For the last twelve years of so, I have been involved in various organizations around Philadelphia whose mission is to teach various aspects of the history of the American Revolution (1765 – 1790) to the general public through interactive, living history presentations. Our goal is to transform history from dry facts in a history book into dynamic engaging experiences where people can see the ordered chaos of a battlefield or stand in the rooms where historically significant events occurred and hear stories. For the last fifty years or so, most of these organizations focus too much on the military and political aspects and not enough on the cultural, industrial, and social aspects of daily life in colonial Philadelphia and in so doing leave most people with no context for the American Revolution. To close this gap, I and several like-minded individuals, have started a series of independent programs and reenactments focused on how ordinary life in the colonies of Pennsylvania and New Jersey changed during the period immediately before, during, and for the first few years after the American Revolution. We aim to explain how the decision of which side to choose was not a simple one, and how these lessons from history should not be forgotten in our modern political and economic lives.
To be fair, my shift in focus from that of a reenactor the battlefield with the 43rd Regiment of Foot to a civilian interpreter actively studying life in the 18th Century was initially driven more by internal desires to learn than a need to convey that learning to others. Re-enactors focus their portrayal on recreating past events. We focus on demonstrating various aspects of the past from military to trades to the celebration of famous people and our aim is to animate the historic events for visitors, and often ourselves. We take bare museum spaces and battlefields and bring them to life so that others can take a step back in history. When we interact with the public, it is often in the fashion of a teacher, demonstrating a skill, showing a recreated artifact, or telling the history of an event or place. Living Historians or historical interpreters look a lot like re-enactors. We dress the part and populate the venues. We may even attempt to recreate past events but our focus is ever so slightly different. Too often we think of history as the retelling of events in the past but much of what we once knew about life in the 18th Century is lost because it was simply never written down. Living Historians focus their efforts on relearning past trades. How do these tools really work? How was the work done? Why did military units use the formations they did? Why would anyone choose to leave the most democratic, most prosperous, and militarily mighty empire in the world to start a new nation? All these are questions that are best answered by experience and experimentation. While re-enactors adopt the fashion of a teacher when interacting with the public, Living Historians behave in the fashion of a scientist, learning for themselves, then sharing that learning with others.
Most living historians are be more like archeologist, sociologist, and anthropologist than they are historians. Our aim is to understand history through experience and experimentation rather than just through the study of recorded thoughts and actions. We attempt to recreate, through the material culture and dramatic portrayal of people and events, those things which we can no longer observe directly and may not have been recorded in history. In much the same way a chemist sees paint differently than a portrait painter, so to do reenactors approach history differently than historians. The painter sees colors and hues blending to create a bigger image, the chemist sees “particle-in-a-box oscillators” bending and refracting light to create those colors. Similarly, the historian sees the big events and philosophies and how they conspire to create the thread of history while reenactors see the human difficulties, needs, fears, and aspirations that form the foundation and spread these philosophies. Both views are necessary to fully understand reality. Our role is to help bridge the centuries and make the past relevant for those who are ready to learn. We strive to recreate past environments complete with their emotions, limitations, and beliefs, as well as their physical manifestations. The aim is not so much teaching as to guiding others as they explore the environment we create and learn the lessons firsthand.
So, given that I have a background in the sciences, the obvious personae to explore were roles that leveraged that expertise, I therefore choose the civilian and military interpretations of a brewer, a surveyor, and a gentleman scientist. These programs afford me the opportunity not just to teach American history but also critical thinking, fundamental mathematics and physics, and Enlightenment Philosophy to school groups and other visitors to our historic sites allowing people to see the connection between the challenges our forefathers faced and their modern lives. Along the way, we tie in all the disciplines students learn in school – history, mathematics, geography, science, languages, writing, and even music – into a broader context.
As the colonial surveyor, I not only teach people how the western United States was settled but also a little basic geometry, trigonometry, and astronomy along the way. As the colonial brewer, I am able to engage people in discussions of taverns and colonial beers but along the way, also give people, especially school kids, hands-on lessons in thermodynamics, organic chemistry, botany, microbiology, and the power of political debate. As the colonial scientist, I discuss the most difficult scientific questions of the 18th Century – the size of the solar system and how epidemics spread – but along the way also tie those concepts to the benefits of a global economy, the power of written correspondence, and maybe a little antidisestablishmentarianism. Myfocus is to fill in the gaps in the historical narrative so that it is easier to understand. Yes, this is a narrow niche of what is important in today’s world but it has made a difference.
I routinely get comments from school teachers that their students are more interested in math and science after attending one of our events. Because many of our events are well suited to filming, we have been able to create virtual events to help keep some of our most cherished sites, especially those not funded by federal or state programs, from closing during the COVID-19 pandemic thus ensuring that when the national semiquincentennial comes in 2026 they are ready for a national celebration. Furthermore, delving into these activities, particularly that of the colonial brewer, has given me personal insights into living without some of the technologies that I have become very dependent upon in my modern life.
Is this the most inventive and unique program I have ever created? Probably not, but if you consider the real impact this is a big one. Most Philadelphians are very proud of the history of their city but relatively few actually know that history. Most know the mythology that surrounds our nation’s creation – Betsy Ross made the first flag (likely not true); the winter at Valley Forge was severe (not true); and George Washington was our first President (No, there were eight presidents under the Articles of Confederation before Washington). Mythology is easier to teach than history, its just facts and figures. To really understand, you must dig deep but motivating them to care about something that happened 250 years ago is hard but for the last twelve years we have been making it real, personal and relevant, we must bring it to life. That’s the job of our elite corps of living historians.
 43rd Rgmt of Foot; National Park Service – Volunteers in the Park at Valley Forge, Independence Hall, and Washington’s Crossing; Graeme Park; Fort Mifflin; Brandywine Battlefield Society; Princeton Battlefield Society; and Pottsgrove Manor
 250 year anniversary