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America's History in the Making

Revolutionary Perspectives

In the Video

Edited Hands on History interview with Carol Berkin.


Carol Berkin, professor of History at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is the author of several books focusing on women in Revolutionary and Colonial America. Her most recent effort is Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence. She was interviewed on location at St. Paul's Church National Historic Site in Eastchester, New York, which was used as a hospital following the Battle at Pell's Point in 1776 during the Revolutionary War.

Q: What first inspired you want to become a historian?

Berkin: I realized early on that the only way a person can actually time travel is by being an historian, that until we have a machine that can go back in time, this is one way to experience other centuries, and other ways of thinking. It really fascinated me.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the location you are visiting today and why it's important to come and visit sites such as this one?

Berkin: This is St. Paul's Church National Historic Site. It's part of the National Park Service. Preserved sites like this all over the Northeast and the East Coast are really opportunities for us as historians to immerse ourselves in the material reality of the period we study in ways that we just can't do by reading letters or diaries or books. For those of us who write and narrate the past, this is the warp and woof; the stuff of the history that we write.

Q: What kind of personal connection do you feel in coming to sites such as St. Paul's?

Berkin: As someone who spends so much of her time in the eighteenth century, for me there is a kind of familiarity that I think is delicious. That is, I walk into a place like this and I say, "These are my people; this is my place." I know about these pews. I know who might have sat here. I know why the minister might have said such and such in the seventeenth century and something else in the eighteenth century. I know why Washington was nearby. So for me it's like coming upon the places of old friends.

Q: Why do you feel that it's important for people to study history?

Berkin: Well, I can give a lot of clichés: You don't know how you got to where you are until you study what happened before. But I think there's more to it than that. I certainly don't think history repeats itself at all. That's not what historians believe. But I do believe that the kind of choices people made in the past can influence the kinds of choices you make today. Reminding people of how important it is to know that they're making choices in a particular moment in time that can never be repeated again, and to take those choices seriously, is what makes history vitally important to citizens of a country or citizens of the world. But I also think that studying history is an adventure. And today, perhaps, people don't have the kinds of adventures that they could have if they studied the past.

Q: Explain this letter carried by Lady Harriet Ackland to General Horatio Gates.

Berkin: This is a letter from General John Burgoyne, who was the commander of the ill-fated attempt by the British to cut New England off from the southern and middle colonies by seizing New York, taking control of the Hudson Valley and going down to New York City. Burgoyne is sending a letter in the midst of the battles that took place around Saratoga (which was the great victory of the Americans in 1777) to General Horatio Gates, who was the commander of the American army at the time. The letter requests that Gates allow the wife of a wounded officer to join her husband, who's been captured by the Americans, and to nurse him back to health if possible. The wife is Lady Harriet Ackland.

The letter requests safe passage to allow her to go behind enemy lines. What's really fascinating, I think, about this letter is that Americans have some kind of fantasy that this is a classless society; that there. are no distinctions between the wealthy and the poor in colonial America. But what is so striking that this letter shows is that members of the upper classes on both sides—the wives of generals, the wives of wealthy people, and wealthy people themselves—are treated quite differently from the common soldier. So a request like this would be unheard of from the wife of a private, a sergeant, or an ordinary man. And repeatedly, not only in this letter, but in the response that Gates sends to Burgoyne, there's reference made to her rank and her standing. This is what you would do for a lady. This is not what you would do for a camp follower, that is, the wives of ordinary men who followed the army.

There's a wonderful story that unfolds behind this. So Lady Ackland travels in an open boat. She doesn't travel alone; she doesn't travel with military escorts; she travels with her lady-in-waiting, that is, her maid. She travels with her husband's valet, who has been wounded because he has been out on the battlefield looking for his master. She travels with a minister. They go over to the American side, and a fire is set in a soldier's hut for her, and then her maid comes with her bedding. They've arrived with appropriate linens for Lady Ackland and a tea service (she's not exactly roughing it), and they have tea. So the gentility that accompanied her in the midst of war is quite astounding.

Lady Ackland then takes care of her husband. They return to England, and her husband is forever appreciative of what was allowed. Years later, he's at a dinner with other military officers and someone there starts insulting the Americans for their cowardice and f lack of gentlemanly behavior. Ackland challenges him to a duel and is killed in the duel defending the honor of the Americans.

Lady Ackland, it is said genteelly, is out of her wits for two years. After she recovers, she marries the chaplain who escorted her across the Hudson River. The story wraps up as she marries the minister who went with her.

Gates, interestingly enough, had written a letter back to Burgoyne after Lady Ackland had arrived and he says in a flourish, but obviously very annoyed, "How could you have thought that I would not accede to this request with a woman who is a person of grace and rank and standing?" So the two of them confirm what I've found in my research: that the wealthy and the aristocratic were treated really quite differently than the common soldier and the common soldier's wife.

Q: What do you learn from a letter such as this, opposed to a more famous document like the Declaration of Independence?

Berkin: This letter was not written for public consumption, the way the Declaration was. And so, it has much more personal information in it. Also, these are the kinds of documents that teach us about people who were not famous generals. This is about a woman, who is in fact pregnant, who wants to see her husband. And you feel from this letter what it must have been like—it opens up a whole series of questions: What was it like to be a woman waiting to find out if her husband was alive or dead? What was it like to be a mother or a wife or a daughter and to know that the chance to be with your father, husband, or brother at the moment that he's going to die depends upon two generals? She's taking a risk, after all, going out onto the Hudson River as two armies are battling each other. She's risking her life. This tells us about the bravery of ordinary people, of women in the face of war. Letters like this are windows that open up a whole series of questions about the personal experience of war that the Declaration—important though it is—doesn't do for us.

Q: How to you view this letter as a piece of material culture? What can you get from a letter as an object itself as opposed to just the content that's encoded within?

Berkin: This is from a world before email, and before the typewriter. Anyone who saw the formality of this letter, the handwriting, and the elegant phrasing, would immediately recognize this as an eighteenth-century letter. This is not from the modern era, or even the nineteenth century. In that sense, it's a material representation of communication in the eighteenth century.

It says, "Sir, Lady Harriet Ackland, a lady of first distinction by family rank and by personal virtues, is under such concern on account of Major Ackland, her husband, wounded and a prisoner in your hands, that I cannot refuse her request to commit her to your protection. Whatever general impropriety there may be in persons acting in your situation and in mine to solicit favors," that is, the two opposing generals, "I cannot see the uncommon appearance in every female grace and excellation of character of this lady and her very hard fortune without testifying that your attentions to her will lay me under obligation. I am, sir, your obedient servant, John Burgoyne."

I mean, it doesn't say, "Hey, fella, will you let me send her over? She wants to see her husband." It doesn't say "I know we really shouldn't do this." What a wonderful phrase, "Whatever general impropriety there may be in persons acting in your situation and mine." There's a loveliness to the language, a sense that the words mean something, that I think that we have to some extent lost today.

Q: Could you define what presentism is?

Berkin: Presentism is like what you see in Mel Gibson movies, in which everybody in the movie thinks and behaves as if they were born in 2005. They just wear different clothes and have different hair-dos. There are subjective values, political positions, and attitudes that people unconsciously hold, and in every case, these creep in some fashion. What a historian tries to do is raise these ideas to a conscious level, recognize them and help people do their best to avoid them.

It is a presentist idea to think that people are thinking exactly the way we are thinking today. This letter that makes that virtually impossible. I think in many ways you would have to struggle to be presentist in reading this letter. This is very much an eighteenth-century document.

Q: Can you tell me what you see when you look at this dress from an historian's point of view?

Berkin: This is clearly a dress that an officer's wife or an officer's daughter, or maybe a general's wife might have worn. This is in the fashion of elegant eighteenth century American women. It may have been a little behind the times of London's fashion, but this is clearly a beautiful imported silk brocade. It was obviously made by a very skilled dressmaker for one of the colonial elites' women. It has incredible stitching done by hand. It has great attention to detail and so it must have cost quite a pretty penny. This is not the kind of dress an ordinary American middle-class or poor woman would have had. For me, what comes across very strongly from this dress is social class.

What also interests me is the fact that it was clearly made by a professional, and that brings up the fact that there were female craftspeople in colonial society, although you don't hear as much about them as you do the handy blacksmith. Of the few trades that women could engage in , they were true artisans as dressmakers, hat-makers, and milliners. It also tells you about the kinds of restraints on movement that all women suffered until the twentieth century in this country. This is a long dress, it even has a train on the back. You couldn't move very rapidly in this.

Q: What differences in culture, from the eighteenth century to the present day, do you see in this dress?

Berkin: This was not a disposable culture, so in a dress like this, you might see places where the dress was taken in or let out to accommodate either the individual woman's changing weight, or different sizes as the dress was passed down a daughter or a sister or a cousin until it really was unwearable. Many of these dresses were redesigned so that they would be fashionable. Often the dress sleeves would be taken out and different sleeves would be put on. That indicates a change in fashion the way, today, we might turn bell-bottoms into straight legs instead of throwing the jeans away.

So this dress would have been preserved carefully. And what you see often in eighteenth century museums are the clothes of the very, very wealthy. You're not seeing the clothes of an ordinary citizen. In this particular case, material culture has a class bias. Historians have to be careful not to tell people, "Oh, this is what an eighteenth century woman wore," because it's really what a very small percentage of America's women were able to wear.

Q: What have you learned about this particular dress and the owner?

Berkin: We do not know the owner of this dress. We do not know who made it, and so, in fact, sometimes even material culture doesn't yield up all of its secrets.


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