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Museum aims to tell a more complete story of America's independence

Just steps from where the founding fathers once walked and signed the Declaration of Independence, a sharper picture of America's beginning is taking shape at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
The revolution comes alive inside the Museum of the American Revolution, located at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia.
The American Revolution saw contributions from a diverse group of individuals and groups, including the Native American Oneida nation, who became one of America's first allies.
During the American Revolution, women also headed out to war, known as 'camp followers.' Many of them were married to soldiers and they often served as nurses, or seamstresses, for the Revolutionary Army.
The Museum of the American Revolution also tells the story of James Forten, who was a Black man born free in Philadelphia. He opened a sailing business and became an abolitionist, as well as one of the wealthiest people in the city. It’s an experience that started when -- at just 14 – he joined a privateer ship harassing British vessels near the coast during the Revolution and was captured as a POW.
A copy of the Declaration of Independence sits on display inside the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
Posted at 9:42 AM, Jul 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-04 11:42:02-04

Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton — these are names many are familiar with, born out of their leadership and contributions during the American Revolution.

However, there are other names, too: Wheatley, Forten, Oneida - long overlooked for what they did for American independence, until now.

Just steps from where the founding fathers once walked and signed the Declaration of Independence, a sharper picture of America's beginning is starting to take shape.

"You can imagine that you're in Philadelphia in the 1770s," said Adrienne Whaley, director of education and community engagement at the Museum of the American Revolution, located at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia.

Inside the museum, the revolution comes alive.

"We are walking into a reproduction of an 18th century, sort of 1770s, tavern," Whaley said.

Beyond the artifacts on display, the museum focuses on the people at the heart of independence - and it's not always who you think it is.

"It's a false dichotomy to talk about the founding fathers and everybody else,” said museum president and CEO Scott Stephenson.

He said the American Revolution saw contributions from a diverse group of individuals and groups, including the Native American Oneida nation, who became one of America's first allies.

"Winning of American independence included the efforts of men of Native American, African-American, mixed-race ancestry,” he said. "What we were trying to do was to broaden people's understanding of who the founders were."

That includes James Forten, a Black man who was born free in Philadelphia, opened a sailing business and became an abolitionist, as well as one of the wealthiest people in the city. It’s an experience that started when -- at just 14 – he joined a privateer ship harassing British vessels near the coast during the Revolution and was captured as a prisoner of war.

"He has to struggle and suffer alongside other revolutionaries of all backgrounds,” Whaley said. “And out of that experience, he develops this real sense of ‘we're in this together,’ these beliefs of the American Revolution."

Those beliefs were shared by women, too – like Phillis Wheatley. She was a former slave who became a poet and the first-ever African-American published author, with works expressing ideals shared by the colonists seeking independence.

Then, there are the women who headed out to war, known as 'camp followers.'

"They might be serving as nurses, they might be selling all sorts of supplies to the army,” Whaley said. “They're helping in a number of different ways, and they're critically important to the efforts of the soldiers over the course of the war."

Other stories on display at the museum include how the Jewish and Muslim faiths also had a presence in the colonies during the Revolution – a tapestry of diverse stories, which can sometimes be overlooked in the telling of America's independence.

"I think that we have to be very clear and very open and identify racism as a reason why a lot of these stories have not been told,” Whaley said, “because throughout history, people have valued the contributions of certain people and have devalued the contributions of others."

Just when you think this more-complete story of America’s independence is at its end, the museum’s exhibits unveil a final surprise.

It’s a wall displaying a tapestry of photographs of people who survived the American Revolution and lived long enough to have their pictures taken – a way to show that the past is never quite as far away as it might seem.

"It's an ongoing experiment in liberty, equality and self-government,” Stephenson said of the nation. "The story is absolutely still unfolding."