Lower Merion Historical Society

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Creating a Revolutionary Experience

By David Schmidt
Main Line Life
May 29, 2002

David Acton is good at getting people together. Alawyer by trade, he’s also an arbitrator, making his living encouraging people to see another’s point of view.

Now he’s getting people together for a bigger cause, one he hopes will bring a new point of view to many millions of people from around the world.

That seems a strange task for this lifelong Main Line resident in his late 60s, but he wants people to know more about their history, particularly the history of the American Revolution.

For this reason, he’s very involved in helping to create the National Center for the American Revolution, the establishment of which has recently been announced for development in Valley Forge National Park.

Acton came to this through the interest of Thomas M. Daly, president and CEO of the National Center for the American Revolution. Daly wanted to meet with him, and after they met, Acton ended up on the board of the center.

“This is a good place to build this center. There is no memorial to the American Revolution and the men who fought it,” Acton said. “There are battlefield monuments, which celebrate and honor their own, but nothing to the entire revolution.”

Evidently there isn’t a monument because nobody ever thought about it. “When Bob Dole was calling around about the World War II monument, it became clear that there ought to be one for Revolutionary War veterans,” Daly said. “Now there’s a public/private partnership to create the center, and we plan to open it in December 2005.”

Daly is a retired Navy officer who came to the project from a successful stint in private business in Buffalo N.Y., where he was immersed in community activities. He’s thrilled to have a man like David Acton involved.

“David s the ideal board member, with indefatigable enthusiasm,” Daly said. “He contributes a significant amount of time to his board responsibilities and brings a varied background to the board.”

One assist of Acton’s was getting a fellow classmate from Yale interested in the project. That man was David McCullough, one of the best-known popular historians in America. McCullough is a Pulitzer prize-winning author and recently published a biography of John Adams. Acton has helped McCullough with research in this area and facilitated some interesting visits.

So it was a natural to approach him with a discussion of the plans for Valley Forge. “He was very interested, in fact, agreed to serve as an honorary board member as well as a full member of our board of scholars,” Acton said.

He will help through his very clear ability to make history entertaining, for that is what the center hopes to do. You can’t educate people unless they pay attention, so the center will try to be more than just dusty, static history.

“We have perhaps 70 percent of the artifacts from the war, including uniforms, weapons, letters, equipment items, and some are particularly interesting, including George Washington’s campaign tent,” he said. For Acton, what’s important is arousing public’s attention.

“One of the things we have is the muster books of a unit in the encampment, which tells exactly what happened each day,” Acton said. “So we may discover that there was a court martial on a certain day, or a ceremony of some sort, and we’ll reenact them on the day they occurred.”

For Acton, there are three levels of information and understanding that he hopes people will find in their visits to the center when it opens.

“First, it’s the story of the Revolution, not just the war, but the ideas and thoughts that made it so revolutionary,” he said.

His second level is the creation of a unified military force at Valley Forge during the encampment. “Finally there is an arc of historic battlefields around Valley Forge, and these should be part of the story we tell,” he said.

Acton would love to see the kind of action and interest that would appeal to young people, interest them and even stimulate them, because he doesn’t think they know much about their past.

“There is an appalling state of knowledge among American students about history,” he said. “Many non-Americans know more than they do about the events of the American Revolution, because no matter where they live, our revolution and its impact has touched their lives.”

That’s the start of his perspective, not to make historians happy but to make Americans more aware of why we are who we are.

The plan is to show the collections in an interactive and engaging way. “Our objective is to have a daylong experience at Valley Forge,” Daly said.

In addition to getting people interested in history through the park, they hope to expand people’s use of it.

“We want to put together a program that forces people to get to areas of the park they might not otherwise see and to spend a day there,” Daly said. “The majority of the people who use the park today use it for recreation, we’d like to convert some of those recreational users to historical users.”

Acton hopes it goes one step further once people have examined the park. “There is a fan of battlefields sites around Valley Forge,” he said. “Starting in the south with Fort Mifflin, then Brandywine, Paoli, Whitemarsh, Germantown and finally Trenton.”

He thinks these battles bring into focus what action took place along the rim of Philadelphia and the period when America’s military fortunes were at their lowest ebb.

For visitors, it makes for a denser visit, putting visions of the battlefields into the visitor’s knowledge of the battles fought around the city.

Acton would “like to see the center be about the Revolution, which was more than just the war. I hope we can show how the revolution came to be and the development of America’s unique structure, which began before war broke out and took decades after its end to be completed.”

This perspective gives new meaning to Valley Forge, which most people associate with the military activities that were the Revolutionary War. Even this many get wrong, thinking there must have been a battle there or focus on the plight of the soldiers there.

In spite of the grammar school views of soldiers walking barefoot through the blizzards, it wasn’t even a particularly cold winter. However, there certainly wasn’t much food, and everything was in short supply; all in all it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

What did happen made that winter encampment at Valley Forge much more than a military bivouac. It was where America became a nation instead of a confederation of separate states. This came about through the formation of a truly national military, where all soldiers became American soldiers instead of the militiamen of their home states. Virginia officers would command New England sharpshooters, and this came to be in the cold of Valley Forge.

For the first time, men looked beyond their states to the essential truth of the revolution: The United States needed to really be united if these revolutionary ideas to become realities.

This is what Acton wants people to take away from the new center: the understanding that ideas can become reality and drive events. To be able to see that, it’s necessary to understand the relationship between events that have already occurred and those that are coming – in other words, an understanding of history.