Fear and “Fake News” in the American Revolution: Society of the Cincinnati Lecture, 2018

On 5 November 2018, Binghamton University professor Robert G. Parkinson delivered a lecture entitled “Making ‘the Cause’ Common: Fear, Prejudice, and the Making of the American Union” to the Department of History and Art History and the wider George Mason community. Dr. Parkinson’s talk highlighted the role of racial prejudice in fostering unity among white Americans during War of Independence and its subsequent influence in the construction of a postcolonial American national identity. Parkinson’s lecture was based on his award-winning book, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016), which drew extensively on early American newspapers to show how revolutionary leaders manipulated battlefield reports and other news to portray patriot heroes almost exclusively as white men and, conversely, to demonize African Americans and Indians as barbarous tools of British tyranny and oppression, despite that fact that people from both groups also fought for the American cause.

The talk was particularly timely, given current debates about so-called fake news and who counts as true Americans. Although Parkinson contended that Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and others worked to shape the story of the Revolution to suit their supposedly patriotic partisan purposes, he noted that they never lied outright. His talk demonstrated the power of the media—in this case, of newspapers—and the importance of understanding how stories can shape political agendas and identities.

Dr. Parkinson is currently the 2018-19 Patrick Henry Fellow at the Starr Center at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, where he is writing his second book, tentatively titled The Heart of American Darkness: Savagery, Civility, and Murder on the Eve of the American Revolution. This project focuses on the mass murder of Mingo Indians by a white frontiersman, Michael Cresap, in the Ohio country in 1774.

While at Mason, Dr. Parkinson also led a lively discussion in an undergraduate class on the American Revolution.

This talk was the third in an annual lecture series on the American Revolution sponsored by the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Virginia and the Department of History and Art History. The Society of the Cincinnati was founded at the end of the American Revolutionary War by officers of the Continental Army and their French comrades. It is the oldest private patriotic organization in the United States and its mission is hereditary; the Society’s founders charged their descendants with the purpose of “preserving the memory of the patriotic sacrifices that made American liberty a reality.” Now a nonprofit educational institution, the Society offers events and exhibits that highlight the nation’s early history.