In just over a week from now, the Massachusetts Historical Society is hosting, “‘So Sudden an Alteration': The Causes, Course, and Consequences of the American Revolution,” an important conference on the American Revolution in recognition of the the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act. This is the second of three conferences dedicated to rediscovering or re-energizing study of the American Revolution, the first of which, “The American Revolution Reborn,” was hosted by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies in the spring of 2013. And so with the conference fast approaching, I want to use this piece to think about the specific moment and circumstances in which American Revolution studies currently finds itself, which has been the catalyst for this series of conferences, and suggest possibilities going forward. The primary circumstance of that moment, with which many seem to agree, is that the study of the Revolution is in a rut, plodding along in the same “well-worn grooves of historical inquiry” for the “past fifty years,” according to the conference’s call for papers.
The Revolution experienced a boom in scholarly attention and production in the 1960s and 1970s, much of which was focused on understanding the ideologies that helped make the Revolution possible and subsequently shaped its outcomes. At the same time, another significant strand of scholarly attention was focused on developing a better understanding of the social dynamics of the origins and consequences of the Revolution, especially as it pertained to understudied, marginalized groups. Both of these approaches contributed to a sea change in the way historians have come to view the Revolution. But in the end, the ideology debate died a slow, painful, and overdue death by the early to mid-1980s and the production of social history began to slow. Since that time, generally speaking, the field of early American history has undergone a dramatic shift in focus from social and intellectual studies of the Revolution itself, especially its origins and causes, to cultural studies of the early republic and its consequences. Yet, with the “cultural turn” (or socio-cultural turn) in early American studies beginning in the 1980s and still going strong, the American Revolution took increasingly less prominence in the field until we arrive at 2013 when it is felt that a series of multiple, national conferences over three years are needed to “rebirth” interest in and the study of the Revolution.
During this time, cultural historians have done amazing work (especially in the areas of race and gender) on the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and our understanding of those periods have been broadened immensely and to the benefit of all historians of early America, regardless of their own specific topics of inquiry. But along the way the Revolution itself has, to some degree, been lost. So when I ask if cultural historians have “lost the American Revolution,” I don’t mean “lost” as in being defeated in some kind of metaphorical academic battle. Rather, I mean “lost” in the way you lose something like your car keys because you didn’t need to drive for a few days. It’s not quite the same as being “misplaced,” it’s just something that you didn’t need (or want) to think about for a good while and so it went out from even the back of your mind. As I said above, it is not that cultural historians have ignored the period of the Revolution, but often the Revolution has served as a benign context or backdrop. The last 30 years has seen an enormous boom in our understanding of “revolutionary America,” but not so much of the American Revolution itself.
In addition to methodological trends, I believe recent transnational frameworks, like Atlantic and global history, have also had a diminishing effect on the scholarship of the Revolution. That, of course, is not to say that there has not been (and continues to be) interesting work done on the Revolution in its broader Atlantic and global contexts. Indeed, there has, but it has been a small part of those approaches and has yet to really spark a broader reconsideration of the Revolution within the field generally. It is partly for that reason, I suspect, that even though it was over twenty years ago when the OAH called for the “internationalization” of American history, “global history” continues to be thought of as a “new direction,” despite the amount of scholarship that justified the recent series of essays in The American Historian. Similarly, Atlantic history has technically been around for half a century, much longer than the global approach, even in the former’s most current iteration. Yet it too has not yet set off a significant, broad reconsideration of the American Revolution. In fact, I think one could say that recent Atlantic studies having to do with the American Revolution have taught us more about the origins and impact of the Revolution in Britain than in America. Hence, displacing the nation-state from the narrative (or analysis) of the Revolution is not a “new direction.” It is what has been going for decades now.
I would argue that the last thirty years (and the explicit raison d’être of the conferences, i.e., the stagnation of Revolution studies) show us unlikelihood of “new directions” organically emerging from working within these paradigms. That is not the fault of the paradigms or the historians working within them since it was not something they appear to have intended to achieve. But I also do not think those paradigms lend themselves to producing the kind of consensus required to actually forge new directions in a field that has been so mired in such a deep rut for so long a period of time. To break out of this rut––to reconstruct the Revolution, as it were––will require more than that. It will require historians who care about the American Revolution as its own topic to confront our historiographical predicament head-on.
The pretense behind the purpose for the MHS and the MCEAS conferences is to establish “new directions” in the study of the American Revolution, i.e., to break out of those “well-worn grooves of historical inquiry that have defined the study of the Revolution for the past fifty years.” In the last fifty years, we have had a lot of political history about the origins of the Revolution and a lot of cultural history about the consequences of the Revolution. I would suggest that one way to potentially develop new directions would be to reverse that trend, i.e., new cultural studies of the political origins of the Revolution (which, at its most fundamental, is a political event) and a new political history on the course and consequences of the Revolution, one which focuses on the individual’s relation to the state through politics via communities and institutions. Considering the scholarly hegemony of the approaches mentioned above in the field for the last thirty years, the most radical approach to the Revolution in the current moment would actually be to foreground politics and the nation-state, i.e., for early American political historians to “find” the Revolution.
As a topic of inquiry, the coming of the Revolution has been the most ignored aspect of the Revolution in the work that has been done in the last few decades. In the 1950s and 1960s it dominated the scholarly debate about the Revolution and that work was largely intellectual in its focus. Indeed, the most recent major work to address the coming of the Revolution, Eric Nelson’s The Royalist Revolution, uses very much the same methodology as the work done 50 years ago. I think that because our understanding of the coming of the Revolution continues to rely heavily on work that is three-to-five decades old (something that is quite rare in the historiography of other aspects of the period), it can be hard to imagine what a picture of the coming of the Revolution that does not rely primarily on intellectual history might look like. In some sense, that is a significant contributing factor to the current predicament. The American Revolution was primarily a political event brought about by conflict and consensus between groups, communities, and societies that resulted in the creation of new civil and public institutions. It is for those reasons that the origins, causes, and coming of the Revolution are ripe for fresh historical inquiry by political historians whose perspective has the unique benefit of being informed by all the work done by cultural historians in the last thirty years.
What would a cultural study of the political origins of the American Revolution look like? My own work on “history culture” focuses on one aspect of the breakdown of colonists’ cultural ties to Britain in the decades prior to independence. Tim Breen’s The Marketplace of Revolution showed the breakdown in the 1760s of colonial cultural affinity with Britain in a commercial context, while still foregrounding the broader political contexts. Woody Holton’s work has suggested ways in which we might think of the culture of the Chesapeake as contributing to the coming of the Revolution. And, of course, the work of Jack Greene sought to assess cultural distinctions during the late colonial period that came to drive political conflict and change. So there is an undercurrent of work from the previous decades which could help inform a new understanding of the politics of the coming of the Revolution. And I hope that the anniversary of the Stamp Act will serve as a catalyst for us to begin seriously thinking again about the coming of the Revolution, with the few panels on the 1760s at the MHS conference as well as the talks to be given by Woody Holton and Brendan McConville helping serve as a springboard.