American Revolution Round Table of New York celebrates 50th anniversary

Historians in the News

On October 7, the American Revolution Round Table of New York will celebrate its Fiftieth Anniversary. It is a day we hope all our members will join us in hailing with pride and pleasure. Fifty years is a long time for any American organization. It is nothing less than amazing for one like the AART, whose officers and committee heads are all volunteers. It is a tribute to the enduring fascination of our subject, the founding of the American republic, an enterprise that has changed the world. It is also a tribute to our members’ stubborn faith that it was important for the Americans of the Twentieth Century – and now, the Twenty First Century – to know as much as possible about this tremendous event. We can take some credit for the remarkable and ongoing growth of interest in the Revolution. When Thomas Fleming published Now We Are Enemies in 1960, it was the first book on the Battle of Bunker Hill in 90 years. The Revolution had been overshadowed in the public mind by the Civil War and World Wars I and II. Today, books on the Revolution frequently make the bestseller list. HBO, PBS and CBS have produced major television shows on George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, the latter written by ARRT member Ron Blumer. Ron’s 1997 PBS film, Liberty! The American Revolution, won numerous awards and praise from all quarters. Tom Fleming’s book version won the AART award for the best book of the year and similar recognition from the History Book Club. Meanwhile, the number of Round Tables has grown steadily until there are now ten following our lead. In Pennsylvania the American Revolution Center at Valley Forge is raising $250 million dollars to build a state of the art museum that will tell the entire story of the Revolution for the first time in exhibit form. The building has been designed by famed architect Robert A. M. Stern of Yale. Ralph A. Applebaum, creator of the Holocaust Museum, the World War I Museum and dozens of other museums around the world, is in charge of the exhibits. They will tell the story using the latest dramatic techniques and technology from Microsoft and other wizards, utilizing a unique collection of artifacts, including George Washington’s wartime tent. We are proud to note that Tom Fleming is playing a major role in this project, as the senior member of the ARC’s board of scholars.

For our fiftieth anniversary, we have invited as our speaker one of the leading historians of the American Revolution, David Hackett Fischer. He has played a pivotal role in reviving interest in the Revolution and its lessons for the present. He combines modern methods of research with renewed appreciation for the importance of contingency, choice, and character in the unfolding of the American drama. His bestselling books, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford, 2004), which received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in History, and Paul Revere’s Ride (Oxford, 1994) are more than meticulous retellings of great revolutionary events: they provide readers with a vivid sense of how the events were experienced in the immediate moment and of how they affected choices and decisions yet to come. Although he describes himself as "primarily a storyteller and old-fashioned history teacher," Professor Fischer’s historical narratives are also notable for their deep illumination of social and cultural circumstances. Two of his most important works are path-breaking studies of the roots of essential American character traits. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford, 1989) shows how the differing cultures of the British immigrant groups that settled Massachusetts, Virginia, the Delaware Valley, and the Western frontier produced distinctive habits, beliefs, and styles of individualism in those regions persisting far into the future. Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas (Oxford, 2005) portrays American notions of liberty and freedom as arising not from abstract political theories or historical forces but from lived experience. David Hackett Fischer earned his A.B. from Princeton University (1958) and his Ph.D. in history from the Johns Hopkins University (1962). He has been teaching history at Brandeis University since 1962. He was appointed the Earl Warren Professor of History in 1971 and University Professor in 2003. For our anniversary conclave, Dr. Fischer will share his research on his next book, on George Washington as a leader. Can anyone think of a better topic?

The ARRT was founded in 1958 by North Callahan of NYU, a prolific author of books on the Revolution. Francis S. Ronalds, Director of Morristown National Historical Park, was another early leader. Another early and enthusiastic member was Dr. Walter Jacobs, a multi-talentedd dentist with a gift for giving vivid reports of visits to battlefields and historic houses. By happy coincidence, his son, David W. Jacobs, is our current chairman. Another son, Dan, is one of our most faithful members. Many other members have 30 and 40 year pedigrees. For most of its first four decades, the ARRT met at historic Fraunces Tavern at Broad and Pearl Street. The restaurant side of the tavern went bankrupt in the late 1990s and we were forced to look elsewhere. After some wandering, we found a congenial home at the Williams Club.

In the early days, the RT membership was resolutely all male. Women were permitted to attend meetings only as invited guests of members. But when Tom Fleming became chairman in 1970, he proposed admitting women as members. It was one of our better ideas. Our membership is now about fifty fifty, genderwise, and women have served with distinction as chairpersons and committee members. They have also been notably insightful in their book reviews. Is a woman ARRT Chair in the future? There are some strong currents flowing in that logical direction.

Originally the Round Table planned to sponsor trips to battlefields in and around New York City and even to distant sites, such as Saratoga and Yorktown. But a few experiments revealed that most members were ready and eager to listen to qualified speakers and buy their books but they had little enthusiasm for group travel. The speakers and their books became the focus of our attention. Each year we have given a prize for the best book on the Revolution, an award that has attracted a great deal of attention among publishers as well as historians. As our awards make clear, we stand ready to support many points of view on the Revolution. In the 1970s, we gave the prize to a favorable biography of George III by an English historian and a few years later to an equally favorable biography of his great antagonist, Tom Paine.

Among our notable speakers over the years have been David McCullough, James Thomas Flexner, Joanne Freeman, Mary Beth Norton, Eric Foner, Carol Berkin and Don Higginbotham. The list has had very few lemons on it. An exception was the night we invited Marvin Kitman, author of George Washington’s Expense Account. The moment he finished his talk, a half dozen members were on their feet, furiously attacking the book. "Ah fellas," said this distinguished pseudo scholar. "Can’t you take a joke? I’m not serious about this." We let Marvin escape alive, if not well.

We have also enjoyed presentations by actors portraying General Washington and other leaders, as well as music by performers such as Arthur Schrader, ballad singer at Old Sturbridge Village. Another memorable evening was a visit from Wallace Gusler, Colonial Williamsburg’s master gunsmith, who brought a film showing in fascinating detail how the rifles of the Revolution were made. There is literally nothing about the American Revolution that has not interested us!

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