J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Liberty Boys of '76 Dime Novels

People often say that the Revolutionary War seems far more remote than the U.S. Civil War, the outward fashions especially, and that’s prevented the earlier conflict from becoming as popular with American readers and moviegoers as the latter. Of course, we are in a period of “founders’ chic,” but that seems to be taken up with biographies (many very good) of the very top men in society.

One hundred years ago, however, when the Civil War was almost as recent as the Vietnam War is to us today, Revolutionary War adventures were still highly marketable. The Stanford University library has created a website archiving the dime novels of that period, but for our purposes today only one series matters:

The Liberty Boys of ’76!

As the Stanford librarians explain, this 1901-1920 series
Chronicles the adventures of Captain Dick Slater and the Liberty Boys, a band of patriotic, young freedom fighters during the American Revolutionary War. Stories are set at pivotal moments in the war and peopled by historical figures such as Washington, Cornwallis, Franklin and Lafayette. The heroics of Slater and his men are credited with playing a vital role in the American army's ability to outmaneuver British forces.
Unfortunately, the full texts of these pieces of fine literature aren’t available for online reading. All we can see are the covers, which make the series seem less staid, less historically based, less—let’s face it—sane than that description. So, direct from the Stanford servers, here are two samples from the scores available for viewing.

Left: Cross-dressing British spies! “Dick and Bob were almost paralyzed with amazement. The supposed women were British officers, and this was not what the youths were looking for.” (Dick learns to cross-dress himself by the time of “The Liberty Boys’ Oath.”)

Right: Dangerous dwarfs! “The dwarf knocked one ‘Liberty Boy’ senseless and seized the other in a grip of iron, handling the youth as if he were a child. The other ‘Liberty Boys’ rushed to the rescue.” (The boys find their own small ally in “The Liberty Boys and the ‘Midget’.”)

I’m sorry to say that whoever wrote this series didn’t seem to find much inspiration in New England battles. Except for the Battle of Bennington (which wasn’t really in New England anyway), most adventures of the “Liberty Boys” appear to take place in the middle and later years of the war, and in the Middle and Southern states. The young soldiers may not have enlisted in time for Lexington & Concord or Bunker Hill.

The series’s insatiable need for material seems to have prompted the writers to concoct stories involving non-white characters. I have little hope that those characters are much more than stereotypes, but there are Native American fighters (“Reds”) and blacks on both sides of the conflict.

Just as American students today get much of their sense of the Revolution from such fiction as Johnny Tremain and My Brother Sam Is Dead, probably The Liberty Boys of ’76 and any similar popular literature influenced how young Americans of a century ago understood the war. The main difference was, of course, that no teacher ever had to assign these dime novels, or dreamed of doing so. Did the “Liberty Boys” influence how young Americans viewed Britain during World War 2? Did they have any influence over the Progressive historians of the 1920s and beyond?


Anonymous said...

This article reminded me of an author I read as a child, Joseph
Altsheler and sent me off to look
him up on the web. I found this:


But none of his Revolutionary War
books were set in New England, either.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the link. It's remarkable how much popular fiction from decades ago has become available again in digital form.

I think my favorite line on the HS Treasures domain is "Although fictious, the advertisement above is very accurate...". It's a fine example of the power of fictitious thinking to overcome reality, at least for some of us.