Jean B. Lee has a revolutionary view of ordinary folks' role 200 years ago Charles County - one for the history books

September 11, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Sun Staff Writer Madison, Wis.

Madison, Wis.--The first time Jean B. Lee wandered the Southern Maryland countryside in search of the nation's past, she didn't need a road map to find her way.

Although she grew up in Wisconsin, far from the Chesapeake Bay tidelands, Ms. Lee knew from her research on early American history how important the region's waterways were to Colonial Charles County. The rivers and creeks gave her bearings to find historic sites along the shoreline.

"I will never forget that I could make my way around Charles County because of my knowledge of 18th-century maps," says the University of Wisconsin history professor, recalling a trip she made to the area in the late 1960s.

To most outsiders at the time, the county presented itself as a backwater an hour outside Washington, where police made occasional raids on illegal gambling houses. But Ms. Lee was looking for a different Charles County. And what she happily discovered -- and has shown in a book published this summer -- is that a close examination of the county's role in the American Revolution provides a rare glimpse of a rural population fully caught up in the throes of political and social change.

By many measures, Ms. Lee's "The Price of Nationhood: The American Revolution in Charles County" is a success. While scholarly writings on American history usually do poorly in trade-market sales, publisher W. W. Norton & Co. reported this month that Ms. Lee's book has almost sold out of its initial press run of about 5,000 copies. The 388-page book, which was released in July and praised by critics, is scheduled for a paperback edition, with college students and amateur historians the target audiences.

"The Price of Nationhood," Ms. Lee's first book, is causing a stir among some American history specialists, too, who see the work as a sign that the dry studies cranked out in the post-bicentennial years are coming to an end.

"It's part of a larger tendency of rediscovering history as a form of art," says Pauline Maier, a history teacher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"There was a time when there was an arrogance about this as a social science," she adds. "I think the era of narrow focus is over.

"I wanted to write a narrative history, and I wanted to write a book that would be valuable in a scholarly sense, but also give whoever else wanted to read it a sense of what the Revolution was like," Ms. Lee says.

By using details of Charles County life before, during and after the Revolution that she gleaned from records and personal letters, the 54-year-old historian has assembled a broad literary diorama of Colonial life that has been largely ignored by other scholars.

Localizing history

"There's almost nothing in the literature that looks at the local population as it intercepted the war effort," Ms. Lee says. "That was very exciting because it was so new and so fresh."

Ms. Lee pays attention to the everyday world of Colonial commoners -- white laborers, slaves and women -- instead of only the white, male-dominated elite that was debating and eventually initiating separation from England.

Steven Forman, Ms. Lee's editor at Norton, says Professor Maier called him one day and told him she had heard Ms. Lee read a paper at a history seminar. She described the writing as having "the smell of the earth to it." Mr. Forman got hold of a few pages of Ms. Lee's writing and took steps to sign the unpublished historian to a book contract.

"It was clear to me what Pauline was talking about," Mr. Forman says. "It was history told at ground level."

Norton encouraged Ms. Lee to keep the manuscript focused on Colonial Charles County but to connect what was happening in the small communities there to the historically larger events in the urban centers of Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

The result, Mr. Forman says, is a book that can appeal to a wide range of readers interested in history.

"I think it presents itself as a new way of thinking about the Revolution," he says.

In the process of researching the Revolutionary period, Ms. Lee concluded that Charles County inhabitants did not conform to the historical stereotypes of a Colonial civilian population that turned its back on the war effort.

"All you hear about for 200 years is how bad the civilian population is in supporting that army," she says. "There are all these images of Valley Forge and soldiers with bare feet. Well, the Charles County population, yeah, they bungled around, and they weren't exactly thrilled, but they really supported the army."

Like the motherland across the Atlantic Ocean, Maryland conducted social and political life along class lines. Ms. Lee, who pored over 800 wills and stacks of other documents signed by Charles County inhabitants of the era, found that formal education was restricted to the white gentry. One-third of the white men and two-thirds of the white women, she discovered, could not sign their names.

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