The Return of the American Revolution

MCEAS ConferenceLooking forward to attending one of the largest conferences on the American Revolution in a generation this week in Philadelphia, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on the title of the conference—”The American Revolution Reborn“—and its historiographical purchase.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, the American Revolution, particularly debates over its causes and its nature, was central to the field of early American history. It was effectively displaced by the stratification of social history and the increasing specialization of the profession. For the last two decades, the majority of the field’s attention, particularly that of historians of political culture, has focused on the early republic. Indeed, as an historian of the late colonial and early revolutionary period (1750s-1770s), I often feel as though I am on the fringes of the field, after all there is no Society for Historians of Colonial America or Journal of the American Revolution (though there is the new, European-based Journal of Early American History and the always excellent Early American Studies). While the rise of the period can be attributed in part to professional organizing that began at the tail end of the 1970s , i.e., the establishment of SHEAR in 1977 and the Journal of the Early Republic in 1981, as late as 1988, Gordon Wood was still driven to describe the early republic as “the most neglected if not the most despised period in American history.”[1]

However, the twin paradigms of Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” and Jürgen Habermas’s “public sphere” provided inspiration and direction for historians of the early republic seeking to understand the emergence and early development of both popular politics and American national identity. Even more importantly, they also provided a framework within which histories of politics, culture, race, class, and gender could be integrated under the rubric of political culture. When I think back on many of the best books I’ve read in the last decade on race, class, and gender in the early republic, many attempted to understand their relationship to politics and their role in the broader political culture of the period. I suspect that a few decades on, the lasting legacy of the last generation of historians of the political culture of the early republic will be having achieved this analytical (and micro-narrative) synthesis.

I mention all this because it is exactly what has not happened in the historiography of the Revolution over that same period of time. That is not to say that nothing like this has happened for the colonial and revolutionary periods, but certainly not on the scale and with the inclusiveness of the early republic. However, it seems this is beginning to change. There have been significant and exciting developments in synthesizing imperial studies and Native American histories, even to the point of incorporating the Ohio Valley into the Atlantic world. Imperial studies are also helping early American historians to conceptually situate the Revolution in a global, rather than simply Atlantic, context.

However, in spreading out the Revolution, we seem to have thinned out the center. That is, we appear to have avoided re-engaging with the coming of the Revolution in the colonies. A decade ago, Jack Rakove wrote that “the major causal problems of explaining why the Revolution occurred” had been “largely solved” in the “1960s and 1970s.” That is a hefty historiographical assertion. Rakove is certainly right when he says that his generation’s interpretation of the political and cultural causes of the Revolution “has survived intact and largely unchallenged for a quarter century now.”[2] In fact, Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution was originally published as an introduction to his edited collection of revolutionary pamphlets forty-eight years ago. That generation’s largely intellectual account of a constitutional crisis remains the basis (though no longer the totality) of how we understand the political coming of the Revolution and, especially, how it is taught to undergraduates.[3]

Please take the following thoughts for what they are, i.e., a speculative blog post hoping to foster discussion. I would argue that this interpretation has contributed to producing a sort-of consensus model for the way we think about the Revolution. It also appears to have had a reciprocal relationship with our understanding of political culture in the colonial period. For example, Brendan McConville, in The King’s Three Faces, describes a colonial political culture marked by a consensus concerning monarchical sentiment among colonists of the late colonial period. Murrin’s “Anglicization” thesis and Greene’s Pursuits of Happinessas large-scale interpretations of colonial culture—are also based on consensus. Even our imperial understanding is based on a consensus model in which it seems that everything was going along swimmingly until the early 1760s. This is not to say that these interpretations are inaccurate. However, thinking in these consensus terms appears to have had a stultifying effect on the historiography and, more importantly, minimizes and blinds us to the conflict that riddled the late colonial period.

I would suggest that one possible way out of this historiographical malaise is to re-examine and re-think the internal political and cultural conflicts of the late colonial period. Recent religious studies of the colonial and revolutionary period have focused on the emergence of toleration—itself another form of consensus—but the first half of the eighteenth century was marked by religious conflicts large and small in all regions. I would argue that beneath the veneer of religious conflict also lie significant political, intellectual, and, especially, cultural conflicts that were central to defining the political and cultural space within which resistance could occur and the ways in which the coming of the Revolution would play out.[4]

What I am suggesting is that the late-colonial period is not as devoid of significant conflict as the historiography suggests and that understanding that conflict (particularly cultural conflict) should be central (indeed, necessary) to any new understanding of the coming of the Revolution. I still tend to agree with John Adams that the real Revolution was what happened during the imperial crisis. What happened after that, including the war, was the result of that Revolution. And I still don’t think we have a genuinely satisfying understanding of how within the span of a decade, colonists went from proud Britons to participants in a war for independence. That transition, for me, is the Revolution. If we can agree that the Revolution could not have occurred in the 1740s or 1750s, then it is not necessarily teleological to suggest that we need to understand how the previous two decades contributed to the creation of a landscape in which that transition was possible.

My own work focuses on how colonists’ historical memory of seventeenth-century British history shaped late colonial political culture—particularly how it was employed and contested by different groups in these internal conflicts—as well as the rhetoric of resistance during the imperial crisis. My hope is that by recovering this one aspect of cultural/political conflict in the late colonial period, it may help hint toward an understanding of the coming of the Revolution grounded in the particulars of late colonial political culture and the conflicts to which it gave rise. All of this is to say that I don’t believe the coming of the Revolution is “solved.” More than sufficient time has gone by so that we are now well-situated and well-poised, in part with the successful examples of the early republic historiography, to begin looking at the Revolution anew.

Finally, the Revolution has become central to the current political moment in which we find ourselves, giving it an immediacy beyond academia. Within the last year alone, a number of “popular” histories devoted to the coming of the Revolution have appeared by Richard Beeman, Joseph Ellis, Andrew O’Shaughnessy, John Ferling, and Nathaniel Philbrick. There is even a miniseries on the Sons of Liberty in the works. Whether there is a causal relationship or not, there is a correlation between our political moment and a popular return to the Revolution. In terms of academia, there was “The Chicago Conference on the American Revolution” in 2011, “The American War: Britain’s American Revolution” conference at the Huntington in September 2012, and the publication of The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution in December of 2012. This week, the McNeil Center’s “The American Revolution Reborn” seeks to continue the momentum.


[1] Gordon S. Wood, “The Significance of the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 8, no. 1 (1988): 1.

[2] Jack Rakove, “An Agenda for Early American History,” in Recent Themes in Early American History, ed. Donald A. Yerxa (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2008), 38, 39.

[3] Recent works, including Benjamin H. Irvin, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) and Michal Jan Rozbicki, Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011) point the way toward developing an understanding of the Revolution as a cultural event.

[4] Michael A. McDonnell, “The Struggle Within: Colonial Politics on the Eve of Independence,” in The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution, ed. Jane Kamensky and Edward Gray (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 103-120. McDonnell engages in an exercise in tearing down consensus by exploring the conflict within the patriot movement itself in the few years just before independence.

16 responses

  1. Looking forward to reading the paper, which will hopefully be posted soon. Your own research sounds fascinating and very important. Enjoy the conference!

  2. This is a really great post, Michael. I look forward to your thoughts on the conference when it wraps up this weekend.

    I think there are a couple of reasons why the Revolution has been overshadowed over the last few scholarly generations. The first and most obvious reason is the utter exhaustion of the republicanism/liberalism debate. Rakove’s triumphalism, notwithstanding, this feedback loop of a scholarly debate had poisoned the well of studies of the Revolution by the late 1980s and we are only just beginning to come out from under its shadow.

    The second reason, I think, is the tendency of historians to view the early republic as the *real* American Revolution. Many historians aren’t interested in the imperial crisis or the war years of 1775-1783 but rather see the true Revolution as being borne out in the late 1780s and 1790s. This is the move Wood makes in “Radicalism” but is far from unique to him. This tends to flatten the colonial period as a site of analysis and foreshorten the Revolution (nothing of import happens after the summer of 1776).

    Again, thought provoking post!

    • I think you’re spot on with both of those reasons. There is no doubt that the republicanism/liberalism debate exhausted the topic. There is also the overall decline of “origins” studies that were important in terms of intellectual history but were irrelevant to social historians and not a primary concern to cultural historians. I also think you’re right about early American historians of the last few decades thinking that the real Revolution was what happened after the war. I think that is (as I argued), in part, because conflict is more interesting to historians than consensus. Once the war is over, the myriad of internal conflicts take center stage.

  3. There is another reason, Michael, why the spotlight has shifted to the early Republic and away from the Revolution itself — and that is the debate over the meaning of the Constitution, particularly as shaped — or distorted — by the originalist obsession. That every constitutional law professor now has to have a battered copy of Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic on his or her bookshelf has long been a sign to me that yet again presentist concerns are shaping our explorations of the past, as they did a century ago when Charles Beard unleashed An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States on the world.

    • Absolutely, Richard! That is another excellent reason for the transition of the field’s focus from the Revolution to the early republic. The presentist aspect was something I mentioned in terms of our current political discourse, but I was mostly referring to a popular reading of and interest in the Revolution, i.e., a popular originalism. I think that, in some ways, runs parallel with the reason you mentioned.

  4. I wish I could go to the conference but familial and financial obligations determine otherwise. I have to disagree with you on part of your assertion in this blog- if you take a look at the panelists at the conference you’ll notice that they are not all established historians- there are several young scholars in the mix, which suggests that lots of people are working on this time period. I can think of a few who have recently published books on the causes of the American Revolution (and are themselves well-respected) that are not presenting either. And while the early republic certainly gets a lot of very concentrated attention, the colonial period has several good journals that deal with the revolution and late colonial periods too. And I can think of several other arguments pertaining to the Revolution that people thought were long settled (for instance the connection between the Great Awakening and the Revolution) that have been reopened and re-examined by more than one scholar.

    • Thanks for commenting, Marie! I agree with your first point, which is why I wrote, “That is not to say that nothing like this has happened for the colonial and revolutionary periods, but certainly not on the scale and with the inclusiveness of the early republic. However, it seems this is beginning to change.” It is also why I decided to write the post in the first place.

      As for the journals, there are journals like The Eighteenth Century, Eighteenth-Century Studies, and my favorite journal, Early American Studies (along with our more prominent regional journals), but I meant that there was no DEDICATED journal or organization like the JER and SHEAR for the colonial period.

      While I am looking most forward to the panels with established scholars, I am especially excited by the number of grad students and junior faculty on the program working on the Revolution. And I know from my own experience that they are not all there is. There certainly seems to be a return of the Revolution, hence the title of my post, which I used to speculate on one new possible direction for work on the coming of the Revolution in particular.

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  6. Has there been much said at the conference about the Revolution taking place within the context of the larger Atlantic World? While I agree with you and John Adams about the real Revolution taking place prior to July 2nd, 1776, I also think that without the much larger international scene that Revolution would not have taken place or been successful.
    The political evolution of the Revolution has been remarkable, but I think the real focus right now is on how the people of that era in the colonies came together in a mostly united front instead of by a sectional rebellion or even one or two colonies standing on their own. When you take that and examine it within the context of the larger Atlantic World the whole thing adds some extra dimensions.
    When you think that the British had just inflicted a huge crushing defeat on the French in the Seven Year’s War and then couldn’t handle a ill equipped rebellion you begin to understand why so many thought it was a providential event if examined outside of the larger Atlantic World. When you add in the international scene and its context the entire thing is transformed into a much larger narrative and in my opinion events begin to take on a rational meaning. I’ve noticed that most people do not look at the Revolution in that context.

    • Jimmy, I’m going to reply more fully in a post next week (following our roundtable this week on Walter Johnson’s new book). But certainly there was a lot of Atlantic (and global) perspectives in the conference papers including Engal, Rosenblithe, Landsman, Fogelman, and Brunsman. You could even include Fitz since her paper dealt with South America and the US.

      In terms of dating the Revolution in this post, I was mostly trying to be provocative, though largely sincere. But after having been to the conference and seen very few people at all concerned with anything that happened before the war broke out, I may double-down on that in my response post next week which will deal largely with issues of periodization and causation. That will be on June 10 along with some brief responses from the other Juntoists in attendance and our June podcast on the themes and questions of the conference.

      • Glad to hear this. I am looking forward to the response and understand that it is preferable to wait for a well written and thought out evaluation of the conference. I joined Twitter so I could follow some of the comments and see if any discussions came out of the posts, but I believe the lack of Wi-Fi has been cited as an impediment to the whole affair.

        The real Revolution was taking place 250 years ago. The military phase was just the final step of the actual process. The shift from British colonist to American rebel occurred within such a short time frame and that is where the real focus should be at. The Revolution would never have occurred unless the people themselves had wanted it. I’m a firm believer in the bottom up causation of the entire affair.

  7. To add maybe a different perspective to the mix (full disclosure: I have not seen the reaction nor read the papers from the conference yet), I feel that the influence of America’s colonial past persisted even beyond the years of the Revolution. I am one who researches the early Republic, but my focus is on western borderlands. I pay close attention to the non-Anglo American colonial influences on the expanding United States’ local culture. I see that the western reaches of American influence were far from uniform or “consensualized” by the Revolution or the era of constitutional formation. Born in the colonial and Revolutionary past, I see powerful local colonial influences that westward-bound Anglo-Americans in the very early nineteenth century had to engage with. Take for example the longer legacies that both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution left behind in terms of Indian/U.S. relationships in north-western New York, or the persistant institutions and local culture originating in the Spanish and French regimes that Anglo-Americans adopted in New Orleans after 1803. From my perspective, even decades into U.S. history, America’s pre-Revolutionary past still impacted those westward-bound migrants.

    Somewhat related to the conversation of popularizing originalism, one of my favorite attempts at a popular history of colonial America is Fred Anderson’s slim (and non-footnoted) version of “the Crucible of War,” re-titled “The War That Made America.” It is a very friendly and fun read about the French and Indian War, and places the origins of the American Revolution (and consequantly the United States) as the title suggests, squarely in the 1760’s.

    Great post and discussion, cant wait for the conference summary!!

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