About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution

Greetings from the National Archives’ flagship building in Washington, DC, which sits on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today’s conversation with H. W. Brands about his new book Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution.

Before we begin, I’d like to tell you about two programs coming up next month on our YouTube channel.

On Wednesday, December 1, at 1 p.m., Fay Yarbrough will discuss her Choctaw Confederates, her new book about the Choctaw Nation’s role in the Civil War.

And on Wednesday, December 8, at 1 p.m. Bruce A. Ragsdale will tell us about his new book, Washington at the Plow, which takes a fresh, original look at George Washington as an innovative land manager whose passion for farming would unexpectedly lead him to reject slavery.

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When we glance back on the major events of American history, we may feel a sense of inevitability at the outcomes. As schoolchildren, we learn about the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the writing of the Declaration of Independence, and the victory at Yorktown and do not imagine any other outcome.

These assumptions, however, mask the fact that the North American colonists were not united in opposition to Great Britain. Those we revere as leaders of the Revolution—men such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams—were unlikely rebels. And a large number of colonists remained loyal to the crown. Those on both sides of the divide—including neighbors, family members, and friends—considered the other to be traitors.

Franklin’s own son was the royal governor of New Jersey, and after 1775 had no contact with him. In 1784, less than a year after the Battle of Yorktown, he reconnected, yet the years of rancor hadn’t been forgotten:

“Indeed nothing has ever hurt me so much and affected me with such keen Sensations, as to find my self deserted in my old Age by my only Son; and not only deserted, but to find him taking up Arms against me, in a Cause wherein my good Fame, Fortune and Life were all at Stake.”

That letter, and thousands of other writings by our Revolution’s leaders, can be found on the Founders Online, a website made possible through the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. In the book, H. W. Brands acknowledges that "Anyone who writes about the founding of American history is now more deeply in debt to the National Archives, for the creation of Founders Online...Without this marvelous source base, the present book would have been years longer in the research."

H. W. Brand’s new book, Our First Civil War, brings home the realization that the Revolution was also a civil war, resulting in broken bonds within communities and families.

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H. W. Brands holds the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a regular guest on national radio and television programs and is frequently interviewed by the American and foreign press. A New York Times best-selling author, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography for The First American and Traitor to His Class.

Now let’s hear from Professor Brands. Thank you for joining us today.