Faculty Research Profile: Professor Michael Rex Explores Revolutionary War Letters.
Professor Michael Rex Explores Revolutionary War Letters
By Rick Brown
Professor Michael Rex has won two grants from Cumberland University to examine early American women’s correspondence during the Revolutionary War. An Associate Professor of English in Cumberland’s School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Dr. Rex is examining thousands of contemporary letters to shed light on the stories of Revolutionary War-era Americans.
Those stories range from the quietly domestic to the affectingly tragic: in one document, a husband divorces his wife through a public newspaper announcement. In others, a mother’s son conflicts with his uncle, begins to come of age, and dies abruptly.
For Rex, such tales offer a vital window into the lives of ordinary Americans caught up in the Revolutionary War.
“I’ve always been interested in the interplay between the American colonies and Britain. We know what Benjamin Franklin and the writers of the Constitution thought about the revolution,” explains Rex. “But I wanted to find out what normal people thought about it.”
Over the past three years, the English professor has done just that, compiling more than 5,000 colonial Virginian women’s letters, journals, account books, and newspaper articles into more than 12,000 digital photographs.
It is a project close to the heart of the English professor, whose classes often combine literature with contemporary social history, politics, and art. Having won several grants while earning his M.A. and Ph.D. at Texas A&M University and Wayne State University, respectively, Rex has long been interested in researching the social dimensions of literature.
“My interest is in how people make meaning and how they interact with social events,” says Rex.
Since arriving at Cumberland in the fall of 2006, Rex has brought that perspective to his classes in British, Shakespearean, classical, and world literature, winning a 2009-2010 Teacher of the Year Award from the University for his efforts.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the idea for his most recent project would emerge from a classroom.
“The project actually came out of teaching,” recalls Rex. “I teach an essay called ‘An Address to the Opposers,’ by Anna Laetitia Barbauld, a British writer. She was writing in the wake of the American Revolution, speaking of how citizens should demand equal rights and protections from their government. I thought it was interesting that here was this British woman who was calling for a reform of how people live—normal people.”
That inspiration became the basis for a research proposal: “God Save the King?: Colonial Women’s Response to the Rebellion.” Broad in scope, Rex’s project aimed to examine women’s responses to the American Revolution through contemporary documents.
In 2009, Rex won Cumberland University’s Lalon P. Maffett Fellowship in Faculty Development to develop his idea. Established in 2007 to encourage dialogue across the university and nationally with leading scholars, the fellowship provided Rex with the means to travel to the College of William and Mary’s Earl Gregg Swem Library—the home of the largest collection of colonial and pre-Revolutionary War personal letters in the United States.
Over the course of nine intensive days at the library in 2009, Rex took approximately 12,000 photographs of Revolutionary War-era letters, newspapers, accounts, and diaries, sorting with gloved hands through boxes upon boxes of documents.
“It was a long process, but I wanted to get as much as possible so I could look at it all later,” Rex explains.
Rex began that process in 2011, when he was one of seven professors to receive Cumberland’s second annual Summer Research Grants for primarily on-campus faculty research projects. With that assistance, Rex spent the next summer examining a quarter of the 12,000 images he compiled.
It was a painstaking process, but what he found in the documents was a revelation.
“I didn’t find what I thought I’d find. The project transformed from a broad concept into a more focused and localized history of colonial women in southern Virginia,” Rex says. “I found so many stories that it really changed from a more literary project into a social history.”
From those very human stories, played out in letters between sisters, husbands, mothers, and sons, Rex is creating a unique social portrait of colonial Virginian women’s reactions to the American Revolution—and to day-to-day life.
“Generally, I’ve found three major categories of responses to the revolution,” explains Rex. “You have older women who think the revolution is a great thing because it will give them officers they can marry their daughters to. You have young men who are upset about the revolution because they’d have to compete with those very officers. And you have merchants who don’t like it at all because of the disruption the revolution poses to trade and taxes.”
Rex has found those reactions in the hundreds of letters, diaries, and newspaper clippings he has examined thus far. For Rex, the stories in those documents create a picture of the Revolutionary War as an event that was seen almost as much as a hindrance to everyday life as a colonial cause.
Some documents reveal stories entirely unrelated to the war, such as the double suicide of a couple fighting with their parents for the right to marry. Other documents reveal the painful—and very public—end of a marriage for a Virginian named John Wilkes.
Still other letters reveal simple human tragedies that, even to the experienced researcher, were deeply moving.
“One group of letters was between sisters. One sister’s husband had just died, and her husband’s brother was trying to seize property from her son George, a minor. Through their letters, you sort of get to know the son. You read letters about his going to parties, attending christenings, and waiting on his waistcoats to arrive. And then the very next letter you read is from a brother of the boy’s mother saying, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that your son has died,’” says Rex. “Even if you know the boy has been dead for more than 200 years, it’s still very affecting.”
In the coming years, Rex plans to examine the remainder of those documents for eventual publication and possible conference presentations. Three years in the making, the project is a massive undertaking, but to the eighteenth-century British literature specialist, the research is rewarding for the humanity it injects into the narrative of the American Revolution.
“Doing this project has really brought home to me the fact that these were real, individual people with their own lives, hopes, dreams, and desires,” notes Rex. “You find a common historical belief that everyone was either absolutely for or against the revolution. But people don’t work that way.”