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


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.

"The Price of Nationhood" is rich in such details, but it also contains more than 100 pages of notes, tables and sources -- a feature that should please other historians.

The skeptics

But Ms. Lee's breezy writing style and narrative form, a characteristic that makes the book highly readable, could make it vulnerable to criticism from the scholastic school that equates stuffiness with virtue.

"I've met with a certain amount of skepticism in the academic community about having done that, a feeling that maybe narrative isn't quite as respectable," she says, although, "There have been calls for a couple decades now for historians to write narrative history. There have been laments that historians have gotten too specialized and they have gotten too mired in microscopic areas or esoteric methodologies that the average reader cannot understand and probably isn't very interested in."

Defenders of Ms. Lee's book are plentiful, but few are as quick as Christopher F. Lee, the author's husband, who also is a scholar of early American history.

"That book is based on more solid research than any I know of," he says. "It doesn't show how much hard work and how much thought and how complicated the conception is. You have to be pretty sophisticated to grab that. She made it look too easy."

It was anything but easy, Ms. Lee says. In retrospect, the book had its genesis more than 20 years ago, when Ms. Lee, then an analyst with the Library of Congress, decided to delve into the little-known life of Charles County's Thomas Stone, one of the state's four signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Hopes of writing a biography of Stone, who served in the Continental Congress, were --ed when Ms. Lee was convinced by other historians that biographies were not in academic vogue at the time.

She abandoned the Stone manuscript and turned her attention to the political and social aspects of Charles County. In 1984, after using her material in her dissertation, she earned her doctorate at the University of Virginia.

Although "The Price of Nationhood" materialized slowly, Ms. Lee says she now recognizes that its beginnings came subtly, during an early day trip to Charles County.

Suburban sprawl had not yet come to the region. The pastoral scenery that greeted Ms. Lee as she motored along the back roads gave her a sense of time and place that had eluded her during her research in libraries and museums.

"I remember coming out of a swampy area at about dusk and thinking this was like Ichabod Crane," she says. "All I had to do was forget I was in a car, forget the asphalt road, and I was back in some other period of time. I think that hooked me on the county."

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