two formal surrenders (Saratoga, Yorktown). Along the way we see Congress declaring independence a year into the struggle, and accepting the resignation of Commander-in-Chief George Washington after the enemy’s last occupying troops have gone home. Trumbull’s narrative has a triumphalist sweep, but its progress is marked with eddies. British and Hessian officers, never demonized, are sometimes shown in pitiable conditions, or acting nobly. Although Trumbull’s story illustrates the victory of white American men, he also includes French allies, white women and girls, two black soldiers, and a Native American colonel.

All three elements—message, character study, and story-telling—can be combined in the theater. Songwriter and librettist Lin Manuel Miranda read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, and fancied a connection between its subject and himself: Hamilton came from the Caribbean (Nevis, St. Croix), so did Miranda’s father (Puerto Rico). They both flourished in the island of Manhattan. Miranda began writing a mixtape about the first Treasury Secretary, which morphed into a show. I saw it at the Public Theater before it moved to Broadway; the energy onstage, and in the audience, showed that here was a hit. Hamilton: An American Musical became an event, almost an obsession: the twelve-year-old son of a friend of mine memorized the copious lyrics, and claimed to be able to answer any question put to him on any subject with an apposite line.

Hamilton spun a double narrative, of its hero’s life, and of the history of the American Revolution and the early republic. Miranda’s characterization of Hamilton was a bit thin, relying on the tropes of celebrity rise and fall—troubled youth, brilliance, troubled age. George Washington, as realist/father figure, and Aaron Burr, as maybe-not-so-bad guy, were more interestingly depicted. George III had a sharp small role: the humorous punching bag, who, after the United States wins its independence from him, gets off a challenging line: “You’re on your own. Awesome. Wow./ Do you have a clue what happens now?”2

The show definitely had messages. The small-bore takeaway was that Hamilton and Washington were right about almost every contested point in their careers; their Federalist political party may have been dead for two centuries, but its themes and slogans came back to life in song and dance (take that, Thomas Jefferson).

The larger message of the show was that the American experiment had been worthy from its inception, and was worth upholding and fulfilling today. No doubt there were shortcomings; the musical made a few—a very few—allusions to slavery. But the impetus to repair that, and other evils, had been present from the beginning. Americans should recognize that legacy, and carry on.

Miranda and his cast benefitted from the atmospherics of the Obama years. Miranda performed what became the show’s opening number for Barack and Michele Obama at a White House poetry night in 2009; the musical opened midway through Obama’s second term. Blue state creatives believed that the nation that had elected a president with a Kenyan father could honor, and indeed had arguably been foreseen by, an immigrant founding father.

How long ago that seems. The Trump years saw yet another way of telling the story of the American Revolution: through action.

There have long been Revolutionary era re-enactors: impersonators of founding fathers at their restored homes; enthusiasts cosplaying Revolutionary War battles. (I interviewed many of the latter at a re-enactment of the Battle of Monmouth in 2000. They were rather disdainful of their far more numerous Civil War re-enacting brethren; the Civil War guys, they sniffed, were careless with their weapons.)

What we saw in 2020 and 2021 however was a real-time mash-up of history and wrath.

The New York Times’s 1619 Project declared that the birth of the United States was not 1776 but its titular year, when the first slaves were off-loaded at Point Comfort in the Jamestown colony. Four hundred and one years later, the murder of George Floyd in police custody seemed to show that nothing had changed. Protesters took it upon themselves to deface, destroy or demand the removal of the icons of their despicable country—not just public statues of Confederate generals and politicians, erected by Lost Cause revanchists, but also of founding fathers: several Jeffersons and one Washington were toppled or hidden. In Madison, Wisconsin, a statue of Hans Christian Heg—an immigrant, abolitionist, and Union officer killed at the battle of Chickamauga—was decapitated and thrown in a lake. Slavery was so baked into the nation that even white enemies of slavery deserved posthumous execution.

Desperados of the right had their moment on January 6th, 2021, when a mob descended on the Capitol, determined to halt and re-do the tallying of the electoral vote of the 2020 election. Most stayed outside; many trespassed; many, inside and out, behaved riotously. They were not interested in retelling the story of the American Revolution per se. But by a strange irony, numbers of them, including one man toting the purloined lectern of the Speaker of the House, were photographed passing through the Rotunda, before John Trumbull’s images of revolutionaries two and a half centuries earlier. Direct action made the scene, cameras caught it.

If asked about the juxtaposition, the January 6th rioters would probably have said that they were following in the Revolution’s footsteps, battling an injustice—an election President Trump had told them was stolen—even as their forebears had. Evidently none of them reflected that one of the four Trumbull paintings hanging beyond and above their heads depicted George Washington dutifully resigning his commission at war’s end.

The Treaty of Paris had been signed in September 1783; the British had evacuated New York City in November. Congress directed the commander in chief to appear before it in Annapolis, Maryland, where it was then meeting in December. Trumbull depicts Washington in mid-canvas, holding out to the legislators before him the piece of paper which represents the authority they had conferred on him in the early days of the war, eight and a half years earlier. His job done, he gives it back, prior to going home. “Having now finished the work assigned me,” he said, “I retire from the great theatre of action.”3  

Six years later he returned to the theater of action as first president under a new Constitution. But eight years after that he retired once more, declining to stand for re-election after his second term. Photographs of the Rotunda on January 6th, 2021 are freeze frames of forgetfulness: Look here upon this picture, and on this. So the American Revolution gets shown, and re-shown, in the memories, and in the amnesia, of its legatees.  

1. Akhil Reed Amar, The Words That Made Us (New York: Basic Books, 2021), 98-103.

2. “What Comes Next?,” Hamilton: An American Musical, Original Broadway Cast Recording, 2025.

3. George Washington, “Speech in the Continental Congress,” December 23, 1783, Annapolis, in The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence, ed. John Rhodehamel (New York: Library for America, 2001), 794.

Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a fellow of the National Review Institute. His books include Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington and Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. He lives in New York City.

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