Q&A: Historian Examines Youths of the Revolutionary War Era

November 13, 1991 4 min read

Paul M. Zall, a retired English professor from California State University at Los Angeles, has written several scholarly historical accounts of Revolutionary War-era figures. His latest work-in-progress, however, portrays that period from a very different angle. It examines the rounding of the United States through the eyes of young people who lived during the late 18th century.

The book, which Mr. Zall plans to call Becoming American, is based on the letters and diaries of 21 Americans, ages 21 and younger, who lived during that time. Geared to young-adult readers, the book is scheduled to be published early next year by Linnet Books, a division of Shoestring Press.

Mr. Zall talked with Assistant Editor Debra Viadero about his research.

Q. Why did you write this book?

A. My main subject has been Benjamin Franklin, but my books are so technical not even my wife will read them. I wrote one on the rounding mothers that was more meant for my sisters ... and that’s semi-scholarly. That was a fun book, so I decided to do something for my grandchildren.

There’s a whole world out there people have simply neglected, and that is how young people respond to change. How did great men get to be great? I’m trying to give them models of greatness, and I include obscure people as well--a boy, 10 years old, who’s never been out of Newport, R.I. for example. He sees ships in the harbor and doesn’t know what’s going on.

I also have a slave bey, an eyewitness for what happened at the Boston Massacre, and he knows very well what’s going on. Andrew, the slave, was the main source for what really happened at the Boston Massacre. His account was very different from what we read in textbooks ....

Few people realize Nathan Hale was a teenager when he said, “I regret I have but one life to give for my country,” or that Alexander Hamilton was a teenager during the Revolution.

Q. How do children respond to this kind of information?

A. They’re fascinated, especially if I give it to them in their own words .... In the last chapter, Bob [Robert] Lewis, the nephew of George and Martha Washington, goes to New York with George Washington, and he gave a lot of thought to what a President is and does. Then, after work, Bob Lewis goes out and visits every bawdyhouse in town.

Q. Were young people of that era different from young people today?

A. They had to grow up faster, but they are the same in the sense that they’re all trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into the community. They begin by asking, “Who am I?” and the question becomes, “Who are we?” That’s why the name of the book is Becoming American.

You can see that in the early drafts of the Constitution. One version says, “We the people of Connecticut, Massachusetts, etc., and then the later version begins, “We the people of the United States.”

Every one of those kids had been born as subjects of King George III, so they had to give up that loyalty oath and become Americans .... That’s really why I wanted to do the book--to show there is something in being American.

Q. Do you also find much of historical relevance in those documents?

A. I try not to make it too heavy in this respect, but every now and then I drop a little bombshell to explode some preconception.

For example, people think the regionalism after the war was the same as it had been before. But, in terms of uniting what was 13 separate, independent, discrete states, it was by this generation’s intermarriage that they became one.

Take the daughters of Thomas Jefferson. One of them is overeducated, and Jefferson prophesizes she will never find a husband who will live with her. One marries a Coolidge from Boston, so you have the Virginia-Massachusetts connection.

After the war, New York City becomes the capital, and you have wealthy heiresses there looking for husbands and Congressmen coming to New York looking for wealth, so that’s how some of our great fortunes were made. That’s not just the exception. That’s the rule.

Q. What kind of educations did they have?

A. Some of them had at-home tutors who had come to live with them. Others had a system where the eldest boy would come to school and come in and teach others. George Mason had no formal education, but he had access to his father’s library .... One of the girls talks about standing in the back of the room while her brothers are being tutored ....

No matter how little or how much education they had, they continued their education by reading the newspaper. Newspapers then would print whole political speeches and whole political tracts.

This is also a self-selected group. They make a lot of literary allusions that would surprise you if you did not know they were reading newspapers, or they read parts of Shakespeare, which they would find in newspapers. The best-selling book was Deuteronomy, so everybody knew the Bible. Everybody knew what everybody else knew.

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 1991 edition of Education Week as Q&A: Historian Examines Youths of the Revolutionary War Era